TT with HD: Chris Carey
[Ed. note: JunketSleuth is an independent Web-based news site aimed at exposing travel patterns of U.S government employees. The Knight-Wallace fellowship offers a funded year of academic year of study to journalists at the University of Michigan.]
HD: I will make you go and sit there.
HD: Before we go up and down we'll do the standard portrait taking. [Ed. note: Smalltalk about history of Teeter Talk]
CC: Oh, right!
HD: Because I spent some time there, too.
CC: Uh huh?
HD: I grew up, actually, in a small town called Columbus ...
CC: ... sure.
HD: ... which is right down the road from ...
CC: ... drove through it just this weekend!
HD: Oh, really?
CC: Well, the interstate right past it.
HD: So how does it look down there? Have the leaves started to turn?
CC: They had. I was guessing Brown County was about a week away from peak traffic.
HD: So this was a regular trip that you take?
CC: We went down this weekend. We went to Indianapolis first--my wife's sister and her family live there--and on to Louisville for a family birthday celebration.
HD: Alright, so you're familiar with the same stretch of the county ... so you were in school there for journalism? You went to the Ernie Pyle school of journalism?
CC: I did. I was there from 1979 to 1983. My sister also was there. She was three years ahead of me. So I followed her there. She's a television reporter in Washington D.C. now. So we've got kind of a family interest in journalism.
HD: Got it. Okay. So then, this stint in Ann Arbor--and I'm calling it a "stint," perhaps inappropriately--you did a Knight-Wallace fellowship?
HD: And what was your home publication?
CC: The St. Louis Post Dispatch.
HD: So my understanding of the Knight-Wallace fellowships is that it's supposed to give people an opportunity to sort of go on sabbatical, get infused with new knowledge and enthusiasm for the field and then they go back, though, and the crucial piece is to go back and spend the rest of your career at that publication, right?
CC: Well, at least to go back for a period of time and sort of bring your renewed enthusiasm and maybe new vision. The problem we had--I was there in 2005-06 at the fellowship--the news industry was starting to implode then, and a lot of people didn't have things to go back to.
HD: Was that the case with you?
CC: Well, I did go back, but just for few months. But I already knew I was going to be starting ShareSleuth. What happened was, my paper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, was sold by the Pulitzer family in mid-2005--before I came to the fellowship--to another company. And the news focus instantly became local, local, local. And that didn't necessarily fit with what I wanted to do, which was to be kind of an investigative business reporter, with a broader perspective, focussing on stock fraud, investment fraud, that sort of thing. That sort of thing is national and global. So they basically gave me the option of coming back to cover the banking industry and the utilities industry, the insurance industry ...
HD: ... but that wasn't exactly what you ...
CC: ... exactly. So I started looking for a way to turn my [Knight-Wallace] study project--which was called the "criminal subculture in the securities industry"--into a new venture. And I knew I wanted to be online, because of the ability to post documents ...
HD: ... so this was 2005-06, so did you feel like somehow that you were vindicated by what unfolded about two years after that?
CC: Absolutely. I absolutely got myself out ahead of the curve and got myself established with the new venture. And looking at other members of that fellowship class, easily half have changed jobs, some are out of journalism now.
HD: Do you keep in touch as a fellowship class? Facebook pages etcetera?
CC: I do. Some are Facebook Friends. There is a Knight-Wallace Facebook page. There was a big Knight-Wallace reunion last year. So a lot of people came back for that. Some of our class is still in the area--John Bacon, who is a local writer, he was in our class.
HD: Really!? I didn't realize he had done a Knight-Wallace fellowship.
CC: He was a sports fellow ...
HD: ... I didn't realize he had that on his resume, not that it would have mattered--I mean, he writes for us.
HD: So JunketSleuth, how would you describe it--it's a subsidiary of ShareSleuth?
CC: It's actually a separate entity. In 2008, after Congress passed the TARP legislation, after the financial industry imploded, my financier, Mark Cuban, thought we should track that, with the idea of tracking the flow of government money, with the idea of bringing transparency and accountability to the process. At the time, the idea was that the government was going to buy or somehow preside over auctions of troubled assets. It didn't really work out that way. They just gave banks a bunch of money to boost their capital.
HD: ... so with a specialist focus on travel.
CC: Right. So in, I guess it would have been late 2009, we enlisted a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, another print refugee named Russell Carollo, to start filing Freedom of Information Act Requests with all the federal agencies, asking for their electronic databases of travel spending. It took almost a year to get some of those, and then to put them in a format that you can post online and make them searchable, with the idea that maybe we'd look at that, who was traveling where, how much they were spending, and what the purpose of the trips were, to see if we could find some patterns of abuse, and then also to just put it online where members of the public could look at it for the same purpose. Because there are ultimately millions of records.
