THE TIMES WINS THE 2017 PULITZER PRIZE

Editor Art Cullen embraces reporter and son, Tom Cullen on the heels

of the Pulitzer announcement Monday afternoon. TIMES photos by

DOLORES CULLEN

For coverage of the water works lawsuit

BUENA VISTA COUNTY'S HOMETOWN NEWSPAPER BEATS WASHINGTON POST, HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Cullen joins 4 other Iowans to win nation’s top editorial-writing award in past century

BY TOM CULLEN

Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times, was awarded journalism’s top honor Monday after three years of jawboning elected officials and agricultural interests over the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.

Cullen, 59, was awarded the 101st Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa,” according to the Pulitzer’s citation of Cullen’s editorials. Pulitzer Prize Administrator Mike Pride announced Cullen’s award in front of a gallery in the World Room at Columbia University in New York at 2 p.m. Central Time Monday.

“For editorials, a challenge to corporate editorial interests in Iowa, the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing goes to Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times,” Pride said.

Cullen will receive a gold medal and a $15,000 cash award in a ceremony in New York later this year, along with 21 other Pulitzer winners from the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

“We are humbled and gratified that a jury of our peers in journalism considers our work worthy,” Cullen said. “It shows that important and great journalism is being practiced all over the nation, from the smallest towns on the prairie to the glass buildings of oil-town Houston. We are honored to be in their company.”

Cullen said he shares the award with his brother, publisher John Cullen, his son Tom — who did the bulk of the investigative reporting on the water works case — and Randy Evans of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council for its assistance to The Times.

In January, Times staff submitted 10 editorials spanning 2016 related to Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties’ financing of their defense against Des Moines Water Works. DMWW sued the counties in March 2015 over excessive nitrate concentrations in the Raccoon River, the main source of water DMWW uses to serve finished drinking water to 500,000 residents in central Iowa.

The newspaper reported in 2014 that the water works had decided to sue but was trying to figure out which party to name; It turned out to be the counties’ drainage districts. That began a series of news stories and editorials that beseeched the parties to reach a settlement.

Instead of soliciting the assistance of their respective county attorneys, the counties engaged Belin McCormick Law Firm of Des Moines, Crowell & Moring of Washington, DC, and local drainage attorneys to craft a defense against the water works. After a year of litigation, the counties incurred $1.1 million in legal fees that were paid through anonymous donations solicited by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa.

The Times, along with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, demanded in the editorials that the counties and AAI release the identities of the donors financing the counties’ defense. AAI refused to produce its list of “hundreds of donors” and severed its connection with the counties last June. The counties’ lead counsel, Crowell & Moring, also withdrew from the case because it didn’t want to release its billing statements it sent to AAI headquarters in Des Moines.

The Times’ campaign to unveil the donors came to a head last July, as Times staff waylaid AAI Executive Director Joel Brinkmeyer for comment on the 14th hole of the Emerald Hills Golf Club in Arnold’s Park. Brinkmeyer maintained he would never release the identities of the donors who donated to the counties’ defense.

“Art’s a lively writer,” said AAI General Counsel Doug Gross, who was the architect of AAI’s secret-money fund. “It’s an honor for Iowa to have someone like Art.”

Gross hasn’t returned repeated requests for comment from The Times on the extent of AAI’s involvement with the counties.

Every Buena Vista County supervisor has maintained that the board will no longer solicit private donations to finance the defense of the suit, which was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Strand last month. It’s unclear how much the counties owe Belin McCormick and their local drainage attorneys to date, as their billing statements past last August haven’t been sent.

IFOIC EXECUTIVE Director Randy Evans told The Storm Lake Times he wasn’t surprised Cullen was awarded journalism’s top honor.

“I’m pleased for the people of Buena Vista County to see what a service Art Cullen provided,” Evans said after the award was announced. “He deserves credit for fighting while putting up with pushback that’d be other than laudatory.”

