‘How I wrote the story’: You have five hours to make sense of 9,000 pages

Matt Lait & friends find a needle in a haystack on deadline

What happened in the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County edition office late one December night has always struck me as both a writer’s deepest hope (a smash scoop) and his worst nightmare (an unfathomable overload of information and no time to sort it out).

'How I wrote the story': You have five hours to make sense of 9,000 pages

'How I wrote the story': You have five hours to make sense of 9,000 pages

This story of how staffers brought order out of this chaos is a lesson in organization you can tuck away for the next time you get caught in a crisis.

For the previous year, there’d been a scandal over financial chaos in Orange County government, a problem caused by the county’s miserable investment decisions. It was so grievous that the county had been forced into bankruptcy. A grand jury investigation and indictments ensued. The good news, for my colleagues in the newspaper’s Orange County Edition, was that they got their hands on thousands of pages of grand jury testimony. The bad news was they got their hands on it all at once, and very late in the day.

The reporter who wrote the story about the release of the testimony, Matt Lait, wrote an essay about what it was like to nearly drown, then to survive, then to succeed. There’s nothing fancy about the story or the essay, just a great lesson for anybody who’s nervous about cracking on deadline: When the clock is ticking, stay methodical but practical–divide up the labor and keep the expansiveness of your search proportionate to the number of hours left.

First the top of the story, then the essay:


PSYCHIC, ASTROLOGER INFLUENCED CITRON, GRAND JURY TOLD
December 28, 1995

In the frantic days just before Orange County declared bankruptcy because of its disastrous investment practices, top officials were told that then-Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron relied upon a mail-order astrologer and a psychic for interest rate predictions, according to testimony before the county grand jury.

Matthew Raabe, then assistant treasurer and Citron’s chief aide, made the disclosure in a secret meeting with county officials in December 1994, as they struggled for ways to cope with a horrifying $1.64-billion collapse in the value of the county’s investment portfolio, former County Finance Director Eileen T. Walsh testified.

“Matt said, ‘Bob had a mail-order astrologist that gave him interest rate predictions and a psychic he consulted.’ I thought we were in a lot deeper problem than anyone could possibly imagine,” Walsh told grand jurors.

Walsh testified that Raabe’s comments came after Jean Costanza, an outside attorney frequently used by the county, interrupted the assistant treasurer to warn him against talking about the psychic, telling him, “Matt, you can’t say that. Don’t talk about it. It’s hearsay. You are not allowed to say it,” according to Walsh.

After hearing Raabe’s account of the mail-order astrologer, Walsh said she asked the county counsel whether Citron “was competent to be doing what he was doing.”

The meeting concluded with the participants deciding to pressure Citron to resign.

Details of the secret meeting and the events that led up to Orange County’s unprecedented bankruptcy are contained in more than 9,000 pages of testimony heard by the grand jury during its months-long probe into the financial debacle. A transcript of the testimony was obtained by The Times on Wednesday.

The grand jury reviewed more than 1.5 million documents and listened to hundreds of hours of testimony from more than 100 witnesses, including supervisors, lobbyists and county bureaucrats from all levels of government.

The transcripts detail the wide-ranging scope of evidence that the 19 grand jurors mulled over before accusing Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger R. Stanton, Supervisor William G. Steiner and Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis of willful misconduct and indicting former County Budget Director Ronald S. Rubino of fraud and misappropriation.

The transcripts also show that:

* A lobbyist alleged that a “pay-to-play” system exists in Orange County in which supervisors’ votes can be influenced by campaign contributions.

* Several witnesses testified that Stanton tried to distance himself and the board from the bankruptcy debacle.

* The county’s former finance director testified she was pressured by Stanton to choose a financial advisor of his liking, even though the advisor was deemed by the county staff to be less qualified for the job than other candidates.

* A Steiner aide in charge of reviewing financial deals for the supervisor testified that he had no idea why the county was borrowing nearly $1 billion in the summer of 1993 and didn’t “have the knowledge” to ask questions about the deals.

Sound screwy enough to you? Here’s how Matt broke down the experience:

It’s 6 p.m. on Dec. 27 and I decide to make one last call to see if I can get a copy of grand jury transcripts on Orange County’s bankruptcy slipped to me before they’re officially released next week to the public.

After a day of rejections from potential leakers, I’m not too hopeful. But as it turns out, I luck out and get them.

All 9,000 pages of them.

My initial reaction is joy. Then dread. Forget dinner. And: Get HELP!

