Category Archives: Public Records

Backgrounders: Finding the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

HT_cook_registry_full_jef_141028_4x3_992Credit: ABC News

We’re talking about backgrounding today — tracking the public record history of anyone and everyone who matters. But before we get to that, a story

A registered sex offender has emerged as a star player on a top tier college football team, resuming his athletic career after being expelled from the Air Force Academy where he was court-martialed for sexual assault.

No NCAA rule prevents a person with a criminal conviction from playing college athletics, a spokesperson told ABC News. It is left up to the individual college or conference to determine eligibility.

Jamil Cooks, 23, enrolled at Alcorn State in Mississippi, a Division One NCAA school, after being found guilty in April 2013 of abusive sexual contact in a court martial proceeding at the Air Force Academy, which required him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Cooks’ lawyer, Richard Stevens, says he is appealing the conviction.

via ABC News

Now, I’m not sure how ABC News learned about Cooks’s alleged crime. Maybe it was a tip. Maybe it was a records check. What I do know is how you can get records like this on anyone you want.

Continue reading Backgrounders: Finding the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fun with FCC Complaints and The Simpsons


The “Nerd News” website Dorkly complied a list of FCC complaints lobbed against the Simpsons. If your looking for a laugh and possibly a story idea, head on over. And hat tip to Government Attic, the open records website which originally published the complaints. Government Attic is a great place to find story ideas and other records to request. Be sure to check out Inspector General reports for the government agency that pertains to your beat.

Public Records: Contracts

Credit: kennymiller, Flickr

Contractor agreements are a great place to find quick-hit business stories.  For a state university, a list of contractors can be obtained with a simple open records request. Obviously private, not-for-profit colleges are under no such disclosure requirement. But with a bit more digging, you can get those contract details as well.
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Public Records: Embezzlement and Fraud in the 990

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Want to learn if your university is the victim of fraud or embezzlement? There is a box on the Form 990 to track this crime. More more information, check out the fantastic reporting by the Washington Post by clicking the links below:

The most intriguing check box on a nonprofit’s disclosure form

Inside the hidden world of thefts, scams and phantom purchases at the nation’s nonprofits

Public Records: Form 990s

A fundraiser that bombed. A steady climb in legal fees each year. A significant increase in pay for an administrator. If you’re a student journalist at a private university or college, these are all possible stories that could be uncovered with a Form 990.

The document, filed annually with the IRS, allows the government and the public to evaluate the operations of non-profits across the country. The government uses the form to determine if a non-profit is fulfilling its mission and still deserves its tax-exempt status.

As news editor, the story pitch process with staff reporters can be like pulling teeth. S0 instead of clearly stealing ideas from the university blog, I urge reporters to take a look at the 990. If you’re creative and read it carefully, you can have great story ideas at every pitch session for the rest of the semester.
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Public Records: 10 Story Ideas from the 990 Form

1. Independent Contractors. How much did your university pay its top five contractors? Do any have Board of Trustee or administrative connections? How many firms received over $100,000 in payment, compared to other colleges?

2. Lobbying. How much does your school pay in lobbying fees? Who are its lobbyists? And what is your university lobbying for? (Yes, your university lobbies.)

3. Administrative pay. What everyone whats to know. How does faculty pay increases compare to the head-honchos. How does it compare to others? Are they getting other perks, like a house, a loan or membership fees?

4. Endowment Funds. Increase? Decrease? How much in scholarships awarded? How much went to administrators?

5. Fundraiser activities and events. How successful were the fundraisers? How much did they bring in? How does the operation work?
Continue reading Public Records: 10 Story Ideas from the 990 Form