Ann Marie Lipinski: Good evening. Welcome to Lippmann House. Welcome to spring. Welcome to the Binghams — it’s a great night here. We gather for the awarding of the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, a prize dating back to 1967. It’s a prize that honors investigative reporting of national significance where the public interest has been ill-served. And judges for this prize have weighed what certainly I, and I think most of us, would regard as journalism’s highest values: accuracy, clarity of analysis and writing, the magnitude of the issues being investigated, and reforms that came in the wake of the stories — what happened as a result of these stories. And through the generosity of the Bingham Board, the prize carries with it a $20,000 award.
The Bingham family is one of the most storied in American journalism, having dominated the media landscape in Louisville for decades with a powerful and crusading brand of reporting that really had an influence not just in that city, but across the profession and across the country.
Worth Bingham, a 1954 graduate of Harvard, embodied those values, working as a reporter in Minneapolis, in San Francisco, in Washington, and later as part of the executive staff of the publishing company in Louisville. Following his tragic death, at age 34, his family and friends created this award, as a fitting tribute to his passion and his legacy for this kind of work.
We are honored at the Nieman Foundation to be a partner in this prize. There are many journalistic awards — and we gather this year in the very same week, of course, that the Pulitzers were awarded. But the singular focus of the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism is especially dear to my heart, having labored in those fields myself for some years, both as a reporter and as an editor. But I value it not for romantic or nostalgic reasons, but because it is a kind of journalism that is ever more in need, while ever more in peril. It takes time, it takes money, it takes stomach, and it takes a skill and a perseverance that is not always rewarded or nurtured in the modern newsroom. So we applaud the opportunity to celebrate investigative journalism done really well, and to welcome the journalists doing this work, to Harvard and to the Nieman Foundation, in order to advance this very important conversation about its value and its future.
A little later in the evening we will invite our winners, Michael Finnegan and Gail Holland of the Los Angeles Times, to talk about their winning series, “Billions to Spend,” but I do want to pause briefly right now, to welcome them to Lippmann House tonight. I would also like to thank this year’s Bingham judges: journalists Walter Robinson, Jim Neff, and Raquel Rutledge — She was both the 2009 Bingham Prize winner as well as one of my Nieman Fellows this year. Raquel will join the winning reporters a bit later to moderate a discussion about their work. In addition, Nieman Fellow Kristin Lombardi and Nieman Affiliate John Deidrich served as Bingham screeners, and we are extremely grateful for their work. We had almost one hundred entries this year. That is a lot of reading, it’s a lot of journalism, we are really, really grateful to you all for reading through it.
And most importantly, I want to extend a very, very special welcome to Joan Bingham, widow of Worth, and an executive editor of Grove Atlantic in New York, one of America’s oldest independent publishing houses — welcome back to Lippmann House, Joan. Thank you for being here. And to Clara Bingham, Worth’s daughter, a Harvard graduate also, and in the great family tradition, a journalist. Um, was there any other choice? [laughter]
Ann Marie Lipinski: Clara, among other accomplishments, has served as White House correspondent for Newsweek, and the author [with Laura Leedy Gansler] of “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law,” later adapted into the film “North Country” as well as “Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress.” Most recently she produced The Last Mountain, an examination of a monumental battle over an Appalachian mountain. Joan and Clara’s commitment to Worth’s values, and to the values of investigative journalism, are evident in their support of this dinner tonight, and on behalf of Harvard and the Nieman Foundation, please accept my heartfelt gratitude. We are so, so, so delighted to be a part of this. Please enjoy your dinner, as we look ahead to the presenting of the award, a little bit later, and thank you all for being here tonight.
Remarks and Award Presentation
Clara Bingham: Hello. Hi, everybody. I think we’re going to start the second part of the program tonight. I’m Clara Bingham, and on behalf of my family — my mother is here — we wanted to thank the Nieman Foundation for hosting this prize, which used to live down in Washington and for years, it was presented at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I don’t know if any of you have had the pleasure of going to that. You probably have, Michael. Anyway, it was at the Hilton, with thousands of people and lots of movie stars, and no one could ever hear the prizes over the din of party-goers, and we always felt so sad, that these important journalists weren’t really getting the attention we thought they needed.
And so, in 2009 we started coming up here, which is fun for me, because I used to go to college here — and I feel as if — my mother and I both feel as if the prize gets much more serious attention, and we get to talk to the reporters, and everyone learns from it. So, thank you, for having us, Ann Marie. And Ellen Tuttle, who does a lot of the legwork and is incredibly important to the prize. And I want to thank the judges, Walter Robinson and Raquel Rutledge and James Neff, who had to read lots of entries. We had 93 entries, which is a really great showing, and a massive amount of work to do in February, though as Walter said, there was nothing else to do in February.
And I want to congratulate our winners, Michael and Gale. Their piece is just the kind of investigative journalism that my father believed in, and practiced himself, because it is what he called exposing an atmosphere of tolerance, where there’s a public interest that is ill-served. And in fact, the series that he wrote, and that this prize is modeled on, was called “Our Costly Congress,” and it detailed the junkets and reckless spending of members of Congress in both the House and the Senate, that had been embedded into a bloated congressional budget. It was lots of secret spending, and it was not unlike this amazing series — a shocking exposé — that you all dug up, over 18 months on a much bigger scale, especially now that we’re in the 21st century, where real money like $5.7 billion is involved. So I just wanted to say that my father would be honored to have his prize associated with this important piece of investigative journalism. Thank you for the work that you do.
