Bob Giles: To begin our awards program, I want to invite to the podium for a few remarks Clara Bingham. She is a former White House correspondent for Newsweek. She wrote “Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress” and co-authored “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case that Changed the Sexual Harassment Law.”
Like her father, Worth Bingham, she is a graduate of Harvard. I invite her to give a welcome on behalf of the Bingham family.
Clara Bingham: I will be very short because we’re all here to listen to Raquel, but I just wanted to thank Bob and Ellen Tuttle for hosting our prize for the second year in a row at the Nieman Foundation. And it’s a new—as he [Bob] explained—a new place for us and it’s a perfect home for the prize. I also want to thank the judges for their hard work in reading those 88 entries and going through all of those. It was a huge time-consuming, not-very-well-paid job, and appreciated by all of us. But mostly I’m just so proud of Raquel Rutledge’s exposé of the gross fraud and abuse that plagues Wisconsin’s Child Welfare System. It’s a perfect example of the kind of fearless, tenacious public service reporting that the Worth Bingham Prize has celebrated ever since it was founded in 1967.
Now that investigative journalism is an endangered species, it is even more important than ever that we honor the work of Raquel and her newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for paying for this sort of reporting—It’s such a hard thing to fund these days. So thank you for coming and honoring our winner.
Bob Giles: The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. In his own reporting from Washington, Worth Bingham once described an atmosphere of easy tolerance that can exist in the nation’s capital as well as in towns and states across the nation.
Raquel Rutledge of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exemplifies that concern in her reporting. In her yearlong series, “Cashing in on Kids,” Rutledge singlehandedly exposed massive fraud in Wisconsin’s taxpayer-subsidized child care program which had been established to assist low-income working parents.
She began her reporting in 2008, acting initially from a tip from a concerned government employee who picked up the phone and called her. Greg Borowski, the Journal Sentinel’s senior editor for projects and investigations, explained that Raquel’s reporting initially was stalled when government officials refused to release records that could identify those who were scamming the law. Rutledge overcame these hurdles with dogged shoe-leather reporting. She knocked on doors. She gathered thousands of documents from a growing circle of whistleblowers. She conducted stakeouts and she walked and waited for kids to show up at child care centers across southeastern Wisconsin. They were the kids who never came.
In her yearlong series, Rutledge disclosed how child care operators conspired with parents to falsify attendance records, which enabled providers to reap millions of dollars for phantom day care. Her stories exposed more than a dozen child care centers with connections to drug-dealing rings and she identified hundreds of other providers with criminal records. Rutledge also detailed how one provider with a history of violations amassed a $3 million fortune from her taxpayer subsidy.
By the end of 2009, regulators, reacting to her series, had cut funding to more than 130 child care providers and implemented policies to strengthen oversight. The state legislature in Madison passed five laws aimed at eliminating fraud and keeping criminals out of the day care business. Two child care providers were indicted on federal charges.
Here are some of the comments from some of the judges.
Jim Asher of the McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington Bureau: “Raquel Rutledge’s reporting on Wisconsin’s subsidized child care program is flat out brilliant. Singlehandedly she identified the parents, the drug dealers and assorted ne’er-do-wells that bilked taxpayers of millions of dollars, stealing precious funds from hardworking parents who truly needed help to pay for day care as they labored to pull themselves out of poverty.”
Amy Nutt of The Star Ledger: “Raquel Rutledge should be commended for her dogged reporting, her willingness to knock on doors and confront the abusers of the system face to face in her tenacious pursuit of the truth.”
In a major competition such as the Bingham Prize, there were many powerful contenders among the 88 entries. As judge Audra Ang noted in her observations, “I was really impressed by the dedication of the journalists and the high quality of reporting that was shown in all the pieces that we examined. The scope of topics not only broke ground but added new depth to the subjects examined in the past.”
Clara, would you please come up and help me give the award to Raquel? It is a great honor for the Nieman Foundation and the Bingham family to present the Worth Bingham Prize and a check for $20,000 to Raquel Rutledge of The Milwaukee Sentinel Journal.
Bob Giles: Raquel is going to talk a little bit about her work and show a bit of video and a PowerPoint presentation and then she’ll take your questions. Raquel.
