March 13, 2007

Sunshine Week: Sunflower Power!

The Student Press Law Center is writing a series of articles to celebrate Sunshine Week. The first article features my struggle reporting for The Campus Ledger at JCCC:

SUNSHINE WEEK: Student journalist fights for access at community college

Anonymous tip leads to big story, rejected open records requests

By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer
© 2007 Student Press Law Center

March 13, 2007

A citizen's right to know and journalists' rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

Student journalist Miguel Morales has reported stories that have rocked his community college’s foundations.

But after unearthing controversies by using open records requests and building trust with key whistleblowers, Morales said reporting on campus issues has only become tougher.

For the 39-year-old Morales, journalism was not his first pursuit in life. After spending about 10 years as a HIV outreach worker, Morales enrolled part-time at Johnson County Community College in Kansas in 2001 and set his sights on a career in journalism.

“Writing was the one thing I could always do,” he said.

In March 2005, Morales received an anonymous e-mail from someone who told him to examine attachments to the agenda of a recent board of trustees meeting. He did, but found nothing that seemed out of the ordinary.

Morales then received a tip and documentation from his anonymous source that documented that Charles Carlsen, the college’s president, had allegedly sexually harassed college administrator Teresa Lee since 2003. Lee alleged that Carlsen had touched her breast with his forearm and performed other acts that made her feel uncomfortable.

College officials had not responded to Lee’s complaints against Carlsen, the popular leader of a campus with a performing arts center that bears his name. Lee agreed to speak on the record for a story, understanding it could lead to her losing her job, Morales said.

While none of Lee’s coworkers could confirm her claims, Morales confronted Carlsen about the accusations. During an interview, he said that the president’s face said it all.

“He just turned red,” Morales said of Carlsen’s reaction when asked about the harassment allegations. Carlsen denied everything Lee alleged in the complaint.

Following the meeting with Carlsen, Mark Ferguson, the college’s attorney, confronted Morales about investigation, saying Lee’s accusations were not credible. “I felt he was intimidating me into not writing this story,” Morales said.

Despite the perceived threats, Morales continued to investigate and found another potential instance of unaddressed sexual harassment, which involved student employee Andrea Evans and her campus services department supervisors. After Evans shared documents she kept that detailed the harassment charges, Morales’ harassment story broadened.

After reporting for more than a year, The Campus Ledger published the results of Morales’ investigation on April 14, 2006. In two stories, he detailed the harassment claims involving the president and the campus services employees.

Less than a week later, Carlsen resigned from his post after 25 years as president. The college board of trustees launched an independent investigation into the matter. The campus services employees in the other alleged harassment case left the college.

“I have had two heart attacks, an angioplasty, and quintuple bypass surgery. It is apparent to me from the stress of the last two weeks that immediate retirement is the appropriate step to take,” Carlsen wrote in his resignation letter, dated Apr. 20, 2006.

After the stories were published, The Campus Ledger received another lead — this time from one of the former campus services managers. The former manager alleged that the college was improperly paying overtime to campus employees.

Along with reporter Kevin Mimms, the student journalists began looking into the matter, but because of the controversy surrounding Carlsen’s departure, administrators would tell little to Campus Ledger reporters, hesitant of further negative publicity, Morales said.

“It’s my story that’s not getting them the quotes that they need,” Morales said.

The two turned to using open records requests to get the information they needed — but found further road blocks.

“Denied left and right”

College officials declined open records requests for budget information that would show potential overtime violations because their letters were “poorly worded” and even criticized the reporters for using the Student Press Law Center’s state open records request letter generator, rather than authoring the open records letters themselves, Morales said.

“A request is a request whether it’s [from] a letter generator or if it’s written in crayon,” Morales said in an e-mail.

Morales recalled one instance where an administrator denied an open records request because “you’re going to write a story about it.”

“It got to the point last spring where they weren’t responding at all,” Morales said.

With an interim president still to be named and as the independent investigation into Lee’s alleged sexual harassment was scheduled to end in the June 2006, Morales and his staff asked the college’s publication board for permission to publish throughout the summer. The publication board approved the request, but it was soon overruled by the college board of trustees, which Morales said, “didn’t want to spend any more money” for a summer paper.

But Morales and Mimms would not let that stop them from chasing the story.

“We scraped up our money, found a printer and got donations from employees and students at the college, and published our own paper,” Morales said.

By July 2006, Morales and Mimms had reported in The Lexicon — the alternative paper they created — on the search for a new president and the results of the independent investigation confirming Carlsen’s harassment, which cost the college more than half a million dollars.

Today, Morales says many open records requests continue to be refused by administrators without clear reasoning, but he said the newspaper is “just collecting all our rejections” hoping to “integrate them into a story.”

“I think they just don't know what information citizens can request nor do they know what they can release,” Morales said. “So our information requests get denied as a precaution.”

Johnson County Community College spokeswoman Julie Haas said administrators understand which records are public under state law. She said the college has responded to every records request from Campus Ledger reporters.

“We responded to everything that I know of,” Haas said. “I want to know what it was that [Morales] perceives that we didn’t fulfill.”

While he has received some of the budget information requested, Morales said the data has been difficult to interpret.

“We asked for budget numbers. They’re not giving it to us electronically, they’re giving us [printed] spreadsheets,” Morales said. “It’s hard for us to manipulate the data.”

Morales would not clarify which documents or the sources of the data he is requesting for his ongoing investigation into alleged overtime violations, saying only that the college’s budget and documents related to it are a “treasure trove” of information.

“It didn’t really hit me”

Morales and The Campus Ledger staff’s efforts did not go unrecognized. At its convention held in August 2006, the Society of Professional Journalists awarded Morales and Campus Ledger staff with the First Amendment Award given to individuals and groups for efforts to preserve and strengthen the First Amendment for their harassment story.

Morales said when he found out about the honor, he did not understand the magnitude of the award. He said he was unsure if he should even make the drive to Chicago to accept the award, but his instructors told him that it was “a big deal and [he] should really go.”

Even though college administrators are now more hesitant when a Ledger reporter makes an inquiry, Morales said he “wouldn’t do anything different” in his reporting of the harassment story. He said it is best to get to know the people in campus offices and use formal open records requests as a last resort.

“Be nice — know where document is,” Morales said. “Don't just slap the letter down on [the administrator’s] desk.”

Morales said he plans on graduating from Johnson County Community College at the end of the summer, and wants to complete his degree at the University of Kansas. Eventually, he said he would like to return to Johnson County Community College to teach journalism.

For Morales, whose name means “morals” in Spanish, he said he believes he “finally found my calling” in journalism.

“I let my ethics and integrity guide me,” he said.