HD: Yeah, right. and to be able to spot irregular or suspicious patterns would, I mean, I dunno, I suppose you could write an algorithm to spot certain things, but ultimately, a human eye, maybe, is required?
CC: Exactly. At least what we do, is if we see particular travelers who are making five, 10, 20 international trips over a few years, or otherwise racking up other taxpayer funded travel, we'll then ask for underlying paper records to get the hotel receipts, the air fare, and then look at that. Some of the things we're seeing there, as in a story we published a few weeks ago, about a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, $24 worth of Diet Coke out of the hotel minibar, in the course of a day, or $100+ dollars charged to room service, things like that, where people aren't being very careful stewards of public money.
HD: Well, he [she, actually] was perhaps a little thirsty?
CC: It may not be a major scandal, but it goes to the mindset of [inaudible] elite, if you will.
HD: So travel as a category. Let's say that JunketSleuth is wildly successful in its impact on public officials being better stewards of public money with respect to travel. If in fact it's a mindset and a cultural thing, and the only reason travel records start to look pristine, is that another avenue has been found, then all we've done is shone a light on that and the bedbugs or the cockroaches have scurried away from the light into some other place. Do you think about it from that perspective at all? That travel is one thing you can focus on, but even if you clean up travel, if the fundamental, underlying mindset is the problem, if its a cultural problem, then these folks will find other ways ...
CC: ... sure, right, that's the thing. Taxpayer-funded travel, the government's travel budget is about $15 million annually, which may not seem like that much, in the context of the entire federal budget. But as we put it, that's the equivalent of every SouthWest airliner filled every day, every single Hyatt Hotel filled every day, for a year. And that's just the publicly-funded travel. There's also a lot of privately-funded travel that government officials get, funded by universities, corporations, think-tanks, you name it. In some cases, that spending is higher than the agency's own travel spending. So that's another place it could shift to.
HD: I could imagine one approach to cleaning up travel records might be to start calling "travel" something else--"research expeditions" or something.
CC: That's what we're finding as we're looking at these databases, all sorts of things are just labeled "meeting" or "conference" or "site visit." And you really have no idea what the purpose of those trips are. In some cases, as with the Department of Energy, typically when they travel to Nevada, they won't tell you what the reason is. Part of that they say has to do with classified information on, say, nuclear materials. But again, a lot of people try to hide behind secrecy.
HD: In thinking about sort of the level of work you guys do, this is the federal budget, and in thinking about where I live in my journalistic world--county commissioners who are claiming a per diem inappropriately for $25 for a meeting that didn't qualify under the per diem guidelines, I mean, there's more to government than just the federal level. I mean we have all these local entities, and when I think about the fact that for most of them nobody pays attention to any of the local units with any kind of detail or scrutiny, there's just not the resources.
CC: I think that's one of the tremendous problems--for democracy and for citizenry, and that's the decline of the mainstream media. The huge cutbacks in staff and resources means that they are not doing that kind of work. And it leaves this big void, and the question is: Is it necessary? Yes. And how do you finance it? That gets very tricky. If it's a national issue, you can draw resources from a lot of places. If it's local, you pretty much have to rely on the folks who have an interest in that.
HD: Well, going back to what you just said, the only people who really care is the people it affects, right? So there's a limited audience. For some of these smaller townships, say some small township has a township supervisor is inappropriately claiming travel expenses, the number of people who are affected by that to begin with is small. The number of people who care really that some guy charged $1,500 inappropriately or whatever it might have been, it's a smaller percentage of that, so who is going to pay 50,000 bucks to keep somebody employed so that a $1,500 illegal expense gets reported and so that guy doesn't do that again? I mean it's sort of a--well, it's not totally clear to me that the investment in the reporting that would be required, at least at the local level, gives you an adequate return.
CC: Exactly. And you wonder, too, even the people who'd be affected by that official's behavior, whether they would really care to read those stories. When I was in the newspaper business--and I was for 20+ years--you know, I had editors who just moaned about dull, boring meeting coverage. They thought no one wanted to read that.
HD: [laugh] I have no idea what you are talking about. [Ed. note: HD edits a publication, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, that specializes in dull, boring meeting coverage.]
CC: If they did, they wanted it summarized in a few bullet points and summarized in 5-10 inches of text.
HD: It's supposed to be digested for you so you know what to think without having to understand the information.
Postal Carrier: Good morning, gentlemen!
HD: How you doing?
Postal Carrier: Okay, how are you gentlemen doing?
HD: I thought we already got our mail today?
