BERKELEY — I am at the University of California-Berkeley for the 3rd Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium this weekend. It’s an invite-only event run by Lowell Bergman, known for his work at “60 Minutes” (and being played by Al Pacino in “The Insider”). The theme this year is “Reporting on Corruption,” and included a preview showing of Bergman’s new documentary about international bribery on PBS. (You can see some of my coverage of last year’s conference here.)
Neil Henry, the new dean at UC Berkeley, kicked off the symposium talking about new grants Berkeley has received from the Gates Foundation.
Lowell Bergman: A NY Times reporter John Markoff was talking about what was going on in the board room of HP, and they started spying on Markoff, and the NYT and Markoff sued and HP settled for a large amount of money. The NYT told Markoff that because of conflict of interest, he had to donate that money. He donated half to the IRE and half to us, so we thank companies for suing us and losing. [laughter]
We now have an annual Markoff award, this year we have two. Ian Isaacs win one award, notice there’s a drawing of Markoff on this award. Steve Silverstein wins the other award. He funded the work of a reporter here, Seth Rosenfeld, who works on long-form stories. He’s been doing a story for 25 years about the presence of the FBI on the UC campus during the ’60s and has learned more about how J. Edgar Hoover was watching what was going on here.
We’ll have panels on the national, local and international level on corruption reporting. We are currently in a crisis situation for journalism. Last year, we talked about the troubles funding investigative work, and now it’s really happening.
We have a lot of people here doing non-profit work and that’s spreading and getting more impressive, and it’s one of the bright spots out there for people doing investigative work. We start with a panel on investigative reporting on the local and regional level.
Reporting on Domestic Corruption
David Boardman, of the Seattle Times, introduces the panel, including Walt Bogdanich who won Pulitzers with the Wall Street Journal and NY Times, where he is currently.
Walt Bogdanich: I moved to Long Island and had to take the Long Island Railroad and then realized that the LIRR would be a great subject for investigative work. [laughter] Couldn’t get anyone else to write about it, so I finally decided to do it myself. What I found was that while the railroad was winning awards for safety, they had lots of people retiring on disability, and they take those passes to get state passes and play golf for free. As a golfer and writer, I was offended and wanted to bring those guys down.
I had a great result, with one person indicted, and people aren’t getting disability the way they were before and aren’t getting passes to go golfing. But I still ride the railroad and they all know who I am.
Martin Reynolds, Oakland Tribune: I knew Chauncey Bailey and his assassination in 2007 was a huge blow for many people who knew him and it was a call to action for us. After he was killed, journalists met at a restaurant to decide what to do about this. At the time he was looking at Your Black Muslim Bakery, and there was war going on to gain control of this organization. The Tribune was asked to lead the effort, along with TV, radio and the IRE and UC Berkeley, SF State and philanthropic groups.
You can imagine a group of journalists in the room who were all rivals. It was a little like “We Are the World.” Go to ChaunceyBaileyProject.org to read more about this. We know that the murder was planned and that there was a conspiracy, but one police detective made calls to a suspect and there were many problems with the investigation. But this effort could be a template for collaboration for other projects that are in dire need of resources.
Rhonda Schwartz, ABC News: On the Madoff case, we got a wire headline saying “Wall Street figure arrested for $50 billion Ponzi scheme.” Brian Ross said, “Did that say $50 billion? We put together a 2-part story on “20/20” eventually. What became clear was all the victims, including Stephen Spielberg and Mort Zuckerman, it was a huge bomb on Jewish philanthropy. We found out that Bernie had bought a $1200 polo shirt before he was arrested.
We learned more about the feeder funds. We learned in Palm Beach that it was a big base of his operations. He went to the country club there and did a lot of his business there, because Jews were finally able to get into a country club. Bernie had a feeder fund run down there by Robert Jaffe, who filtered the money for him and was a big figure down there.
We started finding out about all the people who were helping him. It was a story about cocaine and about three-way sex with a trumpet. They found a vacant apartment across the way from Bernie’s penthouse. So we saw him in his den of his plush apartment doing God-knows-what on the Internet. We watched for several days and he appeared to be using Skype, because he was talking into his machine. And we thought, ‘How could the prosecutors allow him to Skype?’ The pictures we produced for 20/20 was a shot across the bow of the district in NY, and people asked whether they had fallen down on this case.
Mark Smith, WFAA Dallas: We had a tip about a bank doing questionable loans. We did a FOIA request and it took 6 months to get all the paperwork, and then red flags jumped out. They did a loan for $8 million to a company that had an address of “I-10 Dallas” but there is no I-10 in Dallas. There were other loans with companies that didn’t exist or didn’t do what they said they did. We found one guy who had a Hummer, sports cars, pool and didn’t have a job other than being a broker on these loans.