Raquel Rutledge: Thank you. I’m going to start out with a few thank yous. I won’t be long, but there are definitely some people I want to thank and I want to start with the Bingham family. One of the things that’s so exciting about this award aside from the money—that’s exciting—is the fact that by recognizing this type of journalism, it really brings hope to people, everyday people, not journalists. As more and more people see our stories—in our case, this story started with a whistleblower—this encourages people to come forward and realize that they—government workers every day who see fraud, who see things going on, realize they can come forward and they can have an impact and make a difference. So that’s huge. I don’t think a lot of people necessarily feel empowered all the time, so that’s a great service. So thank you so much. I’m very honored.
I need to thank some editors, certainly. Marty Kaiser, our editor at the paper for giving me the time to do this. As you mentioned, resources are scarce at this time with newspapers, but one of the things that they can do—that they realize they can do differently than anybody else—is investigative work. And our paper, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, realizes that so thanks to Marty Kaiser and George Stanley for being on board and just letting me have the freedom to go sit out for hours at people’s houses and see who’s there. That doesn’t happen very often and with a photographer, mind you.
I had two other editors that I need to thank and Mark Katches is one of them who is now in California at the Center for Investigative Reporting doing the California Watch Project. He was instrumental in this—heard me out for hours and hours about little details and helped me map this thing out and when he left, Greg Borowski jumped right in and filled his shoes and has done a tremendous job bringing all the elements graphically—all the sidebars, all the photos, making sure everything is on board. Those people deserve huge credit along with the photographer. I was telling Joan Bingham that my photographer who came with me on all these stories is about this tall. Super tough girl, though who would—we had people who were not so excited to see us, often and she on a number of occasions threatened to file assault charges against people who blocked her camera and didn’t want—so thank you to her.
And I have one final thanks, and that is to my husband who is a key because he’s a journalist also. He knows what I’m going through. He was—would listen to me as I woke up in the middle of the night wondering “Did I get that right? Does this make sense and is this fair?” He listened to me throughout and provided this super sound advice and kept me calm. So huge thanks to him.
Rutledge: I’m going to show you kind of a quick video about five minutes that’s going to give an overview of some elements of the story and then I have a few slides to expand upon.
Rutledge: I hate to break it to the editors but the “Cashing in on Kids” series, did not come out of the editors’ office. It actually started with a tip from a reader who actually read in the paper about a little boy who had died who had been left in a van at a day care center in the hot summer for several hours and he died. Little Seiaires McHenry. And the caller called one night. Late one night. I wasn’t here. He said Seiaires McHenry never should have been at that day care that day, so the night reporter at that time took down the message and sent it to me. I came in the next day. It was in my e-mail box. I thought gosh, I don’t know that much about the Wisconsin Shares program. But it sounded like an interesting—had some prospects. I called the tipster back. It’s kind of where it all began. I started learning about the Wisconsin Shares program—what it is. It launched in 1997, designed to help low-income workers get and keep jobs by paying for the cost of child care. Great intentions. Twelve years later it has gone awry. There’s hundreds of thousands of—actually millions of dollars that are being scammed from that program.
A mom has five kids. Let’s call her Jane. Jane tells the county she works 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job and that qualifies her for taxpayer-financed child care. She has a friend who claims to be her employer. He writes her checks that she shows the county as proof that she has a job. But this is a sham. There is no job. Now they have a third partner in the scam who is the child care provider. Although she’s not watching Jane’s children, she claims she does, and she gets paid by the state as much as $200 per child every week. It’s the perfect setup. Nobody’s working and they all are cashing in on the child care subsidy program.
So what I learned is there are many different ways that the system is being scammed, but the key thing was how to prove that and show that. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen a lot in our careers as journalists, but this particular tipster was a whistleblower and this person had access to documents that could support everything that was being said.
Those documents were just a roadmap to me. It gave me a—told me where I could go. Told me which kids were showing up at which day care or weren’t showing up, which turned up, which parents were eligible for the subsidy. And I could really kind of get a picture of what was supposed to be going on and I could sit and watch and stake out the places and see if that was actually happening.
