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.
Williams told me his 2003 investigation of Tennessee lawmakers occurred a decade after some major ethics reforms. “The purpose was to show how the Legislature really worked,” Williams said. “If you just shoot the floor sessions or the committee meetings, you really don’t see how the Legislature, how the lobbyists affect public policy.”
Williams said young, attractive producers with cameras in their purses were sent to the after-hour places where the legislative leadership gathered. He said the producers did nothing to lure the lawmakers, they were just drawn “like flies to honey.”
At the start of the project, Williams said a decision was made that no video would be used solely for the purpose of embarrassing a lawmaker. “We made a conscious decision never to show anything that did not affect public policy.” One legislator propositioned a producer for “a tryst,” but that never made the air because it had nothing to do with public policy, he said. Williams said activists who call themselves citizen journalist might not have those same scruples.
(The one piece of ethics legislation Texas lawmakers may yet want to pass this session is one disclosing which lobbyists are buying them drinks and meals.)
Here in Texas, Dolcefino and Collister have done their share of hidden camera stories. Collister recently completed an investigation of game parlors with illegal eight-liners. Dolcefino once caught a city official playing hooky to go to a water park with a female aide. He also did a piece on Harris County judges skipping the activities of a judicial conference in Colorado to go skiing.
Dolcefino offered a more-power-to-them assessment of the Phoenix group’s effort.
“If the regular media had more guts, they’d do it more often,” Dolcefino said. “In a way, the lack of fortitude, particularly by the broadcast media…has prompted these advocacy groups to fill the void.”
Dolcefino said the big problem for the Phoenix project will be the audio recording. He said video of people in public places is fair game but audio recordings can violate privacy. He said his expectations for their results is low.
“It’s going to be someone acting like a fool drinking or grabbing some girl’s butt. If someone got an envelope, there’s no way to prove what is in it. There’s no way to prove the person was intoxicated when they got into a car. Barring someone doing something really stupid, I don’t think they’re going to come up with anything,” Dolcefino said. But he added, “If more legislators were afraid of cameras watching what they did, it might be a good thing for good government.”
Collister said Texas is a one-party state, meaning to record a conversation at least one person recording it has to be a party to the conversation. He told me of an investigation he once did where he put a hidden camera in a car to catch crooked mechanics. The two mechanics stood looking into the car talking about what they could do to overcharge him. But his station’s lawyer halted airing the video because Collister was not a party to the conversation, only the camera was. “There was an expectation that they were having a private conversation even though they were ripping us off.”
A responsible hidden camera investigation begins, Collister said, by asking the question: Is there any way to get this story without using a hidden camera? “You walk a very fine line when you use hidden camera footage,” Collister said.
The first thing that concerned Collister when he heard about the Phoenix Foundation investigation was what kind of backlash would come from the Legislature. I’ll admit to that as well. When I heard lawmakers had called in the Texas Rangers, my first thought was in the future any time a legislator does not like a story a reporter is working on, the lawmaker will call in the Rangers to investigate the reporter for harassment.
Collister said even more problematic was a bill heard Tuesday in Senate Criminal Justice, SB 1223 by Senator Paul Bettencourt. The legislation would make Texas a two-party state, meaning everyone in the conversation would have to know it is being recorded. Collister said two-party consent would open up people to civil sanctions in cases of a woman who used her phone to capture video and audio of her abusive spouse, or someone in a bar using a phone to dissuade someone threatening them. A person who captured video and audio of a police officer beating a suspect could be liable for civil action if they did not first obtain the officer’s permission.
Both Dolcefino and Collister said there are so many audio and video recording devices on the market these days that legislators and average citizens are mistaken if they think they have the level of privacy they once had.
“The genie is out of the bottle with the iPhone,” Collister said.
FBI sting video of Tennessee Senate Chairman John Ford.