Eric Nalder -- Breaking and Entering: How to dissect an organization

Breaking and Entering
How to dissect an organization

Eric Nalder
Seattle Times
1120 John Street
Seattle, Wa. 98109
Phone: (206) 464-2056
Email: enal-new@seatimes.com

In our bellicose jargon, we refer to them as targets . . . as in "the target of my investigation." Perhaps that's because they pop up like shooting gallery icons in the course of a newspaper reporter's life.

One day a tipster introduced me to the fascinating world of nuclear weapons plants, and then a faulty o-ring sent me packing to a Utah rocket plant. The errant crew of the Exxon Valdez redirected my attention to tanker companies and from there - to mention a few - it was the University of Washington football team, the Seattle Fire Department, a bunch of crime labs and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If our best stories are told through people, our toughest reporting tasks often involve cracking the associations they form. The challenges are myriad since the 265 million people in this country have created - so far - 6.5 million businesses, 220,000 non-profit organizations and 85,000 state and local governments. Each has its own culture, and more are being formed every day.

Ergo, the first rule for investigating organizations is to be flexible.

The second rule is that you must stop thinking of them as targets. After all, you are not going to shoot the organization. You will lift off the lid, pull out the parts, read the operating instructions and discover how it works.

Then you may expose its flaws, and in the process write some meaningful poetry.

First, though, you must lift off the lid.

The manual for dissecting an organization starts with basic questions:

  • Who are the players?
  • Who is in charge?
  • Who are the regulators?
  • What are the rules?
  • How are things done?
  • Where are the mistakes recorded?
  • Where is the spending recorded?
  • Who knows the story and how can I get it?

  • To answer these questions, here are some suggestions:

    WHO ARE THE PLAYERS?

    Lists: Every organization and government agency has payroll lists and phone books, which are frequently available on computer disc. For the government agencies you cover, routinely make FOIA or state public disclosure requests for these documents, as well as the job application resumes and personnel files. At private companies, cultivate helpful employees to provide the same. Be sure to ask for outdated payrolls rosters and phone books to get the names of former employees.

    Newsletters: Most organizations publish internal newsletters that contain employee names, and other bonus information. Writing about a secretive Army Ranger battalion which had a classified roster - I gleaned a third of the names from a year's worth of the post newspapers at the Ft. Lewis library, just because the Rangers were frequently mentioned as accomplished athletes.

    Associations: Contact the professional associations since they sometimes give out rosters, and they publish newsletters. They also hold annual conventions where you can meet lots of potential sources. Books on file in the library have lists of professional associations.

    Courts: Check the local courts for lawsuits that might list employees, and keep in mind that disgruntled workers who have sued the firm or agency are sometimes good sources of information. Even an innocuous suit involving a land dispute might contain helpful names. Be on the lookout for depositions.

    Whistleblowers: State personnel boards and the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board in Washington, DC have on public file the names of government employees who have appealed disciplinary actions. Some cases involve whistleblowing. For towns and counties, check the local civil service commission. To contact people who have submitted confidential environmental and or safety complaints to state and federal agencies, try getting around the confidentiality requirements by asking the regulatory agency to forward a letter from you to the complainants.

    Licenses and Permits: State licensing bureaus provide lists of a wide variety of professionals who have state permits, including real estate agents, surveyors, undertakers, manicurists, architects, and nurses. You can frequently search for them by company name. The FAA has the names of pilots employed at an airline. The Coast Guard registers crew members on U.S. flagged merchant ships (and don't overlook the Liberian Services in Reston, Va. for licenses on Liberian flagged vessels, and the Panamanians, etc.) At each agency, some biographical and disciplinary information is usually available.

    Contracts: Contracts with government agencies frequently include the names of the employees who work for contractors. For example, a housing authority applying for a HUD grant often includes resumes of key employees and officers.

    Bankruptcy: Federal bankruptcy court records are a goldmine, since they contain, among other things, the names of employees who were stiffed for their wages.

    Newspaper morgue: The business section of your own newspaper lists employees who were promoted or reassigned.

