The Center for Public Integrity set the standard for ambition in 2005 with its project “Well Connected in the States,” a report on the influence of major telecommunications companies on state governments.
“Understanding the working of a single government is a difficult undertaking,” said John Dunbar, director of the center’s Well Connected team, and Leah Rush, director of state projects. “Understanding the workings of 50 different governments simultaneously borders on lunacy. The Center for Public Integrity’s state projects team knows this all too well. Despite the challenges, we keep doing the work.”
Because of the sheer scope of the project, Dunbar and Rush’s departments had to band together.
“The project brought with it the usual challenges involved in examining 50 different systems of government,” Dunbar and Rush said. “But it also involved the additional burden of interpreting one of the most complex industries in the U.S. economy. To accomplish this feat, for the first time, two major center project teams worked together.”
Devoting unprecedented resources to the project, the Center for Public Integrity dialed in and got hold of new information that showed just how political telecommunications companies have become.
The center found that the most active communications giant spent at least $16.3 million to lobby state governments. In the second part of the watchdog organization’s report, it discovered that a high number of state public utility commissioners had political backgrounds, were paid salaries rivaling the most important members of their local governments or had accepted expensive gifts from telephone companies.
And all of that information could be accessed with one click of the mouse.
“From one Web page, a citizen can background a public utility commissioner, find out if she or he might be in violation of a conflict of interest law and file a complaint — not to mention see how much the industry spends on state politics and compare the amount to other states,” said Dunbar and Rush.
The judges of the competition heard The Center for Public Integrity’s call loud and clear.
“(It was a) well-reported and researched piece that should serve as an agent of change in the way telecommunication agencies are monitored,” said the judges. “It is clear that a lot of hard work went into this piece of journalism. The stories and interactive state information were easy to access and clear.”