Outlet: Salt Lake Tribune
Journalist: Robert Gehrke and Tom Harvey
Robert Gehrke and Tom Harvey of the Salt Lake Tribune won the January DFMie for the Colorado/Utah cluster for coverage of an unfolding scandal surrounding Utah Attorney General John Swallow.
Editor Nancy Conway explained in her nomination:
The Salt Lake Tribune broke a major story in early January that continues to erupt. A Utah businessman Jeremy Johnson, indicted for fraud — himself accuses Utah’s new Attorney General, John Swallow, of brokering a bribery deal to buy influence from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. Swallow has vigorously denied wrongdoing, and Reid has denied any connection at all. Subsequent Tribune stories have added specific details about the connection between Johnson and Swallow and a money trail to a friend of Reid.
The stories have created an uproar in the state. Utah’s political establishment is distancing itself from Swallow, and in an unusual move, the U.S. Justice Department has acknowledged it is investigating Swallow. Many individuals and groups have called for Swallow’s resignation and the state legislature is proposing new ethics legislation.
Now The Tribune’s investigation has spread to Swallow’s predecessor, former Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, with allegations that both men were approaching companies for political donations in exchange for protection from prosecution.
All told, the stories have drawn more than a million page views and many thousands of comments. At one point early in the process of covering the story, Shurtleff, the former AG tweeted that Tribune reporters were guilty of breaking journalistic ethics by holding the story until after the election. Reporters in turn, via tweets, directed the AG to an editor’s column — that in an effort to be transparent — was posted that same day and explored how coverage decisions were made and how the investigation was being managed. The story continues to grow.
— Mark L. Shurtleff (@MarkShurtleff) January 19, 2013
— RobertGehrke (@RobertGehrke) January 19, 2013
Judges praised the aggressive reporting:
I thought the reporters did a great job of making a complex-story very readable. The stories were well-sourced, backed up with appropriate documentation and written in a way that made me want to keep reading more about this scandal.
Tom Harvey and Robert Gehrke have done a fine job of holding public officials accountable with this series of stories. It is difficult to build a story off of the account of a man who was indicted for fraud but both Harvey and Gehrke managed to take the information provided by Johnson and, through dogged reporting, unravel various layers that show readers the importance of transparency in government. The public benefits when the work of a newspaper gets a state to consider stronger ethics legislation. Their work speaks to the necessity of having an open government and the need for more watchdog reporting.
Stories that follow the money trail are classic journalism. The reporters at the Salt Lake Tribune carefully unraveled letters, recorded discussions, and documents to reveal the messiness of running a campaign and what happens when the wrong people are involved. I also chose this series because the lede on the second story: “Does Deathbed Declaration Help or Hurt Swallow,” was strong and compelling. Overall, the story drew a lot of readers’ comments proving that the community felt engaged in this series. In addition, the online versions included links within the story for readers, as well as a list of stories and the actual documents.
Other Colorado/Utah finalists were Erica Meltzer and Mitchell Byars of the Daily Camera in Boulder for their coverage of the mysterious shooting of a bull elk in a neighborhood and Charlie Brennan of the Daily Camera for breaking the story that a 1999 grand jury voted to indict Jon Benet Ramsey’s parents in her death, but the district attorney declined to prosecute.