So photographer Kris Wentz-Graff and I spent a lot of time out staking out these places. We’d park a couple of blocks away, just enough so that we could see people coming and going, when they were coming and going. And after a while we’d get a picture of what was actually happening. That’s when we would sort of confront the day care providers and the parents and get to the bottom of what was actually happening. So we had been writing these stories all along and they had gotten the attention of legislators and regulators and readers. Some policy changes had been under way and a few things started to happen.
But what really got everyone’s attention was a story we wrote about a Milwaukee day care provider by the name of Latasha Jackson. She amassed about $3 million in taxpayer’s subsidies over the decade that she was in the business while regulators ignored red flags that she was defrauding the system. She built a million dollar mansion with an indoor swimming pool, indoor basketball court. She was driving a Jaguar and all the while regulators were ignoring the signs that she was scamming the system. In fact, she had been caught scamming the system several years earlier when she was a mom seeking day care subsidies for her own kids, but the paperwork was overlooked. People didn’t put two and two together and they didn’t realize it was the same person, back in business, again, collecting taxpayer dollars.
And then we ran again—we did a back-to-back two-day series right here. After Latasha Jackson, we went into a story we called the accountability story. And this was key because we really held as many people as we could accountable. This named—we named names. We showed photographs, e-mail addresses, phone numbers of all the regulators. All from the county level, front line workers all the way up to actually some federal legislators who have also sort of blown this issue off. We again got response from readers like never before, saying they want somebody to contact. They want to take some action. They want to do something.
So that is when you really started to see action taking place. There’s about five Wisconsin Shares laws that have been passed already that have changed as a result of the series. A couple of people have been federally indicted. There have been a lot of actions since those stories.
So the “Cashing in on Kids” series has been more than a year in the works. It’s produced more than a couple of dozen stories, but we’re still not done. As we keep digging, we keep finding out again—shift the lens a little bit off the fraud and look a little bit about how the kids are being harmed by this. So we’re working on a couple of stories about what the impact is on the children in some of these centers. We’re not finished. There’s more to be done. Everyday something new comes up in this story.]
So I’m going to also expand on a few things that I didn’t mention in the video. And one of those we wanted to talk about were the obstacles to getting the story. But before I even get into that, I want to say that in a lot of newsrooms—and you all know this who work in kind of conventional newsrooms—this story might not have ever seen the light of day. Because it started, like I said, with a tip from somebody after a child had died. And in a lot of cases, that would have fallen through the cracks. The reporter that’s following up on the death of the child isn’t going to take that and they’re going to look at that and say there’s no quick daily story there. That’s going to be too much for me. There’s nobody necessarily assigned to that type of a beat.
But one of the things that our editor Marty Kaiser wanted to do for years was a consumer fraud, consumer angle type beat. So at that time, I was working on a beat, it was called a public investigator beat and that would take all kinds of tips from readers that seemingly could be petty stories that often turned into big systematic problems with government and agencies. So fortunately that’s how this story got started. When a tip came in it came right to the public investigator so we had a place to handle it, but, that said, it doesn’t make it easy because as we mentioned, a lot of the—Wisconsin considers these records about recipients of public assistance programs to be confidential. So while we had one component of it was public records with the day care providers itself, the folks that were actually receiving the subsidies all their information, the children that should have been at the center, etc., that should have all been confidential. We needed to rely in that case on whistleblowers to really get a picture of what was going on.
One of the other issues was building trust with these whistleblowers because they had a lot at stake—the people who were giving me documents. We had to sit down and it took a long time to kind of develop trust from the sources that trusted me that I wasn’t going to reveal their identities and me realizing that they had valid information, good information. So again that takes time and is not necessarily easy.
The other thing that was particularly challenging about this was tracking down the parents. While the providers, we knew where they were, the parents were often very difficult to find, which again speaks to the incompetence of the way this program was being run. Because I was getting good information—what should have been good information from government workers, etc., about where these parents were. We needed their input. We needed to know why they weren’t taking their kids and I wanted to hear what they had to say, but when I would get the information from the government, that should have been current that had their address, phone number etc., I would call. The phone numbers were disconnected. You’d knock on doors. Oh. They haven’t lived here in six or eight months. They’re gone.
So Kristyna and I, the photographer, chased around—again took a lot of time, an investment of time. Tracking people down was not at all easy. And then, as I mentioned, when we did track folks down, they weren’t particularly thrilled to see us.