Ann Marie Lipinski: So, it is now our great pleasure to give the Los Angeles Times the 2011 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, for its six-part series, “Billions to Spend”. During an 18-month investigation, the paper found that a $5.7 billion, with a “B”, program to rebuild nine community colleges in L.A., was plagued with serious problems, including mismanagement and reckless spending that wasted tens of millions of dollars, and betrayed the public’s trust. In selecting “Billions to Spend” as the prizewinner, the judges noted the difficulty of reporting the story, and praised the quality of the writing.
Walter Robinson said, “This was an extraordinarily challenging reporting assignment that documented pretty much every abuse of the public trust that could be made by public officials when they have a lot of taxpayer money to spend. An important public works project, whose biggest beneficiary should have been working class community college students, instead the funds were used to award lucrative contracts to politically connected companies, with lax oversight.”
And Raquel [Rutledge] said: “The story was absolutely outrageous. I remember first reading it last year,” she said, “when I was on a plane, and my jaw just dropped. The findings were astonishing. Not just shoddy construction, ramps for the disabled too steep for wheelchairs, doors that didn’t shut, a showpiece clock that tilted to the side, but nepotism, waste, and corruption” — the trifecta of investigative reporting — that cost taxpayers millions, and short-shrifted tens of thousands of students. I am thrilled to honor this series with the Worth Bingham Prize.”
So, we’d like now to welcome, to invite, the two winners.
To Michael Finnegan and to Gale Holland, congratulations. And for the real meat of the evening — to go with the seafood — we are privileged to have the two in conversation about their work. I think they’re going to show us something first, and then Raquel’s going to lead us off in a conversation. Congratulations.
Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times reporter
Gale Holland: OK. Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for coming. We’re so thankful and honored by this award. It was very unexpected. And we appreciated also the comments of the judges, especially whoever it was who said — who commended us and our paper for giving so much time to an unglamorous, often-overlooked topic. We couldn’t agree more. The community colleges are the stepchild of the higher education system, even though they’re increasingly important, as tuition for other colleges goes up. Community colleges mainly serve working class and poor students. In Los Angeles, the colleges that we wrote about serve the poorest of the poor, because there are a lot of suburban community colleges, and the kids are able to commute to them. Part of the reason that the students avoided the L.A. community colleges is that the buildings had been allowed to decay for decades. The system, also, like most of the college systems in the United States, had been battered by budget cuts.
So this construction program, with its 5.7 billion dollars of bond money, that the voters approved, was the one bright spot for these students. With this money, they could have really transformed the campuses, and they did do a lot of good things for the campuses. But because of the waste and abuse, far fewer buildings were built, and money had to be diverted to repairs. So the taxpayers were cheated, as well as the students. And that’s why we thought this was important.
How we got started on this story: I was a higher education reporter. I got a tip that the chancellor had been fired by the elected trustees of the college system because he opposed these outlandish renewable-energy projects that the head of the construction program was proposing. The head of the construction program was saying that he could take all the colleges off the electrical grid and have them make all their own energy.
Michael [Finnegan] is a political reporter. He got a tip that a newly renovated theater was going to be torn down, and a new one built, basically just because they had enough money to do that. We met with our editors, and our conclusion was that the elected trustees — nobody ever watched them, they were basically invisible in L.A. — that allowing them to spend $5.7 billion in the dark of night, without any oversight, was a recipe for disaster. So they pretty much set us loose to really take a comprehensive look at this program.
It was a very complicated program, with nine campuses and a big infrastructure on the district level, so we started by doing some — what we thought of as foundational reporting. We visited some of the campuses, did tours of the construction, reviewed public meeting minutes for several years back, and interviewed the key players. And the theme that emerged, and that we kind of stuck with through the whole project, was that there was a huge disconnect between the PR that they put out about the program, and the reality. The leaders of the program had gone all over the country, and in fact, even to Switzerland, promoting this program as the biggest and the best school green building program in the nation. And a lot of people bought their line. They got construction awards, design awards, and environmental awards. But the reality — as you said in the introduction — was that there was a lot of nepotism, political favor-trading for contracts, and shoddy construction.
One of the first projects we looked into is this project right here [SLIDE]. It was a rooftop track and field that for some reason, they decided to build on top of a multistory parking garage. They already had a field, bleachers, a stadium. They knocked it down, built something else there and decided to put this on the garage top. They portrayed it, again, as a great green project that would save land. You know, multi-use of land, and everything. In those minutes that we read, there was one very cryptic reference to “undulations on the field,” which sounded like some kind of a euphemism. [Laughter] So, when we went on the campus tour, the construction guy, who worked for — he was a private contractor — took us on lots of rooftops, and we looked at solar panels and we went and saw the library and we saw the science building and then we said, “Can we take a look at the track and field?” “No, no, no. It’s too dangerous. It’s a construction site. You can’t go up there.”
That obviously didn’t make any sense, so we persuaded him, or cajoled him, and went up there. What we saw was the entire field was covered with a honeycomb of wrinkles, so that if anybody actually went up there and tried to play ball or for any kind of track event, which is what it was designed for, it would trip them. And the track just stopped, midway around, and there was nobody working on it. It was the middle of the workday and supposedly they were in the, you know, fever part of the construction. So we knew that there was some kind of wrongness there.
