“Doing what’s right is important”
T&G wins award for defending public’s right to access police-misconduct records; reporter shares memories of mother and grandfather; and more
On Wednesday, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette accepted the 2022 Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award, which the New England First Amendment Coalition bestowed on the newspaper for its successful three-year legal battle for police-misconduct records.
In 2018, reporter Brad Petrishen requested internal-affairs records from the city of Worcester. Officials refused to provide the documents despite two previous lawsuits against the city by the T&G about the same issue.
The T&G soon filed a third lawsuit and Worcester Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker ruled in the paper’s favor in June 2021. The victory came after a four-day trial.
In January, Kenton-Walker further ruled that officials had acted in bad faith and ordered the city to pay $101,000 for the T&G’s legal fees and $5,000 in punitive damages. It was the first time a judge issued punitive damages under a provision in the 2016 public records law.
“I think [with] everything going on in the world today, it’s never been more important to celebrate people upholding our democratic ideals in this country,” Petrishen said on Wednesday.
He thanked his mother, Debora Petrishen.
“[She] was here with us when this lawsuit was filed and is not here any longer,” he said. “But she inspired me every day to keep doing the right thing. And she always did the right thing. And so I just want to say thanks to her. Doing what’s right is important. And that’s what we were trying to do with this lawsuit is to stand up for the truth — stand up for the ideals that we hold dear here at this newspaper.”
The award was presented by Tim White, an investigative reporter for the Rhode Island TV station WPRI, at NEFAC’s 12th annual New England First Amendment Awards ceremony.
The T&G received the award in March in advance of the ceremony, which was held virtually.
“This is a shining example of accountability journalism and an inspiration to other newsrooms fighting their own public record battles,” NEFAC executive director Justin Silverman said earlier this month.
“On behalf of the Telegram & Gazette here in Worcester, thank you so much for this award,” T&G executive editor Dave Nordman said on Wednesday. “It really is the most important part of our job — defending the First Amendment.”
Jeffrey J. Pyle, a partner at the Boston firm Prince Lobel Tye, was the T&G’s lead attorney for the case.
“So I figured we would have a quick lawsuit that would result in a complete win, and the newspaper would get the records fast,” Pyle said. “Well, the newspaper got all the records, but it didn’t exactly get them fast. It took three years and a trial. But ultimately, the newspaper prevailed.”
He added: “It’s my hope that lawsuits like this will make our public records situation in Massachusetts better than it is right now. Public records laws really only work well when the government fears lawsuits. And I hope that this lawsuit inspires other news organizations to bring public records cases like this one, to challenge all kinds of withholdings that continue to happen in Massachusetts every day. When we fight, we win.”
NEFAC gives the FOI Award “each year to a New England journalist or team of journalists for a body of work from the previous calendar year that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law,” according to its website. “Preference is given to those who overcome significant official resistance.”
The award is named after Michael Donoghue, a veteran Vermont reporter and open-government advocate. (Donoghue served as the vice president of NEFAC until last year. He resigned after other board members said his participation in a Catholic Church-appointed committee investigating sexual-abuse claims created the perception of a conflict of interest.)
“I Just Really Enjoyed Holding People Accountable”
Brad Petrishen, age 35, has been a reporter since writing for his high-school newspaper in Tewksbury. He attended Framingham State College (which has since become a university), where he majored in English with a concentration in journalism and during his senior year became the editor of the Gatepost, the student paper.
“I was always interested in writing, and it’s always been one of my skills,” he told me. “[I] just really enjoyed holding people accountable, and the power of journalism, and [understood] the importance of it. And so that’s what got me into the business.”
After graduating from college, he worked at the Maynard and Stow Beacon Villager, the Winchester Star, and covered Northborough and Southborough for the MetroWest Daily News.
He joined the T&G in 2014. His first byline was published August 8 of that year.
The following year, T&G investigative reporter Thomas Caywood resigned, and Petrishen took over the role of reporting on lawsuits against the police department.
Caywood’s reporting on now-former Worcester police officer Mark A. Rojas resulted in the T&G’s second public records lawsuit against the city. Likewise, it was Petrishen’s work writing about allegations of police misconduct leveled by local civil rights attorney Hector Pineiro that led to the third suit.
Pineiro, who frequently sues the police department, had submitted to prosecutors a voluminous complaint accusing officers of beating people, conducting illegal searches, staging evidence, falsifying reports, and more.
