Watchdog Nation column named best in nation

The Watchdog wins top honor in National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest

The Dallas Morning NewsWatchdog column won first place in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ annual competition.

The column by Dave Lieber with Marina Trahan Martinez was praised for displaying “true excellence in column writing.”

The award was presented June 29 at the group’s 39th annual conference in Indianapolis.

Dave-Lieber-funny-keynote-speaker-wins-award

2015 Winners: Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez

The winning columns detailed the trial of an Oak Cliff woman’s killer, the legal difficulties of Dallas District Judge Staci Williams, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the Texas Department of Public Safety in its fingerprint program for Texas drivers.

James Haught of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia won second place, and Robert Dyer of the Akron Beacon Journal won third.

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Watchdog Nation has been honored at the 38th annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference.

 For the third time in four years, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog column has been a finalist in the general-interest column contest for large U.S. newspapers.
 
 The 2013 judge explained, “In his Watchdog column, Dave displays courage and a willingness to challenge injustice and illogic wherever he finds it. He also gets positive results for others, which is always a hallmark of everyone who expresses their opinion for a living. And his work shows a willingness to even challenge himself and his own fallibility. He writes very well and fulfills his mission in a way deserving of national recognition. Were but more columnists blessed with his sense of outrage over even small injustices.”
 
Tom Rademacher of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press won, and sports columnist Rick Telander from the Chicago Sun-Times was third.
 
The winning columns were for work done in 2012 at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dave Lieber is now The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News. The Watchdog appears every Friday and Sunday in the Metro section and on DallasNews.com. Dave also contributes the “Watchdog Video Tip of the Day” on DallasNews.com’ Videos section.
The contest judge cited columns about a decision by the Texas insurance commissioner to remove disciplinary actions from the public website (later reversed), about an Arlington businessman who scammed his best friend and how Dave was almost scammed by a gravestone company after his father’s death.
Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 

This honor caps off a wonderful half year of honors and awards.

 

Fort Worth Official resigns after boss finds backlog of open-records requests

Before he was forced to resign from his Fort Worth City Hall job for failing to properly handle open-records requests, Assistant City Attorney C. Patrick Phillips made a full confession to his superiors.

His boss, Deputy City Attorney Peter Vaky, had learned that my request was not the only one Phillips botched. Since 2008, Phillips had not properly handled 327 requests, the city reported later. For the vast majority of those, Phillips had either missed the deadline for asking the Texas attorney general to exempt the information or failed to release information as the AG’s office had ordered.

Vaky wrote to Phillips on April 1, “Patrick, if all the information I have received and set forth here is true, it is unacceptable.”

Phillips asked for a couple of days to collect his thoughts. Then, according to copies of e-mails I received last week through an open-records request, he wrote back April 4:

“They are my errors, and I take responsibility for them. … I apologize for my actions reflecting poorly on this department and this leadership.”

I had filed a request in November for e-mails from a Fort Worth police supervisor. The city asked for guidance from the attorney general. That action can delay a request for two or three months.

On Feb. 7, the attorney general’s office ordered the records released, saying in a letter that Phillips had missed a deadline to provide samples of e-mails the city wanted to keep secret. Then Phillips missed a second deadline: He never followed the attorney general’s order.

I complained to the attorney general, and seven weeks after being told to release the documents, Phillips sent them to me on a Saturday night. He also apologized.

That weekend, Phillips was writing the e-mail confession that he would send to Vaky the next Monday.

In his note, Phillips described how the backlog of 300-plus cases was a result of, in his words, miscommunication, conflicting priorities, computer difficulties and an increased workload.

“My errors were good-faith mistakes in time allocation, but they were mistakes nonetheless,” he wrote.

He suffered from “a level of stress, of which I believe you are all aware. In this environment the AG rulings became the piece that fell out because they do not carry specific statutory deadlines. I now realize that over time, I became desensitized to the problem of delaying rulings. … I fell into bad habits and the backlog grew.”

