Skip to comments.How to Investigate and Right Wrongs in Your Community ( Citizen Muckraking )
Posted on 05/30/2002 3:18:08 PM PDT by vannrox
How to Investigate and Right Wrongs in Your Community
With 6 billion people on the planet and 270 million living in the United States, who can blame anyone for thinking that one person cant make a difference? But dont believe it for a second.
In two decades as an investigative journalist, uncovering impropriety around the nation and abroad, countless times I have seen individuals persistently ask unpopular but entirely reasonable questions about matters affecting their daily lives: the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they buy and eat, the schools their children attend. And frequently their curiosity and perseverance have brought about change that improves the quality of those same lives.
The goal of the Citizen Muckraking project is to outline some basic techniques of investigative reporting that youor any other citizencan use to obtain information about the toxic-waste dump in your neighborhood; the city-council zoning decision that seems to benefit one of the council members personally; the reason your utility rates have been going up; why some property-tax assessments increase yearly but others dont; etc. Information truly is power, and we will show you precisely how to get the facts.
In addition to posting this information here, the Center has produced a "how-to" manual for community activists. Citizen Muckraking contains inspiring stories about ordinary people who start asking basic questions about things in their communities that somehow just dont seem right. They write letters, attend hearings, obtain government documents, ask direct questions of public officialsall things that full-time, professional investigative reporters do day in and day outand their questions actually bring about change.
- Charles Lewis
The pen isnt the only communications tool thats mightier than the sword. Theres also the video camera, which in the right hands can produce some very special effectsfor instance, making a mountain of trash disappear.
Nine years after John and Terri Moore arrived in Center Point, Indiana, the couple finally moved out of town and into their more rural dream house. The house sits on 25 acres, a quarter of which is covered by a lake. Deer, raccoons, and coyotes are among the wildlife that roam the Moores property. Theres a great blue heron that calls the lake home, and for a while each year its joined by migrating Canada geese. The house is modest, but its the place where the couple wanted to raise their two children. "We used to drive by, and wed say, Well live there one day," says Terri.
"We wanted to raise our children with the sounds of nature and small-town values you cant get in the city," she adds.
Towns dont get much smaller than Center Point, whose population of 293 is slightly higher than the 1990 census. Its an out-of-the way stretch of farmland an hour west of Indianapolis, not far from the Illinois line. The drive to Center Point from the Hoosier State capital is almost entirely a cruise-control jaunt along Interstate 70, where at times the only other vehicles seem to be trucks hauling cattle to market.
This sort of out-of-the-way, rural living may have held great appeal for Terri and John Moore, but eighteen months after relocating to their new home, the dream turned nightmarish. The reason: a proposal surfaced to build a landfill directly behind their home. There was already a small, privately owned town dump just 1,700 feet from their property, and another, they feared, not only would jeopardize their tranquility but also might compromise the environment. So the couple initiated a battle to keep the second facility from opening.
Then things really got ominous. In the midst of their anti-dump fight, the owner of the existing landfill called to offer the Moores a financial contributionhis way, he said, of supporting their effort. And by the way, he added, its likely that a few semi-trailers will soon begin hauling trash into his facility, and those numbers may grow over time. Terri Moore hung up the phone with a sense that something horrible was about to happen.
Ordinarily, only cars and pickups and a few small trucks traveled the narrow dirt road that leads to the 90 acres on which that landfill sat. Terri Moore told townspeople of her conversation and the impending arrival of the big rigs, but no one believed her. On the following Monday, however, the skepticism quickly evaporated: The first of the semis rolled in, and over the subsequent weeks and months the number pushed up toward 50 a day.
The tiny town of Center Point had become a magnet for drivers hauling 40-foot loads of trash, many of the vehicles adorned with license plates from Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, primarily New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. And if the residents thought the situation couldnt get worse, they soon learned otherwise: Two other companies were looking at adjoining land for another dump, and a trio of firms had optioned a square mile forwhat else?yet more landfill space.
In Indiana, there was gold in the garbage.
