As Newspapers Shrink, Journalists Land Jobs in State Government

 

A few months ago, Nancy Vogel, a longtime reporter for the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times , published her investigation into the use of affordable housing money by California's redevelopment agencies. The results were not pretty.

By law, the roughly 400 locally controlled agencies are supposed to use 20 percent of their funds for affordable housing. The bulk of them do, Vogel found, but dozens have been getting away with putting a disconcerting amount of that money into "planning and administration," not building actual affordable housing.

For example, the agency in Culver City salted away $22 million in its low- and moderate-income fund over 13 years while producing just four units of housing. Even worse, Vogel reported , there was essentially no way to be sure that money was being spent appropriately, as oversight mechanisms "are few and flawed."

Had Vogel's reporting appeared in the Times , it would have been front-page news. Instead, her work had a smaller, although more influential, audience: state legislators and staffers in a position to do something about what she'd found.

That's because late in 2008, Vogel left the Times ' state capitol bureau and went to work for state government in the new Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes. Created by Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg, the office is designed "to professionalize oversight and institutionalize it across the board," in Steinberg's words. But it does so in an unusual way: Its three "consultants" — Sacramento committee-speak for research and policy staff — are all former reporters.

In addition to Vogel, the newcomers include Dorothy Korber, a former statehouse reporter for the Sacramento Bee , and John Hill, a former investigative reporter for the Bee . Korber and Hill have worked together before; they won the prestigious George Polk award for their 2004 stories demonstrating that high-ranking officials with the California Highway Patrol were inflating their pensions by submitting questionable claims for injuries or disabilities as they neared retirement.

The three are not the only former journalists in California to put their investigative skills to use digging into the workings of government from the inside. Mark Martin, a former statehouse reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle , works for the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, an oversight committee set up a few years ago under former Speaker Karen Bass. Stuart Drown, a one-time city editor for the Sacramento Bee , now is executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, an independent oversight agency that likewise looks into state government operations. Elsewhere around the country, a smattering of former journalists, some of them fleeing media companies that have retrenched from covering state government, also have gone to work for state oversight agencies.

The California Senate office, however, is the only one to rely so heavily on refugees from newspaper cost-cutting. Korber, the first consultant hired for the new office, put in a call to a Senate contact within minutes after finding a buyout notice on her desk at the Bee. That's when she heard about Steinberg's plans to build a new government watchdog office. "It was exciting," she says, "because we would be creating this new thing on the fly."

A void to fill

Although California has several agencies devoted to oversight — including the Little Hoover Commission and the state auditor's office — the Legislature's own efforts have been surprisingly spotty for the state with the biggest budget in the country. In the 1990s, Bob Hertzberg, the Assembly speaker at the time, hired several investigative reporters to staff an oversight office. Their work helped force the resignation of the state insurance commissioner over allegations of corruption within his agency. But the office did not outlive Hertzberg's speakership.

The Legislative Analyst's Office in California, while one of the most highly regarded legislative research offices in the country, is not really an oversight agency. The standing committees of the state House and Senate do launch investigations from time to time, but oversight is not their prime focus, says Peter Detweiler, the staff director of the Senate Local Government Committee and a dean among legislative staffers in Sacramento. " The urgent need to review bills and deadlines makes it difficult to focus sustained attention on research," says Detweiler, "so having very clever and inquisitive people like these ex-reporters over there is a very good thing for us as policy committee staff."

During the nearly two years their office has been up and running, Vogel, Hill and Korber have looked into a wide array of issues . When Vogel examined the fiscal impact of state-worker furloughs in 2009, she found that in some specific instances, the cost savings were illusory. Korber found mixed results when she looked at how well the Public Utilities Commission is protecting consumers in the age of telephone deregulation. And a database-driven investigation by Hill found that nursing-home workers who had been decertified by the state for abuse or neglect of their charges were being cleared by another agency to work with the elderly in smaller residential facilities.

Despite their more official status as representatives of the Senate, the ex-reporters have found that digging for information from state agencies requires just as much patience as it did in their newspapering days. On the one hand, says Korber, "The Senate controls the purse-strings, and that's what we have that we didn't at the newspaper. They can't look too recalcitrant."

On the other hand, says Vogel, "I've been frustrated by the speed at which we get information. When we deal with a state agency, it's with the legislative liaison, and they move at a different tempo than the press people in those departments." While the Senate has subpoena power, she points out, it uses it only rarely. Instead, she and her colleagues are coming to rely on the state's public records act for requests, since it requires a response within ten days. "Because unless you have the time limits there," she says, "you're kinda just stuck waiting."