Marcus Stern, ProPublica: [Helped report on bribery with Duke Cunningham and won a Pulitzer] Regional newspapers are disappearing in Washington. We kick over stones throughout our career and sometimes there’s nothing under them. But occasionally it does turn out, so it’s important to allow reporters to turn over a lot of stones. Cunningham is now in jail, and another conspirator is about to go to jail.
Nobody expected anything with them. No one knew they were abusing the earmark system. One story triggered this, and this is how it happened. In May 2005 I had time on my hands and decided to try to figure out why Duke Cunningham had been to Saudi Arabia twice. I know Duke Cunningham and I know Saudi Arabia and they aren’t a good fit. I thought this must be a foreign military sale, and it didn’t pan out and I still don’t know why he was there.
I checked to see if he had upgraded his living arrangement, and he had bought a $2.5 million house with his wife and I wondered how he bought it. He made money on his previous house that he sold. But then I saw that his old house was bought by a company in DC, and it ended up being run by Mitchell Wake, who was in Nevada and was a defense contractor. This guy had gone from no contracts to having $100 million in contracts all in the span of the house sale.
Boardman: This is the kind of journalism that David Byrne and Thomas Jefferson would agree are important to our democracy. But how much will we lose if we lose that journalism? Probably the biggest story is the economic collapse and how did we miss that story?
Schwartz: It’s amazing that no one had heard of Bernie Madoff before that story came out. We had reported on Countrywide and other companies, and about the SEC investigating JPMorgan. I don’t know how one would have foreseen Bernie Madoff, but the business reporting community is known for reporting daily results, the stock market is up and down.
Bognanich: How could the SEC look at this with Madoff and not wonder ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ There were some warning stories about problems over the horizon, but not enough of them. I think we should consider why we didn’t do more.
Boardman: Your owner at the Oakland Tribune is infamous for cutting funds. How can you manage that?
Reynolds: It is frustrating at times. The owner Dean Singleton has had a model of going into distressed markets and cutting staff and not paying people a lot of money. They combine work from various regional newsrooms, so the sports can come from different areas, and the Metro section is specific to that newspaper. It’s a difficult thing, we are assessing where our coverage should lie.
Boardman: What about crowdsourcing and use of the web? We only hear about TPM and Josh Marshall when it comes to doing investigative work.
Schwartz: We are doing daily investigative work online with our website. We’re not doing crowdsourcing, but we do get important tips, like the IM messages from Mark Foley.
Stern: ProPublica was a life raft that pulled me out of the water. And they just hired Amanda Michel who was at Huffington Post, and we’ll be working with citizens who can help do research and help harness people out in web land.
Reynolds: For TV and web, it’s more palatable than for newspapers, which is something we didn’t want to do. When we were redoing our website, we started linking more and having editors as aggregators, even linking to our rival the SF Chronicle.
My question: Can investigative types get past the mindset of working alone? Can they include the audience in work they do?
Bogdanich: I think we’re all thieves and if I see a story someone is working on, then I would want to steal that. So I don’t know how you would work on a story in public with competitors seeing it.
Steve Engelberg from ProPublica: Amanda Michel’s view is that crowdsourcing as a panacea won’t work. You can’t throw out a vague idea to the Net. She calls it distributed reporting and it’s about marshalling people and telling them what to do. We have an effort with WNYC to cover the stimulus and track it.
Reporting on International Corruption
The next panel looked out beyond the American borders on investigative work that’s done overseas.
Bill Keller, executive editor at the New York Times, will be moderating the panel. Has been bureau chief in South Africa and covered Russia as well.
Bill Keller: I thought we might be able to get away from talking about the dire state of our business, and talk about good things that are still happening — but of course we still ended up talking about the dire state of our business. I’m going to ask the panelists to tell a story that illustrates the difficulty in working in an international environment.
**Andy Court, 60 Minutes* [Produced piece on corruption in Iraqi government, “The Mother of All Heists.”] I work with Steve Kroft and he’s very interested in corruption, that’s one of his fortes. There was a government official, the third highest ranking Iraqi defense minister. Kroft played a secret tape that showed he was paid off $45 million, but he denied it. So how did we get that tape? Everything was in Arabic. We obtained the tapes from someone with a political agenda. In Iraq, corruption is used as a cudgel to beat people to a pulp. Here’s a pamphlet about a government official saying he was corrupt. There’s a he said/she said about politics in Iraq.
So how do you know if things are true? You have to meet with lots of people, and take a gamble. We played part of a tape to someone and found out the reason the guy originally made the tape is that he didn’t want to get cut out of these deals. The corrupt official was in Paris and didn’t even worry about being picked up by Interpol or anyone else. And even our government in the U.S. didn’t care about what was going on. So we verified who made the tape and then confronted the official with the tape. We got documents to show how the money flowed. More than half a billion dollars went into an account of someone no one had heard of.