If the idea of hauling truckloads of trash from the Eastern Seaboard to the nations heartland seems odd, consider the economics: In 1989, when the Center Point trash caravan was moving into high gear, the cost of dumping a ton of garbage in Indiana was $10, while in the New York/New Jersey area it was $100 to $150. It was therefore a lot cheaper for Easterners to haul the waste out of state, particularly if the trailer could be filled with something else for the return trip. In fact, the joke was that it would be cheaper to FedEx garbage to western Indiana than to dump it on the East Coast.
But the residents of Center Point werent laughing. And neither were they giving in to the invasion without a fight.
For Terri and John Moore, the battle would be waged on two fronts. On one front was the proposed new facility, which would sit just a hundred feet from the couples property and, they feared, would contaminate their lake. On the other was the invasion of the semis with their unwanted imports, including asbestos and medical waste.
"We rode a huge roller coaster," says Terri. "We always had one or the other looming over our head."
The goal in the first fight was to demonstrate that the area was geologically unsoundthat disposing of waste on this site might wreak environmental havoc. Terri and the citizens group she helped organize pinned their hopes on a state law that decreed that a landfill couldnt be positioned over an abandoned mine. There were indeed defunct coal mines in the area, but proving that one may once have operated beneath this turf proved difficult.
Terri Moore likens the hunt for such evidence to piecing together a big puzzle. The campaign was built on a search for quantifiable facts and data, and group members would regularly convene in someones living room to report their findings. Reporters were invited to the meetings from the outset, so the group developed a rapport with the media and generated valuable press coverage for its cause.
The search for maps was a major component of the effort, but the cartographic documents examined at governmental offices showed no evidence of abandoned mines. But then the trail unexpectedly led to a church secretary whose late husband had been a geologist. He had apparently kept books from the previous century filled with local maps.
The books had been sent to the local courthouse, but no one there could find them. Moore tracked them down to another Indiana town and then traveled an hour and a half to view them. The volumes included original cloth maps and certified copies of other maps showing the precise locations of minesincluding one beneath the proposed landfill. But Moore didnt stop there. She researched other sites in every direction and was able to show where the state had repaired mineshafts that had caved in. It was the proof she needed. She had hit the mother lode.
But while Terri Moore had one battle under control, the war raged on. There were, of course, those tractor-trailers to contend with.
On the very Monday that the trucks first arrived, Moore grabbed her 35mm camera and went off to shoot some film. She realized immediately that without documentation, outsiders probably wouldnt believe what was happening in her town. So she enlisted the help of three or four neighbors, who within a week were outfitted with pads, pencils, binoculars, and tape recorders. From their lawn chairs beside the road, the "Dump Patrol," as they came to be known, dutifully recorded what they witnessed.
The citizens group also gave immediate attention to attracting media. They invited reporters to their meetings and, before adjourning, a definite time was set for the next session. That tactic gave journalists ample warning, and the group subsequently reminded them of the meetings by phone.
In addition, Moores group tried to attend events that were likely to receive media coverage. For example, Indiana has a tradition of convening "cracker-barrel sessions"meetings that give voters a chance to discuss local issues with state legislators. Within a few weeks after the semis arrived, Terri Moore had some of her photos enlarged and she rehearsed a three-minute speech for one such session. She was uncomfortable speaking in public, but she was determined to describe the invasion underway in her community. The room was packed, there was a full agenda, and no one knew the woman from Center Point who was first to take the floor. "The entire room went from bustling to silence when I was speaking," Moore recalls. "I thought: I know I did it."
That personal appearance gave attention to her cause, and on its heels she and her cohorts stepped up their campaign. Moore soon shelled out a thousand dollars for a camcorder, and about 75 residents volunteered to record the comings and goings of the trucks, documenting everything from time and date to license-plate numbers, trucking-company names, and tractor-trailer serial numbers. A local dealer donated a small trailer for the sleuths to work from. For ten hours a day, six days a week, the citizens of Center Point maintained an fourteen-month vigil. They missed only two days during that period, when the trailers furnace failed and the sub-zero winter temperatures posed a health hazard.
The proliferation of low-priced camcorders has made the use of video an increasingly popularand effectivetechnique for citizen muckrakers. Some have used it for advocacy building, while others have documented everything from dolphin slaughter on tuna-fishing boats to deplorable living conditions in public housing. For Moore, video was a tool of empowerment that gave her cause wide-eyed attention.