    Old city directories: Newspaper and public libraries have old copies of the city directories that list the place of employment of local residents.

    Outside contacts: You can get information on employees from a company's customers, suppliers and competitors. And remember, too, the unions. Companies have lawyers and accountants, and sometimes they have ex lawyers and ex accountants. Ex wives of company bosses can also be helpful. And don't assume that a banker won't tell you anything.

    Gripes: Try the people who register their gripes with the Better Business Bureau, or the city licensing agency, or the licensing department, or in letters to the editor.

    Hangouts: To meet sources, hang out at the restaurants, bars and cafes located near the company office. Or maybe there's a gym where the troops play basketball.

    Tour: Take a tour of the agency. Meet people. Take note of the names you see on desktops and on those little magnetized ''in" and ''out" signs that are frequently located at the receptionist's desk.

    Interviews: The best sources, of course, are the employees themselves. When you interview them, ask each one to tell you what they know about the others. You can quickly build a roster this way. Ultimately you want to know how people interact, and who is the best source for each type of type of information. If you already have a payroll list or phone book, read out the names to prompt your interview subject's memory. During one recent investigation, had each interview subject to through a roster and by doing so I developed very useful dossiers.

    When an employee tells you something important, always follow up with the question: ''How do you know that?" The answer will frequently include the names of other players.

    WHO IS IN CHARGE?

    Government: It's relatively easy to obtain a roster of bosses at government agencies. Resumes should be available and much of the personnel file should be open for your perusal. Pay attention to the place where the bosses formerly worked, because you can learn a lot about them there. Verify what they have said on their resume.

    Disclosure: Elected officials, of course, file documents disclosing their finances and campaign contributions, but keep in mind that the top appointed officials at the federal and local level must frequently do the same.

    The unofficial hierarchy: Learn about the shadow bosses. Sometimes a member of the city council runs the show at city hall more than the mayor, or a particular contractor has more power within a state agency than the director. Ask employees about this. Request the desk calendars of the bosses to learn who they meet with regularly, and get travel records along with an itinerary.

    Private companies: One of the best resources is Dunn and Bradstreet. The free version of a Dunn and Bradstreet report has bare bones information, but the $l00 version is much better. Another source of the names is your state's corporations office. In addition, the county recorder keeps records regarding limited partnerships. Loan documents on file at your state's Uniform Commercial Code office frequently contain names. Credit reports are available on line. The local Chamber of Commerce might have information as well. Of course, the company phone book is a key. Service club directories contain names of company leaders. Bankruptcy records point fingers of blame when a company gets into financial trouble. Keep in mind as well that employees, suppliers and customers can provide additional information on informal hierarchies. Who does it/he/she contribute to? How much? Why? What do the politicians who received donations say about your subject? Does the business have it's own PAC? Many large companies, including privately held ones do. And if they've got a PAC, they've got to file with the FEC and, often, with state and municipal authorities as well (often there'll be two PACS, one for federal elections, one for state). If a company has its own PAC take a close look at who contributes to it. You'll most likely find key company officers and, perhaps, friends or business associates who can offer other avenues for reporting. A particularly good web site for FEC data is: http://www.tray.com/fec.info

    Publicly traded companies: The Edgar site operated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (www.sec.gov/edgarhp.htm) provides valuable documents such as the 10K and the proxy (known as Def 14A). These have names of executive officers including their wages and perks, age, title, time with the company, familial relationships and a brief biographical description. Annual reports, available from the company's investor relations office, contain more puffery but have additional valuable information. Ask the relations office for resumes on company officers Stock analysts are a great source of information on company bosses and on the informal hierarchy. Lists of stock analysts are available in Nelson's Directory of Investment Research and Bloomberg News. Be aware of possible bias if the analyst works for a brokerage house that serves as the company's investment banker.

