First Leslie Weise blew the whistle. And then she faced jail time.
It all started two years ago with what seemed like a simple question: Is Colorado Springs’ downtown power plant, which is fueled by coal, polluting the air her young son breathes?
That’s what Weise wanted to know. She lives in Monument and her 11-year-old son Jamie attends a school two and a half miles from the Martin Drake municipal power plant.
Weise knew the public utility had hired a firm in 2013 to measure sulfur dioxide emissions. So the clean air advocate, who has a law degree, filed a Colorado Open Records Act request, asking for the study from Colorado Springs Utilities, the public entity that runs the coal-fired power plant and whose board is the Colorado Springs City Council.
The utility denied her request, saying it could keep the report secret under attorney-client privilege because the utility conducted it in anticipation of a lawsuit from the Sierra Club. When denied a records request in Colorado, your only option is to go to court. So Weise sued the utility, asking a judge to make the air quality report public. A judge ruled against her. So she appealed.
Then came a strange twist.
As her appeal was pending last fall, a court administrator inadvertently gave Weise a copy of the report she was seeking— the private firm’s air quality study of sulfur-dioxide emissions at the power plant. All of a sudden, there it was: A document she had fought for and been denied multiple times, mistakenly included on a CD from the court and visible on her computer screen.
Weise says what she saw in the report confirmed her suspicions. And more than that, it made her nervous. She was about to embark on a three-hour road trip. She knew she had information she wasn’t supposed to have, and information the government wanted to keep secret. Whether it was a rational thought or not, she says now, as she drove in her car she worried about someone involved in her open records dispute running her off the road.
Weise told the court what happened— how she mistakenly came into possession of the document she was seeking. She was told to return the report without keeping any copies. So she returned it.
But nobody said she couldn’t talk about what she saw.
After assessing her options and seeking legal advice, Weise contacted her local newspaper, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, and told a reporter what she saw in the report was that the plant consistently exceeded federal limits on SO2 emissions.
Utility spokeswoman Amy Trinidad says the information Weise saw was “not official air quality data,” and “all of the monitoring data from the state show that the plant is in compliance.”
Weise called on the utility to just release the report, and, well, clear the air.
Asked if making the report public would vindicate the utility or quiet its critics, Trinidad said she couldn’t speak to that.
“The goal of some of the people in the community is to shut down the plant,” she offered. “We believe that is a community decision … That really is their end goal.”
Soon after the story came out in The Gazette, the utility pushed back, calling for the court to punish Weise with sanctions. A January 2017 story in The Gazette came with a headline saying Weise was “facing jail.”
By February, a judge dismissed the case when Weise and the utility agreed to settle and drop their legal actions against each other. The air quality report at the heart of the whole matter still remains a secret.
Spokeswoman Trinidad says the utility has been collecting data on the coal plant’s emissions in response to concerns from customers, and will publicly release the results perhaps as early as this summer.
Weise, in the meantime, says her fight isn’t over, even if provisions of her settlement prohibit her from talking in more detail about what data she saw.
Most folks — even the most socially conscious and politically active — don’t take the trouble to fight for records they believe should be public and go to court when they’re denied. It takes time. It takes money. And it takes fortitude— and the stomach— to challenge a powerful government agency that would rather you’d go to jail than talking publicly about something it wants to keep secret.
Steve Zansberg, a First Amendment attorney who represents media outlets in Colorado, says no one doubts what Weise sought are public records. The only question is on what grounds a government is withholding them.
“In my mind nothing precludes them from releasing them,” he said. “It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they won’t.”
Weise’s battle, Zansberg said, “really shows how difficult it is for people who are courageous and determined” to get information out to the public about what the government is doing.
“I know on a personal note it was extremely difficult on Leslie and I can’t imagine how many citizens are out there who are willing to brave what she endured,” he said.
In recognition of Weise’s efforts, The Colorado Independent is honoring her with our 2017 Whistleblower Award, our annual thumbs-up to Coloradans who stick out their necks in the pursuit of truth, social justice and public transparency.
“Leslie’s fight for the power plant data took moxie and guts,” said Indy editor Susan Greene. “As Coloradans, we all benefit from this kind of dogged pursuit of public information. It’s in all of our interests to support whistleblowers in exposing what government is trying to hide from us. Leslie has a long record of blowing the whistle in the public interest. This award is our small way of honoring her efforts.”
The following is our conversation with Weise, edited for clarity.
The Indy: What did you think when you mistakenly received this document you had fought for all that time?
LW: I actually got very nervous. It was very easy to discern what the conclusions of the report were and it was very alarming to me. Then it became very frightening to me that I was in possession of this report. I had to go on a three-hour road trip. And, whether it was a rational reaction or not, I got very nervous about driving because I happened to know at that point how far the city was willing to go to keep this information from the public. And now I had a very good reason to know. So I was worried that if they knew that I had it in my possession then [someone] would perhaps run me off the road. I’m not kidding. Like I said, rational or not, those were the thoughts that were going through my head.
The Indy: How did you decide what to do with the report once you saw it?
LW: I called a lot of attorneys and professionals that are involved with ethics, including both the ethics hotlines in Colorado where I’m not licensed as an attorney, and California where I am an attorney. And neither of them told me I had an obligation to return it.
The Indy: But you did return it?
LW: I decided that out of an abundance of caution I would not disseminate, publish or distribute the report — but I was free to talk about the findings.
The Indy: So you shared what you found with a reporter?
LW: And it made front-page news. Because it is troubling. It is alarming that our city utility would be withholding this information that is so relevant.
The Indy: Then those calls came for sanctions against you.
LW: The scariest part of all this to me was getting personally served at my home with a citation from a court saying that I could be imprisoned for what I did.
The Indy: ‘What you did’ means talking to the newspaper?
The Indy: But you can’t talk about it any more than you already have?
LW: I’m willing to say what’s already been made public.
The Indy: To be clear about this, we all just have to take your word about what you saw, right? And that you’re interpreting it correctly.
LW: If I had information that this plant is not dangerous to the community and my son who goes to school for eight hours a day in a location that’s in one of the darkest plume paths of this plant … if I knew this plant was operating safely and was not an impact to my son and to the community I would likely not be working so hard to obtain transparency. There are 40 schools within a five-mile radius of this plant.
The Indy: Have you given up the fight for this record?
LW: Not necessarily. I’m just figuring out what my strategy is. I actually think there’s a very strong case to be made in court for the record to be released, and I’m hoping either I or someone else (will) re-submit that case … I think the case is a lot stronger now. So it can be made, it should be made, and it probably will be made. By me or somebody else.