We did a lot of research and found out that, actually, this project was the main project that went bad, but that they had had a set of cascading failures, where they wasted money and basically destroyed this legacy athletic program at this particular college that had promoted a lot of inner city kids, at one time, into major league baseball and other sports. And they basically no longer had an athletic program, or a sports program. So we went about trying to get the public records that would detail exactly what the physical — what the construction problems were and exactly how much they cost, because that was our focus for the project, to be very specific — not generalities — and to rely on public records. For a year they gave us nothing. Largely, the college president had no interest in knowing what the problems were. And the private contractor who was running the whole program for the campus, he obviously didn’t either, or didn’t have any interest in us finding out about it.
Finally, we had the bright idea of asking for the emails between the public officials and these contractors, architects and construction managers. So, finally, when it arrived, in the attachments were all the reports we had been seeking — all the engineering reports, and even, for example, a confidential legal settlement that we knew about, but didn’t have any documentation of, and this, obviously, made that part of the project.
We put it all in a file and called it “Nirvana,” because it was everything we needed. Email was really a mother lode for our project, and it worked in this piece of the project, but others as well. One thing that was really great for us is that they delivered a lot of the email in an Outlook format, so we were able to load it into our own Outlook programs, sort it like it was our own, and it was word-searchable, which saved us tons of organizational work. It set up the chronology of when and how things happened. And more importantly, it created a narrative, because this email was all architects, contractors, and managers arguing over what went wrong, and whose fault was it, and accusations back and forth. So we had more of a story, with human beings talking, and we didn’t have to rely just on the public records, like the construction reports and all that, to document the problems.
Also, then we were able to quote the people — the very people who were trying to cover up all these problems — in their own words, describing what the problems were, which I think added a lot of credibility to our stories.
As far as — and this, again, is something else that went all the way through our project — a lot of these construction reports were highly technical, and very difficult, at least for me, to translate into normal human English. Again, on that particular campus, nobody cooperated with us. Nobody was interested in really finding out what happened. Most of the students didn’t even know there was a track and field up there, because it was just wrapped in green fencing for four years or five years. So we went to the state architect, who oversees school safety in California, and they explained it all to us. They didn’t know that the problems were there, either, but they helped us with that. And, that kind of end-run is something we ended up doing quite a bit, but this is one example of it.
One other part of our project that I wanted to tell you about, where there was also a huge disconnect between the PR version, or the district’s version, of what was going on and the reality, was the staffing of the construction management staff for the program. How we got interested in this is that we noticed that some of the companies that were involved in the employment of some of these construction management staff — their role in other public works projects in L.A. had been very controversial. So we were, like, “What are they doing here?”
So we went through pay records, time cards and all kinds of things that we got and basically discovered that there were a bunch of secretaries and PR people who were on the payrolls of what appeared to be shell companies that were owned and run by campaign donors, the big campaign donors, for the district. They were charging very fat markups, ostensibly to cover their business overhead and a small amount of profit, and basically they were tripling or doubling the payroll costs. So for example — in one example — the district was paying about $300,000 to somebody who was writing press releases and that employee himself made about $65,000 and the rest of it went to these layers of private companies that they had in there. That particular employee — just an aside — happened to be a nephew of one of the college trustees.
So the district brought up several arguments as to why they had to do it this way. They claimed that California bond law — the money was created by a bunch of bond initiatives, the construction money — meant that they couldn’t hire them as public employees, and they had to put them on these private payrolls. They also cited civil service rules and the language of their own initiatives that they wrote for the ballot. One after the other, they would offer these excuses to us and we were able to research them and find out that they weren’t true. But what remained was this big question: They kept throwing at us that we were naive outsiders who didn’t understand the construction business and how tough it was. If the public employees were doing it, the buildings would never get off the ground — that kind of thing. So we really searched — we, and our editors — really searched our conscience, I guess. Of course, we wanted to know we were right and we took that objection very seriously.
So, we went through dozens of rewrites trying to explain the system, making sure that we actually had this part nailed and that there wasn’t any doubt about our analysis and the facts that we had. There was one big detail, though, that kind of cemented that whole part of the project, and we thought really nailed it down. Basically we were looking into the companies, and this whole claim that they needed all this money for their business overhead.
One of the guys that was in the program, who had a lot of employees on his payroll, had listed as his principal executive office — basically, it was a studio apartment in downtown Los Angeles where he lived when he was in town and that was it. And then we found another address that he listed on a job site as his corporate office and that turned out to be a mail drop business in Northern California called “Box, Ship and More.” [SLIDE] The only kind of business that went on there was selling bubble wrap and packing tape. He rented one of the mailboxes that lined the wall there for $54 for three months. So basically, that was his overhead.
We felt — the kind of feedback that we got from readers — was that this picture told the whole story. People totally understood what we were talking about after we had gotten so enmeshed in trying to explain this complicated system. So that was something we tried to do as much as possible in our series — to look for concrete examples that are very easy for people. Everybody knows what “Box, Ship, and More” is, and it is not a multimillion-dollar-overhead company. Okay, I’m going to hand it over to Michael.
Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times reporter
Michael Finnegan: I am going to pick up on some of the things Gale was talking about — mainly, the big disconnect between the PR version of the construction program and what we actually found, once we started looking into it in some depth.