How are foreign stories different than domestic ones? There are rarely any happy endings. No one in our story was brought to justice. They are all living high on the hog. No one in the American government said much about it.
Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times: [Formerly at Center for Investigative Reporting, NY Times] I was here 7 years ago at UC Berkeley and in Lowell’s seminar for investigative reporting. I was following a corrupt Peruvian official, Vladimiro Montesinos, who was going to trial and was chasing it, and made several trips to Peru and heard about these tapes that he had secretly recorded for extortion purposes. But now that he was fallen, some tapes started coming out, and I wanted to get my hands on them. A lot of international corruption includes American corporations, which makes it a challenge.
I got some of these tapes of a parlor where he would bring people in, and one of the tapes included an American official there, who was the CIA station chief there at the time. And they were talking about a mining company that had a case before the Supreme Court there.
I also looked at the antiquities trade and how museums were filling their shelves with art from around the world. We were looking at a funeral wreath made of pure gold hundreds of years before Christ. It was a singular piece and was on the Getty shelves. So how did it get there? Through sources at the Getty, we found internal documents that were investigating how the piece got there. We had half the picture from Getty’s side which seemed to be from a network of looters. So how can we complete the picture? A source contacted us out of the blue, who was an investigative reporter in Greece who had done the other side of the story from the looters’ side. We shared information with a competitor, which we haven’t done much before.
I think the collaboration we’re seeing, with important investigative work being done around the world, we can team up with them and tell stories from both sides of the telescope. I know at my paper we don’t have the bureaus we used to have around the world so we should look at ways to work together to advance the story.
David Leigh, Guardian UK: I’m really getting used to working in collaboration. And we’re starting to realize that it’s the only way to deal with international corruption, because it’s cross-border and the corporations are miles ahead of us journalists. I started teaching an investigative journalism course and went to international conferences. We were all talking about the same thing, which was working together to do investigative work.
We found out that BAE, one of the world’s biggest arms dealers, was operating a huge slush fund, and handing out billions of dollars on every contract they were getting. It was a systematic way of doing business, and it included having a front company with Swiss bank accounts. Money would go on these long journeys before it ended up in the pockets of some official or the other.
Oriana Zill de Granados, PBS Frontline: [Worked on “Black Money” documentary with Bergman and Leigh] I also believe in collaboration in getting stories done, and give credit to those who have already reported this information and make that transparent in your final product. By comparing notes with all these people it helped us push the story. Plus Frederick Warren is doing a follow-up now. If we all do our part in so many countries, then we get a lot more done. We picked up on David Leigh’s lead and took it further.
I wanted to talk about other stories Lowell and I have done together, including “Drug Wars.” In my view it’s about getting people who are insiders to talk. Lowell sent me down to the Mexican border to try to talk to a man who was a former Mexican police commander who was living in Texas because he couldn’t live in Mexico anymore. We wanted to learn more about the corruption in the Mexican federal police. He did go on the camera and helped us. He explained that the police don’t get paid and the only money they get is what they steal through corruption. The chief of police in Tijuana could get so much money that you would have to pay $1 million just to get in that position.
He was later killed in Texas, which shows how dangerous this work can be. I don’t think he was killed because of our reporting, but more likely some dirty dealing he had done himself. We always rely on fixers and local journalists who come forward and help. For me, the model has always been collaboration, know the language or be with someone who speaks the language. For getting documents overseas, find people who are doing research and not necessarily journalists.
Glenn Simpson, Wall Street Journal: When I started out doing bribery stories in 1996, that was my reward for covering Clinton scandals. I didn’t get very far with bribery stories so I started covering tax evasion, visiting the Cayman Islands and other places. I was drafted into covering the subject of financing terrorism, something I knew nothing about, but found myself in former places I had already been. If you make a beat of covering transnational crime, you find that the world isn’t that big after all. If you’re doing crime, you go to the same places. They must have conventions about this.
I am leaving journalism, yesterday was my last day at the Journal. We are going to try something new that isn’t just journalism but a hybrid of this. We’re hoping to continue to do investigative work, but my partner and I formed a private company to pioneer yet another new model to fund investigations. We hope that people who have an interest in ferreting out corruption will come to us and fund us, they don’t even have to have pure motives. They might want to investigate a competitor.
We reached a point where we wanted to do something new, and newspapers are doing less of this. We have a passion for it and we want to do it full time, so it was time to try this now during all this creative destruction.
Q from Keller: If you have difficulty getting institutional support for your work, can freelancers do this without lawyers, insurance and security firms?
