The following is pretty much as it's described above. I removed a great deal from the book, including various thoughts on journalism. Below are some segments that were removed; a few that were in the book but have been augmented; a couple of new things; and a few short bits with nothing to do with journalism per se but that were removed from the book for space reasons.
Here is the order in which they appear:
"Watch your back, Eddie"
"On Temptation and Public Corruption"
"Nick Bailey and Mikey"
"On the Record, or Off?"
"The Doctor and the Death Star"
"The Shopping Lists"
"Nuggets": Whistle-blowing, and Tips for Wannabe Anonymous Sources; Two things Sources Needn't Say to a Reporter; Know When to Quit; Be Willing to Bite the Hand That Feeds You; The NY Times Got Greased by the Squeaky Wheel; and, lastly, To Keep Reading the NY Times, or Not?
Watch your back, Eddie
After the G.H. stories (and even still), I frequently received melodramatic warnings from friends and well-wishers urging me to “watch my back,” stay out of dark alleys, that kind of thing.
I appreciated the sentiment, but not for one second was I worried for my safety, nor did I have cause to be. Not in my most paranoid moment did I believe that Siegelman or anyone associated with him would physically harm me or engage someone to do so.
Lie about me and spread rumors? No question.
Lay a finger on me? No.
Journalists in America, even those reporting on white supremacists, drug gangs and the mafia, face almost zero risk of death or injury from reprisal.
Carpal tunnel syndrome? Stress-related heart diseases? Yes and often.
A bullet to the head, a car exploding with the turn of the key, or a plain old ass beating – in movies, yes, in real life, no.
This isn’t to say that I minded people crediting me with actual physical courage. Feel free to stick a cape on me. I knew, though, that the only part of me at risk was my reputation. Sticks and stones, no, words, yes.
( I will note that Eddie Smith, a subject of a series of stories I wrote, placed me on a list of those he wished to have killed and which he gave to a fellow jail inmate. I seriously doubt, though, that Smith could have pulled off any of the "hits," which included a federal judge and prosecutor. In fact, he couldn't, and was caught trying, and prosecuted.)
You can count on one hand the American journalists killed on American soil and for reasons directly attributable to their reporting.
By far the best known case is that of Don Bolles, a reporter with the Arizona Republic at the time of his death, in 1976. As described on the web-site of the Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), Bolles "was called to a meeting in a downtown Phoenix hotel by a source promising him information about land fraud involving organized crime."
"The source didn't show up. Bolles left the hotel, got into his car parked outside and turned the key. A powerful bomb ripped through the car, leaving Bolles mortally injured."
Bolles died ten days later, despite attempts to save him that including amputating both his legs and an arm.
Don Bolles Chauncey Bailey
It would be more than 30 years before another reporter was killed in this country because of his or her work. In August 2007, Chauncey Bailey, a black journalist who primarily reported on African-American issues, was shot to death in Oakland. Chauncey, the editor of the Oakland Post, had written critically about activities of a group of radical Muslims who operated, "Your Black Muslim Bakery."
His shooter had connections to the group.
In the early 1970s, a Mobile Press-Register reporter, Arch McKay, was murdered in his car, across the street from the paper. Though the so-called "Dixie Mafia" has often been accused of the murder, the truth is, no one knows who killed McKay; and there's little evidence he was working on anything that would have prompted someone to kill him.
Obviously, many American journalists -- reporters and photographers -- have been killed, injured, and, in one recent case, even raped, while covering wars.
To my mind, the most courageous journalists are those who live in countries -- Mexico, Columbia, Algeria, Russia, to name but a few -- and who report on government corruption, drug dealers and other criminal organizations. They put not just themselves but their families in peril. For them, there really is no escape. They can't ship out and return to a home country.
In war, death and injury seems to come by chance. I believe that, were I to cover a war, I would follow other reporters, soldiers, etc., to dangerous areas. If nothing else, my reporting instincts would draw me to the action. Then again, maybe not, or if so, perhaps not for a second time. But having never been there, it's impossible to know.
I cannot say the same about living in a country like Columbia and writing hard-hitting stories identifying drug kingpins and politicians, police and military leaders in their service. I think I'd opt for covering sports, or writing movie reviews.
