When investigating politicians, the adage goes, “follow the money.” But it is equally important to follow the meetings.
Steve Braun of the Washington investigative team did just that. Persevering for months through tedious cross-checking and a calamitous computer crash, Braun got an enormous scoop that earns the Beat of the Week. He learned that Hillary Clinton kept different calendars as secretary of state, and her official calendar is missing entries for at least 75 meetings with longtime political donors, Clinton Foundation contributors and corporate and other outside interests.
Braun, who has covered Hillary and Bill Clinton off and on since 2001, knows it’s vital to be aware of a politician’s regular allies, personal friends, consultants, donors and favor-seekers. For a Cabinet official or a CEO, nearly every minute is carefully managed and documented: phone calls, meetings, presentations and drop-ins. Obtaining detailed calendars lets journalists peek back in time to see who attended meetings or received phone calls, and that information can be connected with subsequent votes, contracts, grants, favors or more.
State Department officials largely were unresponsive over two years, not even acknowledging they possessed the material.
Anticipating Clinton’s campaign years in advance, Braun and his colleagues began filing requests under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to obtain Clinton’s calendars, schedules and other records from her and top aides as early as August 2013.
State Department officials largely were unresponsive over two years, not even acknowledging they possessed the material. After Clinton said in March 2015 that she had used a private email server for all of her government work – a scoop that the AP’s Washington team also was first to report – the AP sued the State Department for failing to turn over the calendars. The judge ordered speedy compliance, and in November 2015, the AP finally obtained what the department said was Clinton’s official calendar.
Steve’s first story in November reported that Clinton had met with scores of political donors, Clinton Foundation contributors and business leaders whose firms had vast interests before the federal government, including lobbying and federal contracts.
Names or other facts were sometimes obscured under entries for “private meeting.”
For that story, Braun compared Clinton’s calendar with some of her planning schedules that were included among thousands of emails the State Department was releasing. Steve noticed that in some cases, her official calendar did not include the same detailed information as her planning schedules. Names or other facts were sometimes obscured under entries for “private meeting.”
Meanwhile, AP’s lawyers returned to federal court and pressed the State Department to provide the more-detailed planning schedules, which trickled in.
Cross-checking each day’s entries, Braun identified meetings in Clinton’s schedules either completely omitted or not recorded precisely in her official calendar, the government’s historical, preserved record of her years as secretary of state. For example, Clinton’s calendar scrubbed the identities of a dozen major Wall Street and business leaders who met with her during a private breakfast at the New York Stock Exchange. Braun found out their names and determined that nearly all of their firms had lobbied the government and donated to the Clinton family’s charity.
Other names omitted included longtime adviser Sidney Blumenthal, consultant and former Clinton White House chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty, former energy lobbyist Joseph Wilson and entertainment magnate and Clinton campaign bundler Haim Saban.
In the middle of the reporting, disaster struck: Braun’s hard-drive crashed, and an outside company had to be engaged to recover the data, adding weeks to the project.
The story played everywhere. The discovery that Clinton’s staff kept the equivalent of two sets of books raised new questions about how Clinton – already under fire for her use of a private email server to conduct official business – handled and preserved government records. The State Department declined to defend Clinton’s practices and said that current Secretary of State John Kerry properly preserves his calendars and other historic documents.
For tenacity in uncovering significant omissions in Hillary Clinton’s official calendars, Braun wins this week’s Beat of the Week award.