The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky found fertile ground for stories when it looked into spending at four organizations that receive public funds. Through open records requests, reporters and editors found that oversight of spending at the agencies was lacking, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel and entertainment expenditures for top executives.
Sharon Walsh, enterprise/projects editor, says the investigations started when beat reporter Jennifer Hewlett received tips about spending by executives at the local airport. The paper submitted open records requests for officials’ credit card expenses. Among the charges: $5,080 for a visit to a strip club by three airport execs.
After the airport series, the paper requested records from the public library, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties. “We started looking at a number of other boards throughout the state. Each one we looked at, we found interesting ways of spending taxpayers’ money,” Walsh says.
Today’s Tip: Quasi-governmental agencies often provide business services and operate with minimal oversight. Open records requests can shine a light on their expenditures. The Student Press Law Center provides an easy-to-use form to generate a state open records request.
Once they had analyzed the records, Walsh says reporters spoke with similar agencies in other cities to determine if the costs were standard – they weren’t. Walsh says the paper also triple checks stories for accuracy. In addition, readers could search the expenses for each agency themselves in an online database powered by Caspio software.
The stories have led to several resignations, a criminal investigation and a state audit at three of the four organizations, Walsh says. “The most satisfying and rewarding thing about it has been community reaction,” she says. “A lot of change resulted from our work.”