The next five hours are spent producing one of the biggest stories on the county’s financial debacle: the discovery that the former treasurer who plunged the county into bankruptcy sought financial advice from a psychic and a mail-order astrologer.

It was not a story that involved great stylistic writing. It was just a basic news story that had to be thrown together under tremendous deadline pressure. It was also a story I never could have written alone.

In order to get the documents, I assure my source that the transcripts will be returned early the next morning. That means they have to be picked up and copied that evening. At the same time, I have to read them and write a story by 9 p.m. for the Los Angeles edition deadline and finish a longer, more in-depth version for the Orange County edition by 10:15 p.m.

After getting the documents, I confer with my editors and map out a strategy.

An editorial aide is immediately dispatched to pick up the documents. Then two colleagues, Tracy Weber and Dexter Filkins, are drafted to help read and report. While waiting for the documents to arrive, I start typing background paragraphs about the grand jury’s investigation, which had concluded with misconduct allegations against two supervisors and the county auditor, and criminal charges against the former budget director and assistant treasurer.

I call another co-worker, Mike Wagner, who is in Sacramento, but had also been working sources to get the transcripts early. He wanted to be notified as soon as we got them. All day he had been ready to fly back to Orange County if they were obtained. I figure it’s too late for him get involved, but call anyway.

”We’ve got them,” I tell him.

”No kidding?” he replies.

”No kidding.”

The next thing I know, it’s 6:30 and Wagner is driving to the airport to catch the next plane out of Sacramento.

As I hang up with Wagner, editorial aide Jennifer Trexler walks in with two large boxes of transcripts.

Weber, Filkins and I realize that it’s impossible to read all the transcripts within the next few hours. We decide to read only the testimony of witnesses who were most involved in the scandal and probably have interesting stuff to say.

The testimony of a couple of county supervisors, who rarely know anything, are put at the bottom of the pile. So are a few their aides, mid-level bureaucrats and various other county employees. Those transcripts are sent to a nearby Kinkos for copying by editorial aides Trexler, Lisa Pulido and Cynthia Kelly. They shuttle documents back and forth throughout the night for us to read and for Kinkos to copy. (It would be 1:30 a.m. before their work at the copy machines would be done.)

I focus on the volumes containing the former Finance Director; Weber and Filkins read the testimony of the former county administrative officer, other key county officials and influential lobbyists.

Sitting around a table in Orange County edition Editor Marty Baron’s office, we start reading. Baron [who later left the L.A. Times for the New York Times, then the Miami Herald and is currently the editor of the Boston Globe] grabs a volume and lends a hand.

Fifteen minutes pass and nobody finds anything extremely newsworthy.

Although there is more detail about the crisis and the players, much of what we find has been extensively covered over the course of the year.

A half hour flies by and still nothing.

An hour passes and I start to panic. It’s 8:10 and we have zilch. City Editor Randy Hagihara tells me, I have to start writing by 8:30 so he can edit it and have it to L.A. by 9 p.m.

Then, at 8:20, we find our lede.

Buried on page 42 of the former finance director’s transcript, she reveals that then-Treasurer Robert L. Citron consulted a psychic for financial advice. Not only a psychic, but also mail-order astrologers. We’re stunned that it’s there in black and white. We’ve heard rumors about the psychic before, but everyone who appar ently knew about it denied it was true.

I bounce it off Baron for approval as the top. He likes it. In fact, Baron sits down in front of his terminal and starts crafting possible ledes. We still have ten more minutes to read transcripts before I have to sit in front of the computer.

At 8:30, I sit down at my terminal. Baron sends me his proposed lede. Not bad for an editor. Most of it even ends up getting in the paper.

Meanwhile, my partners send me feeds from the transcripts they’ve been reading and the story starts to take shape.

The first six paragraphs of the story focus on the psychic and astrologer issue. I then inject a couple paragraphs of background material, which I had written earlier, to give the story some context.

Although the fortune-telling testimony was the most shocking information in the transcripts, there are revelations about the influence of county lobbyists and ineptitude of county officials that need to be included fairly high up. Because we don’t want to clutter the top with too much information, we decide the simplist and most direct way to introduce and foreshadow the material is with short, quick paragraphs offset by bullets.

The bullets are time-efficient and don’t require a lot of introductory or background paragraphs. They also helped to preempt the number of angles our local competition could consider when looking for a fresh follow on the story.

After four concise bullet grafs, we get back into the psychic issue. The bullet points get elaborated on later in the article.

As we weave the story together, Mike Wagner comes running into the newsroom and grabs a transcript on the way to his desk.

