Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Sources take risks to right wrongs

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Watchdog journalism takes an active citizenry. It takes people who strive to make a difference, who have high standards, who live their personal values.

They are people like Molly Simones of Loaves & Fishes. Or Yun Chung, a retired engineer and metallurgist. Or David Lerman, a Berkeley attorney.

All of them, and many more, became key sources for The Sacramento Bee’s investigative reporting this year. They took the time to make a difference.

In some cases, sources just made a phone call or sent an email tip. In others, they gave generously of their time to us or to the community. Chung might have been the most generous of all, spending hundreds of hours researching and writing a report to refute an official report explaining why high-strength steel rods on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge broke.

Many of the people who alerted Bee journalists to stories this past year never will receive public recognition. We’ve kept their identities secret because their bosses would react far differently if they were aware who tipped us or leaked information and documents so we could expose problems or wrongdoing. They are quite certain they’d be out of a job or have their career derailed.

Today’s column is to thank all of them. Without sources taking a risk, we would not have published stories including:

• Marjie Lundstrom’s

investigation into the controversial work of two UC Davis neurosurgeons

who the university found had “deliberately circumvented” internal policies when they obtained consent and then treated three brain-cancer patients by infecting them with bowel bacteria. The surgeons, Dr. J. Paul Muizelaar and Dr. Rudolph J. Schrot, resigned even as they maintained they were working in the best interests of their patients.

• Charles Piller’s extensive

investigation into the troubled construction of the Bay Bridge,

at $6.4 billion the most expensive public works project in California. Piller’s reporting revealed construction concerns that remain under review despite the opening of the bridge to daily traffic.

• Diana Lambert and Melody Gutierrez’s

reporting on myriad problems

within the Twin Rivers Unified School District, culminating in the arrest of trustee Cortez Quinn after allegedly conspiring to falsify a paternity test and illegally receiving loans from a school district employee.

• Coverage by Laurel Rosenhall parting the curtain on influence peddling by a powerful Sacramento public affairs firm,

California Strategies

. The firm and three partners recently were fined a combined $40,500 by the Fair Political Practices Commission and forced to register as lobbyists for crossing the line from advocacy into lobbying.

• Ongoing deep reporting by Matt Weiser on

state plans to re-engineer the Delta

with the help of two gigantic tunnels. Weiser might well be California’s leading water journalist, and he benefits from sources who leak documents not yet public.

In general, we try to avoid quoting anonymous sources or using just their word in our stories. But many of those who have worked with us confidentially on investigations are leading us to documents we might not otherwise know about, or might be able to obtain through public records laws.

“We weigh their anonymity with the importance of the information they are providing, recognizing and evaluating its value to us and to our readers,” said Managing Editor Scott Lebar. “All along, we know how sensitive speaking out can be. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

In addition to valued confidential sources are those who can work with us publicly. Sources we can name include Simones, a young woman who works at Loaves & Fishes and thought it was wrong that James Flavy Coy Brown had arrived alone in Sacramento via Greyhound from Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas. Simones called reporter Cynthia Hubert and you know the result – many Bee stories by Hubert and Phillip Reese detailing how the hospital bused 1,500 psychiatric patients across the country over a five-year span, effectively moving vulnerable people who needed services to other states that absorbed the cost.

Imagine putting someone on a bus with a few bottles of Ensure and a couple of days’ worth of medication. Imagine, again, that the patient has a serious criminal past. Hubert and Reese found sources willing to talk or leak records showing that this happened. Since our coverage began, the hospital stopped busing patients without chaperones and fired two staff members. After the most recent report detailing crimes committed by some who were bused, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval announced he was creating a special council to review the state’s mental health care system and find ways to improve it.

Lerman, another source, is the Berkeley attorney who touched off a controversy earlier this year over the slow pace of California’s government business registrations.

Lerman wanted to start a wine-exporting company but quickly learned that the secretary of state’s office had a six-week backlog on business registrations, a necessary piece of paper to any business launch. At the time, similar action in Texas, which was courting California businesses, was one week.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen blamed the backlog on five years of budget cuts during the recession. Lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill to increase the secretary of state’s budget while it worked to develop its own online system.

Lerman was outraged by the delay and took action by calling The Bee.

Yun Chung was outraged as well and took action well beyond what most of us would do.

They lived their personal values to the benefit of all of us.