The city initially agreed to provide the T&G with records about many of the officers but backtracked after the paper published two articles by Petrishen describing what he learned about the allegations from court records.
Petrishen played the role of both participant and observer, writing more than a dozen articles about the lawsuit.
“You have to spend hours going over court briefs, and obviously attending the hearings, really digesting all the arguments, and understanding them, and then trying to present them in a way that people can understand,” he said.
During the pretrial phase of the lawsuit, now-former Assistant City Solicitor Wendy L. Quinn personally attacked Petrishen for requesting the records.
During a hearing, she impugned his motives, accusing him of “working hand in hand” with Pineiro.
“Is there any relationship between the reporter and the attorney?” asked Judge William M. White Jr., who was hearing the case at the time.
Quinn admitted that she had no evidence of impropriety, but she complained that Petrishen had written about “the self-serving complaints by this attorney … even though they’re speculative and haven’t been proven.”
In a motion, Quinn wrote that the T&G published stories about Pineiro’s allegations “under the guise of its role as ‘watchdog.’”
Justin Silverman, the NEFAC director, called the arguments “completely disrespectful of the role that journalists play in our community.”
Petrishen responded by quoting Quinn’s comments in his coverage.
He said his goal is not to make police officers look bad but only to report the truth. He recalled a 2020 story he had written about a Westborough police officer who saved a woman from being stabbed to death by shooting and killing her attacker.
“We write tons of articles about crimes in which the police have successfully prosecuted and brought people to justice,” he said. “Wherever the story takes you is where it takes you.”
Ultimately, Judge Kenton-Walker found that Quinn had acted in bad faith — not for her attacks on Petrishen, but for other arguments she made. Quinn told the court that the city did not need to release many of the records because several of the officers were being sued. She also said the city did not need to release the conclusions of internal-affairs reports, despite a landmark 2003 Appeals Court decision from the first T&G lawsuit that said the opposite.
“[T]he city merely cherry-picked certain language from [previous] cases, taking it out of context” to justify its legal arguments, Kenton-Walker wrote. “While the court appreciates that counsel may at times advance novel legal arguments to zealously represent a client, counsel may not misrepresent to the court what cases and other materials stand for.”
“The Definiton of Courage”
“In terms of the work that we do as journalists, it’s definitely extremely satisfying to have this win,” Petrishen told me. “I hope that it will give other newspapers more of a trail to follow now under this new law.”
Wednesday’s ceremony was not the first time he was recognized for his work on the lawsuit. In April 2020, he was presented with the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s Right-to-Know Award. And in October 2021, NENPA gave him its Publick Occurrences Award, which is named after the first American newspaper from the Colonial Era.
But when I asked Petrishen if the legal triumph was his proudest accomplishment, he first thought of something completely different.
“There’s many things that I’ve done in my career that I’m really proud of. And one of them is actually something that I never won an award for,” he said.
At the MetroWest Daily News, he contributed articles to a series called “World War II Journal,” which told veterans’ stories. (His contributions that could be located online are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. He also wrote a story about a World War II veteran shortly after joining the T&G.)
“[Working on that series] was very meaningful to me and still ranks among the most important things I’ve ever done,” he said. “Because they really are the Greatest Generation, and just the act of being able to do something that was so meaningful to them and have them recognized in their community for all they did was very, very special to me.”
Philip McIntyre, Petrishen’s paternal grandfather by marriage, was an Army lieutenant during World War II. According to an article republished in the town of Hardwick’s 2011 annual report, McIntyre was captured by German soldiers in France in August 1944, suffering a concussion and losing hearing in his left ear from a tank blast in the process.
He was sent to a POW camp in Germany, transferred to a second camp in Poland, then sent to a rehabilitation facility to be treated for tuberculosis. By February 1945, when he was liberated by Russian soldiers, he had lost more than 60 pounds.
“He was just amazing,” Petrishen said. “I wish I had had longer to know him certainly, because he passed in my early twenties. He’s just one of those guys like many others that I wrote about that a lot of history died with them unfortunately. And I think a lot of the lessons that we learned back then, they’re unfortunately even more important now given what’s going on in Europe [with the Russian invasion of Ukraine].”
McIntyre died in 2011 two months shy of his 95th birthday.
Petrishen also told me about his mother, Debora Petrishen, who he thanked during the awards ceremony.
