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Matthew Von Pinnon: Forum continues to take watchdog role seriously

One of the most important roles of the press is to serve as a watchdog that protects people from government secrecy and abuse. The Forum takes this role very seriously.

In more than 25 cases last year, The Forum used freedom of information requests to shine light on government, obtain open records and protect the public’s right to know how public officials conduct business and spend taxpayers’ money.

Below are just a handful of our efforts from the past year to uncover important records:

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When North Dakota’s 2014 Teacher of the Year one day last spring disappeared from his teaching and coaching positions at West Fargo High School, students, teachers and community members wondered why.

School district officials and the teacher would not discuss the reason and no documents at that time shed any light. The Forum continued to ask questions of school officials, students, fellow teachers and police, but nobody offered any credible information.

Then, this past summer, we submitted an open records request of the school superintendent. It turned up information that the state teacher of the year was under criminal investigation and was placed on leave by the district.

We wrote about that matter just as school was coming back in session for the fall and less than a week later that same teacher was charged with five felonies for a sexual relationship with a former student. The case continues in court.

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In fall 2013, a former Detroit Lakes (Minn.) High School principal resigned. No reasons were given when the school board accepted that resignation and the principal was not talking.

In late January 2014, The Forum learned that the principal may have been investigated by police. The newspaper filed an open records request with the school district and learned the principal had been asked to resign after he admitted to using school-issued computer equipment to view pornography.

The police had also investigated the matter but declined to recommend he be criminally charged. The disclosure of why the principal suddenly resigned answered a lot of questions for the community.

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In February, The Forum published a story about higher education accountability and the use of tax dollars on campus after it learned about a North Dakota State University library dean who continued to receive a large paycheck for dean responsibilities she no longer had.

The university’s library had seen large staff turnover and a deteriorating office climate under this dean’s leadership and, rather than fire or remove her for the problems there, the university re-assigned her to a non-supervisory position, but left her previous pay in-tact.

The story, which relied heavily on documents gleaned through open records requests, shed light on college office politics and an area of university tensions often overlooked.

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In March, a longtime and well-liked Fargo police lieutenant killed himself. The suicide shocked the community. A week later, using an open records request, The Forum shed light on the circumstances that played a part in the man’s death.

The lieutenant had accidently discharged his Taser, a small mistake by police standards but, because of the culture at the police department, he chose to temporarily cover it up, fearing the punishment he might receive.

After eventually fessing up to the action, top police supervisors recommended to the chief that he be fired. Consumed by the fact that his stellar career might be ending, he chose to end his life on the same day he was set to learn his professional fate.

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In reporting the above case, The Forum learned about “Giglio lists” kept by many law enforcement agencies and their respective prosecutor offices.

Named after a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case, it established the requirement that prosecutors share with defendants and their attorneys any information concerning the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses – police officers included.

The Forum requested the “Giglio lists” of agencies in our area and reported the situations that led to officers being placed on such lists.

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Last summer, the West Fargo Police Department informed the public that a 4-day-old boy had died after his mother snorted a painkiller and then breastfed him. The police department refused to provide the boy’s name to The Forum, citing the ongoing investigation.

The newspaper sought a state attorney general’s opinion on the matter. In October, much to the newspaper’s disappointment, the attorney general opined that the police department did not err in that interpretation of the law, saying the baby’s name was considered “active criminal intelligence and investigative information.”

While The Forum did not agree with that decision, sometimes the pursuit of open records and meetings simply clarifies where the law is at any given time.

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Fargo city officials have been planning to build a new city hall. Last January the efforts really picked up steam. A community committee was formed and an architect was hired.

In late January, the architect presented three design concepts at a public meeting of this committee. A Forum reporter was in the room.

Following the meeting, the reporter asked city officials for an electronic file of the shared designs so we could share those with our audience. City officials and their attorney refused, saying the designs belonged to the architect and not the city.

But North Dakota law clearly states that documents or designs shared at a public meeting of city officials should be public.

After some back-and-forth with city officials and our promise to publish a blank space where city hall designs would otherwise be shown, city leaders eventually released the designs.

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Abrupt resignations make good reporters suspicious. So we went digging after a top official in NDSU’s Alumni Association suddenly stepped down.

As we began asking questions, it turned out many employees at the Development Foundation and Alumni Association had resigned during the tenure of the new president and CEO, who had been on the job a little more than a year.

No one would speak publicly about the turmoil at the organization, which raises millions of dollars every year and manages well more than $200 million  for the state’s largest public university.

But a review of performance evaluations, exit interviews, resignation letters and federal tax records showed that a dozen employees had left in 2014, two of them claiming they had been subjected to retaliatory demotions.

Within a month of the story breaking, it was the president and CEO who abruptly resigned.

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Some lawmakers, boards and agencies would like to weaken the public’s open records laws.

Would you like to know less than you do now?

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579, mvonpinnon@forumcomm.com or on Twitter @inforumed

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