Basically, it was a combination of the sources and the public records that revealed what was really going on and we decided, at some point, that we weren’t going to quote any anonymous sources in the stories. But confidential sources were actually hugely important to us. We got to know some people involved in running the program, who knew that things were not going well, and who actually cared a lot about that and were disturbed by it. They wanted to do the right thing and they wanted to do what they could to make sure the right thing was done.
It was actually kind of heartening, when we were looking at all this abuse and mismanagement, to learn that there were some public officials involved here, who were so dedicated to fixing what was wrong. It was just good to see. And a number of them risked their livelihoods to speak with us. And sometimes this would take on kind of a cloak-and-dagger aspect — meeting people, you know, at a gas station, late at night, by the freeway — or — one guy was passing documents in his car, in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. There was some stuff like that. But these sources gave us a great guide to what to ask for, what records to seek out and what records would tell the same stories that they were telling us. And once we filed all the public record requests — and there were probably several hundred by the time we finished the project — they gave us great technical explanations of what it was we were looking at. A lot of what happens in construction, as you can imagine, is very detailed and very sophisticated and hard to understand, for someone who is a reporter for a living. So they were great for that.
But when we would ask for records, often we wouldn’t get what we asked for. We had to ask over and over and over again for the records that we thought were going to be the most telling. And often, when we would get closer to the records that we wanted, there would still be things that were missing. And we wound up getting so, kind of, deep into the weeds of this program, that we were able to get very detailed about what we knew was missing and demanded that they produce it.
One of the problems we had was that it was private contractors running the whole program and they’re not accustomed to reporters coming in and saying, “Give us all of your paperwork.” And a good deal of the paperwork that we were asking for was going to show how they had fallen down on the job and not provided what they were being paid for. And so we would often have to apply political pressure on the elected trustees, who were responsible for the program, to get them to intervene. There was one thing — as Gale mentioned — they were sort of bottom-tier elected officials. No one had ever heard of them but they were very much concerned about bad PR and all of the things that elected officials are concerned about.
When they would get a letter from us, directly to them, saying, “We are asking you, respectfully, to intervene and get these people to comply with the public records law, by releasing, you know, exhibit E, attachment 3, of such-and-such.” We would write these letters in such a way that the elected trustees would see precisely how bad the PR was going to be if this record, that clearly the contractors had an interest in not giving to us, wasn’t provided to us, and eventually, they would. We would get them very nervous and they would tell the people working for them, “You need to release this,” because covering up the records would be even worse than what was in the records. Once we would get the records that we needed, to explain what we were after, our technique — which many of you probably use — was basically just to sort everything in chronological order and the records would tell stories. The narratives would kind of emerge out of them, just by setting them up, you know — what happened first and what happened last? And the stories emerged that way.
One particularly interesting and difficult aspect of the investigation was getting to the bottom of this green construction PR. What was this really all about? My background was — I started reporting in New Jersey and New York and had done some investigative work and some political work, so my assumption was that when we couldn’t get questions answered, something must be wrong here. Somebody must be on the take. This is a one-party town. Los Angeles is largely a Democratic Party town, where environmentally friendly programs are kind of a given. That’s the kind of programs elected officials want to run. And it wasn’t unheard of for contracts to be going to people as political favors in the green energy world. And I figured there was something — there must be something along these lines happening here. Somebody was making money, in other words. That’s what this must be about. So we started asking questions, at any rate. And the guy in charge of the program — his name was Larry Eisenberg — spent a long time with us. Hours — two, three, four, five hours — trying to explain what they were doing, putting up these solar panels and windmills all over the campuses and somehow generating so much electricity that they would no longer have to pay power bills and the power costs would go down to nothing. And there would be this great Wall Street financing that would come in and make it all cost almost nothing. And that didn’t sound right. Something didn’t add up, because renewable energy is more expensive than the regular kind or the traditional kind.
And so, as he was explaining how it would all work, and we still weren’t able to make sense of it, after hours and hours and hours, we figured, “There’s got to be more.” For us, it didn’t matter how convoluted and detailed this was. Anything — the construction of a rocket ship — could be explained if you just took enough time to listen to the people who were explaining how it was done. And they couldn’t do it. It was Alice in Wonderland. And we finally said to the guy — he said, “Part of the plan is such-and-such,” and I just said, “What plan?” There was no plan.
It turned out, though, that it was not a standard story of public officials ripping off the public. It was a much more interesting story. It was about Larry Eisenberg himself. It was about his ego, partly. He kind of fashioned himself to be the Robert Moses of green construction. He was going to be a very big deal in this big lucrative world — in construction in California. But he had an inability to put all the details together to make it happen. He just had kind of a disconnect with reality. He, at one point, compared himself to Galileo. When we would say, “But this doesn’t make any sense,” he would say, “Well, you just got to take a chance sometimes, like the great discoverers did way back when.” [laughter] It was kind of a “hope-for-the-best” approach.
So, what we wound up with, was a story about Larry and his inability to do what he set out to do and the humanity of this guy, who had these grand dreams and just didn’t have what it took to pull them off. These elected trustees just went along for the ride, because it all sounded great. It turned out to be much more interesting than just somebody who was ripping off the public. But it took an enormous amount of time to unravel how he had done what he did, and how much money was wasted, and how the whole thing was a pipe dream.