“First and foremost, she was hilarious, which is what she’d want people to know. She was a riot,” he said. “She was one of a kind. She was one of those larger-than-life kinds of people who wasn’t afraid to be herself and to do what she thought was right.”
She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in September 2014, shortly after Petrishen started working at the T&G. She died on August 8, 2020. She was 62.
“It was not a good situation, just because COVID and all that,” Petrishen said. “That was when you could only have 10 people at the funeral. And I couldn’t hug my aunts. … It was a tough time.”
Petrishen said his mother was a “great singer.” She met her husband, Michael Petrishen, singing in a wedding band. Dana-Farber, the hospital treating her cancer, selected her to sing the national anthem at Fenway Park to raise money for the Jimmy Fund in 2018.
Petrishen learned how to be a writer from his mother. She wasn’t a professional writer — she worked in the health-insurance industry before her diagnosis — but she was always writing. She wrote in a journal every day and corresponded with family.
“She was hoping to write a book about her experience with cancer. She started it but unfortunately was not able to finish it,” he said.
Petrishen said he learned important lessons about life from his mother’s battle with cancer.
“She was told back in 2014 that it was going to be terminal. And they gave her a 50/50 chance to live [more than] three-and-a-half years,” he said. “The first break she got from chemo was six months. And that was as good as it got. After that, it just kept coming back faster and faster. … But she made it six years, and to do that, to keep battling and keep fighting even though you’ve been told in the end it’s not going to be a winning battle is the definition of courage, I think. And so [she] certainly taught me perseverance.”
He continued: “[She] lived her life to help others, which is what I see journalism as being as well — you’re doing a public service. She spent the last couple years of her life delivering Meals on Wheels to people, to older folks whose age she knew she would never attain. … And she volunteered her time at the VA reading to veterans. And she volunteered with hospice patients who needed company. Even within a year or so of her needing hospice herself, she was doing that for others.”
He concluded: “I didn’t have much to complain about looking at all that she was facing and the dignity and courage with which she approached her last years of life.”
The Fight Continues
The T&G’s lawsuit continues. In February, Jeff Pyle filed a notice of appeal indicating his plan to challenge Judge Kenton-Walker’s ruling on legal fees.
Wendy Quinn said the T&G’s legal team deserved nothing because she made her arguments in good faith. She said that if an award were granted, it should be reduced to $44,000. She complained that the team included a second lawyer and a paralegal who did a few hours of work while she defended the city by herself. She added that granting the lawyers a “windfall” would burden city taxpayers.
Pyle countered that it was the city’s bad faith and “everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink defense” that resulted in an expensive and unnecessary trial.
Kenton-Walker took a middle ground, placing blame on the city and calling the T&G’s lawyers “experienced and capable” but saying the hours for which they billed were excessive.
So far, no briefs are listed on the case’s Appeals Court docket.
Quinn is no longer employed by Worcester. She became a partner at Hassett Donnelly last week, according to the firm’s website. The nature of her departure from the city is not clear. She did not respond to an email sent Sunday, and she was not available by phone on Monday due to Patriots’ Day.
In February, I learned by making a public records request that the city did not track its own expenses for the lawsuit, meaning residents will never get a full accounting of how many tax dollars officials wasted fighting the T&G.
On March 2, I sent the city a request for records related to its planning of its legal strategy. The city said it “identified approximately 698 [relevant] communications” but that the records contain information protected by attorney-client privilege and attorney work-product privilege.
The city said it needed 25 business days to review the records — the maximum number of days it can legally spend without seeking an extension from the supervisor of public records. However, the city never provided any additional information, so I filed an appeal with the supervisor on April 10. The appeal is pending.
I wrote at length about the T&G’s lawsuit in February — make sure you check out that piece, because it has a lot of details not included in today’s story. I also spoke about the lawsuit with Bill Shaner on his Worcester’s Good But Hurts podcast.
UPDATE (4/20/2022): A city spokesperson confirmed that Wendy Quinn’s departure was “entirely voluntary.”
“Hassett and Donnelly knows she is a well-respected and talented litigator. The firm offered her a position and Attorney Quinn accepted it,” Amy Peterson said.
Quinn did not respond to a voicemail left Tuesday.
It’s That Time Again
Here’s the part where I harangue you for money. But don’t go away just yet — if you survive this or just skip over it, you will be rewarded with more content.