Simpson: We’re confronting this right now, and if we didn’t have the reputation as investigative reporters, I can’t imagine how we could get funded. So we’re not sure what would happen if we got sued, except that we’re a limited liability company and we don’t have any assets. [laughter]
Q: What about getting information by paying off border guards and other people? Aren’t the journalists corrupt by doing that as well?
Court: We didn’t pay people for special access to people. We would say, ‘We really need some bank records,” and then the fixer says, ‘OK.’ How do you know how they get those? You can get a lot more information in places where things are loosey-goosey. The question is what those fixers and sources do to get that information. There are ways of getting stuff, and I believe the things we got were clean. But it’s a slippery-slope, and it can bite you on the ass on the flipside. All your reporting could be undone if someone can find one way you were being corrupt yourself.
Mid-day observation: Seems like there’s a lot of the same old, same old folks here as last year, still mired in old thinking about doing newspaper and TV journalism. But there’s also change in the air, and a lot more talk about collaboration, working with people who were formerly rivals/enemies and trying new ways of doing investigative work in the digital age. Now it’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when” and the when is now. You can feel it in the room, even as people deal with the shock of the news that the Boston Globe might close.
Investigative Corruption Reporting
This is a panel of people who have fought corruption, including government and former government officials. The panel was moderated by Brian Ross of ABC and Sunny Hostin of CNN and Kroll.
Q: Why do you do what you do? So what?
Mark Mendelsohn, US Dept. of Justice: There are a whole host of reasons that we do what we do.
Nuhu Ribadu, prosecutor in Nigeria: We would have to live in a horrible situation without fighting corruption. These are really dark ages with no rights. This is a fundamental problem for people like me, coming from horrible countries like Nigeria. When you see the bandit of this world, who are taking so much money from us, that’s why we fight them.
Tom Fuentes, former FBI: All of you people including Lowell Bergman are my heroes. The collaboration partnership has to go to the next level. I want to hear someone
Brian Ross, ABC News: I just want to say that I only paid a bribe once, and it was to get on a place in Honduras, and that plane was hijacked — so never again! [laughter]
Mendelsohn: Thanks to technology, it’s easier for us to follow everything that you do in investigative journalism. At the DOJ, we try to leverage our small resources to have an effect in this arena. We try to bring public awareness to help deter corruption. Those of you who read our cases will find this odd feature that we typically don’t name the public officials who are the recipients of the bribes. We will describe them in general terms and not name them — we have DOJ policy not to name them. But then when you go out and inform people who they are, then that’s a public service. We don’t mind that.
There are things you do that complicate our lives, like when you talk to witnesses and then there are mulitiple accounts from the witnesses’ mouths. On balance, the work of the press is very helpful. Journalists reporting from outside the US, this is happening more and more, gets picked up from English-language press and we get information about overseas corruption that we wouldn’t have received before.
Q: Did that cause problems having foreign journalists come to Nigeria?
Nuhu Ribadu: To have the support of the media is very important, it’s a lifeline to moving forward — both inside and outside media. Part of my strategy when setting up a commission was including the media. Some of my collegues want to have things in private and I don’t agree with them, there shouldn’t be anything to hide. Some of the most important cases I’ve tried I couldn’t have done without the media — I put my boss in jail, the chief of police in Nigeria.
Helen Garlick, former Fraud Office UK: All around the world prosecutors are doing their work, and then something goes terribly wrong, and there are bad rulings against them by judges who are corrupt or have political pressure against them. We find ourselves asking how we can engage the press more. One of the things we need is trial monitoring, having people sit there and hear the terrible judgments happening. This type of journalism falls into a different area, with people who have legal background, but legal journalists don’t usually cover it. I’m interested in getting people from NGOs to help.
Tom Fuentes, former FBI: I think absolutely the FBI and other agencies could be more forthcoming about what we’re doing. It helps for us to have cooperation in other countries to that justice can prevail. There needs to be harder questions asked when policies and decisions are announced, there’s no analysis of the consequences. For example in 1999 a new law is made that takes away regulation of banking, and later we are shocked and outraged that there’s an economic problem in 2008. It should have been obvious that it would happen back in 1999.
Yes, we have diverted agents and couldn’t help fight corruption in Mexico. It’s a failure of journalism and of public attention. There’s too much frivolous reporting happening, entertainment, gossip and sports news.
Mark Mendelsohn, DOJ: To jump in on journalism critiques, there hasn’t been much attention paid to corruption overseas, and I’ve always been surprised how little the American press has covered it. The great challenge for investigative reporters is how to make this relevant to U.S. readers, to talk about American companies that have corrupted government officials in other countries.
You can read my second day of coverage of the symposium here.