Laura Mahoney of the Bureau of National Affairs’ (BNA) Daily Tax Report spent more than a year reporting to confirm that:
“Taxpayers with complex tax-dispute cases before the California State Board of Equalization were more likely to win their cases if they or their representatives made campaign contributions to the elected board members.”
The average amount at stake in the 70 cases she examined was $2.2 million, and board members received $684,207 in contributions from those involved in the cases. She also found that success rates rose with contribution levels.
Her five-part series was among the work recognized in the National Press Club Awards this year.
Today’s Tip: Gather data and enter it into Excel in a consistent, clean way that makes it most usable, Laura says.
“You can have all the data in the world, but if it isn’t well-organized and carefully quality controlled, you don’t have much,” she says. “Find resources such as outside consultants, academics or people on your staff who know how to build and analyze complex sets of data.”
Laura relied on expertise from her scientist husband Joel Schwartz, who knows how to analyze public policy-related data. She created three separate databases that focused on the cases, campaign contributions and campaign spending, she says.
She also interviewed more than 30 people, though she reached out to more than 50.
“When people won’t call you back or speak on the record, remember the advice that a friend of mine who is a veteran investigative journalist gave to me: ‘At the end of the day, what do your numbers tell you? If your data tell a story, you have a story. Keep going and be persistent.’”
Nothing has happened yet to address the issues she raised, says Laura, who’s been covering the board since 1996. “Lawmakers have considered various tax-tribunal reform proposals for almost 100 years, and the forces aligned against such reforms are daunting.”
If you’d like to learn more about how to use computer-assisted reporting in business stories, check out the free Reynolds Center Better Business Watchdog workshops on Sept. 13 in Seattle and Nov. 8 in Cleveland.