Eagle-Tribune investigation prompts action

Last month the Eagle-Tribune reported that Philip Laverriere, the well-compensated executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council (GLCAC), was spending most workday afternoons at the local chapter of the Elks Lodge. The report was the result of a monthlong investigation that involved regular surveillance and careful examination of the organization’s financial documents. Of it’s $30 million dollar budget, $29 million comes from federal and state funding.

Laverriere resigned from his position four days after the story ran. At about the same time, also as a result of the story, the Department of Housing and Community Development launched an investigation and is now calling for the resignation of the Council’s board president, Thomas Schiavone, the Eagle-Tribune reports. The state agency has also released a report on the mismanagement of the GLCAC and has proposed a number of changes for how the state will fund the anti-poverty organization.

Boston Globe Investigation Shows Mass. State Agencies Continue to Use Gag Orders

After reviewing more than 150 large severance and settlement packages signed by state agencies since 2005, the Boston Globe has found that at least 16 agencies included gag orders in the agreements. The investigation revealed that more than half of the agreements obtained by the Globe included a confidentiality or non-disparagement clause, and one in five contained both. These clauses require former employees to refrain from making negative statements about their respective agencies or to not speak to anyone about the details of their payments.

While such a practice can be common within the private sector, the Globe and other watchdog groups have taken issue with state agencies not practicing transparency when it comes to how they are spending taxpayer money.

[C]ritics contend the agreements can be used to cover up questionable spending, muffle legitimate criticism of government agencies, or hide wrongdoing by public officials, such as the harassment alleged by the UMass and Highway Department workers.

“When it comes to public money, I think there is no justification for being able to secretly spend money,’’ said Boston attorney Harvey Schwartz, who has represented former state government employees with job disputes. “The only reason to have a confidentiality agreement is to protect the agency and the wrongdoers.’’

Because of the secret nature of these agreements, many departments redacted employee names and other relevant information. The Globe has sued the Patrick administration and two other state agencies for that information, arguing that the redactions are in violation of the public’s right to know. The case is before the Suffolk Superior Court, which has yet to rule.

View the severance and settlement agreements obtained through a public records request by the Globe.

Eagle-Tribune reporter Keith Eddings talks about using surveillance for investigative reporting

Eagle-Tribune reporter Keith Eddings

By Jesse Nankin

It started with an anonymous letter to the Eagle-Tribune, providing a tip on the questionable work habits of Philip F. Laverriere Sr., the long-time executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council. For more than a month reporter Keith Eddings, aided by the paper’s managing editor Gretchen Putnam and staff photographer Paul Bilodeau, observed Laverriere as he spent most workday afternoons at the local chapter of the Elks Lodge.

Surveillance can be a significant investment of time. It requires establishing the routine of your subject over days, weeks, or even months—all while keeping a low profile—and the consideration of any number of obstacles, including trespassing.

Eddings, a veteran newspaper reporter, agreed to talk to Watchdog New England about how he used surveillance to help build the story on Laverriere.

What worked in your favor while you were observing Laverriere?

A couple of things that worked well for us here in terms of surveillance is Laverriere is elderly, and I don’t think very alert, so we were able to observe him pretty closely in the parking lot at the Elks Club.

We were able to observe him from across the street as he pulled up and pulled in. We also had a couple of people doing the surveillance- a photographer [Paul Bilodeau], myself, and an editor [Gretchen Putnam]. So it was never the same car in the same place. All of us parked in our own place to watch Laverriere in various locations.

It also helps if your subject can’t recognize you.

I had covered him with one interview before—one face-to-face and one by phone, but I don’t think he would have been able to recognize me.

The rest of it is common sense…

You don’t pull up right behind Laverriere when you are following him from work to the Elk’s Club. You stay a comfortable distance behind. You want to be careful with the issue of trespassing.

In what way did concerns of trespassing affect your surveillance?

The Elks Club is a private organization as is the organization he was working at so we needed to be careful. To bring a charge for trespassing, you have to do one of two things, you have to either have warned the person to stay off the property or have the property posted. And that wasn’t the case here. No property was posted and we weren’t warned. But we didn’t want it to come to that so we decided to stay low and we were careful. We discussed the issue of trespassing beforehand. We were conservative in our surveillance techniques to make sure the issue wouldn’t come up.

A key ingredient to effective surveillance is an editor who is willing to commit to the story.

The most important thing that a reporter who wants to do investigative work can have are editors who believe in your story and understand what is involved and are willing to commit to it. My editors knew I was going to be out of the office and not doing a lot of daily stuff that is part of my regular beat. We don’t have an I-team here, we have reporters who do investigative work when they can or when it arises. My editors up and down—all the way to the top—are committed to this stuff.

