Current Online

Young producer hits gold with public defender documentary

Originally published in Current, May 22, 2000

By Mike Janssen

Anna McHugh, seemingly in school photoWhen high school senior Anna McHugh met public defender Anne Moore, she didn't know, couldn't have known, that their friendship would yield an award-winning public radio documentary. Nor did McHugh know that her report on public defenders would eventually inspire Moore to blow the whistle on unethical practices in her Nevada County, Calif., office.

She only knew that she'd found a valuable contact for starting her senior year project, a half-hour documentary titled "The Public Defender," that eventually sealed her graduation from Nevada Union High School and helped her get into college. Winning the Golden Reel in local public affairs programming from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters was just gravy.

Not bad for a young journalist's first story.

The seeds of McHugh's half-hour documentary, and all of the tumult and twists that followed, were planted two years ago. Kicking around ideas for her senior project, and inspired by father Joe McHugh's job making radio dramas for use in schools, McHugh settled on trying her hand at radio journalism. She had only a vague idea of what public defenders do, but says she did know that the country's public defense system was failing to live up to its goals—helping the poor defend themselves. "[It's] one of the most important institutions in our country," she says.

After her father introduced her to Moore, McHugh started following her through the complex workings of Nevada County justice—Moore's office, courtrooms, the district attorney's office—all the while meeting people who couldn't afford a lawyer and felt cheated by the legal system. Watching Moore struggle with her huge caseload and the pressures of public work deeply affected McHugh. "I've never had an experience quite like it," she says. "Clients were just so emotionally charged. The public defenders were so stressed out. The atmosphere really got to me. ... I still don't know exactly how to quantify it in my mind."

McHugh's guide to this surreal world was Anne Moore, a former schoolteacher and activist for tenants' rights who entered public defense with a strong sense of duty. She was also the first woman hired in her office's 24-year history. "Anne Moore is a really incredible person," McHugh says. "I got the sense that she was the exception, rather than the rule, of public defenders."

By the time she met McHugh, Moore had reached the end of her rope as a public defender. The huge caseloads and limited time were stressing her out. And she was increasingly troubled by problems in her office. "We were running a guilty plea factory," Moore says. She alleges that in 1998, only one of hundreds of cases in her office ever went to trial. She also claims that an ex-cop on probation interviewed clients as a way of fulfilling his work release requirements, and that staff relations were rocky.

Moore shared none of this with McHugh, and none of her anger is evident in the half-hour documentary. But McHugh's careful questioning unintentionally generated much more than a half-hour's worth of news. Her inquiries about the role of the public defender inspired Moore to take her concerns public, sparking an avalanche of criticism and bad press. After months of dissenting internally, Moore took her concerns to the county board of supervisors, which eventually publicized a critical evaluation of the public defenders' office. In the end, reports emerged that supported some of her allegations, and the head public defender was fired. Moore, who no longer works for the office, claims she also was fired as a result of her actions, but county officials say she resigned.

Though Moore already knew the problems in her office all too well, it took McHugh's straightforward approach to inspire her to blow the whistle. She "held up a mirror," says Moore. "It was almost painful to me, to listen to myself talk about what a public defender's role is in the criminal justice system, how we have to fight for indigent clients, and to know all of this was going on," Moore says. "I could see that the person that I was could not tolerate the wrongdoing that I was part of, and that I thought I was someone who stood up for the rights of those who were traditionally underrepresented. ... I saw a person who needed to put my ethical obligations and my ideals above my career, and above security."

News of Moore's whistle-blowing shocked McHugh. "I didn't really quite know how to respond," she says. "I didn't quite feel like I had done anything in particular. I must have touched a nerve somewhere, stumbling around in the dark."

Big brother

Even after these scandals, firings and disclosures, McHugh had another surprise coming.

Michael Moore in trademark cap with sister Anne and photo of Anna McHughIt turns out Anne Moore has a famous elder sibling: Michael Moore, director of Roger and Me and mastermind of the Bravo cable TV series The Awful Truth. Michael Moore had been interested in covering his sister's plight even before it became public knowledge, Anne Moore says, but after all the attention he was reluctant. What if the family ties made his story less credible? he worried. Moore's producers overruled him, though, and the filmmaker thrilled his Nevada City fans when he made an appearance to investigate the matter. His story will air later this summer.

More than two years after her story first aired on Nevada City community radio station KVMR, McHugh took NFCB's Golden Reel award for local public affairs programming last month at the group's New Orleans convention. Now a freshman at the University of Virginia, McHugh didn't even know that the KVMR staff had entered her story. When her dad told her the news, "for about three or four seconds, I thought he was joking with me," she says. The station recently aired the award-winning report in an encore presentation. "Anna overcame two big hurdles by winning this award: both her age and our station's size," says KVMR Program Director Steve Baker.

"Anna McHugh has crafted a compelling, informative and remarkably listenable radio story," wrote NFCB judges. "She ... leaves the listener with a much better understanding of how the legal system in our communities actually works and fits into the social fabric. If Anna McHugh stays in public radio, she will be one of our star producers." McHugh's not sure if she'll stay in radio, though she will lead radio drama workshops at summer camps this year.

Whatever she decides, she'll have two enduring reminders of this chapter in her life: a Golden Reel, and a photo of her father with Anne and Michael Moore to put up in her dorm room. From one guerilla journalist to another.

. To Current's home page
. Outside links: Michael Moore's The Awful Truth cable series and KVMR, Nevada City, Calif.

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