This woman is Talisha Burkhart. She has six children. The state was paying $90,000 a year for her kids to be in day care while she worked, supposedly worked in a company which she said was in Illinois, right across the state line. And when we tried to verify that company with the Department of Financial Institutions in Illinois, and with the landlord at the address where she said she was located, nobody had any idea—had never heard of this company, etc.
These were things that could have been verified and should have been verified by the county that was approving this funding for her children and it reminds me of Worth Bingham’s work when he wrote about the GAO rubberstamping all the spending by Congress to—for swimming pools and different things like that. This could have been checked, but wasn’t.
And this is a woman—we wrote about the sisters. This is Torneshia Simmons. She and her three sisters amassed about a half a million dollars in a couple of years just staying home and taking care of each other’s children. And that still is allowed. That’s one of the laws that has not been changed. Kids—parents can stay home. Siblings can and swap kids. But no one is even verifying that they’re even going. So—we didn’t stop with those stories.
Once we were on to this, we started to follow the money a little bit more and we realized that the state was aware that they were misspending a lot of the money. But what they considered instead when they found these things, they considered them to be mistakes. They were not—they were errors. They were not crimes. So when people were deliberately—They would find people aren’t showing up, it was, oh, a clerical error. A mistake. So then when they did try to recover the money, they would only get a fraction of it. The day care providers would go out of business. There’s no way to recover money from day care providers who have gone out of business. That is one law that they have changed since this series. And so that was just another way that taxpayer money was just going out the window.
Then we decided to look at who all the providers actually were. And we had a database of all. This should be public record in any state—that all the day care providers that get public subsidies, that is a public record. And we ran it against the criminal records that we have for the state crimes and what we found was more than four hundred child care providers in Wisconsin received state subsidies and some of them had horrendous crimes. One of the women was convicted of beating a foster child with an electrical cord. She had whipped this girl repeatedly and she was licensed to care for children. There were others that had major drug convictions and serious crimes. Some were not so serious, and some were, but the state continued to pay them anyway. We took the database of search warrants to find out where the police were really looking for drugs and weapons. And we crossed that with our child care provider database and what we came up with there was more than a dozen child care providers in Wisconsin had close ties to major criminal operations.
In one case, the wife of a crime boss in Milwaukee, one of the biggest crime bosses in Milwaukee who was convicted of double homicide. He was burying people under concrete in his backyard. He is—this is true—mortgage fraud and everything. His wife was a day care provider and she is now charged with ten counts of prostitution. She had been prostituting. They found live grenades on her counter within reach of kids. And they were paying her—it was true. Up until a couple of days right before we ran our story. They had still been paying her, so she was fine to go. We just stayed with it. So all along, as these stories have moved along, little steps have taken place and some bigger ones towards the end of the year.
The FBI and police and everybody and regulators have formed an anti-fraud task force. And as a result of that task force, they have since cut public funding to about 140 providers now that they suspect were defrauding the system. In some cases they went out and did their own investigations. They went out and they were knocking on doors, on front doors and people were running out the back doors. They have stories about that and sometimes they would knock five or six different days. Go back and back and back again and call and call and nobody would answer. And clearly nobody was taking care of the children, so they cut off public funding to those folks.
And as we’ve mentioned, they’ve passed a bunch of new laws. One of the new laws limits the number of children in day care who can belong to employees, because one of the problems was they were having these child care rings where providers would go out, find women with a lot of children, and employ them so that they would be eligible and literally they didn’t have to work. Nobody had to work, and so the new law says no more than 40% of the children can belong to the employees, so that’s one of the ways they’re trying to address this. Aside from the two federal indictments, there have been four or five now criminal charges against some of the providers. In this case, this woman was charged with bilking the program out of almost $100,000. She pled guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to about six months in prison. This woman and her daughter conspired to bilk about $800,000 from the program for one year. She was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Yet this story is not anywhere near over. There is still something we’re continuing to cover. A few weeks ago, we ran a story about kindergartners. This is particularly disturbing to me. This was a story about how the Wisconsin Shares program offers an incentive for parents to send their kids to day care rather than kindergarten. It will pay for kids that are eligible for kindergarten, four-, five- and in some cases even six-year-olds who could be in kindergarten, the state will actually pay for them to be in day care. This is a woman who runs a day care center and offers free gas for you if you enroll your kid in her center, she’ll pay for your gas. Other people were offering Disneyland vacations, free rent, $1,000 cash bonuses if you enroll. So that’s one of the laws that was proposed. Some legislators proposed changing that but it has not changed yet. Here’s your sign for “earn gas for bringing your kid there.” Yes.
