In early 2014, it seems many people had heard the rumour a private penthouse apartment was being built for then-premier Alison Redford at public expense. We [Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell from CBC Edmonton’s Investigative Unit, this article’s authors] turned rumour into fact, and the story that became known as Redford’s “Skypalace” made national headlines. Under pressure from within her own caucus, Redford resigned as premier the week before the Skypalace documents were released to us.
Two weeks later, there was more public outrage after we broke the story of how Redford had flown her daughter on 50 government flights, including two holiday long weekends in Jasper. In July, we published and broadcast our story of how Redford’s staff had booked fake passengers on government planes so she could fly with a chosen entourage.
Redford resigned her seat as an MLA eight days after the story appeared and a day before the auditor general released his official report. Alberta Auditor General Merwan Saher coined the phrase that perhaps best captures the brief, troubled reign of Redford.
Premier Redford used public assets (aircraft) for personal and partisan purposes. And Premier Redford was involved in a plan to convert public space in a public building into personal living space,” Saher wrote in his report, released in August. “How could this have happened? The answer is the aura of power around Premier Redford and her office and the perception that the influence of the office should not be questioned.
We never, for a moment, questioned the need to challenge Redford’s “aura of power.” But we knew any investigation of a powerful politician had to be meticulously planned, reported and verified.
We produced the stories through a combination of targeted freedom-of-information requests, enterprise thinking, carefully cultivated sources and most importantly, methodically planned and organized reporting. Documents obtained through freedom of information produced the Skypalace story. But we did not simply file a raft of fishing-expedition requests, hoping one might yield the documents.
As a full-time investigative unit, we extensively employ freedom of information to generate stories and maintain production. At any given time, we have about 150 active requests. Few are made on a hunch.
Instead, we look for a confidential source with direct knowledge of what we are investigating. Confidential sources may not be able, or willing, to speak on the record, but they can provide information which can be used to craft very specific requests both in terms of the information sought and the time frame.
In the case of Skypalace, our source told us to request the communications between Redford’s executive assistant and the architect responsible for the penthouse. We filed six separate requests to two departments, which yielded the documents that underpinned the story and made it irrefutable.
Redford’s lavish travel had been making headlines for weeks when she publicly stated it was common knowledge she took her daughter on government flights. Except it wasn’t common knowledge, something Jennie Russell immediately realized.
The list of passengers for government flights are posted online in Alberta. Russell manually pored over hundreds of pages of flight manifests and found 50 flights on which Redford had taken her daughter.
Two of those trips were on holiday long weekends in Jasper. We cross-referenced those trips with her posted expenses and found that on one weekend she stayed at the luxury Jasper Park Lodge, supposedly on government business. But after two full days of reporting, we could find no work Redford had done in Jasper that weekend.
Russell also noticed an unfamiliar name on one of the manifests; Angelita Escultero. We knew from a source that Redford’s family had a Filipino nanny. Facebook searches revealed photos of Escultero with Redford’s daughter in front of the Alberta legislature and that she worked part-time at a fast-food restaurant in Calgary.
To make certain we had the right person, Russell determined when Escultero was scheduled to work at the restaurant, travelled to Calgary and approached her during her break. She confirmed she was Redford’s nanny and had flown on the government plane.
The draft auditor general’s report detailing the fake passengers scheme appeared in our anonymous tip inbox as an attachment.The source had admired our previous work on Redford, and wanted this information to be made public so it couldn’t be watered down under political pressure, as the source had seen happen in the past.
But before we could publish or broadcast anything, we had to do two things: ensure the document was genuine and ensure the source would not be caught.
After several phone conversations, we convinced the source to meet us at a fast-food restaurant where we verified the source’s identity and that the source would have access to the highly confidential document. At the same meeting, we asked numerous questions to establish the document could not be traced back to the source.
Did the document reside on a server to which many people have access? How broadly distributed was the document? Did the source use an office photocopier? (Photocopiers create a record that may be tracked to a specific person.)
We ask these questions because we always think long-term; we want sources to remain in their jobs so as to hopefully provide us with more inside information in the future.
Getting the information is only the first step. Successful large-scale investigative reporting requires planning and organization. For every story, we produce a step-by-step plan which details how we will pursue it and how we produce it for all platforms.
We do this to improve efficiency and ensure accuracy, but also to document our work. This is crucial not only to meet our employer’s journalistic standards, but also to satisfy the legal requirements of the modern due-diligence defence to libel and defamation.
And finally, for every story, we conduct line-by-line fact checking to ensure every word and statement is supported by documents and by our reporting.
reprinted from the Winter 2015 issue of Media Magazine published by the Canadian Association of Journalists
These journalists, who won the 2015 Don McGillivray Award for their work on this investigation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.