AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Tracking the Junkets   

A new Web site will keep a close watch on government travel.

By Abby Brownback
Abby Brownback is an AJR editorial assistant.     

The nonprofit watchdog site BailoutSleuth.com and its for-profit sister, ShareSleuth.com, will add a nonprofit sibling to the family within the next month.

BailoutSleuth, funded by entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, recently expanded its small staff to prepare the new site, JunketSleuth.com, as well as continue coverage of the efforts of the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, says Chris Carey, the editor of both BailoutSleuth and ShareSleuth. ShareSleuth sniffs out corporate deception and securities fraud, while JunketSleuth will analyze and keep tabs on government travel expenses.

"Given that the economic problems in America extend to government in addition to big business, there's a widespread call for belt-tightening," says Carey, who also will edit JunketSleuth.

To monitor whether that belt-tightening is indeed happening--and, as Carey says, "to dig into the bailout in the way we felt was necessary"--the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based BailoutSleuth has hired several reporters in the past six months, including two Pulitzer Prize winners. Gary Cohn, who won a Pulitzer for investigative journalism while at the Baltimore Sun in 1998, joined the staff full time at the beginning of the year and is now working on a major investigative project.

"Right now the financial story is the biggest, or one of the biggest, out there," Cohn says. "It's important to hold financial institutions and the government accountable, particularly at a time when much of the country is going through difficult financial times."

BailoutSleuth was created in October 2008 to do just that, and it will continue to track TARP funds and failing banks even as the bailout is set to expire soon. "There are still hundreds of smaller banks that are holding onto taxpayer money," Carey says. "We don't think the problems are over by any stretch of the imagination." At the same time, the staff (six people for the three sites) will look to take on "another vital public issue at the intersection of government and money," he says. JunketSleuth, scheduled to go live in late June or early July, fits the bill, and the staff has already obtained and started to analyze travel records. But Carey won't say much until the site--in a somewhat skeletal form--is up.

BailoutSleuth counts on Pulitzer winner Russell Carollo, who won the prize for national reporting at the Dayton Daily News in 1998, to handle Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents and databases. Kevin O'Connor, who did freelance work for the site prior to joining the staff earlier this year, covers the Securities and Exchange Commission. Ryan Holeywell, the sites' Washington, D.C., correspondent, writes daily and weekly stories on political maneuvering and does enterprise work, such as the database he recently built of enforcement action taken against banks that received TARP funds and then violated rules or standards.

"There's so much potential for things that can go wrong, and I think there needs to be as many eyes keeping watch on it as possible," Holeywell says. "The more perspectives, the more eyes you can bring to this issue the better."

But those eyes need to be able to explain the sometimes tricky angles of financial journalism to a general audience, says Marty Steffens, the chair in business and financial journalism at the University of Missouri.

"You have to understand the numbers, how banks work, the difficult aspects of banking," she said of financial reporters. "You have to not only understand the complexities..but then you have to be able to explain it in a way a wider group understands."

That, Cohn says, is his goal--"to do a story that is good enough, has a far enough reach, tells people something they don't know, and has an impact."

Few media outlets are able to have this effect, because few cover the banking industry, especially from the perspective of taxpayers, Steffens says. "Clearly, it's in the public interest to have smart journalists watch how we spend money, and how can you not better society by having a lot of people watch the actions of big business and government?" she says. "The more courageous journalists we have who can take on big business and big government spending, the better society we'll have."

But are people reading the work BailoutSleuth does in pursuit of transparency and accountability? Carey wouldn't offer statistics on unique visitors or page views. "I'm more concerned with getting good stories out there," he said in an e-mail interview. "Our thinking is that if you produce unique, valuable content, people will find you.

"It's a niche other people aren't covering. There's a place for us."