The First Amendment Coalition is proud to announce the recipient of its 2018 Free Speech & Open Government Award is the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, selected for its extensive use of public records to increase transparency around political appointees at the highest levels of government.
This year’s award goes to ProPublica staffers Derek Kravitz, Al Shaw, Claire Perlman and Alex Mierjeski, who will be honored Thursday, December 6 at the California Press Foundation’s Annual Winter Meeting in San Francisco. Each will receive a plaque and a share of the $1,000 prize money.
When President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the White House said publicly it was deploying 520 political appointees throughout the government but refused to give details. In response, ProPublica launched an enormous fact-finding mission that involved filing more than 200 Freedom of Information Act and Form 201 ethics requests to every federal agency to collect names, titles, roles and offices of hundreds of political appointees.
The work culminated in the publication of several in-depth stories and databases. That includes the Trump Town dataset, the first authoritative searchable database of 2,724 political appointees, including Trump’s cabinet, White House staffers, senior government officials within the government, along with their federal lobbying and financial records. Many, if not most, of these appointees would have otherwise slipped below the radar as they were not subject to Senate confirmation or review.
“The task that ProPublica took on was enormous, to say the least—it fought and negotiated for access to public information every step of the way to shed light where light was needed,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Its work paid off and is a great example of just how important aggressive and meticulous investigative journalism is.”
ProPublica used the data to publish several “Trump Town” investigative pieces which exposed how dozens of obscure Trump campaign staffers, including contributors to right-wing news site Breitbart and others known to have embraced conspiracy theories, had populated the government through hiring mechanisms meant for short-term political appointees. They also found at least 188 former registered lobbyists in the Trump administration, many of whom once lobbied in the same areas that are regulated by the agencies they joined.
Ever since, several appointees have resigned and, after pressure by seven Democratic senators demanding more transparency, the White House began releasing ethics waivers of its appointees in June.
Every day, news organizations, think tanks, congressional committees, nonprofits and the public use ProPublica’s searchable datasets to better understand who works in the Trump administration, what they do and what financial conflicts of interest they might have.
A few highlights of the coverage that resulted from these efforts include:
- The Washington Post found at least 16 appointees were White House liaisons, acting as President Trump's eyes and ears.
- Bloomberg found that nearly 75% of Trump appointees were men. It also discovered Curtis Ellis, a former Breitbart writer and labor lobbyist, had been appointed at Labor—after that reporting came out, Ellis resigned to be a policy adviser at a Trump-backed nonprofit.
- The New York Times uncovered who was rolling back Obama-era regulations in addition to how lobbyists, and their potential conflicts of interest, were populating the Trump administration.