The story did not start with a tip. It began only with curiosity.
For kicks, one Friday afternoon I re-read the environmental portion of the state budget. On Page 132 of the 266-page document is Section 13.09, entitled “DEQ Grant-in-Aid.” The terminology sounds innocuous, as does the name “Resource Institute,” the organization benefitting from this “aid.”
Yet, the line item is hardly benign. The Winston-Salem nonprofit received $5 million in the state budget — an unprecedented gift, at least in modern times, to do .. well, no one’s really sure, but it has to do with sand and “emerging technologies” for North Carolina’s beaches.
Most of the well-known environmental organizations and fundraisers I spoke with had never heard of the group. Factor in the amount of money, especially considering the budget cuts exacted on the Department of Environmental Quality, the dearth of oversight, and the vague obligations that accompanied the windfall: The appropriation didn’t smell right.
So for the past three weeks, I spent more than 100 hours pouring through government, financial and scientific documents, drawing flow charts, filing public requests, talking to coastal officials. And no, sadly, I did not get to go to the beach.
The documents I used to build the foundation of the story are available to anyone, and most of them are free. The public has equal access to this information. For budding sleuths, here’s a primer on where to find it. Of course, interviews are vital to making sure the story is accurate and has the proper context. But the documents inform those interviews. Here we go!
First, I went to the Resource Institute’s website to learn about the group. Here I found the board and the principals of the organization, which helped later when I searched for their names in the campaign finance data.
I also searched LinkedIn to learn where the principals had previously worked and learned that Charles Anderson and Debbie Dodson are also real estate professionals working for the same company. Anderson also had a company Tidewater Development, which focuses on waterfront property. This indicated that Anderson has an interest in building on the coast. Nourishing beaches would help increase the value of desirable properties. I doublechecked this information at the Real Estate Commission’s licensing database.
Even though they don’t pay federal taxes, nonprofits are required to file documents called 990s with the IRS detailing their revenues, expenditures and other financial information, plus their board of directors, employees and if applicable, major contractors. That’s how I learned North State Environmental, Wildlands Engineering and several other firms had been paid by RI to do work.
It’s also where I learned that Pilot View RC&D had transferred money to the Resource Institute, which led me to Pilot View’s 990s. Here, I noticed that Pilot View and Resource Institute shared several board members and an office building. (I also consulted Google Street View, which showed a sign bearing both groups’ names at the same address.)
The website www.guidestar.org offers the 990s at no charge; the premium services gives you a bit more information, but I recommend the free version before spending $125 on data you might not need. The more expensive version did get me financial information back to 2008, which helps track the rise and fall of the organizations’ fortunes.
The Secretary of State has a corporation search feature, which can also be used to find nonprofits. You can also search by company official, which further confirmed connections between Resource Institute, Pilot View and a lesser-known group Enviro Impact. I also searched for all of the associated contractors — pulled from the 990s — which gave me a lot more names for my files.
I visited all of the contractors’ websites and wrote down the names of everyone listed as an employee. A source also helped me make the connection between North State Environmental and Atlantic Reef Maker, which cemented Resource Institute’s interest in coastal issues.
I had heard from several sources that Resource Institute and Pilot View had received a lot of Clean Water Management Trust Fund money. There is a database of those awards on the CWMTF website, but I wanted to also see how their projects were scored. I filed an public records request for 10 years’ worth of data, and the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources got this information to me quickly. That data didn’t factor largely in this story — I did mention it to illustrate the groups’ track records — but I figured there would be follow up stories in which it could be helpful. (Stay tuned!)
Nonprofits and for-profits don’t receive $5 million in the budget unless they know somebody — and drop a few campaign dollars in the appropriate coffers. The state Board of Elections website allows you to search by contributor (it’s called “committee transactions“). So I entered every name of anyone I could find who had ever been associated with the Resource Institute, Pilot View and all of their contractors. I looked for patterns, such as when the money was given, to whom, whether the lawmakers held powerful positions in leadership or appropriations or had coastal connections.
That same website hosts a directory of registered lobbyists (a recent change, it used to be housed at the Secretary of State.) You can search by lobbyist or principal, meaning the group that hired the lobbying firm. It listed Bryan Holloway as the Resource Institute’s lobbyist. I knew Holloway used to be a lawmaker, so he would know how to grease the wheels of power.
Previous state budgets are online at the legislature’s website through the Fiscal Research Division. I went back to 2005 and analyzed the environmental budgets in each documents, plus the committee reports, which is a narrative of many of the appropriations.
And finally, I read all of the legislative reports related to beach nourishment — go to www.ncleg.net and do a full site search for “beach nourishment” — as well as those on the Division of Coastal Management’s website, plus several reports in scientific journals. This helped me learn that the legislature had consistently failed to appropriation a dedicated source of beach nourishment funds, despite pleas from coastal communities.
Crowdsourcing: Now that the story has published, I’ve heard from other people pointing me to data and information. Bob Hall, who recently retired from Democracy North Carolina, a campaign finance watchdog group, did additional digging and found another $30,000 in campaign contributions made to people associated with the Resource Institute and their contractors. Yesterday
- Charles Anderson, an additional $2,500 to Tim Moore
- Michael Smith, $1,000 to Moore and $1,000 to Rep. Kyle Hall
- Kelly Spaugh, wife of Brandon Spaugh of North State Environmental, $5,000 to NC Republican Executive Committee
- Greg Jennings, a contractor for Resource Institute, contributed $2,000 each to Rep. Kyle Hall and Sen. Harry Brown and another $1,000 to Sen. Brent Jackson in April of this year. (Total: $5,000)
- Contractor Lewis Penland contributed $2,500 each to Hall, House Speaker Tim Moore and Sen. Pro Tem Phil Berger since 2016. (Total: $7,500)
- Randall Boyd of SEPI Engineering, and now with Atlantic Reefmaker, gave Brown $5,000 in April.
- Grant Ginn of Wolf Creek Engineering contributed $2,000 to Moore.
- And Adam Williams of Brushy Fork Engineering, $1,000 each to Rep. Chuck McGrady, Hall and Moore. (Total $3,000)Add these new numbers to the previous total of $84,000 and the Resource Institute’s principals and contractors contributed $116,000 to lawmakers since 2016. A small price for a chance at $5 million.