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Journalists honored with First Amendment Awards

4/8/2014, 12:34 p.m.
The first reports of the scandal that led to the indictments of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, ...
The reporters' stories led to former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell and wife charged in gifts case.

Four journalists were recently recognized for their use of Virginia's Freedom of Information Act to uncover separate scandals in the governor's office and the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post and Katy Burnell Evans of The Daily Progress in Charlottesville were presented with the VPA First Amendment Award during the association's annual meeting in suburban Richmond.

The first reports of the scandal that led to the indictments of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, came in The Washington Post, which reported that Star Scientific executive Jonnie Williams had paid $15,000 in catering fees for McDonnell's daughter's wedding reception.

More stories followed, linking the connections between the McDonnells and Williams' attempts to have his company's food supplement, Anatabloc, promoted and assisted financially by state grants and state medical officials.

Month after month, the reporting continued, with stories about more gifts - a Rolex watch, designer clothes, free flights, golf outings and lodging at Williams' lake estate - and loans to help keep Virginia's First couple financially solvent. Most of these gratuities were never reported on disclosure filings.

The bylines in the Post included a combination of reporters' names: Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig. Their reports essentially ended McDonnell's promising future in national politics, outed the executive mansion as a chaotic residence and had a role in last year's statewide elections.

The McDonnells now face federal corruption trials after a lengthy grand jury investigation. In the aftermath, the General Assembly passed what legislators called reforms that are supposed to keep things like this from happening again.

"The dogged, persistent reporting was done through excellent source development, use of the Freedom of Information Act and, most important, savvy journalists," noted the Virginia Press Association in issuing the award. "Helderman, Vozzella and Loenig and the Washington Post held Virginia's highest official and his family accountable - which is why the founders placed press freedom as part of the First Amendment."

Evans, of the The Daily Progress was likewise lauded for her tenacity.

On an April evening last year, three students at the University of Virginia bought sparkling water, cookie dough and cake mix at a grocery store in Charlottesville and were getting into their car to leave when they were accosted by six plain-clothed men who surrounded their car and attempted to get the students from the car.

The students, thinking they were under attack, drove off when one man beat on a window and another pulled a gun. They called 911 as they were fleeing. They were actually being pursued by state ABC agents, who mistakenly thought the women had illegally bought beer. The driver, a 20-year-old student, was jailed on felony charges for a night and half day.

The case stayed that way until The Daily Progress became aware of it. The charges were dropped and the record of the charges later was expunged.

Because of Evans' reporting, the agents, though originally cleared of improper conduct by their supervisors, were re-investigated and found to have violated several department regulations.