It was a lot of time. We had to watch Laverriere go to work in the morning. We had to get the pattern established—that took a lot of time. Once the pattern was established we didn’t have to invest the time, we just had to be in key locations at key times.  Make sure he gets to the Elks Club on time. Go back to when we know he’s going to leave and make sure he goes home and doesn’t go back to work. Watch him get in to work in the morning and then leave. Once we established that pattern it was just driving over and watching him carry out his routine.

But establishing the routine took a little bit of time –sometimes a couple of hours. We didn’t know what time he was going to get to the Elk’s Club or what time he was going to get to work. We needed to invest the time. Thankfully my editors allowed me to invest that time and understood I wouldn’t be doing the daily copy that normally I would be doing. And even jumped in on the story and helped me with the surveillance when it was needed.

Did you go every day to observe Laverriere?

We watched him for 24 days over the period of about six weeks, and on 21 of those days he was spending afternoons at the Elks Club, leaving as early as noon and staying at the Elks Club for as long as five hours. Some days we just left him there at 5. If he’s there past 5 there’s no point in us staying there and watching him. The workday is over–what he does after that is his business.

Did you use still photography or video for the surveillance?

We had a photographer [Bilodeau] do the surveillance for one day and so he got the still photos for the daily.

Surveillance isn’t as glamorous as it seems on TV…

It’s tedious work. It can be very boring. All the time you’re doing it, you’re thinking I am letting this other story go. But you have to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You have to be able to see that this is an important story and it’s going to lead somewhere–it’s just not going to lead somewhere tomorrow. It’s going to take six weeks.

You have to be fair to the guy. You got to establish a pattern. You can’t just say, well, a couple of days a week we saw him at a bar. We had Laverriere at the Elks Club virtually every day.

And a story isn’t built simply on surveillance…

I will make another point about surveillance. This is more than just pulling up in a car with a cup of coffee and a newspaper and waiting for Laverriere to walk in and out of the building. There’s a lot of paper, for example, that has to be gathered as well.  We got minutes of board meetings, we got an audit of this organization [Greater Lawrence Community Action Council], we got its form 990 tax forms. There’s a lot of paper we collected that was sort of groundwork—foundation documents—to support this story and to understand this organization.

The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council is an anti-poverty charity, which operates on $30 million a year and $29 million of that comes from the federal and state government. And that was a big part of our story—that this is taxpayer money Laverriere was blowing.

Using surveillance to help shape the story

There were pieces of this story that we wanted that we helped unfold as we were reporting it.  By that I mean this: I suspected very strongly that the people at the organization who worked with Laverriere—his secretaries and his deputies—knew this was going on. As we were watching him walk into the Elks Club everyday at noon, we would call the agency on occasional days and say, ‘Is Mr. Laverriere in, please?” And we always got, he had a doctor’s appointment or he’s at a meeting or he suddenly had to go home sick. We were basically putting his secretaries and more importantly the deputy executive director on the record as part of this cover up—as the enablers for this kind of activity.

So that’s what I mean by steering the story. We knew how to bring in other people as enablers as we reported the story.

One of the last things we did was when we asked for the final interview with Laverriere, we asked for it when we knew he would be at the Elks Club—the so-called confrontation interview when we would present him the information we had. I didn’t ask for it in the morning because I knew he would be at work. I asked for the interview at 2 o’clock in the afternoon because I knew he was not going to let an interview with his local paper get in the way of video poker at the Elk’s Club.

And that’s actually what happened. We walked into the interview and the deputy executive director was there—the person immediately beneath him—and I said, ‘Where’s Phil?’ And he said, ‘Oh, he had to go home sick. Something came up.’

That was the last piece of the cover-up puzzle that fell into place here. So I said, ‘Well, we still would like to talk to Phil. Can I see him tomorrow morning?’ And I showed up at 10 o’clock and there he was, ready to talk.

How did you handle the confrontation interview?

One of the last discussions we had at the paper was – do we need to do a Mike Wallace style interview with Laverriere? Just sort of jump him in an embarrassing location and make him sweat with a camera crew in front of him.

That’s actually what I argued for –that for the final interview we should get him as he’s walking into the Elks Club and say, ‘Hey what are you doing here. We know you’ve been coming here for a month and that you’re making $150,000 and that no one is steering your $30-million dollar ship and it’s all funded by government money.’

But the editor at the paper [Al White], was a little more conservative and said, ‘I want a substantive interview from Laverriere. I don’t want a panicked interview where he’s going to turn around and run into the building and we don’t get the questions answered that we need answered. So, no, the final interview, the confrontation interview won’t be an ambush, it will be in his office.’

