HomeTop StoriesFour examples from the York Daily Record fighting for your right to...

Four examples from the York Daily Record fighting for your right to know

March 12-18 is Sunshine Week, a time to celebrate the freedom of information that empowers rulers to act as watchdogs of their government. It is also a time to shed light on the many barriers put up by elected and appointed officials to keep citizens in the dark. Journalists are often the canaries in the coal mine of government secrecy, as our mission to report the news makes us the first to encounter cases where there is a disturbing lack of transparency.

The York Daily Record has a long history of using Right-to-Know Law and Freedom-of-Information-Act requests to highlight our government, and 2022 has been a particularly busy year for us in that regard.

Here are four examples of the York Daily Record putting its time and money where its editorial mouth is in the fight for the public’s right to know:

Vicosa case: ‘Major concerns’

Former Baltimore County Police Officer Robert Vicosa went haywire in November 2021.

He held his wife in his basement, forced her to take drugs, threatened to kill her and his two young daughters, and repeatedly raped her. He later kidnapped his daughters and, along with his girlfriend, a Baltimore County Police Department sergeant, went on the run from his home in York Township. It sparked a massive manhunt that ended in Maryland when, with police in pursuit, he shot and killed his children, girlfriend, and himself in a moving vehicle on a rural road.

The tragic deaths of these two innocent young girls could have been avoided if local York County police had immediately issued an abuse protection order seeking Vicosa’s wife after he kidnapped her. But the town’s chief constable suspended the PFA’s emergency service.

Photos, stuffed animals, flowers and more form a memorial during a candlelight vigil on Sunday, November 21, 2021 for Giana, 7, and Aaminah Vicosa, 6, at the scene where the sisters were killed in a murder-suicide by their father, Robert Vicosa , of Baltimore, during a police chase on the 23000 block of Ringgold Pike on Nov. 18, near Smithsburg, Maryland.

Investigating how police handled the PFA, the Attorney General sent a letter to the York County District Attorney’s Office outlining a timeline of events and outlining “our deepest concerns with certain mistakes and decisions that led to this tragic situation.” The AG’s office wrote that the timeline “may assist you in enforcing the law and developing appropriate law enforcement policies to help prevent such tragedies in the future.”

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The York Daily Record filed a Right-to-Know Law request for the letter. The prosecutor has released a copy that excludes the crucial timeline of events. The newspaper asked for the full letter, but the prosecutor’s office and the AG’s office refused access.

That was unacceptable. What could be more important to public safety and policing policy than a letter highlighting such deep concerns and shortcomings?

It was time to become a lawyer.

The York Daily Record hired a Harrisburg law firm in 2022 to fight for public access to this important document, and the case is still winding through the courts.

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Take the clerk to court

Example No. 2: Our reporters must rely on the York County Clerk of Courts Office for timely, unfettered access to criminal records. But we kept running into roadblocks. The office removed a computer terminal that allowed easy public access to such documents. When we requested documents, they were delayed or redacted haphazardly — or charged far beyond what is allowed under state rules. The clerk rejected our efforts to mediate these issues.

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York County Clerk Dan Byrnes.

York County Clerk Dan Byrnes.

There seemed to be no other option but to take the clerk Unpleasant court. The newspaper contacted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and then we assembled a coalition of four other central Pennsylvania news organizations to fight for public access. We sent more than a dozen reporters and “ordinary citizens” to the office to request files and document the results of each request. That effort built a strong argument that the office was inconsistent and fickle in its handling of document requests. We filed a lawsuit and, after many depositions and much legal wrangling, we finally reached a settlement that outlined the expectations of the clerk and mandated training for his staff.

Unfounded secrecy

The York Daily Record last year joined another central Pennsylvania media coalition in overturning an FBI investigation warrant into the cellphone of York County-based Republican U.S. Representative Scott Perry. We are working with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and two other local news organizations seeking the documents that authorized the FBI to seize our congressman’s phone — which was a focal point in the FBI’s investigation. January 6 Committee to the Rebellion.

U.S. Representative Scott Perry

U.S. Representative Scott Perry

The fate of our unsealed offer is still unclear as the government has tried to seal even its response to our request. But we stand by the principle that Perry’s voters have a right to know why the FBI confiscated his phone.

CV or no CV?

And finally, when is a resume not a resume?

When your county government decides it apparently isn’t.

In recent years, the York Daily Record reported on a corrections trainer hired as a contractor for York County Prison. Controversy seems to follow this trainer as a bloodhound – or as one of the giant schnauzers he advocates for use in subduing unruly inmates. He had played a central role in a federal lawsuit elsewhere and was being sued by a group of York County inmates who claimed to have been assaulted. His aggressive tactics led to his imprisonment in other prisons. Oh, and we found out he had a criminal record in Britain.

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It seemed reasonable to ask county officials why they thought this was the right person to train guards to release prisoners from cells and quell riots. In a Right-to-Know Law request, we asked for the contractor’s resume to help our readers assess his qualifications.

C-SAU "Senior Team Leader"  Joseph Garcia until recently served as a contracted trainer for York County Prison.

C-SAU “Senior Team Leader” Joseph Garcia until recently served as a contracted trainer for York County Prison.

First, the county said it didn’t have his curriculum vitae. Later it said, oh wait, we do have a 128 page document labeled resume, but it’s not actually a resume. Then the county told us it had found an eight-page document that this time was really his resume.

How so?

You see, the county said, resumes tend to be short, and the one the contractor called his “verified resume” is long — 128 pages. The contractor itself also labeled the CV as ‘classified’. So request declined. The State Office of Open Records ruled that the resume should be public, but the county appealed.

Re-enter the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The group took up our case and represented the newspaper at a hearing at which prison officials admitted they had used the very lengthy resume to confirm the contractor’s qualifications. Unfortunately, the judge gave a baffling non-ruling that the matter was moot, so we’re trying to continue the legal battle this year.

Clearly, the Reporters Committee has played a heroic role in our quest for public transparency. But it all starts with the York Daily Record’s principled refusal to take no for an answer when vital freedom of information is at stake.

Let the sun shine.

Scott Fisher is Central Pennsylvania News Director for the USA Today Network, which includes the York Daily Record and the Evening Sun of Hanover. Contact him at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Sunshine Week: Four Examples of YDR Fighting for Your Right to Know

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