Fort Worth seeks more attorney general rulings than any Texas city of comparable size, a Star-Telegram study found last year. Critics cite the requests as a tactic to delay release of public information. The city says it needs to make sure it complies with the law.

The city told me that of 22,000 open-records requests received since October 2007, 3,300 were sent to the attorney general to see whether some could be kept secret. (Keep in mind that many such requests are for routine information such as traffic accident reports.)

A former assistant attorney general recalls Fort Worth’s reliance on rulings. Chris Schulz, now a Round Rock lawyer, said in an interview that Fort Worth’s constant reliance on rulings from Austin “seems like a waste of time.”

“There are much more efficient ways to work things out between governmental entities and requesters,” he said, adding, “Maybe the attorney general’s office shouldn’t be their first line of defense.”

If that philosophy had been followed, perhaps Phillips wouldn’t have fallen so far behind.

The attorney general’s office referred me to its open-records decision No. 684, dated Dec. 14, 2009, which offers a guide to governments about when they should seek its rulings.

The decision explains that it “is intended to encourage the prompt release of requested public information and increase the efficiency of the PIA [Public Information Act] review process by clearly identifying certain types of information that governmental bodies may withhold without the delay of requesting an attorney general decision.”

The city attorney’s office declined to comment on Phillips and his backlog. Phillips has also declined to comment.

A review of his personnel record shows he got good marks in annual job reviews, including a second-highest rating, superior, in October by then-City Attorney David Yett, who has retired.

Phillips wanted to keep his job. In his e-mail to Vaky, he came up with a strategy to eliminate the backlog: “I propose to process the rulings at a pace of at least 25 rulings per week.” At that rate, he could eliminate his backlog going back to 2008 by the end of June, he wrote.

Vaky and his boss, City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider, did not want to wait that long. Phillips was put on administrative leave the day Vaky received his e-mail explanation. The next day, Phillips wrote to Vaky, “I will take the opportunity to resign.”

The city notified the attorney general’s office of its backlog. Other city attorneys were assigned to clear Phillips’ cases as quickly as possible.

In a statement, the city told me it will do better in the future with “greater checks and balances between the City Attorney’s Office and the Records Management Office, including potential software upgrades, to ensure that multiple individuals have responsibility for tracking future public information requests.”

That, and proper supervision, should help the city follow the law.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter @DaveLieber

Watchdog Nation founder wins two national columnist awards

“Every city needs a Dave Lieber.”

That’s what one judge said when awarding Dave, founder of Watchdog Nation, one of his two national writing awards at the 2009 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, one of Texas’ finest newspapers, won second place in the Herb Caen Memorial Items/Notes category and honorable mention for general-interest columns in newspapers with more than 100,000 circulation.

The general-interest columns were about a retired airline pilot who lost much of his life savings through scams, a government-sponsored research project that enrolled patients without their knowledge and a Baylor Health Care System employee whom hospital police believe stole $1.4 million. The notes columns were watchdog shorts about various items.

One judge commented, “Dave Lieber’s columns quickly and easily create a sense of outrage in a reader. He writes about rip-offs, scams and jerks who take advantage of the most vulnerable people in society. He exposes wrongs and wrong-doers. Every city needs a Dave Lieber.”

Another judge stated, “Members of the Fourth Estate play many important roles in society. Among them is that of ‘watchdog’ — the reporter/writer/editor who is adept at ‘afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted.’ Mr. Lieber fills that role very well.

“Mr. Lieber does not engage in the frequent chest thumping that accompanies many of the ‘I am on your side’ investigators who spend far too much time telling you how great they are rather than focusing on the problem.

“Mr. Lieber gets quickly to the point about who was wronged and how — and he does it covering topics of wide general interest. It’s a safe bet that businesses around Fort Worth read his articles faithfully — and with some trepidation.”

The columnists’ society (columnists.com), with 300 members, held its 33rd annual conference in Ventura, Ca. The group honored Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle with its Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

Full winners list here.