So and we’re also continuing—this is Latasha Jackson. She is the one with the mansion with the indoor basketball court and swimming pool and with the Jaguar. We’re continuing to write about her. There’s a criminal case proceeding against her. There was a search warrant executed at her place called Kiddy Springs in recent weeks and they found—They talked to about seven different women who acknowledge that they were getting kickbacks and they weren’t really working, but she was using their children when they weren’t really there. There’s her mansion again, and a couple of days right after Christmas her house went up in flames. Yes. And it’s considered arson right now but no one has been charged with that. But they do—they’re calling it suspicious. We’re continuing to write about that. This is kind of the aftermath of that. And she’s fighting to get her license back—her day care license back. So we’re going to continue writing about that. So that’s pretty much how the story has gone so far. I’m happy to take questions.
Q & A
Female: [Inaudible] the child would receive money and how much?
Rutledge: They would get a percentage of it, usually. Each child is worth about $200 per week, so it’s unclear exactly how much they would get. It might be $100. Depending on the provider. Yes?
Female: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about your position on child care funding?
Rutledge: On child care funding. Well certainly it has its place and there is certainly a need for it. There are some hard working families out there who can’t afford child care, as we all know. Anyone who has kids today knows how expensive child care is, so it makes sense, but the way this program was designed, years ago, it was not—it really wasn’t designed with a lot of thought as to how it would work. It was really a political move by some of the people in power at that time to get people off the welfare rolls and into the work field. This accomplished that in some ways, a smoke and mirrors way in that people were technically employed, but it didn’t account for where the kids would go and what would happen to the children. So as far as my opinion on that, it’s a needed program. That’s no question but the way it’s designed is not effective and not helpful to the children the way it is. Yes?
Female: When you were doing your research, did you have to work on any other stories? And also how long was it between editions where you would find one thread and another one and another one.
Rutledge: Fortunately, the Journal Sentinel that’s one of the great things they have—they really cut me loose on this. Although I was working part time for most of the year doing about three days a week, but I was dedicated to doing nothing but this. It was every six weeks or so I would say there was something else I was working on. It was shocking. It wasn’t something I set out to do, but as I got into it and something else would unfold. You’re not going to believe this. Criminals—there are major criminals with ties to major crime bosses. I’d say about six to eight weeks between. I think all told there are maybe eight or ten big investigative pieces and about 50 stories all said, follow-ups and smaller following the criminal charges, etc.
Male: Can you talk a little bit more about the importance of these databases that you were able to access and what kind of help you got in filtering through to make—to connect all the dots through the various different databases?
Rutledge: The databases were key. Having the list of the child care providers was absolutely critical. Like I said, that should be public record in any state. I’m not sure about all the other states, as far as the date of birth. That was a key piece of information that we were able to get in our database of child care providers was their date of birth because that’s how we were able to link them and know for sure that that was them when it came to the crimes. And I had help from—certainly we have a car reporter—I called him the car guru a couple of times and he does not like that, so I’m going to call him the car reporter, Ben Poston was very helpful in making sense of some of this stuff, in crossing—when we cross the criminal database and the search warrant database making sure that we have the right people that those things are key to telling these stories, absolutely.
Female: I’m not sure how to pose this question but a number of the people that you were focusing on were African American and what kind of flack did you get and how did the race issue play out as you were reporting this story and the stories were published and maybe you can—
Rutledge: It might be kind of surprising.
Female: Maybe [inaudible] about Milwaukee.