A couple of other things I wanted to touch on — the rest of our team. Gale and I had some colleagues who did amazing work, starting with our database team. The L.A. Times has a group that is dedicated to creating databases and doing all of the computer work that I’m sure many of you are familiar with. Some of it’s basic Excel work, some of it’s much more sophisticated. In this case, we knew that there were a lot of contracts and campaign contributions that were overlapping, but it was all handwritten reports, some of them literally written out in old-fashioned cursive. You couldn’t — nothing was electronic, nothing was in a usable format for anybody — and they created these spreadsheets that showed exactly who gave and how much they got. And people could search all of the elected officials and see where they got their money and all the bond measures — where all that money came from. And then the contracts.
This looks standard. It’s the kind of thing you see on websites all the time. But to go through all these contractors, all the contributions, and set this up so that you could sort it … They were so dedicated to having a clean database that they spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours cleaning this all up and turning it into something that the public should have been provided in the first place but the Times basically had to do it for them. Doug Smith and Sandra Poindexter and Ben Welsh were the three people who did it for us. And then, we also have a graphics team, who put together the thing you saw earlier, on the track and field, where people could click through that and see the various problems and see them illustrated. They did another one on a building, basically a three-story science lab, that we had toured and sure enough, it looked great when we toured it but it was a construction disaster. Everything you could imagine going wrong in the construction of this building did go wrong. There were fire hazards, there were earthquake hazards, there was an air-conditioning system and heating system that went completely haywire, doors couldn’t open and close, all the cabinets, faucets — everything was wrong in this building — close to everything.
So, to bring this home — this is kind of a dry topic — they were able to show some of the more obscure things in a way that would make readers understand exactly how dangerous some of these conditions would have been if they hadn’t been discovered and fixed. [Slides]
[View the “Billions To Spend” graphics online.]
In this case, all you have is a wall and a pipe that goes through a wall — and when a pipe goes through a wall, you have to seal it, nice and tight, in a certain way, to meet standards. And if you don’t, smoke will go through in a fire and the fire will spread that much more quickly. So they did this thing where — You see “correct” there on the left. You’d click on “incorrect” and you’d see how they had applied the caulking so sloppily that the smoke would go right through. Or, in this case, pilings of a building, the foundation for the building — this was just a few miles from the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake from 1994. You can’t just put these big steel cages in a hole in the ground and fill it up with concrete and then hope for the best in terms of where they are. The engineers, in designing the building, have designated the precise spots in the ground where these pilings have to go. And in this case, here is where they were supposed to be, but the contractor put them over there. So it cost all this extra money to build this extra concrete. And they had to — they put four holes, I think, I don’t know how many feet away, but it was that kind of thing. This was a very serious matter, in the San Fernando Valley, to build a building like that.
In any event, the graphics people were able to do a number of these kinds of illustrations that showed people how dangerous things were, again, had they not been fixed. Raul Rañoa and Tia Lai and Tom Reinken were the three who did that. And then, finally, the editors who helped us with the storytelling. We wound up spending, as folks have mentioned, 18 months, which produced an immense volume of material. And neither Gale nor I had had any experience dealing with information of that kind of scope. We had a general idea of what kinds of stories we would put together, and our initial editors — I had a politics editor, Cathy Decker and Gale’s editor was Becky Trounson, education editor, and the Metro editor, David Lauter — they all helped us shape the first stories and get the thing off the ground. And, thankfully — committed to it once it was clear how much stuff we had and how far we could take this — committed to letting us do this, instead of our beats. But in the end — Marc Duvoisin specializes — he’s an editor at the paper who specializes in these large-scale projects, and it was up to him to do the final harnessing of all the information and packaging of all the information, so that readers would be able to absorb it and capture why it was so important.
He was ruthless about weeding out great stories that were kind of redundant with other stories. There were context paragraphs, sections, that he was adamant about where we would tell 20 or 30 paragraphs of boondoggles, followed by stepping back and saying, for another 10 or 12 paragraphs, what the context this all fit into was, historical and political and otherwise. And these made a big difference. People were able to follow along and see why it mattered because of the attention that he paid, and made us pay, to the story telling.
He was also adamant about detail. If we mentioned something about a certain phase of construction, he said, “Well what were they doing?” … “Pipes and electrical wiring and drywall, that’s what they were doing.” … “Well, let’s put that in.” He was very big on that and how much taxpayer money did this particular boondoggle cost? That kind of stuff.
And finally, the humanity of the program — when it was possible to bring people in and explain things in terms of the people that were affected — he brought a lot of that into this, as well. And most importantly for us, at least it seemed that way sometimes — he shared our sense of the absurd. There’s an agriculture department at one of the colleges, Pierce College, and they have animals and one of them is a pig named Oliver. And Oliver was getting a whole new pen.
They built a feeding trough for Oliver that was too high for the pig to eat from. Marc was quite insistent about getting that particular detail into the paper. And sure enough, readers loved that. Many people who read a lot of the series were focused on Oliver the pig and his difficulty eating. In another case, we went to lunch in East L.A., at a Mexican restaurant, with the president of East L.A. College, and he was telling us about the problems he’d had with the construction on his own campus. One of them was this clock tower. He said he wanted the campus to look kind of like this one — just a real college campus, with a showcase clock tower. And one day, the construction people came into his office and explained to him that it was lopsided. It wasn’t fully vertical. You only need to be off by a few inches for the engineers to say, “This is not acceptable, you need to start over again.” And he compared this to the Tower of Pisa: “My tower, what have you done to my tower?” And Marc said, “Turn that into more. Find out more. This is going to be the beginning and the end of your opening story.”