Filkins makes a crucial call to the finance director and, surprisingly, gets her to elaborate on her testimony informing him that the psychic told Citron December would be a bad month for him. As it turns out the psychic was right. Citron resigned Dec. 4, 1994 and the county declared bankruptcy two days later. It’s great stuff and gets put into the story right after the bullet grafs.

By 9 p.m. I have 30 inches and ship the story to Hagihara.

While the reporters start fretting that there may be better stuff in unread transcripts, Hagihara goes through the story tweaking it here and there to polish. Orange County Managing Editor Bill Nottingham also gives it a careful, final read and within 15 minutes it’s gone to L.A.

There is barely time to grab of cup of coffee.

The Orange County edition is expecting an expanded, 50-inch story. (The version that you’re reading.)

Fortunately, we have another hour or so to write through the original draft. I join Wagner, Weber and Filkins in reading more testimony as the transcripts come back from the copying center.

We insert more information in the Orange County edition story about the influence of lobbyists and official incompetence. As we read the transcripts, we make notes for follow-up stories.

With the Orange County story done and moved to the copy desk, we meet at 11 p.m. with the editors to map out the stories for the next day. My first chore in the morning, however, is returning a couple of boxes to one very valuable source.

Let’s continue the story. We left off with the last bullet:

* A Steiner aide in charge of reviewing financial deals for the supervisor testified that he had no idea why the county was borrowing nearly $1 billion in the summer of 1993 and didn’t “have the knowledge” to ask questions about the deals.

A good portion of the transcripts reveal a high degree of bureaucratic finger-pointing and scapegoating.

The volumes of testimony revealed a startling lack of oversight over the issuance of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer debt. Several county officials could not answer basic questions about county finances. They also conceded that they never asked where money was coming from, what it was to be used for and what the risks of borrowings entailed, according to the transcripts.

But perhaps the most unusual disclosure was that Citron consulted an astrologer and psychic for financial guidance.

Contacted late Wednesday, Walsh elaborated on her testimony to the grand jury, stating that Citron apparently told his top assistant that his psychic said December 1994 “would be a bad month for him.”

As it turns out, the county declared the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy Dec. 6, 1994.

Walsh said in an interview that Raabe told her Citron often met personally with the psychic and corresponded with the astrologer through the mail. According to Walsh, Raabe said the psychic gave Citron prophetic advice just before the county filed for bankruptcy:

“The psychic said that December would be a bad month, but that his money worries would be over after that.”

Citron’s attorney could not be reached for comment late Wednesday. Citron, who pleaded guilty to six felony counts of fraud and misappropriation of public funds, faces a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison when he is sentenced in February.

Raabe is facing trial on six felony counts in connection with his role in the bankruptcy. Raabe’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

The grand jury transcripts also revealed that in their probe of the bankruptcy, district attorney’s investigators focused sharply on “pay-to-play” issues in which financial firms were allegedly awarded lucrative contracts in exchange for campaign donations to county supervisors. Investigators were particularly interested in the relationship between Wall Street brokers and current Board Chairman Roger R. Stanton.

Prominent Orange County political consultants Dave Ellis and Scott Hart, hired by Merrill Lynch & Co. to serve as lobbyists, began advising their client in 1992 that in order to curry favor with Stanton and then-Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, brokerage officials needed to hold fund-raisers for them and donate substantially to their campaigns.

Merrill Lynch “must spend the next few months developing a relationship with Vasquez. . . . He is up for reelection in June. Although well-funded with over $200,000 in his account he is always looking for more,” Ellis wrote in a February 1992 letter to Merrill Lynch that investigators obtained and read to the grand jury.

Ellis also recommended that Merrill Lynch hold a fund-raising luncheon for Vasquez and detailed campaign contribution limits.

The letter goes on to stress that Stanton “must be turned around,” an apparent reference to the brokerage’s not having contributed money to the Measure M transportation sales tax campaign that Stanton supported. “The best way to show that there are no hard feelings is to show a token of support. You have made a $500 contribution to him in 1991. 1992 is a new year and he is up for reelection.”

Attorney Wylie A. Aitken, who represents Stanton, said late Wednesday that there is no evidence Stanton ever solicited a contribution from Merrill Lynch, or any other firm, in exchange for the awarding of a bond contract.

“Whatever they fantasized was in their own minds,” Aitken said of Merrill Lynch’s lobbyists. “There is no evidence that Roger Stanton was ever influenced.”