Those people -- reporters who write the truth in such countries -- have every ounce of my respect.
On Temptation and Public Corruption
One might suppose I'm a cynic, that I believe all politicians are corrupt, in it for themselves, etc. Actually, quite the opposite. I'm disinclined, regardless of the subject at hand, to issue sweeping declarations, and, "all politicians are corrupt" is nothing if not a sweeping declaration.
As part of my job, I spent more time looking into and thus contemplating public corruption. I think it's the rare politician who is corrupt the first day on the job. I believe officials become corrupted for one of the three following reasons. In some cases, two or all three coincide.
1. They're Getting Rich, What About Me?: If a politician has any degree of power, he (or she) quickly recognizes that his decisions or use of influence frequently results in wealth creation for someone in the private sector. Take, for example, former Orange Beach mayor Steve Russo, who I will assume was honest when he entered politics.
As a city councilman, and especially, as mayor, Russo had tremendous sway over who did or didn't get to build new condo developments at Orange Beach. At the time, pre-Katrina, pre-oil spill, that seemed an automatic ticket to great wealth. It would have become clear to Russo, awful fast, that without his decisions/influence over the process, certain developers could not attain the wealth available to them once awarded a permit to build a condo.
It's not hard to imagine Russo, or for that matter, anyone in such a position, thinking: "I'm part of this process. I'm working as hard on it as they are. I'm getting paid a minimal salary, they stand to become millionaires. I deserve some of the money."
I think Siegelman falls in this category.
2. Slick-talked: In my days of reporting, I've run across some businessmen who would bribe or in any event financially-conflict a public official even if it wasn't necessary. Just how they did business. One that comes to mind is Lowell Harrelson, without question the most entertaining scoundrel I've ever come across. I believe Harrelson thought it perfectly normal to offer profit incentives to public officials making decisions on projects in which he had an interest. I think he believed that those who thought that wrong were prudes.
Lanny Young -- like Harrelson, in the landfill business -- also corrupted people on a regular basis.
This sort has an innate ability to spot those in a public organization who are corruptible. Then they go to work, first by pulling the officials off to the side or getting them alone, such as at dinner or a bar; making friends; and, at some point, setting the hook.
3. Systematic Corruption: Some countries, often in the Third World, simply operate under wholly different standards. The corrupt out-number and certainly out-power the honest. There are, occasionally, pockets of systematic corruption in the United States. I believe that there was systematic corruption among the leadership of the Alabama Democratic Party for much of the past 20 years, especially in the state senate and certainly within the leadership of the state's two-year college system.
Systematic, because it involved so many different people, in all manner of schemes, many with no connection to the other but for the motives and results -- tax dollars leaving public coffers and going into the pockets of top officials.
Of the three corruption causations, the first presents the greatest threat to honest government. Almost everyone elected to public office will come to recognize the opportunities for corruption. The vast majority won't be tempted. Others will, but will behave out of fear of being caught, whether by reporters or, worse, prosecutors. The third response, going for the cash, is made by two types -- the weak, and the risk-takers.
Nick Bailey and "Mikey"
Nick Bailey Mikey
The following is about Nick Bailey, the Siegelman aide who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and testified against Siegelman at trial. As I state frequently in the book, I think Bailey remained largely faithful to Siegelman through trial, even to this day. I believe he withheld information from prosecutors that, had he given it, would have convinced all but the most starry-eyed of Siegelman's admirers that the governor was crooked.
In this section removed from the book, I compared Bailey to Mikey, the little boy in the Life cereal commercials. The "Franklin" referred to here is Cal Franklin, who served as Siegelman's driver for much of the 1980s and is quoted in the book.
The media-shy Bailey drove Siegelman no telling how many hundreds of thousands of miles on campaign and work trips, accompanied him on overseas industry recruiting trips, arranged his schedules, took care of details large and tiny, and handled some political assignments that put him at risk.
Siegelman reciprocated, as Bailey became, in some ways, the fifth member of the family, often joining husband, wife and children on vacations.
Bailey was not one of those who would, as Franklin put it, “get in his face and say no.” I came to see Bailey as being like Mikey in the Life cereal commercials.