So we try to find out more and come back, and say, “Well, this is all we’ve got. It was pretty simple. It was the drawings. They were a couple of inches off and they had to fix it.” We didn’t have enough to do both an opening and a closing and he kept sending us back, sending us back, and eventually we had enough detail to do both.
In another case, Gale and I — We actually had a lot of fun doing this project and we had, and still have, a very good working relationship. We needed to go out to a construction trailer and interview this one guy about some very serious shenanigans. The records seemed to suggest self-dealing, possible kickbacks, some payments were made: There were a lot of questions that needed to be answered and this guy was right in the middle of it. So we needed to go and confront him in his construction trailer and at one point we were going to confront him with his own email that documented all this stuff and have him explain.
We get there, a little bit nervous, because, if this world is as bad as the records seem to indicate, this could be a fairly ugly confrontation. And we got there and they said, “Well, he’s out in back of the trailer, actually, because we’re having a little Easter thing for the kids in the neighborhood.” So, all right. We go out in back, and there he is. I was doing fine, keeping a straight face, but then he turned around and [SLIDE] — you know, we were following him into the trailer and I saw the little cottontail on his lower back and I just couldn’t take it anymore — burst out laughing. At any rate, we did get Oliver the pig in the paper, but that is where Marc drew the line and we did not get the bunny suit in the paper, unfortunately! But we had a really good time doing it. And on that note, I’ll turn it over to Raquel.
Moderated Discussion and Q&A
Raquel Rutledge: Well, this series has just got me so fired up. I just am so excited about it. And one of the things I think that makes it so fantastic is the riveting narrative that you were able to tell, those details that you incorporated: turning on the faucets, people going to the faucet and getting sprayed with water — I mean, just madness. That was beautiful. And that is difficult, I know, to do investigative work like that and couple that with the narrative. So one of the questions I had for you all is, how that sort of came together, how you collaborated. You said you got a tip and at the same time you got a tip, and I wondered how you came together, initially, to piece this all together, and then write it. How did that collaboration work?
And by the way, I just want to, quick, set the stage here. We have a limited amount of time, so I’m just going to ask a couple of questions, and I know you guys have some questions, so we’re going to be just brief with me, and then I’ll get to you guys quickly. I’m just so curious about that.
Gale Holland: Well, we had story lists, and we each had, I think, three stories that we had principal — stories that we were going to write for sure. We did reporting together and we did reporting separately. Somehow it just worked out. I’m not sure what the answer is. I mean, every day there was so much to do — it wasn’t like — right?
Michael Finnegan: Yeah. I mean, we basically — I remember just walking up to Gale and saying, “I got this tip, that’s basically on your beat.”
Raquel Rutledge: And it came in around the same time as your tip?
Gale Holland: Yeah, yeah. Within a week, really, right?
Michael Finnegan: Yeah, roughly. And then we just started. It just kind of unfolded — kind of haphazardly. You know, we talked to editors, they were interested and we started going.
Gale Holland: And, you know, we beat a trail between each others’ desks. We were constantly walking back and forth. Is that what you had in mind?
Raquel Rutledge: Yeah, I was just imagining how that works, when you get — when two people in different departments get tips, on different beats, and how you make it all work.
Gale Holland: Well, I do have one answer to that. I haven’t worked at every paper in the world, but I think the L.A. Times has a uniquely collegial atmosphere. There just isn’t a lot of turf wars and icing people out. There’s a lot of collaborative work that goes on at the L.A. Times and I think that’s because it’s a very nice place to work and we all like each other.
Raquel Rutledge: Well, I know that everybody wants to know — Oh, did you want to answer that?
Michael Finnegan: No, I was just going to say that it does — in a big newsroom — and it is a big newsroom — it does take a little while to sort out. I mean Gale was working for the higher education editor and I was working for the politics editor and we both worked for the Metro editor, and nobody worked for Marc Duvoisin, who ultimately became the editor of the project. And, so — you know, you just had to navigate. And it wound up working out.
Raquel Rutledge: Well, I think everybody in here wants to know if Eisenberg is being criminally charged. Is he being indicted? What’s happening? He got fired three days after your series ran. Is there anything more happening with that?
Gale Holland: No, he started a consulting business. A green building consulting business. He still remains on these advisory committees in Washington for green building. They paid him a year’s salary and benefits, which are just now running out, actually.
Michael Finnegan: Yeah, he wound up doing okay. There are a few investigations by the D.A. of other aspects of the program that would most likely not involve him, personally.
Raquel Rutledge: So I know you have questions out here. Let’s go to the audience. Who wants to be first? Oh, John.
