Investigative Reporters and Editors on Monday announced it was giving its FOI Award to the Malheur Enterprise and staff that worked on investigating Anthony Montwheeler's background. The award goes to, from left, reporter Pat Caldwell, editor Les Zaitz, and reporter John L. Braese (The Enterprise/Scotta Callister)

VALE – The Malheur Enterprise has won a national journalism honor for work last year investigating the history of Anthony Montwheeler.

Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalism organization, announced Monday that its FOI Award will go to the Enterprise and the reporting team of Editor Les Zaitz and reporters John L. Braese and Pat Caldwell. The award recognizes an “individual or organization whose actions further open records or open government.”

This is the first time in the 20-year history of the award that a community weekly newspaper has been cited. Winners in the past have included the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and ProPublica.

“This is stunning news for our small operation,” said Zaitz. “For a newspaper from Vale to win a top national honor against all comers makes for a good day at the office.”

The award recognizes the Enterprise’s efforts last year on Montwheeler. He is accused of murdering one of his ex-wives and then killing a Vale man and injuring his wife while eluding police in January 2017.

REPORT: Click here to read "Deadly Decisions"

In subsequent reporting by Zaitz and reporters John L. Braese and Pat Caldwell, the Enterprise determined that Montwheeler had been released from the Oregon State Hospital three weeks before the murders despite warnings from doctors he was dangerous. The reporting team determined that Montwheeler was released after claiming he had been faking mental illness to avoid prison in a 1996 kidnapping case.

The newspaper relied heavily on records obtained from the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board, the state agency given jurisdiction over Montwheeler after he was found criminally insane in 1997.

The board initially told the Enterprise it wouldn’t release any records on Montwheeler. When pressed, the agency released an audio recording of its hearing in December 2016 at which it decided to release Montwheeler.

When the agency refused to disclose more than 200 exhibits chronicling Montwheeler’s history, the Enterprise won a public records order from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum compelling the agency to release the records. Instead, the agency sued the newspaper and its publisher in state court, seeking a judge’s order to keep the records off limits. Gov. Kate Brown stepped in and directed the case be dropped and the records released.

“This is a classic David-meets-Goliath triumph,” the IRE judges said in assessing the Enterprise’s work. “The paper’s tenacity led a public affirmation of the state’s commitment to openness. This work is proof that you don’t need a large staff and deep resources to move the needle on open records.”

In its submission, the Enterprise said the Montwheeler project – “Deadly Decisions” – “demonstrates that even a small weekly newspaper can take on ambitious and important investigative work. In these days of erosion of investigative reporting resources across the country, it’s vital that our profession never lose sight of its duty to do this kind of work. The Enterprise did this project to be an essential service to the community.”

Finalists for the award including ProPublica, a New York-based non-profit investigative reporting news operation; the Kansas City Star; and The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The Enterprise has continued to monitor the state’s handling of Montwheeler. He is in custody in the Malheur County Jail, awaiting a hearing in June to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial. The Oregon State Hospital filed a 37-page report in January that other court records said showed that Montwheeler wasn’t able to aid in his own defense.

State court officials refused to release the report, and instead went to the state court judge overseeing Montwheeler’s case to get the record sealed from public access.

The national honor is the fourth time the Enterprise has been recognized for its work on the Montwheeler case. Last year, the Washington Coalition for Open Government presented the paper with its Key Award, and the journalism department at the University of Nevada-Reno gave the paper its national Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism. Last month, the Enterprise was named one of three finalists for the national freedom of information award issued by Scripps Howard.

The Enterprise is owned by a long-time Oregon journalism family, including Zaitz, his wife and former Enterprise publisher Scotta Callister, and Lyndon Zaitz, the newspaper’s general manager and the publisher of its sister paper, the Keizertimes. The family bought the Vale newspaper in October 2015.