“Hey,” said Mikey's big brothers, “Let’s get Mikey to try it!”
Mikey tried it, and in a fashion, so did Nick.
Let’s get Nick sign the false tax returns of the lottery foundation to the IRS!
Let’s get Nick to fly to Tuscaloosa and act as messenger to Dr. Bobo on the Medicaid bid rigging!
It goes on and on. If there is a victim, a tragic figure in this story, it is Bailey. He learned the game – including the bit about shaving some off for yourself – from his idol and mentor.
And, written recently, for this "bonus section":
There was a time, at trial, when I felt sympathy for Bailey. Less so now. Almost since the day he left the Siegelman administration he's been working for Tuscaloosa businessman Stan Pate, long one of the loudest and looniest fringe figures in Alabama politics.
Though the reasons for his enmity aren't entirely clear, Pate is a sworn enemy of Bob Riley, and frequently used his money to attack Riley. It was Pate who paid for a small plane to fly a banner above the Rose Bowl when Alabama played Texas for the national championship. It read, "Impeach Corrupt Governor Bob Riley."
As ugly as it gets in American politics, even the national parties stay out of using the Olympics to bash say, Obama, or, when he was in office, Bush. I thought Pate's banner one of the lowest, most immature moments in recent Alabama political history.
As was the case with Siegelman, Bailey has an office near Pate and travels with him. The boss reciprocates. It was Pate, for example, who picked Bailey up from prison upon his release.
In order to maintain sympathy for Bailey, one must believe that he is in some fashion a mental incompetent, but he clearly is not. Rather, he's a loser who willingly attaches himself as glorified flunky to powerful men, regardless of their ethics.
The irrepressible Stan Pate Part of the banner paid for by Pate
The Doctor and the Death Star
The Doctor The Death Star
When I get a promising tip I immediately start thinking which public records will be most likely to confirm it, assuming it’s true. I have two metaphors for this process. One is, “The Doctor."
A patient goes to a doctor and describes his symptoms. Usually a doctor can tell within about a minute what’s wrong and how to approach it. I need longer than that, but it’s the same concept. When I hear a tip, my brain automatically lines up the types of records most likely to help me get the story.
The second metaphor, admittedly on the melodramatic side, I call, “The Death Star.”
In the climactic scene in the first Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker’s flying into the Death Star and must locate its lone vulnerability, the one spot where a correct shot will destroy it. Otherwise, it’s the end of the world as we know it.
Luke finds it, shoots, and the Death Star explodes into a million bits.
Some activities, be they corrupt or merely unethical, simply cannot be proven with public records, which is to say, metaphorically, that even with the Force, Luke could not have obliterated the Death Star if not for its weak spot.
To my recollection I have never reported or in any event broke a story reporting that Businessman A gave Public Official B a cash bribe. Rarely is something like that going to be divulged in a public record. If at all, it would be an accusation in a lawsuit. While I may be told by 10 people that it occurred, that’s not the same, in the news business, as liability-proof evidence. To report such an obviously illegal transaction based on interviews would open me and the paper to a lawsuit.
Now, back to the Death Star: Sometimes there are many records or in any event obvious ones that should probably exist if the tip is correct.
My proudest moments as a reporter have come from locating the one public record that proved a tip, and the more obscure the record, the greater the sense of accomplishment.
On the Record, or Off?
In some cases, it's obvious that a source is not to be quoted and an agreement is made at the start that NOTHING he or she says will appear in a story. In other cases, an interviewee will agree to say some things for the record but others not.
Often, it's a close call. For obvious reasons, reporters want most people to go on the record, especially those who figure in the story. What follows is something I wrote about discussions with Keith Andrews, an owner of Racon, and regarding a story I was working on about the Siegelman administration's decision not to take bids for a major construction project related to the Honda facility in Talladega County.
During our first conversation, Keith agreed to an arrangement that I’d proposed to untold potential sources before then and since, and that is similar to ground rules used by reporters the world over.
