By Megan Wanner
One of the most important things to remember when investigating governmental institutions for budget discrepancies is the saying from Brant Houston in “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” “budget is policy and policy is budget.” As Houston explains, “Budgets show where the money comes from (revenue) and where the money goes (expenditures), and they also reveal what and who are important to the government.”
This was clearly evident in the Abramoff scandal where a $25,000 check from Choctaw Indian Tribe and eLottery, Inc. in 2000 paid for Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, his wife, two aides and two lobbyists to take a trip to Britain two weeks before he voted against legislation the tribe and company opposed. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff was involved in the scandal, suggesting the trip then arranging for the checks to be sent, revealing DeLay’s importance in the decision of the legislation. According to R. Jeffrey Smith in “The DeLay-Abramoff Money Trail,” “A former Abramoff associate who is aware of the payments, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his clients, said the tribe made contributions to entities associated with DeLay because DeLay was crucial to the tribe’s continuing fight against legislation to allow the taxation of Indians’ gambling revenue.”
The decisions of budget committees regarding which agencies receive budget increases and which receive budget cuts can reveal priorities or special interest influences. If an agency has consistently been receiving cuts then suddenly receives increases, investigate why the change has occurred.
A situation that journalists should be on the lookout for is an agency’s spending during the last month of the fiscal year. This spending pattern will give insight into which agencies have used their allotted money and which needed to use theirs to ensure receiving the same amount of money for the next year. The pattern could also reveal scandal as to where the money is being spent when it needs to disappear fast. Is it being kicked out to a certain company or person multiple times?
Compare budget notes and tax returns for multiple years. Multiple inquisitive questions can be asked when watchdogging for budget scandals:
• Where is the agency indicating they are spending money?
• Are there places other than these that you sources know of where money is being spent?
• What are they telling the committee they need money for?
• Are they using the money for these needs?
Tax returns indicated a $1 million check was paid by London law firm James & Sarch Co. to the U.S. Family Network. Although this is not illegal, it raised red flags as foreign companies donating large sums of money to U.S. groups do not receive the tax deductions U.S. citizens do. The money was uncovered to have been given to DeLay as a lobbying gift as oil firm Naftasbib’s “Nevskaya and Koulakovsky sought Abramoff’s help at the time in securing various favors from the U.S. government, including congressional earmarks or federal grants for their modular-home construction firm near Moscow and the construction of a fossil-fuel plant in Israel.”
Remember that you do not need to wait for budget reports to come out to uncover scandal. There are paper trails and people who can be consulted to lead to inconsistencies before the report even comes out. Rather than serving as a start for your investigation, reports can be confirmation of the information you have uncovered.
The money trail exposed between DeLay and Abramoff concluded startling discoveries. Among them was when “the U.S. Family Network registered an initial $150,000 payment made by the Choctaws, according to its tax return. The tribe made additional payments to the group totaling $100,000 on “various” dates the following year, the returns state. The Choctaws separately paid Abramoff $4.5 million for his lobbying work on their behalf in 1998 and 1999. Abramoff and his wife contributed $22,000 to DeLay’s political campaigns from 1997 to 2000, according to public records.” This was only one of the many made throughout the years uncovered through the careful investigating of journalists James V. Grimaldi, Susan Schmidt and R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post.