Tonight, at a funeral home in Michigan, family, friends and colleagues of journalist and private investigator Pat Clawson will pay their respects to the 60-year-old who died last week.
A few years back, Pat called me when I was working as a reporter. He urged me – to put it mildly – to dig deeper on a story about the loss of some important records by a federal agency. And he alerted me to something more troubling, serving as an important source for another story about how the federal courts were seeking to save money by destroying millions of old bankruptcy and civil court cases.
In the fast-paced worlds of investigation and journalism, it’s hard to find the time to dive deep into questions of records retention and the arcane policies behind decisions on what government papers get preserved and which ones are sent to the shredder. But Pat knew from hard experience how a deposition in a decades old civil case may yield crucial information on a story or investigation today. While many disagreed with Pat on matters of politics and policy, he believed public information ought to stay that way.
Amid my few dealings with Pat, I paid more attention to the Federal Register, which among other things, contains periodic, little-noticed public filings in which federal agencies often request permission to destroy records they deem no longer needed. The thing is, as Pat knew, if you keep an eye on these requests, you can request the records before that happens.
Still, most investigators or journalists, myself included, probably don’t think much about it (until it affects us personally) when government officials make decisions to destroy records, cut off access to records or charge exorbitant fees for court documents that only big law firms can afford to pay. While I hardly knew him well enough to speak to his legacy, my limited interactions with Pat recall a man who sought to protect transparency even when there was no story or lead to chase, and who was vigilant beyond his own self interests.
– Jim McElhatton