Reporter’s Notebook

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What to do when officials clam up

What should investigative journalists do when public officials won't talk — when we need to ask them big questions about facts we've uncovered after digging through public records or verifying a tip? What should we do when our phone calls go unanswered? When emails stay unread, or ignored? When you finally get ahold of them, and they say, "No comment." At an Investigative Reports and Editors conference panel today on this issue, four journalists talked about how to get the story – even when we get nothing from the public officials whose salaries we pay. Continue Reading →

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“I background my babysitters”

Snapshots from the first formal day of the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco:

• This is a place that would make a public official with a guilty conscience pretty nervous. There are 1,500 people here, a record number of attendees. • Best swag seen so far: A t-shirt that says “I background my babysitters.”

• Major topic of conversation between sessions: “Where should we eat?” Overhead in one conversation: “I love vegetables. But I eat tons of bacon. I’m not a vegetarian.”

• Best session title so far: “Detecting corporate fraud — Tips from a crook and a sleuth.”

• “Dirty data” is not what it sounds like. Continue Reading →

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Stories we’re not supposed to tell — last day at the Logan Symposium

“The Third Rail: Stories We’re Not Supposed to Tell,” was one of the last sessions of this year’s Logan Symposium, and it was a good one. The session’s panelists were journalist and author Peter Beinart, The City University of New York; Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, documentary filmmakers; Sara Ganim, CNN investigative reporter; and James Pomfret, Reuters. What they spoke about were stories that powerful forces didn’t want told. Beinart told how his critique of the American Jewish establishment’s unswerving support of Israel has met with strong resistance in that community, including members of his own family. Deal and Lessin spoke about a conflict that developed over public television support for their documentary, Citizen Koch, in which they believed that support was cut because of concern the documentary would offend the politically conservative billionaire Koch brothers, one of whom sat on the board of the public TV affiliate in New York. Continue Reading →

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Stories that start with a toothache … and suburban cops selling cocaine — day two at the Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium

Every year the Logan Symposium begins with a session called “How the sausage is made.” That’s a phrase that reporters and political observers usually use to describe how legislators make laws — it’s not always meant as a compliment. In this case, it’s applied to investigative journalism. As documentary producer Lowell Bergman said when introducing the morning’s panelists, we were going to hear “what actually goes into the making of these stories.”

The first presenter was Megan O’Matz, an investigative reporter at the Sun-Sentinel. She and fellow reporter John Maines spent six months looking into records about Sunrise, Florida’s undercover narcotics unit. Pretty soon after they started the investigation, O’Matz said she knew she had a good story. Continue Reading →

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How we got the LePage story

chriistie detail photo

In Nov. 16, 2010, Gov.-elect Paul LePage held his first press conference in the State House. Naomi Schalit, the Center’s executive director and senior reporter, and I cornered LePage, and told him we would be checking up on how he was doing. “Give me two years,” he said. I gave him two and half, figuring I would need some months after the two-year mark to gather data, do interviews and put the whole thing together. Continue Reading →

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On vetoes, Excel spreadsheets and cupcakes

Two weeks after she joined us, the Center’s new reporter Nell Gluckman offered this reporter's notebook, sharing her impressions of the job, the statehouse and an upcoming assignment as a cupcake judge in Hallowell (that’s outside the scope of her work for the Center!):
“My first two weeks working at the Maine Center have exposed me to a whirlwind of new information and flurries of activity at the statehouse, paired with a gradual march into the depths of an idea that will soon be a story. Naomi and John have assigned me two stories that have allowed me to explore the world of Maine politics. On my second day they had me filing a Freedom of Access Act request and by my sixth I was talking to politicians all over the country about campaign finance reform. I’ve been poring over FEC records and creating my own Excel spreadsheets, but whenever I look up there is no shortage of happenings at the statehouse to distract me. During my first week, the House and the Senate were still in session and the statehouse was bustling with lobbyists. Continue Reading →

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Millett on business tax breaks: Expects legislators to question whether “such programs should remain intact”

Last week, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting published a story headlined, "Risky business tax breaks cost state $100 million per year." At the time of publication, we had not yet received a response from the state chief budget officer, Sawin Millett, the commissioner of administration and finance. A response has since been sent to us, via email. Here is our question and his answer:

MCPIR question: Given the 2006 OPEGA study of 46 economic development programs (including related ”tax expenditure” data) rated some of those programs as “high risk,” why is the Governor continuing those programs? 

Millett: Quite simply, three Committees of the Legislature reviewed the OPEGA report over the 2007-2008 biennium and took no action to modify or eliminate those programs – with the single exception you have referenced – thus those programs have remained in statute. It is my personal expectation, however, that there will likely be specific proposals advanced, and considerable discussion had, during the current Session as to whether all such programs should remain intact, going forward. Continue Reading →

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Editorial based on Center’s ethics coverage

This legislative session, many of the bills to reform ethics were prompted by the Center's report last year that gave Maine an "F" for anti-corruption measures. Here's the Press Herald's editorial from today on "revolving door" legislation making its way through the statehouse:

Maine should pass tougher ethics laws -- Allowing regulators to move from public jobs to jobs in industries they once regulated is dangerous. Sometimes it's bad to be too good. After decades of honest government peopled with principled members of both parties, Maine finds itself ranked near the bottom when it comes to tough ethics rules. States that have a culture of political corruption often have the strongest protections in their laws because they needed them. Continue Reading →

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Ethics training materials for incoming legislators

The National Conference of State Legislatures is one of our favorite organizations because -- even though it's set up to be a resource for legislators -- it's also a great repository of information for reporters who cover state government. When we want to see how Maine compares, say, to other states in laws on raw milk sales, the NCSL has a section on just that. And, of course, on many other things. Last week, when newly elected lawmakers came to the statehouse in Augusta for orientation and swearing-in, one of the events organized for them was a seminar on ethics, taught by Natalie Wood, an NCSL ethics specialist. We thought you'd be interested in the ethics materials Wood distributed to the lawmakers. Continue Reading →

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