In some cases, an interviewee is unwilling to go on the record at all, period, and in others, is inclined to say some things for attribution but others only for background. When I do a story with the level of research that went into the Honda stuff, I talk to so many people that if I don’t take down what I’m told, be it on the record or not, I’m likely to forget what was said and by whom.
In either event, if it’s a telephone interview, as so many are, I’m going to type what’s being said, and usually tell them so. The Register’s keyboards produce a loud clickety-clack they’re going to hear anyway.
One version of my basic spiel goes something like this:
“Now, you’re probably going to hear me typing, but that’s so I’ll be able to remember what you told me, and to help me understand this stuff. There is no way I’m going to use this in a story without your say so. If I did that, and got a reputation for it, no one would ever talk to me.
“Later, if you decide it might be OK to go on the record with some of this, I’ll read you what you told me and you can decide.”
As often as not, comments initially made off the record are harmful to no one, and their use would both enlighten readers and serve the person who made them.
As an example, here is a made up quote from a fictional state official who is talking on background:
“The reason we agreed to pay this Washington lawyer $300 an hour is because he’s the national expert on these kinds of cases. He’s represented 12 other states and saved them tens of millions of dollars. Of course we wouldn’t have any trouble finding someone local who’d agree to the usual state rate of $85 an hour, but he’d be a neophyte on this very complicated federal tax issue and our savings on legal fees would be a drop in the bucket compared to the millions we’d have to pay because our lawyer didn’t have a clue. And then, dammit, the press would blast us for not having hired the Washington guy.”
I’d type every word, and either then or in a later call, make my pitch: “Look, what you said explains your position ten times stronger than anything you’ve said on the record, it doesn’t reflect badly at all on the governor or for that matter anyone, with the possible exception of us reporters. Let me read it back to you.”
In such circumstances, a source will often see it that way and permit use of the quote.
"The Shopping Lists"
Because I live in Mobile, I had to make the most of my Montgomery trips. The pre-Montgomery routine required an updating of what I called the shopping list.
Headings included but were not limited to the state ethics commission, Montgomery County circuit and probate courts; federal court; the secretary of state's office; the state comptroller's office; and the state agencies from which I'd requested records.
From my computer at work I could learn quite a bit. Nexis, the database with stories from most newspapers in the country and for that matter the world, was invaluable. So too was Merlin, the name of the paper's computerized library. The Alabama Secretary of State web-site -- the source of so many discoveries over the years -- allows you to search corporations by name of company as well as by incorporators and named partners. I used these sources to help build and update the shopping list.
Under the ethics commission heading would be the names of public officials of interest at the time, the commission being the source of their annual financial disclosures. The commission also maintains an updated list of lobbyists and their clients that is a must for any reporter who covers state politics.
The courthouse lists contained the names and case numbers of lawsuits I was monitoring or wanted to review.
The benefits of two services, then near infancy, cannot be overestimated.
The first is Alacourt, which hooks you into the state court system. You punch in a name and get everything from lawsuits to traffic violations. At the time, Alacourt only provided the dockets. If you wanted to see the court filings you had to go to the courthouse where it was filed, kindly ask a clerk for the case file, sit down with a bunch of paper clips and determine which pages you wanted copied.
It was the same drill at federal court, but you found the cases with PACER, the search system for federal courts.
After deciding to go full bore into the Lowndes landfill story, I searched every record in the arsenal. I found every lawsuit against Lanny (Young) and his companies, and there were plenty, including district court cases involving small amounts. I went to courthouses in several counties to get the records.
At probate court in Montgomery County I acquired his home sale and mortgage deeds. I went to the state environmental agency and reviewed boxes of records pertaining to his landfill applications in Cherokee and Lowndes counties.
Among my favorite records are UCC (Uniform Commercial Code) filings. When loans are secured -- that is, when there is collateral put up in the case of failure to repay -- lenders sometimes record their loans, as UCCs, at the secretary of state. The secretary of state's web-site allowed one to search for UCCs, but the searches just identified the lender and borrower, nothing else. If you wanted to see the actual documents you had to go to Montgomery, put in an order, pay a small fortune and, worst of all, wait days or longer for the records. I found a way around that.
The secretary of state elections office maintained a computer for the public's use. The UCCs were on it, and I could print them out fast and free.
