Special interests, we're at TED and ICIJ impact

Note from the Center: our CEO writes

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 Updated:

Dear Colleagues,

In a huge month for politics in the United States, the federal politics team is taking its investigative focus on the road to look into the special interest circus at the conventions. Our ICIJ Director talks Panama Papers at TED and our Environment team goes deep on a looming and unreported health and environmental crisis.

Influence peddling

John Dunbar, our deputy executive editor, comments on: "tireless senior political reporter Dave Levinthal, who has been in Cleveland since Saturday covering all the various influence peddling that’s been going on at the Republican National Convention.”

Dave’s coverage can be found here. In addition to writing an on-running blog/diary, along with help from the rest of the political staff, Dave’s also been crafting some provocative stories. Best among them so far, this piece on the never-ended fundraising duties that candidates face. The story was highlighted in the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Next week, reporters Michael Beckel and Carrie Levine will be in Philadelphia to follow the doings of the Democrats at their convention.

It’s all part of ensuring that our longer-term focus on U.S federal politics and the junction of money and politics for which the Center is famous, retains its immediacy and relevance in a fast-moving campaign where the rise of Donald Trump has challenged traditional notions of funding. Web editor Jared Bennett has done an elegant job of packaging the short-term reporting into context with our Buying of the President coverage.

[Belated recognition too for a piece by John Dunbar on U.S. Rep. Roger Williams,  a Republican congressman from Texas who offered an amendment last fall that would directly benefit his car dealership. John wrote about it, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint and the House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation. The amendment would have excused car dealers from a law that prohibits dealers and rental car companies from renting vehicles that are subject to safety recalls. Read about the investigation here. More will be revealed as the committee reviews the complaint for possible sanctions.]

ICIJ at TED (and in NZ)

ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle was a featured speaker at the TED gathering in Banff, Canada this month. The Panama Papers impact is still reverberating and beyond the policy changes and resignations the project is regarded as a significant indicator to a future of collaborative reporting.

Gerard’s speech includes the lovely line — referring to the fact that the leak never leaked during the year 400 reporters were working on it — "In order to make the biggest kind of noise, we first needed the biggest kind of silence”. Very TED.

I have been in New Zealand this week speaking at slightly lower key events: the World Journalism Educators Congress and to a group of lawyers and judges in Wellington.

New Zealand, you may remember, was a surprise star in the Panama Papers revelations, exposed as a major destination for offshore trusts. Its Prime Minister, John Key, was the only world leader mentioned by name in the manifesto of the leaker. I can tell you the Panama Papers is still big news in New Zealand. The Key government announced last week that it would accept all recommendations of an official inquiry into whether the leak had exposed abuses.

That is the kind of policy impact the ICIJ and CPI can feel very proud of in assessing the impact of our projects.

Mortgage scam

Our business investigations team of Fred Schulte and Allan Holmes have been dogged in tracking abuses — frequently targeting the poorest in our society – of title loan companies and the like. The latest is a powerful piece on law firms exploiting mortgage holders who fall into arrears. Eight years after the global financial crisis and the bailout of banks it is still the poor, often minorities, who bear the brunt. USA Today partnered with us to publish the story nationally.

Famine, war and lobbying

Erin Quinn, shortly to leave our politics team to take up a language teaching post in France, has dug deep into the work of Washington K-Street lobbyists ready to take money from some of the worst regimes in the world in a rebranding effort. South Sudan, where civil war broke out again on the eve of us publishing this report, was the latest focus of her reports on rebranding failed states. Vice News partnered with us on publishing.

Coal ash — a looming environmental crisis

Kristen Lombardi has spent much of this year on a major investigation into coal ash and the health consequences for those caught up in the under-reported catastrophe that is treatment and disposal of this byproduct of coal-fired power stations. This week she looked at those suffering after a huge clean up BY the Tennessee Valley Authority. Grim reading. The Daily Beast partnered on publishing. Her earlier report on an Oklahoma town where coal ash dust blows through the whole area is here.

What we’re reading and thinking about

Executive Editor Gordon Witkin notes an illuminating Washingtonian piece on “What Really Happened at Politico”. He was also reading a Nieman Lab story about the new investigative strategy at Gannett, which has become a frequent partner of ours.

I welcome feedback on this note, thank you.

Peter Bale
CEO, The Center for Public Integrity
pbale@publicintegrity.org @peterbale

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