Evans helped rudder The Times through its two-year-long struggle with the counties and AAI to produce any information on how the counties’ defense.

“I was pleased to be of assistance,” Evans said. “My interest in the case was borne out of frustration. The Times’ questions were being ignored. They weren’t being let in on the secret as to how this suit was being waged.”

Even though AAI’s list of donors was never revealed for public inspection, Evans said he was pleased with the outcome of The Times’ battle for open government.

THE ONLY OTHER living Iowan to win the Pulitzer for editorial writing is Michael Gartner of Des Moines. He earned the honor in 1997 for a series of editorials for The Daily Tribune of Ames, which he owned and edited.

Gartner became Cullen’s mentor when they worked together in Algona and Ames.

 “No one deserves this award more than Art Cullen,” Gartner said. Gartner served as page one editor of The Wall Street Journal, president of NBC News, editor of the Des Moines Register and chairman of The Daily Tribune of Ames, before turning to the ownership of the Iowa Cubs.

Gartner urged Cullen to submit his work for Pulitzer consideration.

“Art Cullen is a first-rate reporter, a first-rate thinker and a first-rate writer,” Garner said while strolling through Principal Park Monday. “This validates what Storm Lake readers have known for a long time. Art Cullen loves Storm Lake. He loves Iowa. And he loves facts.”

Art Cullen was born in Storm Lake to Pat and Eileen Cullen. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s High School and the College of St. Thomas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He returned to Storm Lake in 1990 a few months after John Cullen founded The Times. Each considers the editorial to be the soul of the newspaper.

The Iowa Newspaper Association lauded Cullen for the award, as he was the 17th Iowa journalist to receive the award in the last 100 years.

“The Iowa Newspaper Association couldn’t be more proud of Art Cullen for winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing,” said INA Executive Director Susan Patterson Plank. “For people like Art, journalism isn’t a job, it’s a passion, a way of life. We are so very happy that he has been recognized for his outstanding work.”

CULLEN'S WORK BESTED that of finalists Fred Hiatt, of The Washington Post, and Joe Holley, of the Houston Chronicle. Cullen entered editorials in past Pulitzer competitions, but had never reached finalist status.

Cullen’s most notable award he has received in previous years was the Champion Tuck Award, the nation’s highest honor for economics reporting, for his chronicling of the farm crisis in Kossuth County three decades ago for the Algona Upper Des Moines and Kossuth County Advance. Cullen ultimately won $10,000 and a trip to New York to receive the award. Last year he also received the Friend of the First Amendment Award from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which Cullen considers the most important honor of his career. Art and John were also named Iowa Master Editor-Publishers in 2006, the Iowa Newspaper Association’s highest honor.

Cullen joins Gartner, E.P. Chase of the Atlantic News-Telegraph and Des Moines Register writers Lauren K. Soth, Forrest W. Seymour and William Wesley Waymack as Iowans to win the Pulitzer in Editorial Writing.

As soon as Pride made his announcement 16 minutes into his speech on live video via internet, the Times Square office on the corner of Railroad and Geneseo Streets erupted in celebration.

Art and Publisher John Cullen, owners of the 3,000-circulation, twice-weekly newspaper, shared an embrace before the two began fielding phone calls from friends and national media.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” John said of his brother’s award. “He has been integral to The Times success. It’s a great honor for him, for The Times, and for Buena Vista County. We all celebrate his tremendous achievement.”

Stockbroker Rick Peterson, Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser, Storm Lake resident Joan Rude and Storm Lake attorney Willis Hamilton all appeared to congratulate The Times editor Monday afternoon. Peterson and Times staff uncorked a bottle of champagne he brought to celebratre the award during a brief reprieve from the onslaught of phone calls for the editor and publisher.

“There’s gotta be a special occasion to drink champagne and I can’t think of a better one right now,” Peterson told the Cullens. “I can’t think of a better way to commemorate your hard work.”