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News Literacy Week: Phil Williams details state contract investigation

Posted at 8:35 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 17:31:18-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — NewsChannel 5 is partnering with The News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan educational nonprofit formed to help you spot misinformation in the media.

In addition to airing reports about ways to spot what is fact and what is fiction, we are showing you how our Investigates team puts together a report.

The investigates team meets at 9:15 each morning on Zoom.

It's where our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams first discussed his most complicated investigation of the pandemic.

"All together the initial story took three to four months just to pull together," Phil said in a recent interview.

It started with a question that Phil asked about how the state was spending tax dollars during the pandemic.

"From the beginning I was curious about where was this money going to be spent," Phil said.

It led to series of reports about an $80 million spending spree by the state on things like sock masks and COVID supplies.

The state awarded the money to companies without competition, some of whom were politically connected.

"Anytime there is no-bid spending, whether it's a Republican administration or a Democratic administration, we want to know where that money is going," Phil said.

Phil made multiple public records requests, to the lead agency for the pandemic purchases: the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

He received a spreadsheet that showed massive spending, but something did not seem right.

"I went back to the state and said, 'Are these numbers really correct?' I spent hours looking at the numbers," Phil said.

It turned out the spreadsheet the state provided had errors.

Someone had entered contracts twice - inflating what it had really spent.

"We could have run a story based on the numbers they had given me, but it would have been wrong," Phil said.

He kept making records requests for emails, contracts and expenditures trying to get a true picture of how the state was spending taxpayer money.

"I would look at the data. I would discern what I thought the story was, then I would run it past the state and say, 'Here it is, what I'm preparing to report. Is it accurate?'"

His first story aired in September.

"After the story hit we had some pretty tough questions for the Governor," Phil said.

Phil followed with direct questions for Governor Bill Lee about why he decided to award certain companies no-bid contracts.

"We asked these questions not to make the Governor look bad, but to get specific answers to specific questions," Phil said.

"Yes or no, did you ever talk to Robert Swope about his interest in doing business with the state? Phil asked the Governor in his September 10, report.

"I have not," Governor Lee responded.

Phil started making regular trips to the capitol to question Governor Lee, which was more efficient than e-mailing questions to his PR people.

"When you are e-mailing with PR professionals they will give you statements that don't answer the questions. At some point you have to be able to question a human being, question the person in charge," Phil said.

Phil obtained e-mails in which career health department employees warned higher ups that a company hired to do COVID testing was not qualified to do the job, and it was a bad deal for taxpayers.

He posted those e-mails online so everyone could see them.

"In this day and age when there have been so many doubts raised about the media, we want to be transparent. We feel like we have a need to be as transparent as possible," Phil said.

The whole investigates team knows most people do not have the time to ask for public documents or dig into state spending.

We take the responsibility seriously.

"Tell the story as completely as we can as honestly as we can. That's our job," Phil said.

The NewsChannel 5 Investigates team works around the clock to keep you safe, informed, and connected with reports always founded in facts.

Watch for more stories about how we put investigations together as part of News Literacy Week.