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Waste investigations for any community
Start small, follow audit trails, and follow up. This session’s panelists offer advice, and underlying it all are those precepts, applicable to both your data skills and your investigative inquiry. The panel included Erin Jordan of The Gazette/KCRG-Cedar Rapids, Josh Sweigart of the Dayton Daily News (Cox Media Group), and Tim Eberly of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Tim Eberly started his multi-part series on daycare in Georgia after a two-year-old girl was found dead in a van, where she had been left on a hot day. Eberly describes himself as an investigative reporter who has come to understand the value of data. His progression through this story mirrors the progress of gaining facility with computer-assisted reporting.
The specific question of how often children are left in vans led to requesting all records of daycares cited by the state. But the numbers meant little without context, so Eberly looked at other states for a basis of comparison. He found that almost all other states were suspending or revoking licenses for daycares at a higher rate than Georgia.
Four months in and with more meat on the story, he now needed to develop more sources. One information request later, he had a list in-hand of all investigators who had left the agency in the previous five years. From one of these sources, he got the tip to compare fines levied against fines paid. He also found out about a secret scoring system that revealed one-third of the daycares had been deemed noncompliant, and many of them multiple years in a row. After another request, he learned that many fines issued never were paid.
Here is where Eberly’s enterprising skills really paid off. Moving from Excel to Access, he joined the table of noncompliant daycares with a list of daycares that had received state money. Millions of taxpayer dollars had gone to noncompliant operations.
That’s appalling, and perhaps not surprising. But after Eberly’s report, the state created a tracking system to automatically revoke funding for daycares that fall out of compliance.
Impact like this is hard to document, but if you never follow up on the story, it’s impossible.
Erin Jordan drove this point home with her story about food waste at the university hospital in her community. Her reporting showed that the facilities wasted tens of thousands of dollars per year in wasted food, and that they functioned with a higher percentage of food waste than comparable operations. (She also found that the university itself had not ever analyzed its own food waste that it so meticulously documented.) But she didn’t stop there.
“You’ve got to be an advocate for your own story,” she said. Once you’ve reported the story, don’t let it float away. “Call the right people and ask, ‘Are you OK with this? What are you doing about this?’” she said.
Jordan asked these questions over and over, and eventually learned through her perseverance that the hospital soon informed the Board of Regents that it was changing its protocols to donate its unused meals to local assistance groups, and removing the Styrofoam from its waste stream to enable composting of the food that can’t be given away.
What happens after the audit?
- If there is a finding against you (???) the state keeps a list. But there is often a statute of limitations that’s shorter than the time it takes them to find out the money has been mishandled.
- Out of money mishandled, how much recouped?
- Important to follow up on the story.
One caution from Josh Sweigart, before you get started, comes through an Inspector General he spoke with: One person’s waste is another person’s paycheck. Covering government waste, fraud and abuse is Sweigart’s beat, but he still tries to be careful about how he uses the word “waste.”
That said, if you are ready to start investigating waste in your community, he shared a myriad sources of data to get you launched:
Internal audits: Get their schedules and get on their email lists.
- Federal: GAO, TIGTA, OIG, DODIG
- State auditors
- Local and county governments
Public payroll data:
- Hefty bonuses
- Overtime pay and its impact on pensions
- Sick leave and vacation payouts
- Administrative leave (often an indication of internal investigations you would not otherwise know about)
Federal programs at the local level:
- “Obamaphone” (USAC administers a program giving free cell phones to low-income individuals
- Farm subsidies (Environmental Working Group is a good source of data)
- Transportation Enhancements (Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse for documentation of gas tax money going to road beautification instead of maintenance)
- Home health care oversight
- Public golf course subsidies
- Meth house cleanup
- Frivolous 911 calls
- Red light cameras