    Non profits: The IRS 990 form contains the names you want plus financial information. Non profit organizations are required to release the 990 if ask for the document at the office during normal business hours. You can also fax your request to the IRS. The proper address in our region is the office of Return and Income Verification Services, Ogden (Utah) Service Center, 801 620 6671. The reply should take 30 days. Dan Langan of the National Charities Information Bureau says you'll get quicker service from the IRS if you cite the IRS CODE and DO NOT cite FOIA. Keep in mind that some 30 states require charities to keep their 990s on file with the state, and you will frequently get quicker service there. The agency in Washington is the Charities Division of the Secretary of State.

    Other sources: Nothing is more valuable than the contacts you make with secretaries and clerks. Take a tour of the company. Sometimes these are offered to the general public. Talk to competitors, suppliers and customers. Check court files and interview the litigants. Talk to the boss' neighbors and his buddies at the golf and country club.

    WHO ARE THE REGULATORS?

    Federal government: The inspector general offices for each federal agency have web sites, and a directory for them is located on Ignet at www.sba.gov/ignet You can search inspector general reports by key word or topic. The General Accounting Office is a good resource, as are the internal audit agencies (i.e., the Army Audit Agency, etc.). Cultivate sources at the audit agencies. Staff members from congressional committees are sometimes helpful, and there are directories that can help you locate them. The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel receive complaints on personnel issues. Check the court files and the Federal Election Commission.

    State and local governments: The state auditor's office is a good starting place, but don't forget legislative committees and the city council staffers, as well as the various offices of internal audit. The state attorney general's office and the state police conduct investigations at state agencies. Each government agency has an office that answers complaints and claims. Remember the personnel office, the unions and OSHA. For police, there is the office of internal investigations and frequently there is an ombudsperson.

    Private companies: You might locate some government audits if the company has a government contract. The GAO and the IG might also get involved. The SEC acts as a regulator for publicly traded companies and, in an ad hoc way, so do the various stock analysts. What kind of business is your company engaged in? If it is involved in a regulated business as most are then you can get information from a variety of sources; i.e., for transportation companies you can get reports from, among others, the FAA, ICC, NTSB, local state highway police and (if waterborne) the U.S. Coast Guard. The city business registrar will have some basic information. The city engineering and building departments, and the county assessor, will have data on the structures that the company owns. As mentioned before, the state licensing department might have complaints filed against licensed professionals. The Uniform Commercial Code Office keeps a record of loans. The state revenue department will have some releasable information. OSHA and your state labor office will supply reports on safety and wage and hour complaints. It might even be relevant to ask the police and fire departments for records on emergency calls to the business location. Check the court files for lawsuits, of course, and the Better Business Bureau for complaints. (Council of Better Business Bureaus has information on businesses and charities at http://www.bbb.org)

    Non profit: While the IRS 990 form is one good source of information, an even better one is the audited financial statement. Under some circumstances, charities are required to release their financial statements. Langan gives the example of public TV and radio stations which are required by agreement with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to make their financial statements publicly available. In some cases, charities file the theirs audited financial statements with the state. Or you can always ask the people at the non profit agency to give you a copy. If they don't, ask them why they are not willing to release it.

    Watchdogs on the perimeter: Organizations like the Government Accountability Project receive whistleblower complaints, while environmental organizations take care of the dirty discharges and poisonous products. The National Charities Information Bureau, based in New York, keeps an eye on charities (http://www.give.org). Some state agencies also oversee charities, but keep in mind that they say most of their leads come from the media. Your library will have a list of private organizations that watchdog various businesses. Lawyers who have sued the company might also be aware of organizations, and or groups of complainants. Canvass the neighborhoods surrounding a company for activists who might keep an eye on the place, and cruise the internet. Think about the work that the company performs, and imagine what kind of people might come in contact

    with that work. I found information about tanker companies among the ship pilots, tugboat drivers and oil terminal operators. Use your imagination.

    WHAT ARE THE RULES?

    Government agencies: You'll be buried for too long if you try to read every law and regulation that affects your agency. Learn to use the indices in the federal law, and the code of federal regulations, to more precisely locate the sections that apply to your subject. For a shortcut, watchdog agencies and organizations can point you to the relevant language. You can get a government agency to do the work for you by filing a FOIA request asking for any and all laws, regulations or internal policies that apply to whatever you are writing about.