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If you go the extra mile by becoming a Dump Devotee and spend at least $200, I will make a public records request at your suggestion. I’ll reach out to you by email to discuss what records interest you and how to best go about obtaining them. If the agency doesn’t provide a response, I will file as many appeals as it takes to get one. If the agency does respond but refuses to provide the records or blacks out important information, I will make at least two additional appeals if I believe they have a chance of success. I can’t guarantee results, but I can certainly put in the effort to fight for the release of records that are important to people who make this newsletter possible.
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Amherst Democrats Host Sullivan — Galvin Still Nowhere to Be Found
On Thursday, the Amherst Democratic Town Committee hosted candidates for attorney general Shannon Liss-Riordan and Andrea Campbell and candidate for secretary of the commonwealth Tanisha Sullivan.
Sullivan, the president of the Boston NAACP, is the only Democratic primary challenger to William F. Galvin, the entrenched incumbent who is seeking his eighth term as secretary.
The secretary’s office is the most important state office with respect to public records. It is the home of the Public Records Division. This agency, which is headed by an appointee of the secretary called the supervisor of public records, is responsible for hearing all appeals from people who face difficulty obtaining records. The division is also responsible for drafting regulations for access to public records.
At the Thursday meeting, Sullivan briefly mentioned public records but did not say anything of substance about how she would improve access to them. Here’s the full quote for reference:
As a civil rights leader, I know that a strong democracy is more than voting rights. It means having communities that are strong and people who are empowered. People who are empowered to lead. And part of that means we’ve got to ensure that public information is not only readily accessible to the public, but that we have in place the structures to ensure that we all can access that information and know how to use it, and ensuring that information is linguistically available, ensuring that we are providing educational supports that allow for everyone, not just some of us, but every one of us to be able to understand how to use that information.
The secretary of state is the chief information officer. I believe that’s more than just an administrative function. I believe that in a strong democracy, that means that the secretary of state is not satisfied with information being available. But is deeply committed to ensuring that we are all empowered to use that information.
Galvin did not make an appearance at the meeting. “Thus far, he is the only statewide candidate who has not appeared before [the Amherst Democrats] in some capacity,” said Evan Ross, co-chair of the group.
On March 6, every candidate for statewide office with the exception of Galvin attended the Amherst Democrats’ virtual caucus. At that event, Mary Olberding, the Hampshire County register of deeds, spoke on behalf of Galvin. Both Olberding and Sullivan focused their remarks on voting rights and did not mention public records.
Also in March, Progressive Mass released written questionnaire responses from candidates and held a virtual question-and-answer session. Sullivan participated, but Galvin did not.
Framingham Officials Go Dark On Drones — Still Hiding Draft Policy from Public
Last week, I published a story about how the Framingham Police Department bought three drones with no public input, supposedly for the purpose of locating missing people. City officials would not answer questions about whether they intend to use the devices for other reasons nor would they release their draft policy. I have a quick update on that story, which is that there is no update. City officials still won’t release the policy and have stopped responding entirely.
Previously, Deputy Police Chief Ronald S. Brandolini and Susan Nicholl, the chief of staff for Mayor Charlie Sisitsky, answered some of my questions and dodged others. But I haven’t heard from either of them since April 8, the Friday before I published the story.
Police Chief Lester Baker still hasn’t acknowledged me at all. On Wednesday, the chief stopped by a local Italian restaurant to fraternize with the Framingham Business Association and talk about things that give business-association types anxiety — y’know, stuff like panhandling. But Baker can’t be bothered to respond to residents or reporters who want to know what the hell his department is doing with three drones.
Brandolini said the department will not release its drone policy until next month, when it officially launches the program without giving residents the opportunity to have a say — I guess we’ll have to wait until then for answers. I will be interested to read the policy, and I plan to request all of the drafts so that I can compare them to the final product.
Judiciary Committee Punts On Prison-Moratorium Bill
Also last week, I wrote about the inspiring activists fighting against state officials who are intent on inflicting the inhumanity of incarceration on generations of women by building a new $50 million women’s prison in Norfolk to replace the decrepit MCI-Framingham. Supporters of the No New Women’s Prison movement are calling on the legislature to pass a five-year moratorium on the design and construction of new jails and prisons.
