Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV Wins IRE Freedom of Information Award

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Pittsburgh's WTAE-TV won the Investigative Reporters and Editors [www.ire.org] award for Freedom of Information Award, based on its success uncovering wasteful spending by PHEAA, Pennsylvania's state-run student loan agency.

Not only did the report rely on access to spending records, which the station had to fight for in court. When the station finally obtained the documents, they revealed that the agency had spent thousands of dollars on items and services such as tuxedo rentals, alcohol, flowers, NFL tickets and aromatherapy massages – about $1 million in questionable payments, all told.

Reporter Jim Parsons says this was a case of one good story leading to another. He started out investigating the use of a state airplane, and noticed that the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and its board members, who are state legislators, were among its most frequent passengers and had used it to fly people to a retreat at a luxury resort. He requested PHEAA expense reports as a way of investigating further, as did the Associated Press and The Patriot-News of Harrisburg.

PHEAA took the issue to court, trying to argue that it wasn't like other state agencies and that releasing its financial records would put it at a disadvantage when competing with private student loan lenders. Parsons said the station never wavered in its commitment for fighting to access. “Once we started down this road, they were on board for seeing it through because the arguments PHEAA was making were so ludicrous,” he said.

Besides recognizing WTAE for its reporting [http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/team4/11157950/detail.html], IRE lauded the station for following through by pushing for state legislative changes that improved access to government records. “Our open records law hadn't been changed in 50 years,” News Director Bob Longo said, and previous efforts at reform had been met with a yawn. This story caught people's attention, dramatizing the kind of abuses that the governor and legislators didn't want to be associated with, “and made them finally look at maybe it does need to be changed,” Longo said.

The IRE winners were announced March 25.

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