The Connecticut Foundation for Open Government (CFOG) is pleased to announce that a Hearst Connecticut Media investigative reporter, a state Judicial Branch official and a local blogger have been selected to receive the second annual Mitchell W. Pearlman Freedom of Information Award.
The award honors government officials, journalists or residents of Connecticut who have made significant efforts to foster transparency in government, disclose information vital to the public and ensure that state residents can see their government at work.
The journalist being honored at a reception in Hartford Nov. 16 is Bill Cummings, who was selected for his groundbreaking story in August 2022 that revealed that Connecticut state troopers had been accused in 2018 of fabricating traffic stop tickets for professional gain. Cummings had used the state Freedom of Information Act to obtain internal affairs documents after spotting “fictitious traffic tickets” in a log he had received after an earlier FOI request.
This July, an audit found that hundreds of troopers had falsified information on more than 25,000 traffic stops from 2014 to 2021, skewing reports on the race and ethnicity of drivers who had been pulled over. The scandal prompted Gov. Ned Lamont and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the allegations.
“This is a story about perseverance mixed with a bit of luck and the FOI law,’’ Cummings, who has been a Bridgeport City Hall reporter, bureau chief and state Capitol reporter for the Connecticut Post, said.
The official being honored for fostering open government is Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, the deputy director of communications, education and outreach for the state Judicial Branch. She stood out among other nominees for her accessibility to the media as she responds to hundreds of inquiries a year, including requests for cameras in the courtroom, following rules set by judges.
In the general public category, CFOG has selected Kevin Brookman, a blogger who has doggedly used the FOI Act to uncover critical issues in Hartford government.
The winners will be honored at a reception on Thursday, Nov. 16 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Mark Twain House & Museum at 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford. Tickets are $25 per person and can be purchased by mailing a check with the number of desired tickets to Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, 35 Bunker Hill Road, Glastonbury, CT 06033 or via PalPal:
The event will feature complimentary hors d’oeuvres, wine, beer and soda.
The award honors Pearlman, the founding executive director of Connecticut’s FOI Commission, who is recognized as an international expert on government transparency, privacy and data protection and freedom of the press.
Kate Farrish, CFOG’s president and an assistant professor of journalism at Central Connecticut State University, said the winners were selected by a committee of CFOG board members from an impressive list of accomplished people nominated by Connecticut newsroom leaders, activists, officials, journalists and residents.
“Our honorees were chosen from a strong field of many deserving candidates,” Farrish said. “Our three winners stood out for their hard work and perseverance, their many years of dedication to government transparency and their use of the FOI Act to inform the public of matters of crucial importance in a democracy.”
CFOG cited Cummings for his dedication to using the FOI Act to uncover a story that may have long-lasting repercussions for the state police and is important to Connecticut residents and taxpayers.
In honoring Stearley-Hebert, a former reporter and editor at the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, CFOG said that she has played a key role in organizing the Judicial-Media Committee’s popular Law School for Journalists and Journalism School for Judges. She joined the Judicial Branch in 2001 as its manager of communications. She also keeps the courts’ website updated and assists with events such as the Supreme and Appellate Courts’ “On Circuit” program.
In selecting Brookman, CFOG noted that he has gained the trust of Hartford residents and community activists who have given him documents that accused city officials of wrongdoing when they feared retaliation. While educating himself and others on how to use the FOI Act, Brookman has exposed issues at City Hall, in the city school system and the Hartford fire and police departments through his “We the People” blog. He said that without the FOI Act, much of this information would be hidden from public view and would never see public accountability.
Farrish thanked the Pearlman Award Committee, co-chairs David Fink and Denis Horgan and members Len Besthoff, William S. Fish, Jr., Christopher Henderson, Izaskun Larrañeta, Arielle Levin Becker, Matthew Kauffman, Leslie Mayes and Colleen Murphy, for their hard work in honoring those who are following the legacy of Mitchell W. Pearlman.
If you cannot make the event, but would still like to support CFOG, please donate by clicking the DONATE button in the upper right-hand corner.