And, a bit later in the book, but also about the "shopping list":
If for nothing else, trips to Montgomery were worth it for records maintained by the Comptroller's Office. It is the mother lode of state records resources.
When the state pays vendors, be they construction companies, law firms,
or providers of paper clips, the checks come from the comptroller's office. The payment process begins when an agency sends its request for payment to the comptroller. Attached is the supporting documentation, such as itemized receipts.
Agencies are responsible for assuring that the goods or services were provided. The comptroller's staff reviews the voucher for compliance with various rules, then cuts a check.
The office maintains a computer available to the media. The unwieldy search process that led to the destruction of Siegelman's political career is as follows:
You type the name of a person or company as it would appear on a check, not in a phone book. In other words, first name first. Company names are easy, individuals often tricky. You need to know a person's formal name, including middle, as well as nickname, and it never hurts to give all the names a run. One agency might pay someone under his formal name, another under his nickname, and if a lawyer, payment could be to the firm.
Preparing the comptroller's portion of my public records "shopping list” required finding all possible names in which a person or company might get paid, as well as companies related to those people or firms, the latter connections searched for on the secretary of state corporations web-site.
Preparing the comptroller's shopping list frequently took hours.
When you get a hit on the comptroller computer, the name shows up in a column of vendors. Each has a nine number vendor code. My practice was to
go through all the new names on my list, jot down their codes, then switch to a separate search where you enter the vendor codes...
Below is the first of a two-page "shopping list" I found recently among my records. Some of the names here I don't even remember, and others were here but not because I was "investigating" them but for any number of other reasons.
For example, at the bottom is John Lockett, whose financial disclosures with the Ethics Commission I put on the list and did retrieve. Lockett had to file because he was a judge. The reason I sought his filings was to try to compare the severence package given him when he left his long-time firm -- Cherry Givens & Lockett -- to the "severence payment" given to Siegelman from essentially the same firm. For more about this, you'll just have to read the book, and the sections about the more than $1.4 million in legal fees paid Siegelman while he was Alabama's governor.
Judging from the names and subject matter, this shopping list would have been put together in or about February 2002.
Whistle-blowing and tips for wannabe sources: In most cases, the perils of whistle-blowing dwarf the benefits if the whistle-blower goes public. Once the rush of getting the truth out fades, a whistle-blower generally finds himself or herself back at his same old desk, dealing with glares from angry bosses and a constant fear of being fired or demoted.
If a state employee is considering going public with claims of malfeasance or providing information that could only have come from he or she, I’ll sometimes ask (if they haven’t already volunteered) how much longer before they reach 20 years on the job. That’s when employees become vested in the state's Alabama’s retirement benefits.
When someone contacts me with what sounds like a good story, but is for whatever understandable reason is unwilling to go on the record, that's often not a problem. What I need most usually isn't their statements, but their information. For example: Tell me the records to request from the state agency where you work, and what questions to ask of the higher-ups or spokespersons. Tell me EVERYTHING you know that can help me prove your tip.
One final word on whistleblowers: When the description is applied to someone, it automatically conveys a David v. Goliath aura of courage. Sometimes, though, whistleblowers are cranks, people justifiably ignored by those above and acting, not to correct wrongs, but out of revenge and, the worst part, the claims they make are flat wrong. If I may, I will quote myself from, "The Governor of Goat Hill," here speaking of Jill Simpson, a character in the post-trial saga of the Siegelman case.
"A whistleblower is someone who, at some risk, exposes corruption. Then again, sometimes it's just a dingbat whistling Dixie."
Two things sources needn't say to a reporter: Don't say, "Follow the Money." Most reporters also saw "Deep Throat/Hal Holbrook" give this advice to Robert Redford in, "All the President's Men." When it's been said to me -- and it has, too often -- it comes off corny and melodramatic, to say nothing of it being an almost insultingly obvious bit of advice.
Far more helpful, as mentioned above, is to tell a reporter everything you know occurred and, most importantly, to direct them to records that will prove the tip if you know such records exist.
Second thing not to say: "I guarantee, if you do this story, you will win a Pulitzer." As they say, "If I had a dime for every time I'd heard that one..."
