published Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Gerber: Reporters expose public problems, officials' missteps

It's a reporter's job to dig it out when something isn't happening the way it should. Joy Lukachick did just that when she reported last year on problems at Hays State Prison -- cell doors that didn't lock; prisoners with smuggled cellphones and homemade weapons.

Beth Burger's reporting found the Tennessee Department of Correction did not monitor Terry Releford, a violent sex offender, as closely as it was required to or should have. He later raped a young woman, then killed his pregnant wife before turning a gun on himself.

That kind of reporting isn't easy. In fact, it takes time and diligence to review pages or records and sort through reports and numbers.

Another example of records-based watchdog reporting is in today's paper. Reporter Tyler Jett reviewed every court case filed in Walker County State Court for the past two years.

He found that Judge Billy Mullinax and Solicitor Billy Rhyne Jr. have agreed to reduce DUI charges 70 times. These offenses have been reduced to disorderly conduct, a non-driving offense which allows the defendants to keep their licenses.

Jett pulled every case filed in 2012 and 2013 because many of those 2012 cases didn't play out until 2013.

Jett, who covers crime in North Georgia, last year reported on how two state judges, Mullinax and Chattooga County State Court Judge Sam Finster, were charging illegal court costs.

The deals in both counties went down like this: Someone is arrested, charged with a crime and, at first, the victim is helping prosecutors put together a case. Then the victim changes his or her mind and, without that help, the case falls completely apart or is so weak, prosecutors don't think they can get a conviction. At that point, the judge allows the arrested person to pay the court costs and walk.

Jett reported that over five years in Chattooga County, 152 cases played out that way. In Walker County, Mullinax dismissed at least 47 cases in 2013 after either the victim or the defendant paid the court costs.

Finster said he was recouping taxpayers' money spent on investigations that don't lead to a charge. Finster told Jett it was the right thing to do.

But it wasn't the legal thing to do. Georgia law says a court cannot make defendants pay money on cases unless those defendants are found guilty.

Finster said he did not know his actions were against the law until the reporter informed him. Jett actually showed him the section of the law dealing with the court costs.

Shouldn't a judge, of all people, know the law and abide by it? And if a judge doesn't know the law, shouldn't the public know that?

Thanks to Jett, the public knows. So does Finster, and he's stopped charging the court costs inappropriately.

These days, most folks (and some reporters) think they can find all the information they need just by hitting the Internet or making a few phone calls. But the work of Jett, Lukachick and Burger proves that an old-fashioned nose for news and feet-on-the-street reporting are still the foundation of a newspaper's work.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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