John Diedrich: John Diedrich from Milwaukee, Raquel’s husband. I got to read the work and it was fantastic and I looked at it again today. I think there was a line in there talking about the devastating detail, and that’s really what struck me about this. And the enthusiasm that you all had for the story. It was just great to hear it. I loved the nitty-gritty of how you guys did some of this stuff, because I wondered about that. One thing I’m curious about is the organization, at the beginning, when you realized how much material was coming in. Michael, you talked about the chronology, and as this paperwork came in — but how did you set it all up? Did you see immediately that you’d have a huge volume of stuff — lots of examples, lots of data, emails, all sorts of different pieces? How did you tackle the organization side of that? Because I could see where that would overwhelm you — could overwhelm you — if you didn’t have sort of a plan going in. Did you have a plan early on to sort all this stuff as it came in?
Michael Finnegan: Well, we did get a story list going pretty quickly. We knew there was going to be some kind of a pay-for-play story. We knew there was going to be some kind of a story about that science building that went haywire and probably on the track and field and on —
Gale Holland: Energy.
Michael Finnegan: — Energy. We just didn’t know where they were going to go, exactly. And the pay system that Gale described — Most of that fell into place early on. It’s just that the richest detail, a lot of it came in really late, after waiting forever for the records requests that brought the chaos to life, with stuff like the pig’s feeding trough. And the clock tower — We were probably a year into this, before we found out about it. So I think it’s just the nature of this particular subject matter. It kind of presented itself automatically, early on, don’t you think?
Gale Holland: Yeah, and others may have experienced this: The original plan was rollout — immediate rollout — and we’ll go with everything we have. So we, early on, prepared I think three stories, and actually that really probably worked for the organizational side of it because we pretty much stuck with those. We just greatly amplified them. I think, also, as Michael explained, our editor helped us a lot with shaping it. Because, for example, at one time we were going to do a Larry Eisenberg profile and he looked at the profile and at the energy story and said, “It’s the same story.” … So we took some of the stuff from the profile and put it in there.
Raquel Rutledge: Yes.
Philip Martin: Philip Martin, WBGH. First of all, congratulations. I’m curious — You talked about public information. This is specific to California, or are you talking about some of the federal laws, freedom-of-information-law requests, in terms of accessing some of the information? You were able to get some of the email, after running into a wall with some of the other documentation, public records. How did you end up with the email, short of a freedom of information request? And, when you looked at the email, in terms of determining if it was complete in helping you tell the story, did you find that you had to seek subsequent emails for this particular story? In other words, look at — tell me the difference between the state law in California, in terms of access, and the federal law. Or, did you also have to seek access through some of the federal laws?
Michael Finnegan: No, we never had to use federal laws. This was all under state jurisdiction.
Philip Martin: Were there any federal monies involved?
Gale Holland: Yes.
Michael Finnegan: Yes, yes, on the edges. We were specifically focused on the $5.7 billion in bonds that the voters had approved for this local jurisdiction to borrow and repay. And we got a lot of email that tipped us off to more email that we would want. People received email from someone else, that we didn’t even know about, and then all of a sudden we were interested in all the email from that person. And, I think all the states must have different laws on email. California’s law, certainly as it was applied by this college district, was very good about opening access, so we got tons. The main trick was to keep it focused. We couldn’t just ask for all of Larry Eisenberg’s email. It wasn’t that simple. I mean, maybe they could provide that to us, but they wouldn’t do it because they would say, “It’s too broad. Come back to us with the specific kind of email you want,” number one. Number two, they would assign staff to review every single word of every single email, to vet it for stuff that they could delete and not provide us, with some legal exemptions. So, focusing on exactly what topic and what time period was really important.
Gale Holland: Yeah. I think also — and of course we don’t necessarily know what exactly went on behind closed doors — But we began by asking for public records and then we resorted to the email. And by then, as Michael explained, I think the politicians, out of fear or whatever, were more pushing them to give us what we wanted. Because they could see that we weren’t getting what we were asking for and actually, at one point — we were told, anyway — that they assigned an IT guy to go through with a spider and just pull out the email rather than allowing these people to — you know, rather than telling Larry Eisenberg, “We want to get your email.”
Then we started getting a lot of email — a lot — a real lot. In fact, they joked about us. At one point, the IT guy supposedly said, “God, Gale and Michael must have a hell of an artificial intelligence operation going on over there.” And it was like, no, it’s Gale and Michael and they’re out with programs, you know? [Laughter]
Carlotta Gall: Carlotta Gall, Nieman Fellow, The New York Times: Just a follow-up on the first question. How long after the first week that you got tipped did you write your first story? And was it difficult to persuade the editors to give you so much time to develop it, or was that already your natural way of working, to spend so long on a story?
Gale Holland: You mean, how long until we produced our first version of a story — a story that actually ran?
Carlotta Gall: No — my instinct, when I get a good tip, is to work very fast, and to do something very quickly. But, how long before your first story went to print?
Gale Holland: 18 months.
Carlotta: Now, I mean, did you expect that, at the time, when you first got that tip?
Gale Holland: No.
Carlotta: So how did that work?
Gale Holland: Well, we first had a plan that we were going to roll — as you mentioned — we were going to roll out things as we got them. And then the decision was made by the editors — it wasn’t our decision — that the enormity — I think part of the thinking was that nobody cared about or looked at or really knew anything about the L.A. community colleges. In fact, while people in the various neighborhoods knew, “Oh, L.A. City College,” they didn’t even know it was part of the same system. So I think that at least part of the decision was that in order to have an impact and to engage the readers across our readership, we needed to establish “This is big. This is important. This affects you.”
