July 9, 2017 02:42 PM

Annual prize is media trade group’s highest honor.

From left: Christiaan Mader, Leslie Turk, Robin May, Wynce Nolley and Walter Pierce
Photo by Travis Gauthier
As each one of us at The Independent (and ABiz) plans for a new chapter in our respective lives, we have to admit that this is a damn fine way to go out.

This weekend in Biloxi, Miss., the Louisiana Press Association bestowed its highest honor, the Freedom of Information Award, on The Independent for its investigative work into the shenanigans of Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope, who is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 25 on seven felony counts of malfeasance in office and perjury and is facing an effort to recall him in a special election. Read the latest on the never-ending saga of his administration here.

IND Staff Writer Christiaan Mader was the lead reporter on the Pope investigative series, with IND editors Leslie Turk and Walter Pierce contributing to the reporting and editing of the body of work. IND Photo Editor Robin May and contributing photographer Wynce Nolley captured the story through powerful images of Pope, from his bizarre 2015 press conference to his numerous trips to the parish courthouse and multiple bookings into the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.

Here’s what the LPA had to say at the convention about this year's Freedom of Information Award, which The IND also won a decade ago for its investigative reporting on the Horse Farm:

For its fight on behalf of the public’s right to know, please congratulate The Independent for earning this year’s Freedom of Information Award.

Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope has been in a lot of trouble with the law, and much of it is the result of dogged investigative reporting and use of public records by The Independent. The newspaper sought the records, including scores of invoices and emails, after Pope staged a news conference criticizing the local sheriff over immigration enforcement and other issues. As the Independent’s investigation revealed, Pope had used the resources of his office to aid the campaign of [a candidate for sheriff.]

For more than a year, the Independent waged a court battle to obtain the records that ultimately resulted in Pope’s indictment on criminal charges. A judge ultimately held Pope in contempt for his blatant refusal to comply with the Independent’s public records request. The judge ordered Pope to serve seven days under house arrest and perform more than 100 hours of community service for allegedly lying under oath when he was questioned during the public records litigation. He was also charged with malfeasance for alleged misuse of public resources for political purposes.

Here’s what one judge said about The Independent’s work:

“This entry involved an important controversy involving political corruption and other ‘sins.’ The paper used the public records law to assist in this coverage and also let its readers know the significance of the public records investigation. In addition, for the first time a records custodian was held in criminal contempt. This consequence by itself is highly significant and should serve as a warning for other custodians who consider resisting public records requests.”

The paper also won first place for investigative reporting in its division for the Pope series and took home another first for Mader’s food writing in the Lifestyle category.