A massive data-journalism project at The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) revealed that more than 2,600 top federal officials traded stocks in companies they helped oversee, often in violation of the law. The resulting series of stories won the Bronze award in the 2023 Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism.
A team of reporters spent around 10 months investigating thousands of different disclosures to create a comprehensive database of 315,000 trades from 50 federal agencies and analyzed patterns all across Washington. These reporters had to file countless public record requests and then used algorithms to match the nearly 1.2 million descriptions of assets and transactions against a WSJ database of publicly traded companies.
How did they do it?
One of the reporters on the team, James V. Grimaldi, recounted a prior project that ultimately inspired this investigation. That project found 130 federal judges had ruled in cases involving companies that either they or their families held shares in. The procedure to gather this information was similar as it involved stockpiling financial disclosures of the federal judges and looking for conflicts of interest.
While broadcasting the judges’ investigation on social media, Matt Murray, editor-in-chief, suggested examining rank-and-file senior executive service officials. That suggestion sparked the idea for their next story, and from there, the team began to form.
Coulter Jones, Joe Palazzolo, Michael Siconolfi, and Grimaldi all worked on the judge’s project together. Brody Mullins, Rebecca Ballhaus, John West and Chad Day were all brought in to assist with the new investigation for their varying areas of expertise.
West and Day, who are data specialists, began extracting data and creating a new database to analyze the information for any potential conflicts of interest.
Cleaning up the data
What proved an initial challenge, as they sorted through countless disclosure forms from officials, was the different terminology employed to refer to the same companies. For example, one disclosure form would say “AAPL,” whereas another would say “APPL,” – both of those referring to the company, Apple Inc. The team had to examine these different abbreviations to properly connect all of the officials investing in a single company, like Apple, and from there they could look into which officials actually had a role in regulating those companies.
Once this full database was complete, it was Grimaldi who went out into the real world to find the officials who owned stocks and investigate what potential conflict of interest meetings they attended discussing those stocks or the company.
This is where the team’s next hurdle came in. Although all of the information they were asking for is public record and can be requested, every agency has different procedures to get the documentation they need.
“In some cases, the agency would say, ‘okay, we’ll send them over to you.’ In other cases, they say, ‘you need to fill out this form,’ There’s a form you have to fill out to get copies of the forms,” Grimaldi said. Even once they filled out the paperwork, the government pushed back and asked for additional forms to be completed that were nearly impossible to get.
Ballhaus “had to write Freedom of Information Act requests to find out who had to fill out the forms before we could get the forms,” Grimaldi said.
Once they began receiving data, it often resulted in them needing to request even more information. This resulted in Mullins and Ballhous doing copious amounts of request work to get more data to properly understand what was happening at the time of those transactions and more back and forth with 50 different agencies.
The timing of trades
Another issue was deciphering how much of a stock these federal officials own because they report their holdings in ranges.
“If you get someone who’s really wealthy, you don’t know if they own $10 million in shares or $1,000,001 in shares,” Grimaldi said.
The team inserted those ranges into the data to make the information more tangible. They chose to focus instead on the timing of trades rather than the monetary amount as the timing points to more ethical dilemmas. They also focused on the number and amount of transactions to decipher if there were any potential conflicts with their federal jobs.
While out in the field, Ballhaus and Mullins began finding people who, in West’s words, “were considered to be so important, so irreplaceable, that they could go in and get an exemption from these rules.”
Teamwork gets the best results
West worked on the data side of the reporting but emphasized how teamwork made this investigation more comprehensive.
“Watching my colleagues do this amazing reporting was really awe-inspiring,” West said.
When asked what it is like being an investigative journalist, Grimaldi emphasizes how it allows you to always keep learning.
“I get to become an expert in something new. It’s like being back in college for my entire life, because suddenly I have a whole new class to take where I can become an expert in something I really didn’t know anything about,” Grimaldi said.
Grimaldi’s biggest piece of advice for young journalists is to keep reading.
“Read everything you possibly can. It’s where you get ideas, and then what you read usually leads to people, and people usually read to lead to sort of like documents and systems,” Grimaldi said.
Day’s favorite part of being an investigative journalist is the ability to help.
“It’s always a challenge. It is interesting to learn new things. There’s an ability to help people, there’s a lot of mission in that. The best stories are the ones that try to help as many people as possible,” Day said.
Day’s advice is to give every piece your all and always double checking information, “Approach it with the same seriousness you would the biggest investigation that you’ve ever tried to to take on,” Day said.
Ultimately, this investigation depended on teamwork.
“It was a big team effort. None of us could have done this by ourselves. Part of the success of this team was the fact that we had a good chemistry and a good culture,” Grimaldi said.
Following the investigation, two U.S. senators introduced bipartisan legislation to bar members of the federal executive branch and lawmakers from owning stock in individual companies.