The testimony from Hart, Ellis and other lobbyists depict Orange County government as a place where business is controlled by a small group of longtime politicos, government officials and lobbyists.

In his appearance before the grand jury, however, Hart alleged that a “pay-to-play” system was at work in Orange County.

“There are a variety of ways that you could have a relationship with anybody, whether they’re an elected official or not, and I think that certainly there is the financial aspect of the pay to play,” Hart testified.

How it works, Hart continued, “depends on the individual, the elected official. . . . Some might be more accessible, and that relationship may be built rather quickly if there [are] campaign contributions made.”

Vasquez had turned down Merrill Lynch’s fund-raising offer, but Stanton did not, Hart said.

Prosecutors contend that the testimony given by the witnesses supports their charges that Steiner, Stanton and Lewis “willfully” failed to do their jobs and oversee the actions of Citron. And, that Rubino aided and abetted Citron in skimming more than $60 million of interest earnings belonging to schools, special districts and cities into a county-held investment account.

Walsh, who seems positioned to be a star witness for the district attorney, testified that she was told by Raabe that the alleged interest skimming was “cooked up” by Rubino.

In response to the issue of interest allocation, Rubino testified that Citron didn’t want to report excessively high interest earnings to pool participants because “if the interest earnings are too high, it would actually scare everybody.”

Furthermore, Rubino said he did not see anything remiss with Citron’s interest allocation practices. “He borrowed the money, he reinvested the money and he made a profit. But he borrowed the money. It was not someone else’s money,” he said.

Another witness, Kathleen Freed, an aide to Stanton, testified that in 1993, Rubino told her that a $400-million borrowing he and Citron were putting together should stay on the consent agenda when it went before the supervisors.

The consent agenda contains routine items that are not discussed in detail by supervisors. Freed testified that Stanton had concerns about the $400-million borrowing, but decided to support it after talking with Rubino and Citron.

Walsh, however, was less supportive of Stanton’s involvement in county financial matters. She alleges that Stanton tried to exert pressure on her to select a financial advisor that he favored even though county staff had determined that the advisor was not as good as others.

Walsh testified that she was called into a “very humiliating” special meeting with Stanton by her former boss, Murry Cable, because Jeff Leifer, a Santa Monica financial advisor, was left off a “short list” of firms qualified to do municipal finance work for the county.

“Eileen, we are here to explain to Supervisor Stanton why Jeff is not on the short list,” she quoted Cable as saying. “Eileen, is Jeff stupid?”

“No sir, he is not stupid,” Walsh testified she replied, adding that every time Cable would ask a question, Stanton “would laugh.” Finally, Walsh testified, Stanton said, “So why isn’t Jeff on the short list?”

Not long after, Leifer was added to the list and chosen as the financial advisor on a large county project.

Walsh also alleges that Stanton tried to distance himself for the bankruptcy crisis, while Steiner didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation.

Walsh said Stanton tried to obtain a legal opinion that the board was not legally to blame for the collapse of the county’s pool. But Walsh quoted then-County Counsel Terry C. Andrus as saying, “I hate to tell you this, but I can’t write that opinion. You do have oversight authority of the treasurer, and, in fact, really to be receiving monthly reports.”

Stanton responded, according to Walsh’s testimony, “Terry, we need the opinion. We need to make this problem very clear that it’s [Citron's] problem.”

Ernie Schneider, the former county administrative officer, told the grand jury that shortly after the bankruptcy Stanton and then-Board of Supervisors Chairman Vasquez talked of avoiding responsibility for the debacle.

“I just recall Roger saying that, ‘We need to put some distance between us. This is Citron’s problem. We can’t take the hit. . . . We can’t take the hit for this,” Schneider testified. “I recall Supervisor Vasquez maybe not using the exact same words, but the same thrust, that we need to focus the attention on Citron.”

Aitken said the assertion that Stanton sought to legally distance the board from Citron by asking Andrus to write a legal opinion to that effect was a misinterpretation of Stanton’s intent.

“I think that was a legitimate inquiry for Roger to make,” Aitken said. “Citron was a separately elected official who was sitting not at the grace of the board but at the grace of the electorate.”

RECOMMENDED READING: In tribute to March Madness, I’d like you to meet Bill Simmons, a Boston-based sportswriter now found on ESPN’s website. Simmons is a young guy who defies the cynical, world-weary style that marks contemporary sportswriting. He is a sophisticated idealist with the ingrained fatalism that stamps every Boston sports fan. He has the courage, talent and eye for small detail that lets him communicate why sports matters so much. Even though he is a columnist, there are lessons in his work about risk-taking that apply to everyone.

