Reporter's Notebook: 10 Years of 'NewsChannel 5 Investigates' - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Reporter's Notebook: 10 Years of 'NewsChannel 5 Investigates'


Truth be told, I'm not especially fond of anniversary stories.

But over the past 10 years, I've worked endless hours -- sometimes day and night -- digging up investigations that haven't always come easily. I've faced death threats, surveillance by private investigators and legal efforts to force me to reveal my sources. Along the way, my family has learned the insecurities that come with my job.

So, forgive me if I pause -- briefly -- to celebrate the 10th anniversary of NewsChannel 5 Investigates and this station's commitment to real investigative journalism.

Watch "10 Years of NewsChannel 5 Investigates"

It all began when I joined NewsChannel 5 in October 1998.

The station already had a strong reputation as a news leader in Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky, but wanted to beef up its investigative presence.  I had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in my days as a Tennessean reporter.  After moving to another television station in town, I had become frustrated with its lack of commitment to investigative reporting.

This job at NewsChannel 5 became my dream job.

Our first task was to name our investigative unit.  Other stations call their units by names like "I-Team" or "Troubleshooters."  We picked "NewsChannel 5 Investigates" because it was an active term that clearly identified what we wanted to do and who we wanted to be. 

As I've often said, viewers want real investigations... about real people... with real results -- not just a run-of-the-mill story that's simply labeled as an investigation.

Then came the hard part -- delivering on the brand.

Because of contractual obligations with my previous employer, I could not appear on NewsChannel 5 for a full year. So I produced investigations for other reporters.  Still, I slipped my voice -- asking the tough questions -- into stories.  Each story began with a graphic that featured my signature, identifying me as the person behind the investigation.

My first investigation tested security in state buildings. Taxpayers paid a private security company to guard those facilities, but I noticed that guards barely glanced at the folks who stopped by their stations to sign in.  So I went undercover, signing with the names of well-known terrorists -- in one case, "The Unabomber."  It was a slightly mocking way to make the point about the lax security.

In early 1999, I was joined by photojournalist Bryan Staples. Bryan quickly became sold on the vision of what NewsChannel 5 Investigates could be.

Our first story together exposed convicted felons working as teachers -- in one case, a teacher who had served time in prison for kidnapping a student in another district where she had worked. Later, we outed a child sexual predator who was working as a substitute teacher. It led to laws requiring background checks for all school employees.

Now, that's a real investigation!

While other stations retreated from investigative reporting, our team grew.

In 1999, our colleague Jennifer Kraus headed an investigation into thefts by employees working in the local Feed the Children charity warehouse. Four years later, she became of full-time member of the NewsChannel 5 Investigates team.

We later added a producer, Kevin Wisniewski. More recently, investigative reporter Ben Hall and photojournalist Iain Montgomery joined the team.

During the last 10 years, we've met some unforgettable characters.

Remember Davidson County Clerk Bill Covington and the employee we caught making beer runs for his boss.

There were the Nashville Electric Service workers, who clocked in every morning, then immediately headed to breakfast.

There was also Brentwood's self-proclaimed prophet Gwen Shamblin, who applauded a follower's tough love in locking a rebellious child in his room for an entire weekend. That child later died from child abuse.

There was death row inmate Philip Workman, who was executed for the killing of a Memphis police officer despite serious questions about the case against him.

On the other hand, there was the district attorney who refused to authorize the exhumation of little Jeffry Kelton Skaggs, despite concerns by the state medical examiner and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that the child had been murdered.

Another DA refused to prosecute the husband of Joni Bell Nolan, despite strong circumstantial evidence that he may have been involved in her death.

And who could forget the hubris of University of Tennessee president John Shumaker? 

Shumaker first tried to talk his way out of questions about his use of the UT plane to visit a girlfriend. He first claimed he was on secret UT business, then I discovered a gossip column that placed him with his friend at a high-society dinner during one of those jaunts. Later, as we uncovered other questions about his spending, he started running from us. Of course, the story ended with his resignation.

Speaking of hubris, there are any number of state lawmakers we've met over the last 10 years.

Our hidden cameras infiltrated a dinner hosted by insurance lobbyists for House leaders, ending with one lobbyist's pledge, "As long as we receive support from you, you will definitely receive support from us." That was a stunning promise of a quid pro quo -- vote the way we want you to, and we'll use our money to help you.  But instead of objecting, the lawmakers applauded.

That, of course, brings us to former Sen. John Ford.

Our hidden cameras caught the Memphis Democrat hitting up lobbyists for Super Bowl tickets and bragging about all the favors he'd received. Later, we caught him using the state FedEx accounts for personal purposes.  He first called a news conference in Memphis to denounce me, then surprisingly later issued an apology.

Then, we uncovered evidence of him illegally using campaign funds to pay for a daughter's wedding. I even obtained the wedding video -- including video of the reception where he joked that folks should stop trying to guess where he got his money. And, of course, we exposed how he was using his position to land so-called "consulting" contracts.

So, when Ford was caught with other lawmakers in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz corruption sting, it came as little surprise. Ford later resigned.

I also uncovered evidenced that former Sen. Jerry Cooper, while struggling financially, used his position to get state money to upgrade some land that he was trying to sell.  The Warren County Democrat was later acquitted on bank fraud charges, stemming from that land deal.  But I pulled bank records that had been introduced at that trial, which proved that Cooper had illegally pocketed almost $100,000 from his campaign accounts.  He also resigned.

There was also our three-year investigation into millions of dollars in state contracts awarded by the administration of former Gov. Don Sundquist to friends of the governor.

One mid-level administration official was convicted of helping to rig a $2 million contract for a close friend of the Republican governor.  That close friend later pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in conjunction with that contract.  A second close friend of the governor cut a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for trying to delete computer files related to the investigation.

The investigation never reached Sundquist.  Still, in one special on the scandal, I posed the question: "What did the governor know, or -- at least -- how could he not have known?" That question has still not been answered.

As a result of that investigation, legislators enacted a new law requiring more scrutiny of no-bid contracts.

In fact, if you look at all the laws passed and the reforms made as a result of our investigation, it's pretty amazing.

My investigation of misconduct within the Metro police department also led to reforms and an unanticipated result. 

Two subjects of that investigation filed lawsuits and tried to get a judge to force me to reveal my sources.  After years of litigation, we won an important victory at the trial court in protecting reporters from such efforts and another victory at the Tennessee Court of Appeals, strengthening protections for journalists investigating allegations of public corruption. (Read that decision here.)

During the last decade, we've been recognized with quite a few national journalism awards. My peers elected me to the national board of directors for the Investigative Reporters and Editors association -- which will give me a chance to give back to my profession.

But, in the end, it's not the recognition that keeps me going.

During the darkest days of some of the threats I received, my friend and photographer Bryan Staples asked if I was having any doubts about whether it was worth continuing. My answer to him then, as now, was that I wanted my son to know that his Dad stood up when it counted.

And, everyday, I see proof that NewsChannel 5 Investigates is making a difference -- and that the world we leave to our children will be a better place.

That's why I'm celebrating what we've accomplished, along with NewsChannel 5's continuing commitment to real investigative journalism.

Now, it's time to get back to work. 

We'll talk about this again in 10 years!

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