Michael Finnegan: Yeah. The first deadline was about six months, roughly, after we started to have two or three stories ready to go. And we wrote them and we were ready to go. And there were these two competing thoughts that the editors and we went back and forth on: Either as fast as we can produce them, we’ll put them in the paper, or we’ll hold off until we’re really ready. And after we produced the stories, thinking that we were going to roll them out as fast as we can, the final decision was made: No, hold off. We’ll wait until it’s all in and we’ll do it all together.
Carlotta Gall: And is that normal at the L.A. Times?
Michael Finnegan: No. You know, it’s a sensitive topic, actually, to spend so much time on one thing. We were all very torn about it ourselves and very frustrated at times that it was taking so long. A lot of it was for reasons that we didn’t have any control over. Some of it was things we could control — No, it’s not. There are reporters that are assigned permanently to big investigations and they’re used to that, but we’re not. I mean, I typically do a couple of stories a week, if not more.
Gale Holland: Yeah. The paper does commit to long-term projects, regularly.
Raquel Rutledge: We have time for, I think, a couple more. We’ll take two more questions. We have one, in the back?
Male A: What we’ve been hearing is about a tragedy, where the hopes and ambitions of thousands and thousands of people who were depending on this system to get jobs, to get educated, to realize their ambitions. So you really have enormous impact, I would think, on tens of thousands of people whose futures are, to some extent, blasted, by the incompetent management of this system. Does that form part of what people were interested in, in this story? You are dealing with a community college system, upon which, among other things, rests the hope for restoring manufacturing jobs in this country — things like that. But you also have people who were advancing their ambitions through this system [and] a lot of rather disadvantaged people, and I assume that this story is describing, essentially, a tragedy for those people and something that degrades their ability to get ahead in our society. Was that — ?
Gale Holland: I think that’s true. I think the reader response we got, at least that I looked at, was primarily people mad that the taxpayers’ money was being wasted.
Michael Finnegan: We were also in a funny position, where the students who were being harmed — in addition to the taxpayers — who could have had, and the voters gave it to them, a bigger, better program — They didn’t know that this was happening. So we struggled with, “Well, how do we bring their voices in when they are the most affected, but they don’t have anything to say, because they don’t know anything about it?” And ultimately, they literally didn’t fit. I don’t remember if there was any role, per se — where students were talking about the importance of the buildings and that kind of thing. I think it came across, but at the end, to tell the story that needed to be told, they were the story in the aftermath. Once they found out what had happened, then it was out there in the open for everybody to see — that this was the aggrieved party. But, they weren’t walking across the campus thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe, all the buildings that we don’t have and should have.” They didn’t know. So it was an odd inability to include them as much as you’d think they actually ought to be included.
Guest: [Inaudible] … favoritism, systematic incompetence and corruption, reminds me of that old quip about L.A. being, in truth, the capital of the Third World. I was wondering if you got Third-World style of death threats or violence?
Gale Holland: No. I mean, I think people second-hand told us that we were dealing with scary people and we should be careful. And I was — as Michael knows, I was frightened for my dog. But we didn’t get any — All the people we wrote about, we dealt with directly. We interviewed them repeatedly. Right?
Michael Finnegan: No, no one threatened us. The much more common thing was — They were scared of us, kind of like a rattlesnake. You know, they say that about wild animals: You’re terrified of them, but they’re a hell of a lot more scared of you. There was a little bit of that going on.
Raquel Rutledge: Well, last thing — okay, one last question.
Male B: The scariest guy had a bunny suit on. [laughter] You said that you were heartened by the number of public employees, or people involved, who wanted to help you, who knew something was wrong, so you had a lot of good sources who helped you understand the story and find things out. How did you find them? Or how did they find you? Can you give us a couple of examples?
Michael Finnegan: … It was just a small world of people who were involved, of people who knew what was going on, who understood what was going on. And pretty quickly, everyone in that world knew that we were circling around. It didn’t feel that way from our standpoint, because we were just two reporters working, but there were people involved, on the inside, who — for them we were huge. It was as if we were executing search warrants all the time. We were a very big presence in the world of these people. And so, some of them came forward. A number of them came forward and called us, and you know [said], “We were very nervous about exchanging emails with anyone at the L.A. Times, on the L.A. Times server. Are they going to be able to get that somehow?” That kind of stuff. And others, we just — standard reporting — We cold-called people who we could see from the records were right in the middle of stuff. And we could see sometimes from the records that they seemed to be professional people, trying to do the right thing and sometimes really adamantly saying, “This is wrong. We can’t do it this way.” We’d pick up the phone and call and say, “Hey, do you want to meet for coffee?”
Gale Holland: Yeah. And also, I feel like because we — One advantage of spending so long on it was that people became convinced of our seriousness of purpose. We were there at every meeting, every little committee, and this and that, and people saw us there constantly, And I think they realized that we weren’t going to go away and we weren’t going to take “no” for an answer and then I think that emboldened them to come forward. Because they were — in the beginning they were really, really nervous — about their jobs and everything else. They were just very nervous.
Raquel Rutledge: Have you moved on to other stories, o, does this have follow-up that you’re continuing to work on?
Michael Finnegan: We’re done.
Gale Holland: I mean, others are. We each have a new assignment and other people are doing the follow-up, like from the education part, which I’m no longer in. So there is still follow-up. And there were a couple of big stories that ran after this series that you awarded that ran the following year.