And it actually was a better way to do it. For one, we did get a very good interview out of Laverriere. It’s a treasure to watch. It was a good interview. He basically just sort of collapsed and ‘fessed up and it was a grand slam for us. We did have the goods on him.

I think it was the better way to go in terms of how you end your surveillance. Do you do it ambush or do you get the guy in a more reasoned location?

We went for substance over sensation, and I think we got substantive journalism because of it.

Keith Eddings has been a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune since last September. Prior to that, Eddings worked for 17 years at the Journal News, which covers New York’s Lower Hudson Valley. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Surging food stamp recipients leave town to stretch spending

Photos: Moroccan Mary (top); Mod as Hell (bottom); Graphic by Marc Levy

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

For 11 years, Kathy Podgers has been getting food stamps, making her a veteran in a program that even in affluent Cambridge has nearly doubled its recipients over the past four years.

As of December, 6.8 percent of the city’s population got food stamp benefits as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, up from 3.5 percent in 2006. Cambridge residents get $9.8 million a year in benefits, which they can spend pretty much as they see fit on food in supermarkets, convenience stores and, soon enough, farmers markets.

The program offers no nutritional counseling, though, meaning recipients can use their benefits on items with scant nutritional value.

Podgers, who has lived in Cambridge since the 1960s and twice ran unsuccessfully for City Council, is fine with the lack of nutrition counseling. She had eaten a macrobiotic diet for years and is still not the type to buy liters of soft drinks and bags of potato chips. Most of her shopping in done in the produce aisles.

Cambridge is hardly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which used $64 billion in taxpayer money last year to pay for the state-administered benefits program, calls a “food desert” — a place where fresh, nutritious food is hard to come by. But recipients of the benefits interviewed by Cambridge Day said affordable foodstuffs can be hard to find in the city. Cambridge food vendors took in $4.2 million from SNAP cards last year, less than half the amount the state gave to city residents.

Cantabrigians are using their food stamps elsewhere.

Somerville’s Market Basket appears to be a favorite. In the 12 months ending June 1, the store, on Somerville Avenue a mile from Porter Square, got more than $11 million in food benefits, including from Podgers. The biggest food benefits vendor in Cambridge, Shaw’s in Porter Square, got slightly more than $1 million during the same time period, or 8.9 percent of spending at Market Basket.

Predictably, those getting food benefits in Cambridge varies by neighborhood.

In the Harvard Square and Brattle Street neighborhoods, the benefits go to 2.45 percent of residents. In contrast, 9 percent of those in North and East Cambridge ZIP codes, and 10 percent in Central and Inman Squares, are on food benefits.

In all, about 7,172 of the 105,162 residents of Cambridge get food benefits, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which supervises the program for Massachusetts. Five years ago, it was 3,518.

Although the percent of residents on food benefits is a little over half the statewide average of 12.3 percent, the reason the rolls have soared is the same: the Great Recession. In November 2006, Cambridge boasted an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. By January of this year, it had risen to 5.3 percent.

Longtime recipients such as Susan Jordan, 67, who began getting benefits in 1994 after a disability left her unable to work, said vendors as well as the public have become more accepting towards SNAP recipients as the number of people in the program has increased. “Because the economy is so poor, people are more open-minded,” she said. “The stigma went away when [the state] made it into a card rather than paper stamps. Now people don’t notice too much.”

Jordan shopped recently at the Harvest Cooperative Market in Central Square, swiping her bright blue SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer card to pay for a small bag of produce and groceries. She typically does her grocery shopping at Market Basket, but happened to be in the neighborhood that afternoon. She said she gets $160 a month to support herself. “I get enough that I can just use food stamps,” she said. “They’ve really helped me a lot.”

To qualify, a person must demonstrate financial need under Department of Agriculture guidelines. A single person can make no more than $1,174 a month or, as head of a four-person household, up to $2,389. If income increases, the food benefits allotment is lowered. Recipients must visit state counselors every six months to prove eligibility.

There are some limits on what can be bought with the benefits. For example, the funds cannot be spent on hot meals, alcohol, tobacco or nonfood items.

Otherwise — from produce to frozen food to popcorn and cookies — there are virtually no nutritional restrictions for the program. Julia Kehoe, commissioner of the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, said her office supports high nutritional standards, but that the USDA has stayed clear of mandating such standards and with the statewide surge in recipients, her department is not equipped to do nutritional education. Food benefits counselors have caseloads of 900 to 1,000 apiece.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between Watchdog New England and Cambridge Day. Read the original story at Cambridge Day.