United States Project

How a former Denver Post journalist helps everyone in Colorado get public records

December 15, 2015

This summer, Jeffrey Roberts fielded a call at his office in Denver. A resident of Elbert County, southeast of the capital, had noticed something curious: The county assessor maintained a website where the assessed value of local homes, considered a public record under Colorado law, was readily accessible. But the records for properties owned by certain local officials—including the assessor—were hidden from view.

Roberts, a veteran journalist with 23 years of experience at The Denver Post, went into action. He traveled to Elbert County, interviewed the county assessor, spoke to experts who said nothing in state law allowed the records to be kept confidential, and published a story about it. Five days later, he had another story: The assessor had posted the records online.

It was a clear example of journalism with impact. But Roberts, 56, hasn’t worked at the Post since his position as an editor was eliminated in 2007, during a round of newsroom cuts.

Instead, for the past two years he’s been the director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit alliance of news organizations, good-government groups, and others with an interest in transparency. The CFOIC helps journalists and citizens fight for open access to government records and meetings, tracks legislation and court rulings, and hosts panel discussions. Roberts pens a frequently updated blog about transparency news statewide, fields calls to a hotline, and publishes online guides. And, on occasion, he also publishes his own reporting, like the story out of Elbert County.

“I still see myself as a journalist,” Roberts says. “I have other roles as well. When I was a writer and an editor at The Denver Post I did not see myself as any kind of advocate. But in this role I have to be an advocate.”

An advocate—and a resource. In a state where access to records leaves much to be desired, Roberts has emerged as the go-to guy for journalists and citizens who need help prying information from reluctant government entities.

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Greg Griffin, investigations editor for the Post, said his reporters ping Roberts for ideas or for help finding useful case law when they run into obstacles getting records. “We just were always bumping up against trying to get information … making reasonable requests and not getting good results,” he said.

To have a reputable journalist offering that kind of assistance “just opens up a huge resource,” Griffin added. “Frankly, I think we’re just kind of realizing how good of a resource that is.”

And for smaller outlets, there can be “very simple things that they don’t know that [Roberts] can help them with,” said Bart Smith, publisher of The Greeley Tribune and a member of the CFOIC board. “He’s a great help to a lot of papers that otherwise would wait in line to try to get to an attorney to get free advice or couldn’t afford when the meter starts running.”

Roberts, a Chicago native, has his work cut out for him in Colorado. In his corner is Steve Zansberg, an attorney who represents newspapers and broadcasters throughout the state and serves as the CFOIC’s president.

Though the state has a reputation for clean government, it doesn’t have a strong record of transparency. In both 2012 and 2015, the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation gave Colorado an “F” for public access to information. (I worked on the most recent study.)

For example, state laws give police discretion over whether to release many types of records, which has been the source of much journalistic ire. As The Denver Post reports, there is also “wide variation” in whether state agencies will share government data. Roberts himself is diplomatic about this state of affairs, but says, “I don’t think I would be getting as many questions about access if everything was working great in Colorado.”

Initially launched in 1987 as an all-volunteer effort, the CFOIC re-branded and muscled up in 2013, with support from the Missouri-based National Freedom of Information Coalition. At the time, Roberts had been working on a project on the state budget at Denver University. Funding for the project had run out, and he saw the CFOIC was looking to hire its first paid director.

“It made sense. It was an issue that I cared a lot about,” he says. “It was a chance to get back into journalism.”

The coalition—which counts ideologically diverse groups like the libertarian Independence Institute and left-leaning Colorado Common Cause as members—still operates on a fairly modest budget, with support from the Colorado Press Association and Broadcasters Assocation and from a handful of foundations, newspaper companies, and individual donors. But it is increasingly having impact and shaping the discussion over open government. Over the course of just a few days this fall, the group helped the mother of a man who died during a police altercation secure records on her son’s death, persuaded a state senator to consider legislation that would require government agencies to make electronic records available in digital form, and saw its work featured in a Denver Post editorial about transparency in election oversight.

Last Tuesday, Dec. 8, was Colorado Gives Day, when nonprofits around the state raise tens of millions with online fundraising pitches, events, and general hat-in-handing. An investigative reporter for KUSA, the NBC station in Denver, made a pitch to viewers for CFOIC, saying, “They help everyone get access to public records.”

When he first started two and half years ago, Roberts says, he found it a little awkward to solicit donations for something that was just getting off the ground and with little track record of success. This year it didn’t feel like that.

“I think what we do is the type of thing that is a bit invisible, it’s something that a lot of people might take for granted,” he said. “And it’s something that journalists have done on behalf of the public for decades and decades: making requests, fighting for records so they can get information to tell stories that need to be told.

“With fewer journalists in news organizations doing this now,” he added, “it’s really important to have an organization that is sort of a resource for everybody in this regard.”

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.