Rutledge: Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities, I think, on the planet. We have a huge—one of the biggest—I think it’s number four or seven now in poverty. We have lots of problems, and you would think that’s a very legitimate question. That was a concern but surprisingly—I was actually surprised that we didn’t get a lot of that because we had it—the way it was written and the way the information was presented—the way we had it, nobody wanted—nobody wants fraud and nobody is going to come out and support fraud and it never really cropped up as being any kind of an issue. There were not many people at all that said, there’s—being targeted or this is a racial issue. A lot of money is spent on the minority population. Unfortunately that is the population that is impoverished in Milwaukee. So that’s where the money was. I don’t know—does that make sense?
Female: Can I ask a follow-up?
Female: I’m from Oakland, California, so we have a lot of stories that are not unlike this story in terms of fraud. Did anyone see these people as entrepreneurs who were gaming the system? Was there any sort of counter narrative?
Rutledge: When you say counter narrative, absolutely entrepreneurs. Clearly. They’re clearly entrepreneurial. Gaming the system. That was no question. And that’s one of the things I’m still trying to get out of this—is to come to the major players behind this. I think there are some people that are teaching people how to do this and they’re not necessarily doing it on their own. But it’s broader you know—some puppeteers if you will. And we’re trying to still get at that. Does that help? Does that answer your question?
Female: It’s interesting.
Female: Can you say a little bit more about the whistleblower and how you established relationship? And what happened?
Rutledge: Sure. The whistleblower is somebody—I was telling Clara—fortunately, is somebody who stuck around throughout this whole thing and is still available to me when I need this person. This is still amazing to me. The courageous—I mean, if anyone deserves credit—there is one key person and several others. That came forward after we started writing. They just deserve all the credit in the world because again they had so much at stake for this. One of the key players was somebody who had complained and complained and complained to supervisors, to lawmakers along the way…had been vocal about the problems and said, “Here’s what I’m seeing.” And so we kind of hit it off right off the bat—when I first said, hey, how do you know all this? How do you know all this?—And this person reached down and pulled out some papers and I said, “Oh, this is pretty amazing. I can see what you’re saying here.” But you know there were some moments where I think this person was nervous that they were going to lose their job or it was going to become clear who they were, because clearly this information came from the inside. There was no other place that I could have gotten it. And again I was telling Clara earlier that initially there was a big movement by some people in the community to go after the leaker. This was …One of the county executives came out and said we’re going to find that leaker and we’re going to prosecute them and well, the bloggers went crazy. Everyone was—we’ll never vote for you again. You’ve lost my vote. There was no support for that at all. They said these whistleblowers were our heroes. So that I think was encouraging to the whistleblowers and others when they saw… That was the beauty of having that dialogue out there on the Internet immediately like that—is that it brought other people forward to say people want to know this. They need to hear this and it brought some other people out. So—yes.
Female: Is there a whistleblower protection in your state? And my second question is what happened to the program in terms of a detrimental effect on the innocent users of the system? Did it make it more difficult if there was a legitimate system?
Rutledge: The whistleblower protection in Wisconsin would not have addressed this as far as I know, and John, you probably know it better than I do. Right? That it doesn’t address this. So this person was kind of out there and we had to talk about it. I had to have that conversation with these sources to say you know, our attorneys said “You need to tell them if you’re willing to go to jail for them. If it comes down to that.” I said I’d go for 10 days, maybe and—my husband upped it to 20 days.
Rutledge: I don’t know what that says. What it says about us. But yes, that’s a little concerning. A far as the program—because I did get that question—that’s one thing that we needed to—I probably could have addressed better, I think, in looking back and reflecting on the series. I got some questions every now and then that said “What about the kids that are being affected by this that aren’t involved?” I’ll tell you, in 90% of the cases where they cut public funding to these providers, there really weren’t any kids or the kids that where there were the children of the employees. That was the racket. That was going on. So there wasn’t—there were very few if any children who really were displaced by this in an inconvenient way. It was not—there weren’t innocent people that I’ve come across that were affected and if there were, there are plenty of available spots in very quality—high-quality day care centers that would be available to those children—to move to a center if the parents were very interested and they really were working and they really needed day care. There were plenty of available slots for them to go into. So they weren’t left on the street with nowhere to go while they had to go to work. Yes?
Female: How many other states have a program like this?
Rutledge: All states—
Female: They do?
Rutledge: It’s a federally funded program. In fact, it was just funded the—the Obama administration just funded it by $2 billion. Added $2 billion into it.
