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Behind the Story: The benefits of sticking with a story

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It’s hard to keep saying everything is fine when documents prove otherwise.

Although the General Services Administration continually denied knowledge of a "death list," investigative reporter Russ Ptacek discovered the list while working for Kansas City’s KSHB-TV. He continued the investigation at WUSA 9, in Washington, D.C.

A GSA employee created the "death list" to keep track of workers who died or were ill from causes believed to be linked to toxins in the building. To prove that the list existed, Ptacek filed a FOIA request for GSA Regional Commissioner Mary Ruwwe’s emails that contained the “death list.” From there his story grew and even became the focus of one of the many congressional hearings on the GSA’s mismanagement. Ptacek told IRE by email how he got the tip and how he was able to track it down.

How did you first learn about this story? 

In 2009, I received an email from the man who said both his mother and father were sick and that they’d made a list of about one hundred others.

I got the tip the first week in November. The news director allowed me to drop all my sweeps projects and focus on the sick and dead. We went on to create our own list identifying more than 450 sick or dead from the building.

How did you compile the list of 450 sick or dead?

KSHB created an online registry for sick workers and relatives of the dead to document their cases.

As an investigative reporter, which documents did you feel you had to have to get your story across? And how did you get them?

Because we were able to get firsthand accounts from so many sick workers, we went with the story before we had proof the government was aware of their fears. The workers claimed they’d warned them. GSA officials repeatedly said that wasn’t true until our 40,000-page FOIA uncovered the truth.

How difficult was it to get the “heads up” email that contained the “death list” from [GSA Regional Commissioner] Ruwwe? 

When officials denied health problems or toxins in the building, we FOIA’d health and toxin related documents. The GSA responded with cases of documents. They estimated about 40,000 paper pages. I never counted. 

The needle in the 40,000 page haystack was the “heads up” email showing the regional commissioner had sent a political warning to Washington about cancer and toxin fears to the highest GSA levels months before our investigation. The "death list" was attached.

What tips do you have for other investigative reporters writing similar stories?

In addition to using FOIAs to nail the truth, I think it is important to update stories like this as often as possible.  Keeping the agency’s actions out of the shadows creates more accountability. Even if you don’t do a piece for broadcast or publication, short online updates are very effective.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently from the start of the investigation?

I wish that I’d gotten the official in charge on-camera much sooner. I really wish we had her denials on videotape, and I wish I had video of her reaction when we found the “heads up” email.

What kind of feedback have you received from your readers and from government officials?

The feedback was mostly from people directly affected. It broke my heart. I literally wept in my office several times when family members called me to notify me of a source’s death. As for the government response, despite CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and EPA investigations, those workers still don’t know what made them sick.  The CDC identified no current health risks but did find several pathways from a part of the building known to have toxic exposure.

In the same building, Department of Energy contractors receive regular health screenings for known toxins in their area. There is also a compensation fund that has paid sick workers in that part of the building $32 million. Workers on the GSA side get no screening and no compensation and no answer as to what made them sick.

Johanna Somers is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism

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