    Private companies: Use the same process, but in this case go to the government regulators who oversee the business. Find the laws and regulations that they are empowered to enforce. Remember, too, that there are general laws governing the operation of a company - taxes, unfair consumer and labor practices, wages, etc. - that might be relevant. Various agencies, like the Labor Department, administer those laws and they can help you with the details.

    Internal regulations: Agencies, non profit organizations and companies all have their own internal policies and regulations. Request them from government agencies and get someone inside the private organization to provide you with the rulebook.

    The history: When you find the rules and regs you are looking for, read the legislative history and interview the experts to learn how the law or regulation into being. You might find that the old problems that were supposed to be fixed by the new law haven't gone away. Or you might find that new problems have arisen as an unintended consequence of the law. You can also locate the people who spurred the change in regulations, and get their perspective on current events.

    HOW ARE THINGS DONE?

    Tactical plan: Once you have a grasp of your subject, sketch out a plan for figuring out the way the organization works. As a general rule, you should file your FOIA requests to the government agencies early in the process. While the agency is deciding whether to honor your request, you will be getting to know some employees who will leak the documents to you.

    People trail: Decide who are you going to interview and in what order. Sometimes you must catch certain people quickly before they are scared off. Other times you must circle them, talking to their friends and associates. Also decide where you are going to interview people. It is frequently best to talk with them at the place where they are doing the thing you are writing about. But sometimes you might want to surprise them at home, where they are likely to be more candid. Talk over the plan with your editor and your fellow reporters.

    Getting the inside story: Once you have your roster of players, you'll need an insider to guide you to the players who are most likely to talk freely about the hidden stuff. Find the home addresses for those people and visit them at a convenient and non threatening time (7 p.m. is often a good). Tell them you are working on a story and you could really use their help. Offer a brief rundown of the story you are working on because, sometimes, their curiosity about your story will get you in the door. And telling them something about your story is a good way to prompt them to give you more information. If that doesn't work, apologize for the intrusion and appear as though you are backing off. Get the person to talk about something else. Anything else. Maybe you noticed an unusual plant next to the walkway, or the family dog, or something on the wall that indicates a hobby. Say something about it. As a general rule, if you can get people talking about anything, you can gently move them back to the subject you are interested in. As you move back to the subject that interests you, start with non threatening questions. Ask the person about the work that they do, and then ask what they know the person or the problem you are interested in. If the interview subject balks, reassure them that they are not the only person you are talking with and "it's really no big deal." You explain that what you need as a reporter is a little help. Be honest. (See my interviewing handout Loosening Lips for other techniques.) As you get to the most important stuff, it's important for you to organize your approach. Follow a chronology. When the person says something significant, always ask ''How do you know that?" That question is a perfect door opener to other sources, and for some reason it usually gets people to say more. Also ask for examples. When a person tells you that the bosses are unfair, ask for an example. And always ask people to suggest other ways of getting the information you need, and other sources. ''If you were working on this story, how would you do it?"

    More on the paper trail: Whether you are using FOIA with a government agency, or a mole at a private company, get your hands on the memo traffic. If the agency is in trouble, or if rules are being violated, there will be plenty of memos. Make sure you follow the memo trail to the end. Audits, of course, are helpful, as are pieces of outside correspondence. Travel records and desk calendars are good sources of information. It is very important, at some point, that you visit the department that keeps the records and meet the record keepers. Drop in unannounced, if that's possible, and do so in a friendly and casual manner. Ask for a tour. Your goal will be a detailed explanation of the records system in the agency or company. An alternative is the midnight visit. If a source works the graveyard shift, ask if they can bring you to work one day and give you a tour (as long as it is legal).

    WHERE ARE THE MISTAKES RECORDED?

