Q&A with J. Andrew Curliss, investigative reporter

J. Andrew Curliss is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh. This summer, he wrote a series of articles about the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. (You can read the first installment and related content here.) In this interview, conducted by email, Curliss discusses the origins of the “Spending in the Shadows” series and its impact.

Q. How did you come up with the idea to do this series on the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center?

A. This is not an easy question to answer. I had been interested in the work of the Rural Center for some time. I first gathered information in 2011, actually, when I obtained the center’s grants database.

While working on other stories, I would receive updates of the database and also continued to analyze it. I was looking at all aspects of its grant-making functions — the basics of where the money went, who got it, that sort of thing. The database has a wealth of information in it, including lengthy descriptions of projects.

In 2012, the center popped up as an issue in the budget debate. I continued to gather information.

By the beginning of this year, as I bore in more on the data, several story ideas emerged. Some would eventually make the paper. Others not. I worked on tax loopholes series with a colleague in the beginning of 2013 and then turned my attention full time to the Rural Center.

I requested about 90 files for review as part of that. I began looking at specific files in May 2013, and the articles were published in mid-June.

Q. The series consists of two long stories, sidebars, a graphic and photos. How long did it take to report, write and edit write it all?

Well, see above. It’s not a clean-cut answer: I started on x and finished on y.

I will say that I really was not dedicated to this project full time until early May — and we published in mid-June. I worked every day but one during that time frame, which included Memorial Day, Sundays, etc. Many days, I worked 12- to 15-hour days.

Q. What role, if any, did you have with the copy editing and headline writing for the series, including its “Spending in the Shadows” title?

A. I was involved in all aspects of the series, including the title.

It is a collaborative process. But we try to deliver everything to the copy desk with suggested headlines in place.

Q. On occasion, newspaper stories like this lead to policy changes. What’s the reaction been to this series, and how do you think it will affect the future of the Rural Center?

A. Reaction to the series was swift, if not immediately apparent to readers.

Until the series ran, many policy makers in North Carolina believed the Rural Center was doing a great job. Its leader, Billy Ray Hall, had told me in an interview he would be surprised if I raised questions about any of his grants. Of course, we did. After the series, the Rural Center board said it would conduct an aggressive review of all its practices, led by a former lawmaker.

At the time the series ran, it was not clear how budget deliberations would end up — with full funding, reduced funding or no funding for the center. The series clearly gave lawmakers reason to question continued funding for the center, and they did.

There was a major effort underway by the center to try to preserve its funding, but it was unclear exactly how that was going to end up because … As that process was going on, the state auditor issued an audit that also raised questions about the center’s oversight of grants. The audit looked at a much smaller slice of the center’s work than we did and did not focus on performance of grants as we did, but for the most part supported what we had written.

We had also published a follow-up article that showed how board members at the Rural Center were benefiting from the center’s grants. In the end, the president (Hall) resigned, and the state froze funding to the center as well as prevented it from spending state money. Lawmakers created a new entity, housed in the Commerce Department, to oversee rural efforts in North Carolina.

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