Reporter mines records to discover car deal for lawmakers only

Dec. 12, 2012
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In this memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for State News, Financial News and Global Training Kristin Gazlay singles out a California reporter who painstakingly mined state records to produce a widely read AP Exclusive about used-car deals available to lawmakers only:

California lawmakers once were provided taxpayer-funded vehicles, but that perk ended last year. So what happened to the vehicles?

Sacramento reporter Don Thompson worked for months to find out, filing multiple public records requests, purchasing Department of Motor Vehicle records and dogging dozens of lawmakers. The answer resulted in an AP Exclusive: About one-third of all lawmakers had billed taxpayers for car repairs or upgrades as the program was ending and then bought the vehicles they were driving for personal use. A dozen lawmakers had costly work performed just weeks or days before they bought the cars, sticking taxpayers with the bill for new tires, water pumps and, in one case, inside-and-out detailing.

The challenge of pulling the story together was in assembling a document trail to determine whether lawmakers had bought their cars – complicated by the fact that, after the state sold the vehicles to a third party, the next transaction was private and not part of the public record. Thompson had to buy DMV records and then match those to previously obtained license plate numbers. He also had to laboriously comb through the 249 pages of unsorted repair records supplied by the Legislature to fulfill a records request and match the repairs to individual lawmakers.

All this he did while also handling his legislative and law enforcement beats – and writing election-year assignments.

To help members localize the coverage, Thompson included a list of lawmakers who had repairs done, what those cost and whether the lawmaker then purchased the vehicle. And he constructed the table so the material could be exported to Excel for easier use by customers.

See the story and table here:

The story landed on at least nine fronts throughout the state, while other papers did their own versions and credited AP. Radio and TV stations also used it, and some did their own versions. The day after the story moved, the state's campaign watchdog agency opened an investigation into one lawmaker who the AP revealed had purchased his vehicle with campaign cash. And Thompson’s reporting also prompted an editorial by the L.A. Daily News:

For smart and persistent work that underscores why nobody beats the AP when it comes to accountability journalism, Thompson wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.


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