NIJ presser 8

LNP | LancasterOnline reporter Carter Walker speaks at a news conference April 11, 2019, at the old county courthouse steps as the National Institute for Justice announced it would represent LNP | LancasterOnline in its quest for access to county drug forfeiture records.

THE ISSUE

Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams announced Monday that as much as $150,000 in cash had been stolen from the Lancaster County Drug Task Force and it “appears in every aspect to be an internal theft.” Adams said the discrepancy was discovered by the officer in charge of the task force in late April and confirmed by a subsequent audit, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker reported. Adams has asked the state attorney general to investigate the theft. The task force is funded by a mix of county funds, municipal contributions, money from the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General and assets seized in civil asset forfeiture.

If you need evidence of the importance of local journalism, please consider the critical part that LNP | LancasterOnline investigative reporting played in the events that led up to Monday’s announcement.

The dogged reporting of Carter Walker, Paula Knudsen and other LNP | LancasterOnline journalists cast the practice of civil forfeiture — the seizure of assets, including cash, during drug investigations — into the public spotlight.

And it highlighted the use of those assets by the drug task force and former county District Attorney Craig Stedman, who is now a county judge.

For 16 months, beginning in September 2018, journalists at this newspaper fought to gain access to the county’s drug forfeiture records. They filed multiple Right-to-Know requests to the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office but were blocked at nearly every turn by then-DA Stedman.

In January 2019, the state Office of Open Records ruled that LNP | LancasterOnline had to be granted access to the records, but Stedman appealed to the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas.

He likely was angered by LNP | LancasterOnline reporting that he had spent more than $21,000 in civil forfeiture funds intended for drug law enforcement to lease and maintain a Toyota Highlander SUV — and then wrongly filed for mileage reimbursement on the leased vehicle.

Stedman argued consistently that a yearly audit by the county controller’s office proved forfeiture funds were being managed properly. As Carter Walker reported, that argument was shot down this week by DA Adams, who said it was “not a true audit in the accounting sense of the term,” and “there’s no way the controller’s office could have discovered this discrepancy.”

In April 2019, the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm, announced it would represent LNP | LancasterOnline in its open-records fight with the district attorney. This newspaper prevailed in county court, but then the district attorney’s office sought to charge $3,000 — 25 cents per page — for the public records. The Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic joined the Institute for Justice lawyers to successfully fight those costs.

Only in January of this year — on Stedman’s final day as district attorney — were thousands of pages of drug forfeiture records released.

It’s not a stretch to say that the scrupulous attention now paid to the fate of seized drug cash and assets owes to the investigative reporting of this newspaper.

County officials now know that LNP | LancasterOnline is keeping a close watch on the money that flows into and out of the drug task force coffers.

Indeed, the very reason that John Burkhart, the former head of the county’s drug task force, had to testify in county court in August 2019 about seized cash was because LNP | LancasterOnline was fighting for the civil forfeiture records.

This newspaper’s commitment to tenacious coverage continues.

Carter Walker continues to report on who had access to the safe in which the drug task force kept seized cash.

The newspaper’s other reporters continue to track the spread of COVID-19 in the county, and the disease’s impact on county businesses and nursing homes.

They are covering the elected officials who spend taxpayer money.

And news journalists with this newspaper — who are, by design and ethical obligation, distinct from those working in Opinion — also continue to report on the Lancaster protests over George Floyd’s killing and systemic racial injustice.

Such reporting requires them to take some risks with their personal safety. They are working, of course, amid a pandemic. And Managing Editor Stephanie Sadowski, who was in the city streets Sunday to assist her reporters, got a face full of the pepper spray deployed by police.

But they are doing this work because they believe in it. And the LNP Editorial Board is proud to be able to rely on their reporting.

The watchdog role of journalists is an essential one.

Free press under assault

Journalists must be permitted to report the news. So attacks on journalists by police are truly alarming.

Journalists from the U.S. and abroad have been arrested and detained by police elsewhere as they’ve sought to cover the George Floyd protests. They’ve been hit by rubber bullets, teargassed and doused with pepper spray by law enforcement — despite showing their press credentials.

Reuters reported that one of its TV crews was targeted by Minneapolis police firing rubber bullets. Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times posted a video on Twitter on Saturday after needing to scale a wall to escape Minnesota State Patrol officers who fired tear gas canisters at her and other journalists at what she called “point-blank range.”

Carolyn Cole, a photographer for the Los Angeles newspaper, told The New York Times that her cornea was damaged by a police pepper spray attack. “I’ve been covering conflict both nationally and internationally for many years, so I know the dangers involved in these situations, especially when you get between riot police and protesters,” Cole said, “but I wasn’t expecting them to attack us directly.”

U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has been chronicling the attacks on journalists in recent days. As of Wednesday, that organization’s data showed 125 police assaults on journalists and more than 40 arrests or detainments.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to officials in Minnesota — where George Floyd was killed — asking that they take “immediate, concrete steps to end the series of police arrests and attacks on credentialed and clearly identifiable journalists.”

The “bedrock American ideal of a free press demands that we protect First Amendments rights even more zealously in moments of crisis,” that organization declared.

Radley Balko, an Opinion journalist with The Washington Post, tweeted that he had written about countless protests. “I think it’s safe to say that we’ve never seen the widespread, deliberate targeting of journalists by police that we’ve seen over the last few days. Something has changed.”

It should frighten Americans when government agencies use force or their powers of arrest to keep journalists from covering news. It should worry Americans when their president frequently calls journalists “enemies of the people.”

A free press, unfettered by government force or restraint, is imperative to democracy. That’s why James Madison drafted the First Amendment. Free communication among the people, he wrote, is “the only effectual guardian of every other right.”

Madison, of course, was right.

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