Last week, I caught up with Biesecker and Weiss, who are based out of Raleigh and Charlotte, respectively, in separate interviews to discuss their work on the story. Weiss, who won a 2004 Pulitzer for investigative journalism, has done many of the interviews and much of the contextual research; Biesecker has handled much of the writing and digging through documents from North Carolina to Florida. What follows are lightly edited excerpts from those conversations:
When did the AP start investigating politicians’ ties to the sweepstakes industry in North Carolina?
Biesecker: The investigation really began with the arrest of Chase Burns.
These businesses have long been active at the legislature trying to push legislation to favor their industry. They’ve been the subject of three laws … that were intended to outlaw … video poker; and then they came back as electronic sweepstakes; and then there was a law to ban sweepstakes; and then they changed their software and remained in business. And there was the 2010 ban, which is the most recent and is the subject of a two-year court fight.*
We have followed that all along the way, but the current flurry of attention has primarily to do with the Chase Burns indictment in Florida and the realization that he was the largest donor in our most recent election and managed to do so pretty much under the radar. The timing of most of the donations was immediately before the election. I’m not sure if they would have ended up in the third quarter or fourth quarter reports. No one picked up on it at the time that the person spreading this money around was a sweepstakes operator from Oklahoma.
How do you balance your time working on the sweepstakes story with your other duties at AP?
Biesecker: Part of my job is to be an investigative reporter, so fortunately I have the freedom to invest some time in that. They did send me to Florida for a week to work with our Florida AP crew following up on the Allied Veterans scandal there, where Burns was one of the primary people arrested and described—along with the lawyer Kelly Mathis of Jacksonville—as a mastermind in all of this stuff.
Weiss: I get to spend enough time to really understand the industry and to break stories. Michael and I have been really lucky in this in that our editors understand that this is a big story, that there are parts that continue to break.
What Michael was able to do when he looked at the documents down there [in Florida] was find this wider connection. And this led us back to the donations and the sweepstakes money in North Carolina, and how Chase Burns’s money ended up coming back to fund the political campaigns of not only McCrory but also of other powerful Republicans in North Carolina.
Really, Michael was one of the catalysts. He went down there to do a profile, and instead, digging through the documents, found another connection and was able to break off another angle. The editor sent him down there for one thing and he came back with something completely different. It’s a story that gives you an inside look into how this industry operates and what they expect in return for their donations.
You’ve relied a lot on public records to report this story. What about things that aren’t necessarily public?
Weiss: As an investigative journalists you not only have to dig though documents—you have to be able to do the reporting, you have to be able to go out and you have to be able to listen to what people tell you.
One of the things we really wanted to learn is how the sweepstakes industry operates and works. We made a lot of phone calls. I was fortunate enough to reach a guy who doesn’t talk to the media … and he owns 34 Internet cafes in North Carolina. [A series of phone conversations with that operator eventually led Weiss to a hole-in-the-wall hotdog joint in South Carolina, where he spoke with him for hours—the “exclusive interview” mentioned above. It took a while, but eventually the man explained the procedure for donating sweepstakes money, bundling, that is the subject of Democracy North Carolina’s complaint.] It’s not something that somebody will tell you right away, but if you’re interested, you spend the time on the phone and in person and you give them enough face time and you do the shoe-leather reporting, they’ll usually open up.
What does this story mean for North Carolina politics?