We the Journalists: Theo Karantsalis
Theo Karantsalis is a librarian by day, a freelance journalist by night and a champion of open government all of the time.
By Jason Parsley
Theo Karantsalis is the associate director of Learning Resources at Miami Dade College’s Meek Center in Liberty City. Karantsalis conducts a popular internet research class where he teaches students how to access information using public and private databases. Additionally he also conducts college workshops on citation standards, research strategies, privacy, encryption, and social media.
For decades Karantsalis has been wrestling information from federal agencies that include the Pentagon, Department of Defense, Air Force, and many other. A few years ago he sued the U.S. Marshals Service after they refused to release mug shot photos. He ended up losing the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals.
“Theo Karantsalis has been an active – and vitally important – member of the First Amendment Foundation’s Sunshine Brigade since its inception a few years ago. To me, Theo represents the best sort of citizen watchdog – he’s engaged with his community, interacts with his local government agencies, and fairly reports what he observes and the information he’s obtained through Florida’s open government laws,” said the President of the First Amendment Foundation Barbara Petersen. “We need a Theo in every community, someone to help us oversee our government and hold it accountable. Theo is a true citizen hero, and we should all be thankful for his activism.”
In his spare time Karantsalis freelances for several newspapers including the Miami Herald and enjoys writing historical and civic features related to Miami’s inner city.
Karantsalis lives in Miami with his wife, Diana, and two boys, Demos and Spiro.
Follow Theo on Twitter.
SPJ Florida: What’s more fun, being a librarian or freelance journalist?
Theo Karantsalis: Being a librarian is more fun in that I get to work at an information-fueled reference desk where no question is off limits. It is very energizing to be hit non-stop with tough questions. Answers usually include showing students how to access public databases, cite sources and safeguard data.
As a reporter, I am able to leverage this process to tell stories on a broader scale.
How did your freelance career begin? And why?
I watched the Miami Dolphins hand out free turkeys in the inner-city, five years ago, and I was frustrated that no news agency covered it. So I pulled out a piece of paper, scratched some notes and asked the Miami Herald to publish my story. They emailed me a contract and I have since written hundreds of stories for them.
There is great satisfaction in telling neighborhood stories for the first time. For example, there was an outcry after I showed that a nearby apartment complex was built on top of what was once an historical cemetery for early black pioneers. Down the street, I showed that our red-light district on Biscayne Blvd. started more than 100 years ago after a local sheriff herded prostitutes there from downtown Miami.
How did you start, as you say “wrestling information from federal agencies?”
My friend was part of a U.S. airstrike team that targeted Col. Moammar Gadhafi, in 1986, and he was shot down over the Mediterranean Sea. In 2006, after years of FOIA requests and delays, I sued the Air Force and military officials at the Pentagon in search for answers. The government finally declassified, and released, documents related to the crash which I published through Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project.
What are some of your more unusual FOIA (and state) requests you’ve made?
A student arrived late for our research class and said that she witnessed a man get stabbed on the county bus. A local news station then reported that a bunch of passengers chased the suspect, which the class doubted, so I ordered a copy of the surveillance video to check it out. The video did show a man getting stabbed but no one chased the suspect. Students seemed to be more upset when they saw how many cameras were on the bus and that each one recorded audio.
A fraternity brother was arrested in Lake Tahoe after a neighbor reported smelling marijuana from his cabin. When the brothers heard about it, one asked me to get a copy of his mug shot. This process took about two years because a “criminal matter” was pending with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff finally sent it to me and stamped the back of the mug shot: “Unlawful dissemination of this restricted information is prohibited. Violation will subject the offender to criminal and civil liability.”
I was able to show the names of printer manufacturers who use “machine identification code” technology to burn a printer’s serial number – using microscopic yellow dots — on printer paper, after several FOIA requests and appeals to the U.S. Secret Service. Basically, whatever comes out of your printer, and possibly your shredder, can be traced right back to you.
A DHS supervisor told the agency that his son was shot down in Iraq, shortly after the war started, and thousands of dollars were collected from employees to help him with expenses. The Federal Security Director was ready to go public with the news until I stopped him. Through a FOIA request to the U.S. Southern Command, I was able to show the FSD that the supervisor did not have a son.
What are some of the things you’ve uncovered through your numerous FOIA requests?
Where the ATF placed a special camera in the projects to monitor neighborhood activity.
Why the city stored 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel in a septic tank under the golf course.
How several employees in our small town of 13,000 earn over $100,000 annually.
Here’s a tip. When you examine P-card receipts, you will almost always find something to write about. I have questioned unusual charges at city hall that include:
- $2,000 per year for premium Arabica-blend coffee and fancy sweeteners
- $149 seat cushion
- $75 Spanish-to-Spanish academic dictionary
- City credit charges for wild salmon, vitamins, toothpaste, mouthwash, fiber tablets, and more.
One local politician charged $2,500 in clothes and electronics on his city-issued credit card.
I have spent a lot of time reviewing city phone bills and plans. For example, I discovered that 76 employees in our 3-square-mile town have been issued cell phones some have Blackberries with e-mail and unlimited nights and weekends calling plans.
One month’s bill came to $3,156.02 and one employee talked for 2,112 minutes during that month, or for 35.2 hours, phone records show.
Currently, I have ordered thousands of internal emails from a town where a local official was recently arrested by the FBI for conspiring to commit extortion.
On a lighter note, my best friend called, very upset, and said he thought the local police were talking “behind his back” when he last visited the station with his girlfriend, who happens to be a city commissioner. So I ordered a copy of the internal audio communications between the officers he suspected. The department’s internal affairs unit quickly opened an investigation as to who I was, then called me in for “questioning.” Of course, I declined, but I did get the audio recording where you can hear police officials talking about my friend – behind his back.
Can you tell us about your lawsuit against the U.S. Marshals Service? What was the purpose of the records request? Why did you lose?
I asked the U.S. Marshals Service for a copy of a mug shot after I wrote a story about a man who pleaded guilty to securities fraud. Since I lived in Miami, in the Eleventh Circuit, I did not qualify to get the photo because it posed a privacy issue. However, if I was living in the Sixth Circuit, or say Detroit, I would be entitled to a copy, as the court there found no such privacy rights in mug shots.
The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press found out about the issue and helped me file a lawsuit. After I lost at the District Court level, the RCFP arranged for Dow Lohnes, one of the nation’s top media law firms, to represent me before the appellate court in Atlanta.
Unfortunately, we lost, then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court where our cert request was also denied. Here is a link to the decision.
A highlight was solving the mystery behind what caused a 1973 Navy jet crash in my hometown that leveled an entire city block. For forty years, the theory was that the pilot lit a cigarette in the cockpit which started a fire. However, through a FOIA lawsuit, I was able to show that the jet had a history of “dangling” bomb rack malfunctions and may have been carrying 425 pounds of TNT when it crashed.
A lowlight is when I covered a story about a student who was shot dead on a Miami street corner with a machine gun.
Why were you awarded a bronze medal after 9/11 from the Department of Homeland Security?
The official supporting documents read: “for the detection of illegal funds related to drug trafficking” and “for the recovery and return of diplomatic passport and cash to State Department employee.”
One piece of advice you would give journalism students.
Information belongs to the people. The government is only a custodian.
Throughout February, March and April, SPJ Florida will feature Q&As every Friday with Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to conduct your own Q&A? Want to join SPJ? Email us.
Jason Parsley is President of SPJ Florida. Follow him on Twitter.