As a University of Minnesota student intern in a Minneapolis City Council office in 2006, Tony Webster tried to chase down a complaint for a constituent who claimed to have been aggressively treated at a private parking lot after his car was booted.
As Webster’s internship ended, he still didn’t have answers from city regulators. He persisted — eventually getting access to records that revealed little oversight of private parking lots, where some enforcement agents kept guns and handcuffs. Oversight was subsequently tightened.
Webster, now 30, earns a living as a freelance software engineer whose passion is seeking — and usually winning — access to government information. The Twin Cities man describes government as a “wall of secrecy.” He punches through that wall on his Twitter feed and blog, which have become must-reads for those interested in details of the killing of Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez last July.
“I view police as having a lot of power, and that should come with accountability,” Webster said. He extends that philosophy to government in general.
He alone found wrenching moments in the Castile files. He was the first to reveal a snippet of video showing Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, handcuffed in the back of a police car trying to console her 4-year-old daughter.
He tweeted a snippet of video showing Reynolds in a closed room with investigators at the moment the men informed her of Castile’s death.
Webster also pointed out two small but significant details in a photo of Yanez: Castile’s blood-spattered car insurance card still attached to the officer’s shirt and a band on his wrist that reads, “Police Lives Matter.”
Webster’s insights from the Castile files add to piles of information he has provided to the public. He’s a behind-the-scenes watchdog so effective that in recent months he’s won awards.
“This is what I do for fun. I enjoy it,” Webster said. “Not many people are doing it, and I can make a difference.”
The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information gave him the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award. The Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him the Peter S. Popovich Award, an annual honor for someone who exemplifies the fight for First Amendment rights.
The coalition said Webster uses the state open-records law “with a rigor that rivals, and often supersedes, that of professional journalists and researchers. Webster’s requests concern data across a range of topics, including government surveillance, housing fraud, restaurant inspection data and government responses to protests.”
Because he’s self-employed, Webster can take his job and his hobby on the road with his travel companion, a six-year-old black Labrador-collie rescue dog he calls Cortana. He’s trying to visit every state park by the end of the year. Last year, the two went on a 15,000-mile multicoastal road trip.
He juggles dozens of information requests he has out across the state and has a challenge to Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek’s office before the state Supreme Court. Webster asked Stanek’s office for e-mails about use of biometrics, including facial recognition, but was told that the request was too onerous and that e-mails couldn’t be searched by keyword.
Webster didn’t buy the explanation and sued.
In a subsequent request on another topic, he was told to provide a keyword to narrow the search and uncovered an e-mail in which a sheriff’s employee expressed delight in scrambling acronyms to thwart keyword searches.
Webster is planning to push harder, hoping to turn his hobby into a vocation. He has established a nonprofit, Goverage, to guide others in their search for government data.
“I deeply care about making life better for everyone,” he said.