First, I want to clarify something that I mangled in my piece (but later corrected). There are actually two moratorium bills before the legislature right now. A Senate bill (S.2030) is before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and a separate House bill (H.1905) is before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. If one of these bills fails to advance, it’s still possible for the legislature to pass the other.
As I noted, the House bill before the Judiciary Committee had a reporting deadline of April 15 — last Friday. However, the committee voted to extend the deadline to June 30 on Friday, according to the office of Senator Jamie Eldridge, the Senate chair of the committee.
“I fully oppose the construction of any new prisons or jails in Massachusetts. Our state has one of the lowest rates of incarcerations in the country, and the prison population has declined drastically, which is why I was so encouraged that Governor [Charlie] Baker announced the closure of the MCI-Cedar Junction (Walpole) prison this month,” Eldridge said in a statement released Friday. “I support the moratorium on building new prisons in the Commonwealth, and … the committee is continuing to review [the moratorium bill].”
While it’s disappointing that the committee hasn’t come to an agreement on the bill, the extension means activists have more time to rally support and lobby committee members.
If you would rather see $50 million spent on solving the commonwealth’s problems instead of creating them, then you better go bug these Beacon Hill bums about these bills. Call or email your own legislators, especially if they are members of the Judiciary Committee, members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Senate President Karen Spilka, or House Leader Ronald Mariano. Some of the folks I wrote about braved a thunderstorm and even got pelted by hail to knock on doors and pass out flyers — surely you can spend a few minutes calling or sending an email.
Tracking Police Misconduct with Media Reports
I’m building a database of all allegations of misconduct by Massachusetts police officers that are reported by the news media in 2022. You can view the database on my website here. I update it as new stories are reported, and I try to use non-paywalled articles as sources when possible. The database currently has 46 entries, some involving multiple officers. If I missed an incident or made a mistake, please contact me about it — you can read the criteria for including an incident here.
Here are the entries that I’ve added since last mentioning the database in the newsletter:
Daily Hampshire Gazette: Belchertown police lieutenant put on paid leave amid investigation for unspecified reasons by the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office
Grafton News: Grafton police sergeant named in lawsuit by resident who says he went to police station to complain about flashing police lights outside his home and was told by dispatcher he needed to show ID and that police ran his name through a criminal database without cause
Greenfield Recorder: Northwestern District Attorney’s Office refuses to confirm or deny whether it has opened investigation after residents accuse former Leyden police chief who resigned after sending racist emails of stealing and selling town equipment obtained through military-equipment transfer program
WWLP: Springfield Police Department agrees to terms of consent decree with Department of Justice after federal investigation found officers engaged in pattern of excessive force; agreement requires department to adopt new policies that will be overseen by an independent monitor
Boston Globe: Two Stoughton police officers put on paid leave for unspecified reasons; one is twin brother of former Stoughton officer who resigned amid investigation of his relationship to a pregnant woman who died by suicide
A few other odds and ends before I let you go.
A big thank you to the irreplaceable Luke O’Neil, who republished the No New Women’s Prison piece in his Welcome to Hell World newsletter, getting it way more attention than it otherwise would have received.
I own both of Luke’s Hell World books, and you should own them too — go buy them now. I’ve actually only made it through the first one so far, but I liked it so much that I sent him a probably way-too-personal message after finishing it. Reading Luke O’Neil is like getting dumped by your girlfriend at 11:30 PM, snorting a bunch of Adderall, then staying up all night doomscrolling through Twitter — except somehow it feels cathartic. No one can capture the anxiety of living through these crazy times quite like Luke does. He’s a guy who gets it, capisce?
Even if you’ve already read my piece from last week, check out the Hell World issue that features it, because it also includes a harrowing interview with a Ukrainian woman about her experience living through the Russian invasion.
I intended to provide an update on my Brady list project (which I have written about here and here) today, but I have not had a chance to work on that yet. I really want to release this Brady stuff, so I’m going to try to get to it next. Fingers crossed that I don’t get sidetracked — hopefully me mentioning the project again will prevent that from happening.
Again, please subscribe to this newsletter, send me a few bucks, tell your friends what a great writer I am, etc.
Lastly, please send me tips! I mostly write about public records and police misconduct. I will write about anywhere in the state, and I’m always looking for new things to cover. If you have a frustrating story about trying to obtain public records or a story about the police that isn’t being told, tell me about it. You can email me at email@example.com or send me a direct message on Twitter.
That’s all for now, folks.