AP sportswriter uses FOIA to report exclusive on Arkansas coach scandal

April 19, 2012
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AP reporter Kurt Voigt
AP reporter Kurt Voigt
(In the below April 18 memo to the Associated Press staff, Managing Editor for State News, Financial News and Global Training Kristin Gazlay explains how an AP reporter used FOIA requests to ensure that AP had the most authoritative reporting on a story grabbing national headlines.) 

All:

When Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino -- a sports figure of near divine status in the state -- was hurt in a motorcycle crash, he hurt himself professionally as well.  

Petrino tried to cover up the fact that his mistress, an employee who happened to be a leggy blonde half his age, was with him on the motorcycle. The whole mess cost him his job, and Fayetteville sportswriter Kurt Voigt led the pack in covering the sorry saga.

Voigt owned the breaking news, but he also successfully used FOIA requests to further fuel the story, particularly requesting all emails between Petrino and his bosses and any emails that mentioned the woman’s name, along with phone records, personnel records and job applications. The fruit of those FOIAs delivered scooplets that made him the most authoritative reporter on a story that was grabbing national attention and dominated the headlines in Arkansas for more than a week. 

Petrino was fired for lying to his boss and giving his mistress an unfair advantage in the hiring process. After poring over 300 pages of business cellphone records with colleagues Chuck Bartels, Jeannie Nuss, Allen Reed and Andrew DeMillo, Voigt was able to score an APNewsBreak reporting that the married coach and his employee had swapped more than 4,300 texts and nearly 300 calls over the course of seven months -- sometimes dozens of texts on game days, sometimes before dawn and some while a critical police report was being released.

Another FOIA dump led to a behind-the-scenes look at Petrino fretting about his future via texts to his colleagues: 'Is the mood to fire me or to keep me???' and 'can they get content off my text'? Still another FOIA trove -- more than 500 pages of personnel documents this time -- showed Petrino's boss had fast-tracked Jessica Dorrell's hire at the coach's request.

Voigt also produced a steady diet of worthy, compelling stories even without breaking news -- on how Petrino's contract language gave the university more than enough leeway to fire him without fear of paying his $18 million buyout, how a host of fans still supported the coach despite the disclosures, how the interim coach was trying to lead his shocked team, and how the players were vowing to press forward.

The play was extraordinary. Besides usage across the state and across the South, The New York Times used a number of Voigt's stories and his mainbars dominated headlines on the major portals, ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports, in addition to dozens of niche sports sites and Twitter feeds. One mainbar drew more than 5,000 comments on ESPN.com. Voigt's work also led to more than a dozen prominent tweets on the _@AP_Top25 site, with a series of five tweets over a span of 18 hours drawing some 3,800 clicks and more than 100 retweets.

Read one of his stories here:
http://bit.ly/IGJEzW


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