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2011 in Review: Top reporter, story

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Indianapolis Star reporter John Russell stands next to - the pile of documents he collected during - in his damning reports on the ethics - of certain IURC and Duke employees. - COURTESY OF JOHN RUSSELL
  • Courtesy of John Russell
  • Indianapolis Star reporter John Russell stands next tothe pile of documents he collected duringin his damning reports on the ethicsof certain IURC and Duke employees.

Despite all the Gannett-induced drama, The Indianapolis Star still has some mighty fine reporters. We must concur with the Society of Professional Journalists' naming John Russell the Indiana Journalist of the Year. Through dogged persistence and deft use of the state public information laws, Russell was able to identify an all-too-cozy relationship between Duke Energy officials engaged in a multi-billion dollar coal gasification plant in Edwardsport and the state officials charged with oversight of the project.

The story began when a Star editor received a Citizens Action Coalition news release decrying Duke's hiring of Scott Storms, an administrative law judge and general counsel at the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. The editor told Russell, whose regular beat had nothing to do with utilities, that the story merited a little digging.

Twenty-three open-records requests later, with enough damning email to make even the most jaded and duplicitous executive blush, The Star was able to print what Russell calls "my favorite headline in 26 years of journalism — 'Scandal Topples Duke Executive.' "

Of course the kerfuffle resulted in other firings and reassignments at Duke and within state government, plus the recent indictment of former IURC Chair David Lott Hardy.

The story's not over yet. The Edwardsport project continues and Duke would like to bill consumers for its more than $1 billion in cost overruns. Thankfully, Russell is still on the case.

In other energy-related news, when the Indiana General Assembly wasn't otherwise consumed with right-to-work drama in the 2011 legislative session, it got so bold as to pass a voluntary renewable energy standard. Between that and new federal rules tightening emissions standards on coal-fired power plants, perhaps Indiana's reputation for having some of the nation's dirtiest air will change in the next 50 years or so. Meanwhile, as we nurse our kids through their asthma attacks,we can console them with the reassuring knowledge that at least we have some of the cheapest electric bills in the nation.

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