Burlington Free Press Wages a Battle — for Documents and Headlines
There hasn’t been much real news to report since the mysterious June 8 disappearance of William and Lorraine Currier of Essex. But that hasn’t stopped the Burlington Free Press from generating a small flood of ink about its own efforts to obtain police and university documents related to the case.
The Gannett-owned daily has run at least eight stories — by four different reporters — about denied records requests for search warrants, police affidavits and University of Vermont emails belonging to William Currier, an animal-care technician employed by a university subcontractor. Thus far, Chittenden State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan has refused to release any of the documents, at the behest of Essex Police Chief Brad Larose, and has asked the Vermont Supreme Court to uphold his decision. On Friday, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office filed papers with the high court in support of Donovan’s actions, asking that the documents remain sealed until an evidentiary hearing can be scheduled to ascertain the potential impact of making those documents public.
At its core, the case pits the public’s right to know against the sensitivity of criminal investigations.
David Mindich, who chairs the journalism department at St. Michael’s College, says he sees both sides of this information war. The Free Press may have a valid argument to push for the release of these documents, just as the state may have a legitimate reason to keep certain aspects of the investigation confidential. Mindich draws parallels to war correspondents who censor their battlefield reporting in the interest of national security.
“The Free Press has not engaged in a court battle or enlisted the services of an attorney,” Free Press associate editor Mike Kilian writes in response to an email directed to executive editor Mike Townsend. That was after the daily ran a June 25 story on the front page, headlined, “Court Battle Brews in Missing Couple Case.”
In fairness, the Free Press hasn’t actually made its case in a courtroom — just the court of public opinion. However, that’s likely to change this week. The Vermont Supreme Court is expected to decide by July 6 on dueling motions filed by each side.
“Three judges’ rulings to date have concluded that the state’s attorney’s office has failed to make the case that release of the search warrants would impede the investigation,” Kilian notes, “and our hope would be that the Supreme Court concurs.”
But is this case a bona fide violation of Vermont’s open-records law — a cause the Free Press has been championing for months in news articles and editorials — or a tempest in a teapot?
Donovan suggests the latter. While he claims to respect the need for transparency and the media’s right to access public records, he asserts that right is “not absolute.”
It’s all in the timing, Donovan explains. “Are they public after charges are filed? That’s fine; I don’t have a problem with that. But during the pendency of an investigation, where perhaps there is an alleged perpetrator out there who could gain an advantage by having access to this information, I don’t think there are strong public policy reasons for releasing that information.”
University officials have essentially claimed the same legal position, according to Enrique Corredera, UVM’s director of communications.
“We have regularly demonstrated our commitment to openness and transparency, especially when responding to public records acts requests,” Corredera says. “But in this case, the request involved records previously provided to police as part of an ongoing investigation involving potential criminal activity. Our position is that we simply cannot take any action that could potentially interfere with an ongoing police investigation.”
Based on the daily reportage of this legal battle, one might also assume that Free Press reporters are hot on the trail of an especially juicy lead, which, in their eyes, justifies compromising the integrity of an ongoing criminal investigation. For example: Are the Essex police covering something up? Have their detectives botched the investigation? Are Currier family members frustrated by the pace of new developments?
“That would be speculation,” writes Kilian. “All I’ll say is that the free flow of information assists the public in gauging the effectiveness of their elected and appointed officials.
“The Currier disappearance has generated considerable public interest and concern,” he adds. “The Essex police have shed very little light on the case. We believe release of the search warrants has the potential to build public understanding of what might have occurred in a high-profile case.” Not to mention the potential for more headlines.
Mindich said he’d prefer to not comment on the Free Press coverage of this issue without taking a closer look at whether it’s “all about getting the information out or cheerleading their own efforts.” But he did describe the daily as “one of the few good guys trying to get...the government to be more open and really holding the government accountable.”
“Sometimes they’re heavy-handed about it, but they’re one of the few news outlets that has the resources and desire to fight the good fight,” Mindich says.
Essex Police Chief Larose points out that he and other officers are fielding media inquiries “every day” on the Currier case. “I think we’ve been very open with all the media in sharing what we can,” Larose contends. “We’re putting out as much information as we can without compromising the investigation.”
Could the release of the warrant returns — that is, what police turned up in their search of the Curriers’ home — actually compromise the police investigation?
“I’d say stronger than ‘could,’” Larose added. “I can’t say definitely, but there’s a strong possibility.”
Some information included in the police affidavits would be known only to family members, police or a potential perpetrator, Larose notes. He has asked family members not to be public about certain details, in the greater interest of finding the missing couple more quickly.
Early on, Larose says, the family had questions about why detectives couldn’t share more information with them. “But when we explained it to them, they understood it right out of the chute why we do things like that and were appreciative of it,” Larose says. “It’s very difficult for them, but they understand that we’re doing everything we can do to figure out where Bill and Lorraine are. And, they’re 100 percent behind our efforts.”
Asked if the family has designated a spokesperson, Larose added, “They don’t want to speak to the media.”
Larose said he doesn’t understand why the Free Press is putting on the full court press for information that will be made public in due time. As he put it, “Geez, we’re all in this together, the public and police, trying to get justice served here in the best way possible.”