Female: It’s so easy to scam it.
Female: You’d think that all these states would have the same—all the other states?
Rutledge: There are some states that have more secure systems in place that make it less likely for fraud, but I haven’t gone through every one of them yet. It’s something that I still need to look at because it is a big federally funded program and it needs to be looked at. But there are states like Oklahoma that has—they have a swipe card electronic system, which has come under criticism for being easily scammed. But one of the things they do is when they log their kids in and out of the center every time, it’s on a swipe card, but they link that card with the subsidy programs, the other subsidies, the food share and the other benefits. So those cards aren’t given to the provider and easily abused that way. But yes, it needs to be looked at.
Female: How about the political outrage—the voters?
Rutledge: Lots of that. A huge amount of that. One of the things that is very interesting, I think, too, is that the changes that have come about on this program have been unanimously—
It’s been bipartisan. So it has not been a partisan issue that every vote… Of all these five laws that have passed, unanimously on both sides of the aisle, people coming together to realize that nobody wants to continue in this way. So I guess, I don’t think we see that that often where people, legislators, actually work together like that and get things moved through quickly and agree about that.
Male: How long did it take you to convince your editors to go for the story? And when they did decide to go for it, did you have to push them along to invest more or were they into it fully?
Rutledge: They were into it fully. That is the beauty. (One thing) I have to say about the Journal Sentinel that I’m really happy with is they got it. They got it right away. They understood that this is huge. And it needs to be looked at. There was never any reservation. Is this? Isn’t this? They said, go for it. Keep on it. Stay with it. They ate it up. I think part of it is because readers initially—the feedback we got was “This is something we want. This is why we subscribe to your paper. This is what newspapers are meant to do—what they can do that nobody else can do”. And they caught on quickly. The publishers got it. Everyone was behind it. I didn’t have to lobby for any more….
Male: Just a follow-up. How did it remain your story and them not casting a wider net adding reporters and a full court press?
Rutledge: I think that’s where the cuts come in. There aren’t a lot of people. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword that way. Yes. We’re having huge cutbacks like everybody else. We’ve cut 30 percent probably of our staff in the last couple of years. But one of the things we’re really zeroing in on is investigative reporting because they realize that’s what sets us apart. That’s what’s going to make money. So yes, they didn’t do it. There was actually some talk about broadening it out at some point and bringing some other people in. That was still sort of on the table and that would be great because there is more to look at. There’s still five or six other programs that I’ve gotten tips about as a result of this, that still need to be examined. Yes, ma’am?
Female: I have two questions.
Female: First of all. Thanks for a great presentation.
Rutledge: Thank you.
Female: The first question that I have for you is about confronting the parents. That seemed to me a logical thing to do, so I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how you decided to approach that and what those interactions were like. The other question I have for you is you mention there were two types of stories that really started to get a response, and I’m wondering at what point did you hit upon those types of stories? Was it like were you putting it out there and you’re not getting a response and then you get stories that are—you find a forum and get responsive. It seems like it’s a combination of the—not just investigation but also how you’re telling what you’re finding in [inaudible] and whether you can comment on that too.
Rutledge: Let me address your first question about the interaction with the parents. It is something that I never looked forward to. It was something that—this is not going to be fun because here I’ve got a stack of papers that say here is what this person is doing. I had kind of felt like I was going in with evidence that said this person is kind of guilty but I need to hear what they say. Maybe there’s something I’m missing. Maybe—I need to find out. So I mean, basically I went in and was very straightforward. By the end, people would see me coming and they’re like—they’ve seen me. They knew what I was writing about.
Early on when I just said, “Here’s what I’m working on. Here’s what it looks like to me. Tell me a little bit more.” I mean it was just an interview like I guess …Some people invited me into their home like Torneshia Simmons. They invited me and the photographer in and we just sat down and I said, “So tell me about this job. I see you’re working here.” And you get sort of mixed answers and mixed reactions. I’d come away from those interviews and I’d think gosh, maybe I have this all wrong. Maybe this paper is not right. This person is very convincing. Wow. I mean—this doesn’t seem like it could be. It seems like they’re so direct and maybe they’re telling the truth. I taped everything. And I would go back and I would listen to the audio again and again and on the third or fourth time of listening to that audio, I would hear all these inconsistencies and how people were contradicting themselves and how you could start to really pinpoint that it’s not what the first impression seems to me. For me it was a critical lesson to have my audio with me because people are talking at you at a hundred miles an hour and you’re trying to write and here’s—you know, some facts. And they’re sharing new facts and you’re trying to get it all together. But being able to replay and listen was very helpful and shed a lot of new light on that. The second part of your question was?
