Oklahoma Watch reporters Jennifer Palmer and Lionel Ramos won First Amendment Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists of Fort Worth last weekend for their investigative work.

The annual awards honor print, broadcast and online journalism in Oklahoma and Texas that defends freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, furthers the public’s right to know how governments and businesses affect their lives and champions the powerless and disadvantaged.

Palmer won the award for investigative journalism for her stories on a troubled pandemic relief program, written in collaboration with The Frontier reporters Clifton Adcock and Reese Gorman. The $8 million Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program, created in 2020, provided low-income families with $1,500 grants to purchase educational items.

The reporters analyzed thousands of purchases to reveal recipients spent over half a million dollars in federal funds on TVs, home appliances, gaming consoles, Christmas trees and other non-educational items. Emails obtained by the reporters uncovered how lax guardrails approved by state officials opened the door to misspending.

“This project is a testament to the impact that collaboration can have in the news industry,” one judge wrote of the series, which received first place for investigative journalism in print or online with a readership of more than 100,000. “The stories had clear results, and the reporting makes me wonder what kind of waste and negligence would go unchecked without the hard work of investigative reporters.”

Ramos won the Defending the Disadvantaged Award for his story on unsafe living conditions Afghan refugees were resettled into in Oklahoma City. Ramos’ reporting showed how Gov. Kevin Stitt and officials with Catholic Charities knew that local housing scarcity would severely complicate efforts to resettle the 1,800 Afghan refugees Stitt agreed to take in.

Ramos used police reports and interviews with refugees and social workers to chronicle the substandard conditions. He chronicled the experience of one refugee who served U.S. interests in Afghanistan by working with a CIA strike-force unit, showing how his family’s living arrangements in Oklahoma City were plagued by backed-up sewage, no working air conditioning or heat and cockroaches crawling in their mouths as they slept.

“From the first sentence, the writer shows in gruesome but true detail the hardship faced by refugees,” one judge wrote, “backing it up with interviews of the exploited and people trying to help them, along with official records to provide data showing how widespread this problem is.”

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