    Anecdotal: As you meet with sources, ask people to tell you where the mistakes are written down. Every company and government agency has a system. Sometimes there is more than one place where the mistakes are recorded. At Department of Energy nuclear weapons plants, for example, some screw ups were described in ''Unusual Occurrence Reports" and others were memorialized in ''Off Normal Reports." There were also audits, internal memos, internal letters and surveillance reports.

    Paper trail: Government agencies are required to release lists of relevant documents. With private companies, you've got to ask people to describe the system (more on that later).

    WHERE IS THE SPENDING RECORDED?

    Anecdotal: Besides the obvious internal sources, you might find yourself a friendly private auditor who has dealt with company or agency you are examining. Be wary of organizations that keep two sets of books. It does happen. If necessary, try to find a mole within the bookkeepers office by visiting people at home.

    Paper trail: Reading a balance sheet is never easy. Find yourself an expert, maybe an inside source or perhaps someone from the accounting office in your own newspaper. Remember that a balance sheets shows you how the money was spent, and a budget shows you how they planned to spend the money. You'll want both. Be sure to follow the budget trail. Get the budget proposal made by the agency head to the agency chief executive, and the one submitted by the CEO to the council or legislature. Look for stuff that gets lopped off or added, and read the narrative to learn more about the agency's needs.

    WHO KNOWS THE STORY AND HOW CAN I GET IT?

    After you have made your document requests, and toured the plant, you need an excuse to move in. Sometimes the best excuse is the simple act of copying documents.

    Whether you have made a FOIA request of a government agency, or talked a company into sharing some of its records with you, you can win friends by offering to help with the copying. Once you get there, get yourself assigned to a table, and ask directions to the restroom and the soft drink machine. Be courteous and don't get in the way. Meet people. Chat. Listen to conversations. Basically, you want to become a part of the operation. Doing so, you will witness stuff you would never see in the annual report.

    Come up with an excuse to return several times. Move around with confidence. Act like you belong. Act like they are lucky to have you there.

    Ask people to retrieve records for you, and accompany them to the file cabinets. Learn how the filing system works, and offer to pull out the stuff yourself. Pretty soon you'll get direct access to the records.

    Drop in on the bosses several times. Have valid questions, don't be a pest, but get them accustomed to talking with you several times. Ease them into informal conversations.

    If something important happens - a critical meeting, an accident or a major incident - be there. Instruct your sources to inform you whenever they expect a significant event. If necessary, ask sources to keep diaries for you on what goes on in the office.

    If your story involves a factory, get down on the floor and learn how to operate the machinery. Don the protective clothing that the workers wear, and handle the same tools. If you are writing about crooked cops, hang out with the cops. It pays to be on the scene. The best interviews are conducted with the eyes, as well as the voice and ears. Be there, and you will be aware.

    If people are nervous about giving you access, explain to them that you can write more accurately about their operation if you have firsthand knowledge.

    As you collect information, organize it into two major files. One is a chronology and the other is something I call an aspects list (aspects of a story).

    The information I put into the aspects list is labeled by category. For oil tankers, for instance, I set up categories like ''crew training, double hulls, enforcement of rules, engines" . . . and so on. While I read clippings, examine documents and review interview notes, I enter, under the proper category, any quote, fact or idea that seems useful. To properly identify each item, I label them with an asterisk followed by a key word that designates which category it falls under. (i.e. *training for crew training, *double for double hulls and so on). By using an asterisk, I have created a very handy search word. (I do this in the body of my interview notes as well). That way I can search very quickly for the entries that relate to each category of my aspects list. At the end of each entry, I note for myself where I can find the original document or my raw notes in my paper files or in my computer database.

    An aspects list and a chronology will help you better understand your subject, and, more importantly, it is tremendous guide while you write.

    Before you write, decide what the story is. A poorly written investigative piece is usually the work of a disorganized reporter who is not sure of the point.

    If you cannot write with authority, then you are not ready to write. Do more reporting.

    Thanks to the following people for their help: Duff Wilson, Stanley Holmes, Tom Boyer, Tom Brown, Dan Langan, Deborah Nelson, Greg Heberlein and David Boardman.