Legislators have given the new oversight office a guarded reception. Turf issues are a problem. As one observer outside the Legislature says, "There's a committee for almost everything they touch, so people say, 'Why are you guys doing that instead of us?'" And although the office falls under the aegis of the Senate Rules Committee and has been careful to be responsive to requests for investigations from members of both parties, some GOP staff consider it a spin machine for Steinberg, a Democrat.

Vogel says this is to be expected in a setting as politically charged as the California Legislature. "It is a very partisan place," she says. "So whenever we write a report, the partisans in the Capitol see it through that partisan lens. If it's something Democrats are pleased with, the Republicans say, 'Well, what did you expect?' And if it's something that the Democrats aren't pleased with, they tend to view us suspiciously, like 'Why don't they see the world as we do?'"

Korber points out that the office's first report was on fraud in the delivery of in-home supportive services. Another recent one investigated fraud in the state-subsidized child-care program. "Democrats don't like to be told there's fraud in social programs — they think it's not 'useful.' We were told that," she says. "But all we can do is stand behind the work."

Great expectations

The most pointed criticism of the three has come from a former colleague. Dan Walters, a longtime columnist at the Bee , has written two columns criticizing their work for not uncovering the kind of blockbuster scandals he would have expected.

"That office has very talented journalists who did some terrific work when they were working for newspapers," Walters says. "They do produce stuff, but it's basically staff type of stuff, and doesn't come up to what I know they're capable of doing. It doesn't seem to be generating anything that really is of big significance."

The Assembly's Mark Martin argues that while neither his oversight committee nor his counterparts on the Senate side have found "massive scandals," neither has what's left of the Sacramento press corps. "It hasn't been just incredible, breathless scandals in the last several years," he says. "There's no money in state government to steal."

John Hill of the new Senate office takes issue with Walters' assessment of their impact. "Every report any of us has done, if it had been done for a newspaper, would have been a big page-one splash," he says. Moreover, he argues, "When I was a reporter, the holy grail was to get a bill done on something you'd written about. We have a direct conduit here."

So far, their record on that score has been more miss than hit — although Little Hoover's Stuart Drown contends this is in the nature of oversight work. "To have somebody have run all the traps and lay out arguments and have it researched is really useful, in a public way. It broadens the discussion and it makes the discussion richer," he says. "They're keeping issues on the radar screen, and when the [legislative] opportunity arises they've provided a resource that's easily digestible and easy to understand."

There's no arguing this in the case of Vogel's redevelopment report, which is virtually certain to lead to legislation next year. As it happened, Vogel's report beat by a day a series that the Los Angeles Times ran on some of the same problems with the redevelopment agencies. Detweiler says Vogel's work gave lawmakers a better roadmap of what needs to be fixed.

The Times ' stories "were anecdotal," Detweiler says. "They made for great newspaper reporting and outrage over your second cup of coffee, but were not the kind of sustained work that will drive legislative reform proposals. Nancy's work is. She was patient. She gave redevelopment officials plenty of opportunity to show her where she was wrong, and where they didn't cooperate she noted that without rancor. It's the kind of applied work that gets legislators' attention and legislative staff's respect. I think it will lead to legislative changes and activity next year."

Indeed, the board of the state association of redevelopment agencies recently voted to support legislation to fix some of the issues Vogel identified, says John Shirey, its executive director. Those issues include better defining what can be counted as planning and administration costs for affordable housing programs and, possibly, whether limits should be placed on them.

Uncertain future

It is hard to know whether Steinberg's experiment with hiring investigative reporters as legislative overseers will outlast him; he'll be term-limited out of office after 2014. Vogel and her colleagues certainly hope it will. While they praise the work of the state auditor's office, the legislative analyst, and the policy committees — "I relied on them as a reporter," says Hill — they also argue there's something to be said for bringing a journalist's instincts to oversight.

"Folks who don't have a reporter's experience might not be so willing to gather information from as many sources in as many ways as we do," says Vogel. "We're not afraid of trying to find information in all sorts of ways — talking to people, rooting around on the Web, in the phone book, visiting places, in databases, whatever."

It's precisely this whatever-it-takes attitude toward research that, in an era when government efficiency and effectiveness are coming increasingly under the microscope, may bring more ex-reporters into oversight roles. Florida's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability wants to hire some. So does Laura Chick, the California inspector-general in charge of overseeing federal stimulus spending. Ironically, though, the same economy that has laid waste to statehouse press corps around the country is standing in the way: Both offices are under hiring freezes.

"The skills of an investigative reporter seem to me to be a perfect fit with our strike teams of auditors and analysts in following the money," Chick says. "An investigative reporter has the training and skill set to follow the clues, uncover the problems and tell the story in a clear and comprehensive way." 

 
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