By Jon McClure
Sex sells. But it sometimes buys, too. Online.
As described in the panel “Hidden databases: Mining the private parts of public officials,” the trick is learning how to uncover the online footprint of public figures and track the nefarious deeds they might do under the cover of online alter-egos.
Russ Ptacek of KSHB-TV presented a three-part series he reported in Kansas City which exposed the indiscretions of former Clay County auditor William Norris. The linchpin to the entire investigation was the discovery of an alternate email address Norris used online. With it, he registered a gallery of nude pictures of an unwitting woman, which were then posted with less-than-laudatory captions on municipal dishonor roll, TheDirty.com. What followed was a heroic story of defending one woman’s sullied honor and righting gross public misconduct.
Through savvy web sleuth work, Ptacek was able to uncover not only Norris’ nefarious postings, but a series of misrepresentations he’d made while campaigning for his post, including jobs he hadn’t held and degrees he hadn’t earned. Now Norris is facing five years in prison.
Ptacek said the alternate email addresses or log-ons public figures may use to conceal their online habits can be tied to their actual identity through any number of online transactions, including internet purchases, website accounts, or blog postings. Ptacek provided a tipsheet with dozens of resources which can help journalists find that one tie to leads to great investigative work. The tip sheet will be made available on ire.org soon.
Ryann Grochowski of Investigative Newsource, who is on Twitter @RyannNewsource, provided several tips to help you keep tabs on the dealings of your local congressmen and women. Useful resources and tips included:
www.opensecrets.org – Look up details on your congressman and see who’s donating to his campaigns.
www.legistorm.com – Look up congressional staff members, then Google names to find former lobbyists.
www.usaspending.gov – See who is benefiting from major projects as a result of congressional connections.
http://politicalpartytime.org – Check out how lavishly your congressman likes to get down!
All in all, the panel was a great DIY kit to your very own primetime exposé.
Jon McClure is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.