ORANGE — Staffers from the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times swept the Orange County Press Club's two most prestigious prizes, along with 50 other awards, at the group's 40th annual awards ceremony Sunday night.
Among the paper's honors were 18 first places.
Also collecting awards at the ceremony in the Doubletree Hotel were six public-relations firms and 10 local publications, including the Orange County Register, which won 21 prizes, six of them first places.
Capturing the evening's top honor, the coveted Watchdog Award for exposing wrongdoing by public officials, was Times staffer Jeff Brazil.
Responding to a Santa Ana plane crash last fall, Brazil launched a full-scale investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration that showed how the federal agency routinely ignored safety warnings until the problems resulted in deaths.
His stories led to changes in federal transportation safety regulations, Congressional hearings, and a restructuring of the FAA, including the appointment of an in-house safety czar who will report directly to its top administrator.
"His reporting was superb, sharp, and doggedly focused on a single set of issues," the judges wrote of Brazil's three-part series. "He had a tangible--and probably life-saving--effect on future policy-making, and brought a hell of a lot of muck to light in the process."
The Times also won the club's investigative reporting award, for a computer-assisted analysis of the new California Learning Assessment System by Jodi Wilgoren and Richard O'Reilly. Their stories showed shoddy scoring procedures by the State Department of Education, led to the appointment of an expert panel that later tightened the rules on scoring, and contributed to the demise of the test last fall.
"Great writing here made the difference," said the judges.
The Times also took first in the General Excellence category for its coverage of former President Richard Nixon's funeral.
Times photographer Alex Garcia and reporter Mark Platte each won two first-place trophies. Garcia took awards for best portrait and best photographic illustration. Platte anchored teams of reporters in coverage of the Orange County bankruptcy; Matt Lait and Scot Paltrow won with him in the news category while Debora Vrana shared his award in business reporting.
Times writers also picked up first-place prizes in several other categories: Lily Dizon for best magazine story; Jeff Bean received the David McQuay Memorial Award for column or commentary; and Dave McKibben earned top honors in sports. John O'Dell of The Times was named the best beat reporter at a daily publication for his work on the Orange County economy.
Other first-place awards in photography went to Times photographers Geraldine Wilkins, for her portfolio and Karen Tapia for feature photograph. Times graphic artists also cleaned up, with Val Mina earning the best illustration portfolio and David Puckett receiving best informational graphics portfolio.
In layout categories, Don Tormey of The Times won for best portfolio and Dennis Lowe took the prize for best feature layout. Mike Kirkendall, also of The Times, got the headline portfolio prize.
South Orange County Municipal Court Judge Pamela Iles served as mistress of ceremonies for the event. Connie Haddad, president of Orange County's League of Women Voters, presented the investigative and Watchdog awards.
The Register earned top honors for a handful of writing, photography, graphics and editing awards. Martin Smith won best project for his series on the Internet; Liz Pulliam received the feature-writing prize; Michael Kitada won best news photo; Karen Kelso got the news layout award; Paul Carbo had the top informational graphic; and Paul Hodgins won best review or criticism.
Matt Coker of the Daily Pilot won for best headline, and the Pilot's Don Leach placed first in sports photography.
Orange Coast Magazine's Jean Hastings Ardell got the top award in the profile category, while her colleague Stephen Kasner won for best graphics illustration.
The Margaret Freeman Award for humorous story went to Charles Loos of the Irvine World News.
Other first-places in categories for weekly publications went to: Nellene Tuebner of South County News for beat coverage; the Orange County Business Journal's Scott Woolley for feature story; Tom Singer of OC Metro for news story; and Suzanne Mapes of the Sun Post News for feature photograph.
The Press Club also distributed $2,200 in scholarships to local college students. For four-year schools, first place went to Laurie Wielenga of Cal State Fullerton, second to Tarita Wittingham of Chapman and third to Patrice Wirth, also of Chapman. First place for two-year schools was a tie between Michael Coronado of Orange Coast College and Joshua Prizer of Saddleback College, with third place going to Orange Coast's Cindy Spitzer.