The back room of the Italian restaurant was so dimly lit that the camera hidden in a young television producer’s purse could pick up only silhouettes of the House speaker’s inner circle enjoying a fine dinner with the chief lobbyist for an insurance company. But the camera’s audio told the story. “We know who supports us, and that’s who we take care of,” the lobbyist says. “As long as we receive support from you, you will definitely receive support from us.” The lawmakers broke into a round of applause.
That hidden camera work in the after-hours bars and restaurants that were the haunts of Tennessee’s top lawmakers won Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams awards from the Investigative Reporters and Editors as well as the Society of Professional journalists. It also prompted a major undercover FBI operation called the Tennessee Waltz that led to the conviction of the state Senate Chairman John Ford on bribery charges.
In William’s piece, Ford can be seen asking lobbyists for Super Bowl tickets. Unfortunately, the video was lost in a station computer upgrade, but the Web story still exists:
“I need four tickets,” Ford tells them. “I’ll take two, but I need four.”
Later, Ford confides to an undercover NewsChannel 5 producer: “I always get tickets.”
“My friends don’t take me to the Super Bowl,” the producer tells Ford.
“These really are not friends,” he replies. “These are corporate people, like corporate sponsors.”
With Texas lawmakers sweating out a hidden camera investigation by a conservative group called the American Phoenix Foundation, I thought it was important to talk to some journalism professionals about hidden camera investigations. So I reached out to Williams in Tennessee and Brian Collister at KXAN in Austin and former Houston television journalist Wayne Dolcefino.