Moore felt strongly that a voluminous tape archive was essential, because it would provide the only record of culpability in the event of an environmental mishap. It was also in keeping with the groups strategy of documenting every fact and being able to substantiate each claim. If they told reporters that 50 trucks a day were rolling down their roads, they had supporting evidence. Because they were so credible, reporters looked to them for information. In addition, the home video proved irresistible to local TV stations, which regularly aired segments.
In addition to the video surveillance, Moore followed a paper trail that led her to a startling revelation: Among those affiliated with the landfill was a New Jersey trash baron whom authorities had connected to the Genovese-Gigante crime family. Moores research effort was aided by local reporters, who conducted invaluable searches for her on Nexis, the on-line news library, and made other documents available. In return, the press received well-documented evidence that was useful to their stories. In fact, Moore always had documents certified to ensure that reporters would never doubt their authenticity.
Center Point residents were also helped in their efforts by some unlikely confidential sources: truck drivers and landfill employees they befriended. For example, the sleuths quickly realized that the trucks bringing in trash were in many instances "backhauling"that is, picking up loads for the return trip. The trucks that carried garbage west, it turned out, were carrying slaughtered carcasses and other food products east. One driver even stopped to show the Center Point spies his trailer: The wooden floor was covered with an inch of pine-oil disinfectant, but it was nonetheless overrun with maggots. He admitted that on previous trips the food he delivered was swarming with flies.
This backhauling issue provided a weapon for the Center Point residents. A legislative remedy to outlaw the dumping wasnt feasible, because the courts had ruled that shipments of garbage constituted interstate commerce, and states are restricted by the U.S. Constitution in interfering with such commerce. But in late 1992, Indiana state legislators passed a law declaring that anyone trucking in garbage had to wait two weeks before backhauling other goods from the state. And a more enforceable law required anyone trucking in garbage to show that it originated at a licensed waste-transfer station. The legislation immediately stopped the inflow of illegal shipments, which brought a small measure of peace to the besieged community.
The landfill was later sold, and the ongoing bad publicity eventually forced the new owners to stop accepting long-haul waste. Then, in early 1994, the traffic slowed, and one day it just stopped. "Everyone held their breath and said, Is it really over? We werent quite sure," says Moore.
Apparently, it is over. The former dump is now a grassy hill beset by erosion; the owner must monitor the land for 30 years. The closest landfill is a 20-minute drive away. Copies of all the Center Point groups records were handed over to the state in the hope theyll be archivedammunition for future generations if the same issue should ever arise again. And the townspeople who waged this effort have developed close friendships with one another.
As for Terri and John Moore, they still live in their dream house. Terri recounts the tale almost nonchalantly, but then catches herself. "I look back and think: I cant believe I did that," she says.
There are also many nongovernment sources that can help you track down and analyze campaign-related documents:
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law on Independence Day 1966. The nation's media provided the lobbying impetus for passage of the legislation, which armed reporters with the means to ferret out important stories. At the same time, the law provided the average citizen better access to government information. Since then, countless FOIA requests have yielded documents on matters ranging from the mundane to the momentous. It has become a favored tool of muckrakers, although it is by and large still an underutilized investigative device.
The fundamental feature of the Act is that it created a general rule, subject to certain exceptions, that any person has a right, enforceable in court, of access to federal agency records. Before 1966, the burden was on the individual to show a particular legal right to receive any information. FOIA has replaced a "need to know" standard with a presumption of a "right to know."
But that doesn't mean that it's always easy to get the information you're looking for. You may have to fight for your right to know. Fortunately, there's no shortage of good information on using the federal Freedom of Information Act. Here are a few of the best, most comprehensive resources:
A Citizen's Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act
1993 report published by the House of Representatives.
The Freedom of Information Act: A User's Guide
By the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, a nonprofit project of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Litigation Group.
Society of Professional Journalists' FOIA Resources
Includes lists of contacts at federal agencies and in every state.
I prefer to use the federal racketeering statutes (civil RICO)as an investigative tool against corrupt politicians, law enforcement officials and alleged members of organizied crime.
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