Carolina Journal Executive Editor Don Carrington knows a thing or two about uncovering stories of corruption in government. As an investigative reporter for CJ Carrington has broken several stories detailing cases of government corruption and incompetence.
Carolina Journal Associate Editor Lindsay Marchello sat down with Carrington on Feb. 15 to talk about his career and the challenges of keeping governments accountable.
LM: What does investigative reporting entail? How do you go about getting a story done?
DC: It can either start with something I read, where I see something wrong from either a behavior or policy side and something doesn’t look quite right. It catches my attention. Usually it’s something that I already know a little bit about. Or it can be a tip out of the blue on something that I know nothing about. I generally read a lot. If I think it can turn into a story, then I share it with others here [at Carolina Journal] to see what they think. Then I proceed. Oftentimes we don’t do a story, or I end up learning a lot and say this just doesn’t feel right for a story right now, like I learn about guardianship fraud but I feel like it’s just not right for me to write about it right now or that the issue is getting coverage in other places. A lot of what I do is research, and that sometimes turns into a story and sometimes it doesn’t.
LM: So, once you pick up on a story, where do you go next?
DC: Well, I do a lot of research. That’s why you see a lot of paper here, it’s stuff I like but there’s an article about it, or some land records, or some personnel records or something that I have to remember and use it if I’m actually going to proceed with a story.
LM: What are some of the challenges you face in North Carolina when trying to obtain information or a document from a government agency?
DC: Getting cooperation from government officials has always been a challenge. It has been a challenge for me and for other investigative reporters and general reporters, too. Government officials are usually not very cooperative.
LM: How do you get around that lack of cooperation?
DC: You pester them, constantly. If you think it’s been too long when they are not being cooperative, you have to threaten a lawsuit. I have not filed a lawsuit, but I have been part of threats many of times. One example is with the development of the Randy Parton Theatre. The city of Roanoke Rapids was not going to release its contract with Randy Parton. The theater had been paid for with public funds. The only money they had in the beginning was public funds, that taxpayers agreed to borrow. They were not going to let me see his contract, so I said we are going to sue you. They coughed up the contract within a couple of days. But they did check with the Institute of Government. That was a unique situation, but I knew they would have to give it up. You can’t borrow money and set up Dolly Parton’s brother in business and build him theater without sharing the deal. How much does he get? How much does he get to keep if people come to the show? The contract was startling. He himself would get up to [$1.5 million] a year. All of his expenses and his band would be paid for. That was a startling amount of money.
LM: That leads into my next question. What were some of the biggest finds of your career as an investigative reporter?
DC: Well, that was a pretty big find. Another one was there was an issue with Attorney General Mike Easley running public service ads in the year before he was getting ready to run for governor. The ads sure looked like campaign ads, which they said were prepared by his staff. I was able to get expenditures from his office through the controller’s office. I essentially got the check registry for a period of time. I noticed there were payments to a sound studio in Philadelphia that just happened to be on the same block as his political consultant. I called them and the person said, Yes, we do political ads for Mike Easley. There the public record led me to the truth, that this was connected to his political campaign, at least the people producing it thought it was. He would tell people down here they were just public service ads. That was a pretty big find.
LM: Did any of your stories have real-world consequences?
DC: Yes, some of our earlier stories we relied on public records, but most of these were available at the General Assembly. They weren’t online. They were records about an organization, a nonprofit that former congressmen Frank Ballance had set up while he was a leader in the state Senate. You could see by the votes that he would put things in bills that would direct money to a nonprofit that he controlled. It was approximately $2 million over 10 years. Other records showed it was tied to his church, and after a couple of stories, the auditor — and we later learned federal investigators — went right after it. He was funneling money into his own organization, and he had never properly registered it as a nonprofit with the IRS, where some of the records are available. There was little evidence of any public good that this operation did. Frank eventually went to prison for four years.
LM: What are some cases in which you didn’t get the information you requested?
DC: Eventually you get it, but it could be as much as a year later and it can be heavily redacted. You don’t always get to have a conversation about why something is redacted. Several reporters and organizations wanted the documents related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and the Cooper administration eventually released as much as 40,000 pages. A lot of it was not related to the pipeline. A lot of it was duplicated. You just don’t know if they pulled anything out of it.
LM: How can we improve public record requests? Does it need to be improved?
DC: Yes, it needs to be improved. I think when I make a request I would expect someone to say that they received the request and discuss it with me, “Can we narrow this, can we make this easier for me and you? We can do what you’re asking, but can we narrow it down a little bit with the time period or the keywords you are searching for? Then I can get you something sooner.” That’s how adults would handle it. That’s not going on now. You don’t get a call back.