Behind the story: Student investigation wins IRE award

Former Post reporter Alex Stuckey

Editor's note: The following article appeared on the IRE News Blog on June 5. It's part of a weekly "Behind the Story" series by IRE (the national trade group Investigative Reporters and Editors) intended to help journalists understand how fellow reporters do their jobs and get their stories. It focuses on an investigative story that then Ohio University Post reporter Alex Stuckey, now a reporter in Idaho Falls, Idaho, prepared for the Post in April 2012. Her article may provide insights into the ongoing state police grand jury investigation in Athens County that's focusing on county Sheriff Pat Kelly, among other matters. TS

Later this month, Alex Stuckey will receive an IRE award for her story "Drug Under the Rug," an investigation into the Athens County Ohio law enforcement agencies' failure to report property that was seized and forfeited after drug busts. Her four-month investigation of the missing reports occurred while she was a student reporter for The Post at Ohio University. Her investigation eventually revealed that 69 percent of 670 agencies in Ohio had broken the law by failing to report police property seizures. Stuckey is being honored, according to judges' comments, for showing "remarkable determination by a single student journalist following her instincts."

Stuckey says that determination can be difficult for students, but it's worth it.

"The key to pursuing investigative reporting in college is always make time," she said. "If you get a good tip or lead, follow it no matter what. If that means you can't go out on a Friday night because you're compiling spreadsheets, then you just can't."

Her story started while she was reporting on the number of drug arrests in Athens County, where Ohio University is located. She had obtained records from city and university police and knew the information was easily retrieved, but Stuckey was unable to get reports on the amount of drugs seized by the Sheriff's Office. She was surprised. She knew the Sheriff's Office "prides itself on its drug task force." She also knew, based on her other requests, that the information was easy to retrieve.

"I eventually figured out that he wasn't keeping track of what was coming in and out of his evidence room. He therefore wasn't reporting it to the Attorney General's Office, even though it was required," she says.

Stuckey submitted between six and 10 records requests asking for data on drug busts to the sheriff. The sheriff eventually told her to search court records, but refused to provide arrest logs for drug offenses, she said. Stuckey couldn't search court documents without the arrest logs.

After multiple attempts to get the data failed, Stuckey decided to use news releases from the sheriff's Facebook page to estimate drug seizures and forfeitures. Of the 72 individual charges she found via the news releases, only nine had reports of seizures and forfeitures. She compared these results with data provided by the Attorney General's Office to back up her assertion that Sheriff Kelly wasn't aware of what evidence his office held. When Sheriff Kelly reported data for 2011, the money reported as seized in one of the Facebook instances was less than what had been written on the initial police writeups.

Despite her struggle to get the records, Stuckey says her biggest challenge was getting a response from Kelly.

"He'd deny my records request with either no reason attached or a reason that would not stand up in a court of law, and I'd walk down to his office and wait outside his door. I called him several times a day, showed up there all the time," she says.

He would eventually get so angry at her, she recalls, that he would start yelling.

"I always had specific questions ready, and each time he got upset enough to yell, I would get a couple questions in until the majority were answered," she says.

Stuckey says that after her investigation, she wondered if it would have impact on the next election. He was re-elected.

"I still hope that in the future he will be held more accountable for his actions and for what he is keeping track of and is reporting to the AG's office," she says.

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The NEWS reached Stuckey at her job covering the Idaho National Laboratory with the Idaho Falls Post Register Wednesday afternoon.

She said she has continued to follow developments involving Athens County Sheriff Kelly from afar.

"Honestly, it makes me happy that he might finally answer for all of the things he's gotten away with in the past," she said. "No reporter likes writing a big story as I did and then not seeing results – here we are seeing results. I'm not sure I would say it made me feel justified – because I knew I was right, and I knew what I reported was just the tip of the iceberg – but it made me hopeful that someone was reading and decided to dig deeper."

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