The years-long journalistic effort by an LNP Media Group publication to extract spending records from the Pennsylvania Legislature has been recognized with the prestigious National Investigative Journalists and Editors Freedom of Information Award.
the caucus, an investigative journal launched in 2017worked with Temple University professor and veteran journalist Aron Pilhofer and the nonprofit news organization Spotlight PA to reveal details of $203 million in expenses to feed, house, transport and provide rental office space and other benefits to legislators and their staff in recent years.
Missouri-based Investigative Reporters & Editors, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster excellence in investigative journalism, presents its FOI Award to journalists and news organizations that significantly improve access to records and promote transparency in government.
Read the series:
– We found out how much lawmakers have spent on food, travel, accommodation and other perks since 2017. Hint: it’s a lot.
— Taxpayers foot a huge bill to run the full-time PA legislature, but are stymied by many details
— How a Pennsylvania lawmaker charged taxpayers $1.8 million in expenses
– Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are touting spending transparency. Their websites tell a different story.
“Spotlight PA and The Caucus executed a multi-layered FOIA strategy to develop something that had never been done before, and ultimately revealed the myriad ways state lawmakers spend millions of tax dollars in ways questionable”, the IRE judges wrote.
“Furthermore, they highlighted a dynamic that people don’t often think about in per diems. The team’s work included a bipartisan response and an aspect of powerful solutions in the form of what lawmakers could do. to be more transparent in the future, which may also lead to changes.
“The team’s comprehensive process and method in which they leveraged FOIA is fundamentally ‘open government’ and it’s a true example of what this kind of reporting should look like.”
Caucus Bureau Chief Brad Bumsted and reporters Mike Wereschagin and Sam Janesch, along with Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbis, began filing right-to-know requests in November 2019 in an attempt to answer a simple question: how does one of the largest and most expensive full-time legislatures in the country spend the taxpayer dollars they claim?
“Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act, while imperfect, allows citizens and a free press to fight for open government even when their elected officials refuse to meet with them, to deliberate policy in full view of the public or speak to the media about the decisions they make. do,” said Caucus editor Robert M. Krasne.
“The Caucus and the LNP | LancasterOnline will continue to fight for this level of transparency not only at the state level, but also at the county and municipal level. It is encouraging to see this work recognized at the national level.
The Legislature initially handed over thousands of pages of expense reports, but heavily redacted them so as to obscure the purpose of the meals and trips and protect the names of people or groups lawmakers met with. The records also came in a format that made the information almost impossible to analyze on a large scale.
At one point, the Senate went further. Instead of redacting their spending information, they withheld it completely, making it look like they didn’t have the information. Open file advocates were alarmed when they learned that the Senate had turned over incomplete files.
News organizations have appealed those redactions, initiating a process that allows a designated House or Senate attorney — handpicked by the legislative leaders whose expenses were at issue — to serve as judge.
Both houses backtracked, again providing most documents unredacted, though the Senate stood by its argument that a “legislative privilege” allowed them to continue withholding certain details about how officials spent money. public money.
By early 2021, journalists had filed more than two dozen open case requests, resulting in tens of thousands of pages of expense reports and, in some cases, actual receipts. But again, these recordings arrived in a format that made them impossible to analyze.
To analyze Legislative Assembly spending, which had been hidden away in an array of not very transparent accounts, the reporters teamed up with Temple and Pilhofer, the university’s James B. Steele Professor of Journalism Innovation and chief editor. ‘a team of student data journalists, to sift through volumes of spending data on clunky PDF pages.
“It was long and painful and it involved taking what happened to us as, basically, unreadable images and turning them into structured data,” said Pilhofer, former associate editor for digital strategy and managing editor. interactive news at the New York Times. He was also digital editor at the Guardian in London.
Extracting the data took weeks.
“We couldn’t not do that. It was deliberate – they could have provided this data in a structured format and chose not to,” he said. “It was clear (the House and the Senate) were trying to make this project as difficult as possible for journalists. It was clear that they didn’t want us to do what we knew we had to do.
With this data extracted and organized, Wereschagin, the Caucus’ investigative data reporter, created the first searchable and sortable database of Legislative Assembly spending over the following months. Reporters from The Caucus and Spotlight PA used this database of nearly 400,000 records to analyze and report on how lawmakers spend taxpayer dollars.
“Before the current state right-to-know law, anyone interested in viewing legislative spending had to view hard copies in person in a small room in the Capitol. The public was not allowed to copy the documents, forcing journalists to scribble the information by hand in their notebooks,” Wereschagin wrote to the IRE.
“Although the law now allows the public to obtain copies, the legislature refuses to provide the documents in any format other than PDF. For this reason, plaintiffs have generally requested expenses for individual legislators,” he wrote. “We were the first team to research a comprehensive multi-year list of expenses, and the database we eventually created includes over 380,000 records.”
Bumsted, a seasoned Harrisburg reporter, said creating a “comprehensive, searchable database of legislative spending has long been the holy grail of state capitol reporters.”
“In the days of pencil and paper, with calculators and calculators, this goal seemed insurmountable. As computers advanced and spreadsheets became commonplace, they always seemed out of reach due to the mysteries of certain legislative accounts and formatting that seemed designed to prevent the public from getting the full view.
IRE will present the award to Caucus and Spotlight PA at a June conference in Denver, Colorado.
Previous honorees include Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX for their investigative reporting on the disappearance of a migrant woman for more than six years in the US shelter system; The Washington Post for its three-year fight to obtain documents from the federal government for its reporting on “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War”; and The Houston Chronicle for its exhaustive efforts to probe a secret, arbitrary, and illegal quota set by Texas state officials to limit the number of students eligible for special education services such as tutoring, counseling, and therapy.