2004 IRE Awards Recognize Top Investigative Work

Article excerpt

Investigative stories on the conduct of a powerful West Virginia legislator, dangerous railroad crossings, questionable plea bargains in the Florida judicial system and city contracts with mob-owned businesses in Chicago are among the winners of the 2004 IRE awards.

The annual awards recognize outstanding investigative work in 15 categories, most of them based on market or circulation size. The categories are separated into print, broadcast, online media and work that demonstrates superior use of freedom of information and open records laws.

Contest judges gave the top honor - an IRE Medal - to the Charleston (W. V.) Gazette for revelations about the misdeeds of West Virginia legislator Jerry Mezzatesta. Gazette reporter Eric Eyre found that Mezzatesta held two public jobs but did little work for one of them, diverted school money to fire departments, and broke promises not to use his influence unfairly.

The state Ethics Commission cleared Mezzatesta after he produced letters apparently disproving Eyre's work - until Eyre showed that the "too good to be true" letters were dated before the stationery was created. Voters ousted the politician, he and his wife were convicted of altering official documents and the speaker of the West Virginia House apologized to the Gazette for not believing the initial stories.

A story about mob-controlled dump trucks working for the City of Chicago won the Tom Renner Award for crime reporting. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Tim Novak's curiosity about a sign on the side of a dump truck, identifying it as leased to the City of Chicago, started his investigation with reporter Steve Warmbir into how Chicago spends $40 million a year to hire dump trucks that mostly just sit at work sites.

"Clout on Wheels" revealed that the money went to 15 firms owned by mobsters or their families, as well as to politically connected people, who in turn gave at least $840,000 in campaign donations to the mayor and other politicians since 1996.

A series of reports from Angie Moreschi, Bill Ditton and Gerry Lanosga of WTHR-Indianapolis won IRE's Freedom of Information award for its investigation into problems with Indiana's child welfare system.

"Cries for Help" led to a new law opening child abuse reports and child neglect reports after a child dies. Instead of resting on its laurels, the WTHR team then tested the new law, leading to yet more important disclosures. Along the way, when a state agency failed to obey the new disclosure laws that WTHR's reporting had spawned, the station went to court and forced compliance. The relentless reporting forced substantive changes at the agency.

The IRE Awards program is unique in its efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Work that includes any significant role by a member of the IRE Board of Directors or an IRE contest judge may not be entered in the contest. This often represents a significant sacrifice on the part of the individual - and often an entire newsroom - who may have done outstanding investigative work. For example, this year The Seattle Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Wisconsin State Journal, WCNC-Charlotte and WEWS-Cleveland were unable to enter the contest.

The judges noted that the small newspaper category was unusually difficult to review because of the strength of the entries. "IRE is delighted to see strong investigative work being done across all the categories," the judges said.

Other certificate winners:

* Walt Bogdanich, Jenny Nordberg, Tom Torok, Eric Koli, Jo Craven McGinty and Claire Hoffman of The New York Times for "Death on the Tracks: How Railroads Sidestep Blame." Using sophisticated computer analysis and good old-fashioned reporting, Bogdanich and his colleagues disclosed the remarkable tale of how railroads have systematically shirked their responsibility to safeguard rail crossings, leading to injury and death on isolated byways across America. …