Chuck Neubauer is an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, with a distinguished record of political investigations in Chicago. In the film, he and Ken Silverstein looked into the lobbying shop run by Karen Weldon, the daughter of congressman Curt Weldon. Following a Justice Department and FBI investigation spurred by the Los Angeles Times story, Congressman Weldon was defeated in November 2006 for reelection.
What story (or stories) have you worked on since filming wrapped on DEMOCRACY ON DEADLINE?
I’ve continued to focus on members of Congress and how they use their power, often to benefit their family and themselves in different ways. I wrote a story about how the sister of Congressman Nick Rahall was paid to represent the government of Qatar in Washington while he was one of the Qatar’s biggest supporters in Congress. And myself and another reporter worked on a story about representative Maxine Waters, whose husband got bond business and her daughter got political fees from officials that Maxine helped get elected.
Then there was the connection in Nevada between Sen. Harry Reid and the powerful developer Harvey Whittemore. Reid helped his friend Whittemore get things from the federal government for his huge Coyote Springs development, and Whittemore’s personal lawyer happens to be one of Reid’s sons.
We also worked on advancing the Abramoff story, which The Washington Post broke, focusing on trips he arranged for Congressmen and theirs staffs and how he used his non-profits to fund his schemes, among other things.
What do you think of the present and future of independent journalism?
I think independent journalism is alive. I’ve done this for 30 some years and there definitely are good and bad cycles, but good stories still get done and they’ve always gotten done. The big local papers are still doing hard-edged stories that serve the community. Look at the stories that won the Pulitzer last year—there really is good journalism out there. I’m fortunate to work at a place with six investigative reporters in Washington D.C. and seven or eight in Los Angeles. And we get the time to do stories… it’s been my experience that editors and reporters find a way to get stories done.
That said, I don’t cover national security, which is more difficult now, and getting something under the Federal Freedom of Information Act is a cumbersome process.
How has technology influenced your job?
There are some benefits. People who won’t come to their phones, who might worry about saying the wrong thing in a conversation with a reporter, will give you information by e-mail… there’s a benefit to that. I also do a lot with documents and public records, and the Internet had made that research much more efficient. I can look at documents from Nevada and Alaska from my desk in Washington. Also, documents that politicians issue, such as press releases, would have disappeared before, but now they stay out there on the Internet. A statement no longer just disappears.
How do you find your stories?
For me, stories often start with a hunch, and as I research that hunch I often find stories I wasn’t originally looking for. For many reporters a lot of stuff is tip and source driven, and I have also benefited from that, but more often I start with a hunch to look at someone or some program and then I try to find records and documents. We gather string—like with Rostenkowski. He’s powerful, so in performing due diligence we take a look. And I knew to look at his local office from earlier stories. So we cast our net and start tracking stuff down. We started looking at Maxine Waters because of a tip about her daughter and we ended up also looking at her husband. So these things evolve.
Of all the stories you have covered, which has been most important, or the one you feel most proud of?
Probably the most important story I covered was in the 1990s when I was in Chicago. Dan Rostenkowski was one of the most powerful legislators in Washington, heading the tax writing House Ways and Means committee. Two other reporters and I found that he was misusing government and campaign funds. For instance we uncovered how he used taxpayer funds to acquire three cars in his own name by charging the government to rent a mobile office. We also revealed that he used government funds to buy expensive chairs at the House store, which he then gave to his friends and supporters. He also had an ethical blind spot when it came to who he put on his Congressional payroll in Chicago. While he had some staffers who worked in the district office doing normal Congressional work, he had others on his payroll that no one was quite sure what they did. They included tenants in his apartment buildings and the children of friends who were not traditional caseworkers. This all became part of an indictment, and he ultimately pled guilty. The story was important because he was important—a brilliant congressman who crossed the line.
The postscript to that story is that he went to jail and has come back to Chicago. He’s highly respected there, and at one point was doing political commentary on Fox.
Read more by Chuck Neubauer:
Los Angeles Times: reporting by Chuck Neubauer
Read about the other journalists featured in the film >>