Female: It was about finding the types of stories that would actually create a kind of response?
Rutledge: That was not deliberate. I mean that you can’t set out to do, I don’t think. The first stories—I’ll tell you, the two stories that got the most reaction. The one about the sisters staying home, earning a half a million dollars just staying home watching each other’s kids when in reality they weren’t even watching each other’s kids, but the laws allowed that. So that got people extremely fired up. And then the Latasha Jackson, when they were able to see what the money was being spent on—those two. I didn’t set out to say that’s what’s going to get people all worked up. These are just things that presented themselves which we pursued that we thought were important. So it was not—it wasn’t designed to get that kind of reaction. It just happened that way.
Female: And the accountability story was also designed—was not designed to get a reaction either?
Female: The people’s e-mails and numbers and stuff out—
Rutledge: That was designed more as a service to readers because we often heard from people when we were writing these stories. “Who can — What can I do? Who do I need to call? And we needed to tell people where. And that is where we started to see a lot of the reaction. Not just from readers, but from the politicians when they see their name and their e-mail and people are calling them saying “What are you doing?” That really—that’s a lesson to us all when we were doing these investigations, to really—when you can name the people that you know are making certain decisions, put their names out there. That is how we respond. That is how they change.
Female: Thank you.
Female: You don’t have to do this, but I’m very interested in you as a person. I think I heard you say that you did this as a part-time employee and it’s pretty clear that some people probably didn’t want you to go any further in your reporting. So what was it like? How did you do this as a part-time employee and a young mother?
Rutledge: When I say part time—it was part time, but it also consumes you kind of full time. You’re thinking about it, and it does come home with you. But yes. I don’t know. People ask me that and I don’t have a good answer for that because I don’t know. The days that I go to work, I’m focused on it and I just stay on task.
Female: What about the threatening parts?
Rutledge: There were a couple—a few threatening parts along the way. But yes. I had e-mails and phone calls from people saying you better watch yourself. You need to be careful. But nobody would be specific about what to be careful about, necessarily. And things like that. But the stories need to be told and that was one of those things that we had to just kind of forge ahead with. It’s not a very insightful. I don’t think. I don’t know.
Female: You did your job.
Female: Nobody threatened your own children.
Rutledge: No. Nobody threatened my own children. And I tried to make sure nobody knew where I lived and that kind of stuff because my husband and I both write about sensitive things. He writes a lot about crimes. And in fact he wrote about the (inaudible) guy who was burying the guys under the concrete whose wife was the child care provider. He was writing about that while I was writing about this and so we try not to have a high profile.
Female: I just wanted to thank you very much. I come from a metropolitan paper in Cape Town, South Africa and it’s very inspiring to hear these types of stories about why we are journalists and what newspapers are all about. Thank you very much. There are many e-mails that come to our office that we don’t investigate so that’s another reason why—another reminder. I’m just curious about how common this is in your newsroom. Is this—was it unusual to actually go to this length to get an investigative story or was it part of the normal way that the newsroom operates? Or has it been cut back?
Rutledge: I would say part of it is we had a new editor that came aboard. That was Mark Katches that worked closely with me. He had been at the paper for about a year or so. We had had an emphasis—don’t get me wrong—we had an emphasis on investigative reporting prior to that. But when he came there was a whole new fresh enthusiasm for it. So at that time, when we get—it sort of depends on who the tip comes to. I mean, I love a tip like that. I love my job. I see something like that and I want to know and I want to find out. So if it lands on somebody else’s desk that’s not as excited or has other things going in their life or other stories (they are) working on, it might not go. So it kind of depends on who it gets to. But then also the climate in the newsroom is that we knew that this was going to be embraced and supported along the way. I don’t know how you get that at a paper unless you—leadership values and realizes that that’s what’s going to set you apart and take you into the future.