Know when to quit: If I were to make a list of the most important skills for investigative reporting, near the top would be: Know when not to pursue a story, when to cut your losses if things aren’t panning out. Some of my most painful professional experiences are of stories I worked on for weeks, even months, that never made the paper. Usually when that happened, it was because the acts to be described in a story depended too much on human sources and not enough of public records.
I think I was pretty good at recognizing when to quit when the reason for quitting was because there just wasn't a story worth telling, regardless if you could prove the allegation/theses. I wasn't as good at giving up if I thought there was a story but was having hell proving it.
Be willing to bite the hand that feeds you: This could also be called, Sometimes You Need to Slam the Breaks on the Squeaky Wheel. Probably this doesn't need explaining, but will in any event clarify.
Say someone comes in, bearing a trove of documents, such as from a lawsuit, and making all manner of claims alleging fraud, criminal acts, etc., and it looks like a good story. Every now and then, additional research -- as in, getting the other party's side -- not only diminishes the strength of the story, but reveals that the real toad was the party that got you involved in the first place. A great example of this...
The NY Times Got Greased by the Squeaky Wheel: The squeaky wheels who approached the Times, Time magazine, "60 Minutes," and others with the horrific tale about Karl Rove directing the Justice Department to prosecute Don Siegelman had to be astonished at the success of their sales pitch.
The smoking gun document proffered by the Squeaky Wheels was none other than an affidavit, never filed in a court of law, and by one Dana Jill Simpson. I trust that anyone who is on this web-page knows who she is. If ever a tall tale needed the breaks slammed on it, it was this story.
Which brings me to some comments by Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, in one of Time magazine's weekly "10 Questions" segments, published in July 2009.
I was reading along, way back when, and came to these two questions, one after the other. For what should be obvious reasons, I found Keller's responses interesting, in an unintentionally ironic way.
Q. Do reporters avoid writing unflattering things about sources? Ray Gambel, New Orleans.
A: There's no question that sources sometimes have interests aside from the truth when they talk to reporters. That's why reporters have to very aggressively report against their own theses and against their initial information. One of the most important disciplines in journalism is to challenge your working premises.
Q. Should journalists strive to present ideas as balanced, regardless of the actual credibility of either side? Jonathan Silver, Philadelphia.
A: I don't think fairness means that you give equal time to every point of view no matter how marginal. You weigh the sides, you do some truth-testing, you apply judgment to them. We don't treat creationism as science. Likewise in the autism-vaccine debate, our reporting shows pretty clearly which side the science is on.
I agree with both of Keller's answers. However, his reporters and editors did not "very aggressively report against their own theses and against their initial information." On the contrary. They treated the "initial information" as if it were the final word on the subject. The Squeaky Wheel hit a home run with the NY Times and, equally amazing, with Time and Scott Pelley and "60 Minutes."
The Times, editorial and news side, treated the Siegelman case as if the other side was peddling a flat earth.
Go here for a link to the "10 Questions" with Bill Keller.
To Keep Reading the NY Times, or Not?
As readers of the New York Times' web-site know, a couple of months ago the paper started charging for its content. You get so many free articles per month, and when you get to the end, you are told that you must subscribe to see more. I have NO problem with that. It's as it should be. God only knows how much the Times' spends to deliver what is without question the most essential source of news in the world, or, in any event, in the English-speaking world. Not just so-called hard news, but culture, health, technology -- damn near everything that's worth talking about.
It was an easy call to make, some five weeks ago, when I was told I had to pay a mere dollar or so to get all I could read for the next four weeks.
The problem is, the other day I saw a charge for $36.40 on my credit card bill, paid to the Times. Certainly I didn't expect the $1 a month to last, but I missed the fine part about how they would keep billing, though I suppose I should have known. I'm still unclear as to how much time that $36.40 will get me.
The thing is, I've got to have it. We're paying out the nose for extras from DirectTV, watch little of it, and will pare down there.
I suspect that, with time, the Times actually may develop a monopoly of sorts on the "print" news business, at least as it applies to publications with a national audience and that don't pander to the far right. I see good times ahead for the paper, but for most of the rest, slow death.