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Andy Curliss: Overcoming obstacles to investigate public officials

By Andy Curliss
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Our running investigation has focused on former Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina.

We have revealed numerous instances of unreported gifts, favors or other perks provided to the governor while he was in office and shown how many of those people who made the gifts benefited from the governor or his administration. (The Democrat finished his second term in January.) The reporting has included revelations about a six-figure discount for the governor on coastal property, a job for his wife at N.C. State University, free travel, free cars, free golf and more.

Follow-ups have delved into the university system, including undisclosed severance deals for numerous top university administrators.

Federal and state authorities have opened wide-ranging probes, with subpoenas mirroring the newspaper's reporting.

The chancellor, provost and chairman of the board at N.C. State have resigned. The former first lady was fired by trustees.

Numerous reforms have been made or are proposed.

Continuing coverage can be viewed online by clicking here.

How did you get started? (tip, editor assignment, etc.)

The thrust of this story started with efforts by the newspaper in 2005 and again in 2007 to obtain travel records of the governor, but that were denied under what were cited as security reasons. In the summer of 2008, the former first lady received a big raise at N.C. State at the same time we were reporting on European trips she took, which renewed some questions. At the end of the year, our efforts to obtain the governor's travel records were again denied.

We appealed once the current governor took office and, after much negotiating, finally received some records in February 2009. Further negotiating produced more records, which became a crucial part of our reporting.

What were the key sources? (people, documents, etc.)

Beyond obtaining the travel records, we also conducted actual stake outs that were beneficial to the reporting, reviewed thousands of pages of public records obtained through public records requests, built numerous databases from scratch (there were not many to obtain) and interviewed dozens of people.

One Web site we found beneficial for tracking flights was www.fboweb.com, which we found much easier and less expensive to use than Flight Aware. It includes the ability to download a database of FAA flight data going back to 2001.

What was the biggest roadblock you had to overcome?

The biggest roadblock was a lack of access to the key subjects of the stories and to some records that are not considered public but were obtained through much reporting. Many people involved have simply refused to agree to be questioned after multiple attempts to reach them over months. Two of the key subjects who agreed to interviews did not provide accurate answers to our questions, which became a part of the reporting.

Do you have any advice for journalists working on a similar story?

One lesson is to keep reporting on an elected official after he or she has left office. People who are close to the person while they are in office might not talk then, but could open up afterward. We investigate all sorts of people and businesses. Do not let someone off the hook just because they're out of office.

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