As the American Phoenix Foundation completed its hidden-camera investigation of legislators, it dispatched four employees to ask pointed questions of legislators. At times, the lawmakers claimed the questioners were harassing them and frightening women legislators. They also frustrated mainstream journalists by refusing to identify themselves. Because of their demeanor, dress and close-cropped haircuts, many in the lobby believed they were ex-military operatives. Foundation managers Hannah Giles and Joseph Basel assured me that these men I call The Watchers were not some sort of special forces team brought in to intimidate lawmakers.
RGR: The people who are asking the questions, they’ve all got similar haircuts. They all look like ex-military. Some of them are intimidating, especially for the women members. On social media, I’ve seen them referred to by lobbyists as stalkers, Brown shirts and Hitler Youth. How do you find people to do that job? These are not the kind of activist volunteers that I’m used to seeing, no matter what group I’m paying attention to, left or right.
JB: First of all, you’re talking about two or three out of our team of 16. So by definition, their sampling is off. Just because those guys can’t afford a $10 haircut doesn’t mean it says anything about their ideology. Their reasons and beliefs would be as varied as anyone at the Capitol. They believe in sunlight, as Justice Brandeis did.
Basel was referring to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis statement: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Basel said since every approach to legislators was video recorded, they can prove no lawmaker was harassed or stalked. He claims legislators are guilty of making a “false police report.”
HG: The Texas Capitol isn’t used to journalists or reporters going up to them and questioning them with tough questions. So that’s throwing them off guard.
JB: They’re thinking back through the last six months and realizing they wouldn’t appreciate all that being out there, everything they’ve done.”
HG: There’s no stalking. Everything we’ve done has been in public places.
JB: Very purposefully within the confines of the law, and all of our team members are trained in that.
RGR: Are they trained to stand there passively while lobbyists get in their face?
JB: They’ve done pretty good at it. It wasn’t a specific part of our training.
HG: We weren’t expecting that actually.
JB: Their (lobbyists) reactions are indicative of what they know that we have on footage. They realize their business, the way they unduly influence elected leaders, whether it is for special interest or themselves, that business model dies when we have full accountability like this. They’re also worried about the things they’ve said and done over the last six months.
RGR: A Nashville television station used young women producers to get hidden cameras into after-hours meetings with legislators and lobbyists. Did you use similar tactics?
JB: Little bit of everything. We approached this using the scientific method. You propose a hypothesis and you design a clean test. For the same reason that outfit in Nashville had results, we had similar results.
HG: I’d like to say none of our girls have been harassed. They’ve been harassed by members but they’re not caught up in this right now.
JB: Our team is about half and half on this project. These are students. This is six-month project during the school year so a lot of them are not current college students. A lot of them are recent grads that we’ve trained. We’ve trained just under 1,000 students at over 70 colleges since Hannah started the project. So we have a nice pool to pull from.
HG: I’ve realized that if I want to do good journalism, I can’t do it all by myself.
In a follow-up to our sit-down interview, I posed another question in an email and received a response from Basel.
RGR: You say the American Phoenix Foundation is about investigative journalism, but most non-profit journalism organizations – from ProPublica to the Texas Tribune – disclose their donors. Why won’t you disclose your donors?
JB: Every organization has to weigh these issues. The ones you named are publications, and aren’t doing the kind of work we’re doing. It’s also just a stupid story: trying to divine motives through projection with a name. If it’s Charles Koch, it’s to kill the environment. If it’s George Soros, it’s to do left-wing whatever, if it’s any other political funder boogeyman, it’s some other tired narrative where we’re always killing the messenger and ignoring the message.
(Photo: American Phoenix Foundation employees/Source: Facebook)