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FOIA checklist enables reporter to break news in case of missing boy’s impostor

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Knowing what information can be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) from various public agencies is critical to being able to break news. And keeping a handy checklist available of those information gold mines is key to accessing that knowledge, Columbus, Ohio-based reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins has found.

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Brian Rini, 23, shown in an undated photo, claimed to be Timmothy Pitzen, an Illinois boy who disappeared in 2011 at the age of 6. Rini, an ex-convict, had a record of fabricating stories, Ohio correctional authorities revealed in documents released to the AP. – Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office via AP

Welsh-Huggins used those skills to great effect in the case of the young man accused of pulling a cruel hoax by pretending to be a long-missing Illinois boy. The story captured the nation’s attention, and prompted the immediate question: How could someone do something like that?

The story was highly competitive, with many print and broadcast reporters trying to flesh out the background of 23-year-old ex-con Brian Rini – the Ohio man who authorities say faked being Timmothy Pitzen. Pitzen was 6 years old when he disappeared in 2011; his mother killed herself and left a note saying her son was fine but would never be found.

Welsh-Huggins’ checklist for enterprise off the news includes FOIAs to all agencies a suspect has had past contact with, such as the state Motor Vehicles Bureau, police departments, jails and the Ohio corrections department.

Welsh-Huggins’ checklist includes FOIAs to all agencies a suspect has had past contact with.

Once Welsh-Huggins learned that Brian Rini had been in Ohio’s corrections system (serving time for burglary and vandalism), he immediately filed a FOIA with the agency to obtain access to Rini’s disciplinary records, knowing from experience the agency maintains them and will release them after a request.

It took the agency just a few days to fulfill the request (after one prompt from Andrew) – handing him 15 disciplinary reports issued in just more than a year. The reports showed that Brian Rini was someone the prison system knew liked to fabricate stories – with officials asserting he lied about things as mundane as being short of toilet paper and as serious as being raped by a guard.

The story got strong play on the web sites of Ohio’s major newspapers and in publications across the country,including The Washington Post. The AP was alone with the story.

For using his knowledge of FOIA to break news on a highly competitive story, Welsh-Huggins wins this week’s Best of the States.

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