Things really came to a head in the late summer and fall of 2010. In July, Johnson obtained names of state employees that were members of a lobbying group, the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which had repeatedly pushed for less regulation and oversight of school construction. State officials denied that any employees belonged to the group, but were forced to “backpedal” when Johnson pulled out a list at a meeting showing that several top managers at the Division of the State Architect were indeed members (other records showed that regulators were even told that taxpayers would reimburse their membership dues).

Johnson pulled off his most impressive feat of reportorial prowess in November, however, when he convinced a source in the Division of the State Architect to give him a hard drive with years of e-mails, memos, reports, surveys, policy drafts and directions, and other confidential records relating to the regulation of seismic safety across various agencies. Katches, California Watch’s editorial director, called it a “treasure trove,” which revealed that for years officials across state government had been aware of school construction problems, but failed to address them.

Johnson had to follow a circuitous route to get the hard drive. By that point in his investigation the state and basically clammed up on him. “They were aware that I was this bugaboo burrowing down for information,” he said.

In an effort to break the impasse, Johnson contacted someone whom he knew to be a friend of an official in the state architect’s office that he wanted to reach. Bluffing to a certain extent about already having some damning evidence in hand, he asked that person to arrange a meeting, pointing out that “going through the front door would set off an awful lot of alarms and bells.” The intermediary complied and the official in the state architect’s office agreed to talk to Johnson, who laid his request on the line.

“Over a couple lunches, I said, ‘I need to know what I don’t know because as it stands right now, you all are really screwing children.’ I said it just like that, and I said, ‘I don’t know of anybody that’s going to take that, especially when voters approved all this money for seismic safety and you turn around and give them a bad building.’ I just told him: ‘Now, with what we have, regular media would’ve already run this story, but I’m trying to get the other side, so if you’ve got something, you need to quit playing games and give me something.’ And that appeal worked. It worked. And he said, ‘Okay, I’ve got something,’ and this something proved our suspicions [about lax oversight], because when we looked through the documents, it was worse than what I could have ever imagined.”

The records showed that for years, various officials had complained that the state was neglecting its statutory responsibilities with regard to earthquake safety, that inspectors and field engineers did not have enough support, and that some projects had been completed with dangerous construction flaws.

“You name it, the hard drive had it,” Johnson said. “I mean, we got a lot of breaks along the way, but that was huge.”

Around the same time, he received a vastly expanded list of uncertified projects at schools based on the request he’d made more than year before. Originally, the state had provided a list of some 9,000 projects. When the updated version arrived, it had more than twice that number (and would’ve been even larger had the state had not cleared thousands of other project violations in the intervening months).

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.