Bunting Award Salutes Investigative Journalism by TNT’s Robinson.

Bunting Award Salutes Investigative Journalism by TNT’s Robinson

By Cynthia Mitchell

The Tacoma News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson received the second annual Kenneth F. Bunting Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government for his continued investigative work that revealed numerous instances of misconduct by Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

A key piece of Robinson’s coverage involved Lindquist’s battles to prevent disclosure of his records, including to The News Tribune. In a suit brought by the newspaper, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the text messages on a private phone owned by a public official are indeed public record when they pertain to public business.

Sean Robinson, 2016 Bunting Award winner.

Robinson’s “continued coverage revealed the amount of public money and resources spent in support of Lindquist’s battle to prevent disclosure – a battle he ultimately lost,” said WCOG board member Juli Bunting, Kenneth Bunting’s widow, in presenting the award.

Named for Bunting, the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer associate publisher and a founding board member of WCOG, the award honors exceptional journalism that supports and demonstrates the importance of open government and transparency.

Robinson wrote dozens of stories over the last two years, using a mix of public records, court records and interviews, to reveal a long record of Lindquist using county resources to battle the disclosure of documents, as well as to show that Pierce County’s ethics complaint process was cloaked in secrecy, again in violation of the PRA. In the end, Robinson said, taxpayers shelled out more than $500,000 for Lindquist’s battle over the texts, and another $118,000 in fines for its violations of the PRA.

Robinson’s “work shown a light on the prosecutor’s actions,” Bunting said, “as well as a flawed process that prompted leaders to seek swift change.”

In introducing Robinson, Bunting called him “one hell of a journalist. Any news organization should be proud to employ him. And I know that the folks at The News Tribune feel the same way.”

Robinson said he’d never met Ken Bunting, but that he knew Bunting liked a good laugh. So he figured Bunting would have appreciated some of the back story regarding the newspaper’s lawsuit.

For starters, when the state Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in the newspaper’s favor, and the paper quickly wrote about its victory, “the prosecutor is calling my editor, and his assistant is calling me, saying, ‘Why are you saying we lost when we won?’ ” Robinson recalled, to which he replied, “Because you lost 9-0 and it wasn’t even close?’ ”

Four months later, after Lindquist was forced to go through his text messages and explain whether they pertained to public business, Lindquist contended that a particularly key message “wasn’t public, because this is a message to a colleague to politically manage a news story.”

“Oh really?” Robinson quipped. “Let me just look for that exemption [to the PRA] that says you can call it politics and keep it covered up.”

Not too surprisingly, the news Lindquist wanted to manage was Robinson’s. When Thurston County judge Gary Taylor ruled that it was indeed a public record, they discovered Lindquist had allies place anonymous responses to Robinson’s stories on The News Tribune’s website. One used the assumed name Porfiry Petrovich, the magistrate charged with investigating the murders in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime & Punishment.”  

In conclusion, Robinson said he was honored to accept the award, “especially in the name of Ken and this organization, which I think does so many good things.

“I hope we can continue to keep on fighting these good fights over transparency and public disclosure.”

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