Seattle Times reporter Eric Nalder once showed up at the Federal Building in Richland to conduct an interview and to deliver a written Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) record request, known in the journalism business as a "foy-yuh."
The local chief of public relations for the U.S. Department of Energy greeted him in the lobby. Nalder handed him a letter.
"So this is your `fooey' request," the man sniffed, joking, sort of. The government isn't always chipper about disclosing public records.
"Hey," Nalder said without missing a beat, "you should just leak me some documents. You could be a working-class hero!"
A dozen years later, Nalder still is cheerfully afflicting the establishment and sweet-talking middle managers, poring over documents and ringing doorbells.
Such reporting paid off yesterday for Nalder, 51, Deborah Nelson, 44, and Alex Tizon, 37, as they shared a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for investigative reporting. Aerospace reporter Byron Acohido, 41, won the other Pulitzer for The Times, for beat reporting.
Nelson, Nalder and Tizon won for a series that exposed opportunism, nepotism and sloppy management in Native-American housing programs financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It was Nalder's second Pulitzer. He contributed to the paper's coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, which won a prize in 1990.
Acohido won for a variety of work, the most notable of which was a series of stories about how Boeing and the government have handled a puzzling problem with a rudder mechanism on 737 jetliners, a problem believed to be a possible cause in two crashes.
The four Times reporters, and hundreds like them around the country, share some characteristics that make their work special.
They are relentless, detail-oriented, likely to side with the little guy or gal and, when it suits them, to be gleefully irreverent. A common mantra might be that seen on a bumper sticker: "Question Authority."
"It must be some flaw in my personality," joked Acohido. "I want things to make sense and ring true."
Tip inspired series
Work on the tribal-housing series began about a year ago when Nelson got a telephone tip.
The tipster, from the Tulalip Indian Reservation, told of a fancy house occupied by the director of the reservation's housing authority and her husband, the authority's contracting officer, and financed with federal money intended for low-income housing.
To check out the story, Nelson tried to drive by, but the house wasn't visible from the road. She returned with photographer Greg Gilbert. They hiked through the woods, and there it was, all 5,300 square feet of it.
When Nelson called the couple, "They were vague about where the money came from," she says.
She submitted FOIA record requests to HUD and discovered an exchange of e-mail that revealed "that HUD regulations actually allowed this to happen," she said.
Word spread through Indian country in the Northwest that Nelson was nosing around, and more tips poured in.Eventually it became clear that the Tulalip house wasn't an isolated example. Nalder, a fellow records-scrounging pack rat in the next cubicle, was recruited to help Nelson.
The two had numerous cases to examine in the Northwest. HUD insisted that was the extent of the problem.
But heeding the "question authority" credo and at the urging of metropolitan editor David Boardman, Nelson and Nalder began checking housing programs at Native-American reservations nationwide, first through HUD records and then with visits.
The problems were far more widespread than HUD had said.
As the investigative pair continued their work, Tizon was added to the team. Regarded as one of the paper's most skillful writers, he was beginning a beat called American subcultures, with emphasis on Native Americans.
Tizon's first mission was to visit reservations where abuse had been found by Nelson or Nalder, and document the impoverishment - the need for the federal housing money in the first place.
Tizon also was the lead writer of the series. Boardman, who has overseen most of the high-profile investigative pieces The Times has published in recent years, was the lead editor. The tribal-housing series ran in December.
Before the presses even rolled, then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros called for a federal investigation based on The Times inquiries.
Nalder is a native Washingtonian and a University of Washington graduate, and over the past 22 years has worked for both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Times.
Nelson, a lawyer and seasoned reporter, is a relative newcomer to the area. She left her job as an investigative reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times to come here in 1995.
Tizon has held a range of reporting assignments since 1986, including a two-year stint with Pacific magazine.
Boeing always a big story
Acohido joined the paper in 1987 as a business reporter. Within a year, he was assisting with coverage of Boeing, the area's largest employer.
In Seattle, aviation safety is a business story. Boeing's fortunes are on the line when safety - and liability - is an issue. As the one usually covering that issue, Acohido found himself immersed in a highly technical beat about which he had previously known little.
There might be no profession more contemptuous of journalists than aviation. It's not just a mode of transportation, it's a science. To make matters worse, aviation's news value is heightened, hysterically sometimes, by the fact that people die in airplane crashes.
Finally, most journalists are not engineers or pilots.
With a skeptical and aggressive attitude, Acohido threw himself into a beat whose subjects and sources were wary and often hostile. He often eschewed company and government explanations in favor of dissenters among the engineers and pilots.
He frequented CompuServe's busy online Aviation Forum, where reporter-bashing is a sport, and in the process of getting beat up won over some sources who had wisdom and information to share privately.
By the time a USAir 737 crashed in Pittsburgh in 1994, killing 132 people, Acohido had a substantial network of sources and knowledge. He spent the next two years trying to figure out if that crash was related to an unsolved 1991 United Airlines 737 crash in Colorado Springs, Colo., that killed 25 people.
The result was "Safety at Issue: the 737," a five-day series in October that detailed rudder problems on the world's most popular commercial jetliner, Boeing's reluctance to acknowledge problems and the Federal Aviation Administration's unwillingness to act to ensure passenger safety.
The series revealed that pilots over the years had reported hundreds of uncommanded rudder movements. In a severe case, a "rudder hardover," as pilots call it, could upset a plane, causing it to spin downward.
Within 24 hours of the conclusion of Acohido's series, Boeing acknowledged publicly for the first time a serious problem with the 737's rudder. Later that day, the FAA ordered inspections of all 737 rudder-control systems.Boeing insists there was no relation between publication of the 737 stories and the company's nearly simultaneous admission that there could be a problem. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Stories available
"Tribal housing: From deregulation to disgrace" and "Safety at issue: The 737" are on The Seattle Times Web site at http://www.seattletimes. com/extra/special.html
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