Public records shine light on government's inner workings

Posted March 15, 2015

Public records form a foundation of watchdog reporting.

— In North Carolina, there's a basic ideal that guides the daily transactions of government and the thousands of memos, reports, emails and other documents it generates: if it's created with taxpayer money, it belongs to the public.

That premise of open government, enshrined in the spirit of the state's public records law, is a valuable asset to journalists and citizens alike. There's no better time to discuss it than Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency that will take place March 15-21. Sunshine Center, Sunshine Day Sunshine Week coverage

At WRAL News, public records come into play on almost every beat, whether it's on long-term investigative stories or daily deadlines.

Court records, for example, allow us to explain criminal charges and learn more about the evidence both the defense and prosecution offer up to judges and juries. WRAL's 5 On Your Side team regularly tracks restaurant inspection ratings and consumer complaint reports, both of which are created when government officials interact with businesses or their customers.

In investigative reporting, often driven by government documents and data, journalists can dig up important stories about whether government officials are working for their citizens and reveal longstanding problems that deeply impact people across the state.

A year of public records reporting

More growth coming Despite big job promises, incentives often fail to deliver As the legislative session wound to a close last summer, Gov. Pat McCrory and his commerce secretary began to issue dire warnings about the looming insolvency of one of the state's largest incentive programs, designed to lure jobs into the state.

The programs, a favored tool for political leaders of all stripes who love cutting ribbons and announcing new jobs, predated McCrory. But despite those headline-grabbing job announcements, there was a question that often went unanswered: How often do employment promises pay off?

Knightdale High School Document outlines teacher pay raises in budget deal A multi-part investigation, cross-referencing Department of Commerce data and press releases, showed less than half of the jobs announced during the Perdue administration have so far been created, with the majority of the grant money concentrated in urban areas, where it's less needed.

Public documents can sometimes be crucial to finding the truth buried deep within spin from both sides, as reporter Mark Binker found. His fact-check around claims over just how much the legislature raised teacher pay last year sussed out the nuances of a plan that benefited new teachers more than longer-serving ones.

NC Flag Spate of suits aimed at curtailing controversial laws Although court records are always a staple of any news reporting, they can also be used to examine debate over more far-reaching political issues, such as the constitutionality of state laws. An examination of those lawsuits found teachers, bail bondsmen, city governments and even the governor are on the roster of those who have sued the General Assembly over the past four years, all claiming the legislature overstepped limits laid out by the state or federal constitutions.

WRAL Investigates Crime-fighting tool or legal robbery? NC law agencies rely on controversial program Other topics have a more national scope.

The issue of civil forfeiture, where police can seize property without charging an individual with a crime, created so much derision across the country that it earned a ban from the U.S. attorney general. The practice was already against the law in North Carolina, but WRAL Investigates found law enforcement officers using a loophole to seize millions of dollars in cash, homes and other property from state residents.

Durham County Courthouse For some domestic violence victims, justice takes time Another public safety investigation examined claims by victims' advocates who said Durham County was falling short on its efforts to serve domestic violence protection orders, delaying justice for those seeking legal protection from abuse.

Records can also shed light on the inner workings of agencies that frequently interact with the public – and even their pets.

A review of five years of Wake County Animal Shelter logs showed that, since 2010, nearly 1,000 animals have been returned, some as many as four times.

But reporting doesn't stop when stories are published.

After WRAL's Kelly Hinchcliffe compiled a database of every superintendent contract in the state in 2013, she got a tip that one of those superintendents was being audited by the school district after his resignation.

WRAL Investigates Convertibles, beer tubes, spa: Auditors probing Granville schools' spending Her review of hundreds of pages of school credit card receipts found the school leader spent thousands of dollars on technology purchases, convertible sports car rentals and other purchases that appeared questionable.

Sometimes, public documents can border on the bizarre.

An opinion from the North Carolina Ethics Commission, released the day before Valentine's Day, determined that sexual acts between lobbyists and state officials do not have monetary value and, therefore, are not reportable as gifts or "reportable expenditure made for lobbying."​

@NCCapitol NC Ethics Commission: Sex acts don't violate lobbyist gift ban But it's important to remember that as open as North Carolina's records generally are, there are notable exceptions that prevent the public from accessing protected information such as medical charts and criminal investigation notes.

In the case of the Ethics Commission ruling, for example, it's impossible to get details on why the request was made.

That correspondence, according to an Attorney General's Office opinion, is confidential.


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  • Carl Keehn Mar 16, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    It was.

  • Matt Price Mar 16, 2015
    user avatar

    My question is - why wasn't this stuff done during Hunt or Perdue's tenure?

    I guess it is an inconvenient truth to do it to those whom WRAL supports.