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Transparency Watch: Yearlong quest for open records yields story on million dollar spending
This is the first post under Transparency Watch, an occasional series from IRE tracking the fight for open records. If you have a story about a quest for public records you'd like to share, email us at email@example.com.
By Laura Bischoff, The Dayton Daily News
The Dayton Daily News published a hard hitting Sunday story on Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee spending $7.7 million on housing, travel, entertainment and community outreach.
The tab included $64,000 for bow tie cookies, bow ties, bow tie and O-H pins, $31,000 for a party attended by just 90 people, private jet travel, international trips, stays at the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton, flowers sent to power brokers and politicians and hundreds of parties for thousands of guests.
The university also did an extreme makeover on the Pizzuti House, a 9,600-square-foot house in a verdant Columbus suburb provided to Gee. Renovation construction costs ran $1.3 million and interior designers shopped for just the right antiques, Persian rugs, wallpaper and decorative pillows to outfit the place. Furnishings cost $673,000, including $532 for an extra-long shower curtain in the guest bath.
The Wall Street Journal called Gee out for lavish spending back in 2006 when he was chancellor of Vanderbilt University. But our interest in Gee didn’t start there.
Instead, it came during the 2009 campaign for Ohio governor when Republican John Kasich disclosed his $50,000-a-year job as an OSU presidential fellow. It piqued our interest because $50k is about the average household income for Ohioans, yet it was just one of the many sources of income Kasich listed. We dug into it, found out Kasich was paid out of the Mershon Endowment Fund and wrote a story about what he did for the $50,000-a-year stipend.
Months later, Gee threw a good-bye party at the Pizzuti House for a high-level staffer who was leaving OSU to become a lobbyist. The party tab was paid out of the Mershon Fund. That prompted us to ask for spending records for the Mershon Fund. In September 2011, we wrote about how OSU spent freely from the fund for things like 10 tickets to a Lady Gaga show, $13,114 for tax prep for Gee, $8,142 for catering for the board of trustees meeting.
We immediately followed up that story with a request for Gee’s travel, housing and entertainment records as well as employment contracts for top managers and other documents. The idea was to try to find out who Gee’s top lieutenants are and how he operated behind the scenes.
We received some documents without too much delay – employment contracts, some months from Gee’s calendar, a spreadsheet of university payroll. But the university’s excuse for taking months on the spending and travel data was that they were swamped with public records requests relating to then Head Football Coach Jim Tressel. We agreed to start with one year of data in an effort to speed things up but seven months later, OSU provided less than 10 pages with a summary of Gee’s flights for just 2009. We expressed our disappointment and displeasure. Using the summary information as well as Gee’s travel information provided on financial disclosure statements filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission, we wrote a story in May about Gee spending at least $844,000 on travel since 2007, including half a million in the last two years.
I wrote a series of emails to Jim Lynch, the OSU media relations director. We exchanged more than 50 emails over the course of the year. After consistent follow up contact with OSU media relations and a few harshly-worded letters from our attorneys, Ohio State began releasing more records.
Gee’s calendar, American Express statements, employment contract, quarterly discretionary spending reports and invoices for the Pizzuti House renovation were the most crucial documents that allowed us to give readers a glimpse of how OSU’s president lives, travels and reaches out.
Even though I’ve been a reporter for more than 20 years, I learned a few valuable lessons from this:
1) Regularly follow up on your records request and keep track of who you contacted and when.
2) File all correspondence regarding the records request into one folder in your email program or desktop.
3) Keep a spreadsheet of what was requested, what has been delivered, what is still pending.
4) Read every scrap that is delivered – you might find a $532 shower curtain in there.