Postal Carrier: No, you didn't get any mail yesterday!
HD: Oh, right.
Postal Carrier: No mail on Columbus Day, yesterday. Have a good one!
CC: So that's the thing, virtually every city and state in America has budget problems. And that goes back to how they spend their money, and there's a lot of hard decisions going forward about how to spend that money. But if citizens have no idea how that money is spent, how are they supposed to participate in the process.
HD: So back to the personal angle, you did the Knight-Wallace fellowship, you went back to St. Louis at least for a time?
CC: But we fell in love with Ann Arbor while we were here.
HD: That's what I wanted to ask you about: What was compelling about Ann Arbor for you?
CC: Having the university here was part of it. As I said, we were in St. Louis, and my wife and I both had been there for the better part of 20 years.
HD: Were you actually in St. Louis? Downtown St. Louis?
CC: I lived in the city some of the time, if you know St. Louis, the Forest Park area, on the western fringes of the city. And then we had our house in a first ring suburb, right outside of the city.
HD: So, University City?
CC: Maplewood. Just south a couple of miles. University City, Richmond Heights, Clayton and then Maplewood. But St. Louis is an insular place. It's a nice place to live, the cost of living is good, cost of housing is good. So a lot of people don't leave. And a lot of people who do leave come back. So it's just seemed kind of stagnant. And I was pretty beaten down from my time at the newspaper, too. And here [in Ann Arbor], there's all sorts of people, at the university pursuing projects, there's an intellectual life here, we loved the scale of the city--when we moved here, we got rid of one of our cars. I live a few blocks away at Eighth and Huron.
HD: Oh really!
CC: Yeah, so we can walk to downtown. And I work from home. It suits us.
HD: And that was something you recognized early on here during the fellowship? Or did it take a while to sink in that, Hey, wow, Ann Arbor is really the kind of place I'd like to spend a longer chunk of time.
CC: It grew on us. But by the second half of the fellowship, particularly when I started looking at doing something different, I thought if we are going to take that leap and do that, maybe we should do it in Ann Arbor. And that's what happened. And when we started ShareSleuth, we really only had one year of guaranteed funding. I figured if it didn't work, I could move on to something else, but as it happened ...
HD: ... so ShareSleuth is now on a year-to-year type funding mechanism, so each year you've got to make you case to the financier? Here's what we've done ...
CC: Yes, sure. So who knows where all that will lead, but I'm happy doing that for now, it's great. You know as well as I do, it's kind of exhilarating to be your own boss and be able to chart your own course, but then it's also difficult when you have limited resources, because it's frustrating because you can only do so much and you wonder if you're making a real dent in the world.
HD: Yeah, you wonder, I often wonder that.
CC: We came back after the fellowship in July 2006, so a little over five years. We still have a house back in St. Louis, we couldn't sell it, so we're landlords.
HD: How's that working out?
CC: We'll we just locked someone into a three year lease, so that's good.
HD: That's a nice active verb, "locked in" ...
CC: It's actually one of those cases where it's a woman and her daughter and the daughter was gong to Maplewood High School, which is three doors down from our house, so the woman wanted to live in the same place, while her daughter attended high school. So she wanted a three-year lease. And given the real estate market, we wouldn't be in much of a position to sell before then.
HD: So St. Louis now has some sort of transportation link from the airport into the city, is that right?
CC: Well, it's broader than that now, MetroLink, the train. it's been around for more than a decade.
HD: To me, it's like, Oh, they just put that in--I went to school in St. Louis, Wash. U., and when I read about it, I say, Oh, that's different from when I was there, so that is new.
CC: Yeah, it started out, it went from the airport to downtown and then another line that went form ... you can now take the train from the airport, it goes through Forest Park, the Wash. U. campus ...
HD: ... it goes through the campus?!
CC: Yeah, they've expanded it, so Forest Park Parkway, the train goes up the middle of that.
HD: So has that been judged to be a success, or is it a huge boondoggle that needs to be looked at by ShareSleuth?
CC: Well, the paper has certainly looked at it quite a lot. They added some south and west lines in recent years on towards Shrewsbury and places like that and I'm not sure what sort of ridership they expected. It's hard to get St. Louisans out of their cars.
HD: Harder than it is to get southeastern Michiganders out of their cars?
CC: Apparently. I didn't take the train or the bus to work that much, just because it meant for me walking some distance from my house just to catch the bus. For other people it could work pretty well.
HD: And here in Ann Arbor, [from Eighth and Huron] you can walk to downtown. That's still reasonable.
HD: [HD talks about L5-S1 spine issues for a while] Thanks for riding!
CC: No problem!