Conflict or not? A deep dive into the world of forms and data leads to collaboration

story reporters Former Boston University students, from left, Jahnavi Bhatia, Flaviana Padilla, Christine Lytwynec and Diego Marcano at the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

By Lynne Perri

Do members of Congress know whether an expert testifying before them has any monetary connections to the outcome of their committee hearings? Do those testifying before them have an affiliation with a group or groups that might want to weaken oversight by an agency or strengthen ties with particular foreign governments?

These were some of the questions graduate student Edward Graham sought to answer in 2016 when he began his research in a reporting class taught by Charles Lewis, executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

Graham’s class project became a deeper story when we published “Truth in Testimony” in January of 2017 about how the House has taken steps to provide greater transparency regarding potential witness conflicts of interest.

The “Truth in Testimony” rule requires that witnesses appearing in a nongovernment capacity must include “a disclosure of any Federal grants or contracts, or contracts or payments originating with a foreign government” within the current or two previous calendar years both for themselves or any group they represent related to the hearing subject.

House rules require committees to disclose these forms electronically within one day of the hearings; Senate committees don’t have a similar rule.

But as Graham reported then, “all too frequently, in a growing number of nongovernment witnesses’ testimonies, the rule does little to reveal outside conflicts that could affect testimony.”

Then in 2018, a team of data journalism students at Boston University under the direction of Brooke Williams, a former contributor to the New York Times and now an associate professor of the practice of computational journalism at BU and a contributor to the Intercept, decided to keep at it to see whether transparency on the part of those many experts had changed or improved.

The team worked with editors Lynne Perri and Jennifer LaFleur at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. And with funding from both Boston University and the Workshop, the students paired their comprehensive data analysis with field interviews in Washington in the late spring.

While working on the project, such transparency — or lack of it — came up again, this time in a non-legislative hearing when President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform at a high-profile hearing in February 2019. Several legislators and Cohen sparred over what is required to be disclosed.

Here, in an excerpt from our latest story, is what happened next:
Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, opened a line of questioning about the form, asserting that Cohen had lied on his form by not disclosing the “contracts with foreign entities” that Cohen admitted to earlier in his verbal testimony.

“On here, it was very clear, that it asked for contracts with foreign entities over the last two years. Have you had any foreign contract with foreign entities, whether it’s Novartis or the Korean airline or Kazakhstan BTA Bank? Your testimony earlier said that you had contracts with them,” Meadows said.

Cohen said he did not list them on his form “because those foreign companies […] are not government companies,” but rather “publicly traded companies.”

The writers found:
“There is a wide variation in the level of disclosure on these forms – whether due to lack of consistency in the form itself, the room for multiple interpretations of the wording on the form, or actual intent to defy the law and withhold information. Because there are few other ways, often none, to find out if the witness has or had financial ties to a foreign government the end result is semi-transparency, which can potentially create a chilling effect on those who do disclose and a lack of accountability for those who don’t.”

Grad student and former software developer Christine Lytwynec wrote a computer program to automatically capture the publicly available data about who has testified before House committees, including their truth in testimony disclosure forms, from the U.S. House of Representatives Document Repository. Next, she and her colleagues entered the content of the disclosure forms manually into a database. Once they built the database, they verified the data through a task application they built for the project and fixed errors. 

The final database includes details about who testified at which hearings from 2011 through 2018 as available on the House document repository. It also tracks how those witnesses responded on their truth in testimony forms since Congress created the rule in January 2015. You can read the full story and learn more about our methodology and key numbers.

ABOUT THE REPORTERS:

Christine Lytwynec recently earned an MS in Journalism from Boston University. She is a former software developer with undergraduate studies in psychology, music and math. Lytwynec has interned with MuckRock and reported from Beacon Hill for the Boston University Statehouse Program. She is interested in the intersection of data and journalism — whether through coding, data analysis, or digging through records.

Jahnavi Bhatia is now a reporter based in Boston, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Boston University. She has a strong interest in policy and legal matters and currently works on the Business Immigration Data team at Seyfarth Shaw LLP. She previously interned with Business Standard, a national newspaper in her home country of India, where she covered the new government’s tax policies and how it would affect different business owners.

Diego Marcano is a reporter born in Caracas, Venezuela. He worked at Prodavinci, a Venezuelan online media outlet, writing about the Venezuelan economic crisis and international news. His work has also appeared in the Colombian national newspaper El Espectador, and Nieman Reports in the U.S. He studied journalism at Universidad de La Sabana in Bogota, Colombia and graduated with a Master of Science degree in Journalism from Boston University where he worked as Business and Technology editor and News Editor for BU News Service. 

Flaviana Sandoval is a journalist in Boston. She earned a master’s in Journalism from Boston University and has reported and written about public health issues, covering the medical shortages and public health infrastructure crisis in Venezuela and its impact on vulnerable populations such as women and children. 

She previously worked at Prodavinci.com, a digital magazine in Caracas, Venezuela, writing about international affairs and human rights issues, including coverage of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis, the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.