New England First Amendment Coalition

PITTSFIELD — The former chief of appeals and records access officer in the Berkshire District Attorney's Office is being honored for blowing the whistle over the DA's order to withhold public records about a closed investigation in a politically fraught case.

Jeanne Kempthorne, also the office's former general counsel, has received the 2021 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award from New England First Amendment Coalition. She will be honored at the coalition's New England First Amendment Awards on April 21.

In a release Wednesday, the group said the Orfield award is given to those "from one of the six New England states who has fought for information crucial to the public’s understanding of its community or what its government is doing — or not doing — on its behalf."

Kempthorne, 64, resigned in January 2020 after Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington attempted to block the release of records sought by The Berkshire Eagle. The records requested were communications between the DA's office and officials at Bard College at Simon's Rock into a student's since-debunked claim that she had been the victim of a racially motivated attack on campus.

Kempthorne later resigned, after protesting that there was no legal justification to withhold the records, and that the attempt to block access stemmed from the office's "campaign culture." 

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Harrington had said there was no wrongdoing, and that, after weighing concerns, she ultimately did release the documents.

Kempthorne, a former commissioner on the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission who was a federal prosecutor during 11 of her 36 years working as an attorney, told The Eagle she is moved by the honors from a group she has always respected.

"It couldn't come from a better group," she said, adding that whistleblowing is painful yet critically important. She said her move to protest the withholding of records was simply part of trying to do her job lawfully.

"If people never come forward, government dies," she said. "It begins to create a chink in the armor. You have to have a crack to let the light in, and maybe this is a crack."

The fallout hasn't been easy. "It's been surprising how isolating coming forward is," Kempthorne said.

She said she is thrilled that another of the coalition's awards this year will go to Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871. On Twitter @BE_hbellow.