Monday, March 18, 2013

How to Dig for Information (Part 1)

[reprinted from the Network for Public Education]

Michael Corwin is a researcher and professional investigator who resides in New Mexico. Michael’s work in the field dates back to 1988, but most recently he uncovered scandals in Education at the State level. In this post, Michael offers some practical information about how to find public information that is available – but not necessarily easy to get your hands on – until now.

It takes money to make money. The for-profit education industry has successfully expanded its reach through spreading its wealth around to key decision makers. Through campaign contribution to elected officials and gifts like travel and accommodations to appointed officials the industry has gained access to a growing amount of public education dollars in a relatively short period of time. Countering the industry’s spending on key decisions makers requires using every tool at our disposal.

Investigative research, when properly done, can be one of the most effective tools at exposing the influence peddling behind those profiting off of public education dollars. While it takes years to learn the ins and outs of investigation, there are techniques that anyone with a bit of knowledge or training can use to investigate and expose these actions.

While large media outlets, like the New York Times and Miami Herald, have the financial resources to investigate the groups and companies behind privatization, parents, teachers and others do not. To be effective we need to focus our investigations on the elected and appointed officials that have rolled out the welcome mat to this industry.

Very rarely will you find information that serves as a “knockout punch”; rather, it will be the collective weight of all the information developed that when packaged together has the ability to change the dynamics of the situation.

The better the quality of the information you develop, the more likely your efforts will succeed. Wikipedia is a great source for background information and to lead you to other sources of information, but it will not give your research credibility to stand on its own. Effective information is best developed from official documents and primary source information.

Digging into Public Records

Public record documents are the backbone of any investigation involving government officials including their involvement and interaction with private companies. Most every state has a public records law that defines the right to inspect public records, what records are public, and the process of requesting, inspecting and copying those records.

For example, here in New Mexico, I have requested to inspect and copy a variety of documents related to the New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera’s interaction with private education firms. Records obtained in this manner have related to her travel that was paid for by private companies, her email and written communications with individuals from private companies, contracts that she has signed with private companies and individuals, the source of funds used to pay for those contracts, as well as communications between her various staff members, consultants and companies. Here are some things to consider when searching for and requesting information.
  • Records requests are not meant to be fishing expeditions, so the more specific you can be about the information you seek, the more likely you are to receive the records requested in a timely manner. For example, you could request, “all documents and communications related to Secretary-designate Skandera’s travel, including source of funds for the travel, from January 2011- March 2013”.
  • Most states prohibit public agencies from asking a requestor the reason for the records request so you do not need to justify your request. Though you will have to provide your name and contact information when you submit your request. Generally states provide a set amount of time by which the entity must provide you access to the records.
  • These types of records are great for documenting the for-profit education industry’s insider access to public officials. They may also document conduct that is prohibited by state law, such as travel and accommodations paid for by a company or its agent in amounts that exceed state legislated maximums.
  • Public records are maintained at the state level, county level, municipality level, and even at the local school district level. The right to inspect and copy records applies at all of those levels.
  • You can request a copy of a contract between Connections, Inc. or K12, Inc. and a publicly operated charter school. You can also request all email communications between the private company and the charter school as long as the school is publicly financed.
  • Many public record documents are available online. However, to ensure that you cover all of the possible sources of documents, it is best to make public records requests to a specific agency.
  • Court files can also be another great source of information. Court records are maintained at the federal, county, and municipal level. Federal court is most likely to have lawsuits involving national education companies, for example the shareholder’s class action lawsuit against K12, Inc. for fraudulent misrepresentation. County level courts are more likely to have lawsuits involving state and local education officials as well as school districts.
  • Many courts have websites that allow you to search for cases by party name, plaintiff or defendants, but for those that do not you can conduct searches for cases at the courthouse.
  • Once you locate a court case, take the time to read through all of the court pleadings. Many pleadings are pro forma rather than informational. Those can be perused quickly. Take the time to read carefully through those pleadings that contain fact patterns as that is where you will find the useful information.
  • There are also numerous business related public records that may be available to review depending on how the company in question is structured. For example, K12, Inc. is a publicly traded company so there are numerous filings, including annual reports, changes in stock ownership and executive compensation that are maintained by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Connections, Inc.; however, is a privately held for-profit entity. Therefore, there are no SEC filings for them.
  • You can research business records for elected, and appointed government officials as well as company officials through the Secretary of State’s office in all states except for New Mexico where the Public Regulation Commission maintains them. These records can be useful for demonstrating conflict of interest issues.
  • For example, you can research business entities that lease properties to charter schools to see if they have any connections to charter school board members.
  • Real property records are typically maintained at the county level, with ownership information being available through the Assessor’s office, while documented transactions are maintained at the County Clerk’s office.
  • Records of contributions to political candidates and office holders are maintained at the Secretary of State’s office as are lobbyist disclosures and financial disclosures of elected and appointed state officials.
  • Public record searches can be supplemented by newspaper and magazine article searches along with online searches to add additional information.
  • Each set of documents that you locate may well provide leads to more documents to request. Documents can also identify people with direct knowledge that you may wish to interview. Information is only as good as your ability to assess and package that information.
We will explore conducting interviews, and assessing and packaging information in subsequent articles.

Note: If you uncover corruption in the field of education as a result of your investigation, share it with us at NPE. We will do our best to get the word out.

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