I fell in love with this column he wrote last week about what it feels like to watch your alma mater compete as an underdog in the NCAA basketball tournament:

During the first few minutes, you’re hoping they stay close. It’s like watching an overmatched buddy trying to work the best-looking girl in a bar…you’re only hoping they make it out alive. Painful as hell. Almost excruciating

But then they survive that first wave.

Hmmmm….

You start searching for signs. The other guys seem a little flat. Good sign. We seem to be working harder on the boards. Good sign. Too many turnovers for us. Bad sign. They’re missing their shots. Good sign. Everything’s black and white. Us/them. Good/bad. Happy/scared. You’re afraid to put any more thought into it than that.

You check the clock. Ten minutes gone and we’re still tied. One-fourth of the game. Not bad. You don’t want to believe, not yet … but you’re intrigued. You fight off the urge to call one of your friends. Can’t jinx it. Not yet.

You notice the television cameras keep showing the raucous rooting section for your school, those same familiar colors that you wore once upon a time. Your school. Makes you jealous. You wish you were there. You should have gone. You feel left out. But maybe if you had ventured to the game, they wouldn’t be playing this well. You start thinking about weird stuff like that.

Now you’re glancing at the clock incessantly. As long as the score remains close, you want that clock moving at warp speed. Faster. Faster.

Your team hits a few more shots. Hanging in. The crowd starts to get behind them; you hear that special buzz starting to build in the stands, that “Something’s Happening Here” buzz that makes sports so great. The 3s are falling. Good sign. You need the 3s. Can’t pull off an NCAA upset without 3s.

You’re not getting any ideas though. Not yet. Every few minutes, something happens that makes you remember the glaring difference in raw athletic ability between both teams — two guys chasing down a loose ball, somebody gliding through the lane like a knife through butter, an awkward turnover, a rim-shattering dunk — just so you don’t get too excited. It’s like a phylum thing. They’re in a different athletic phylum than your guys. So be it.

Now the phone starts ringing, the first wave of “Hey, we’re hangin’ in there!” phone calls. You make the requisite “Hoosiers” jokes — And then David took the stone out of his bag, and aimed it at the Philistine and I wanna win for Coach, he’s the one who got us here — and they never really get old. And you’re laughing and having fun, but you never take your eyes off the TV screen. Not once.

The Bad Guys finally make their predictable run near the end of the half; you suddenly find yourself trailing by nine at the break. Still in striking distance. Now the phone calls start pouring in. Yeah, we looked good. Yeah, we’re hanging in there. Yeah, we’re not out of it. Can you imagine if…? You have the same conversation six times in 20 minutes, and it doesn’t faze you one bit.

The second half starts. You know 90 percent of these games are decided in the first five minutes of the second half, when the High Seed says, “OK, we’re done messing around” and proceeds to blow the Low Seed out of the building. It’s coming. You know it. It’s definitely coming. You’ve seen it too many times.

(Waiting …)

(Your guys are still making 3s …)

(Waiting …)

(The bad guys aren’t making a run …)

Hmmmmmm.

That dreaded five-minute mark passes. Still hanging around. Three-point game. Moves up to five, to seven, down to four, up to six, down to three … always seems to settle at three. Your team can’t get over that three-point hump; the bad guys can’t put them away. The play-by-play guy uses the phrase “hanging around,” and for the first time, his voice rises a notch. The crowd greets every one of your team’s baskets with a growing roar.

You keep glancing at the clock. Ten minutes to play and we’re still in this! Your team seems to play better if you’re sitting back with your feet on the coffee table, so you remain in that position indefinitely, even though your right big toe feels like it might curl into a ball. Ten minutes. Still there. If you can stay close for a few more minutes, anything can happen. Anything. Anything. Anything …

Suddenly the bad guys rip off a quick run — 7-0 — and the lead bulges to 10. One of your friends gives you the “It’s over” phone call and you hate them for it. You decide not to answer the phone anymore. It’s slipping away.

Or is it? There’s a 3. There’s another 3.

(Holy %$%#!)

Turnover by the bad guys. Your guys bring the ball down …

Another basket! Two point-game!

Now CBS is showing the “Guys jumping up and down and going bonkers on the bench” shot — maybe the best camera angle in sports other than the “Guys jumping out of the dugout to see if the homer went over the fence” shot — and it’s your bench! Your guys make another defensive stop, eventually getting fouled and going to the line … swish and swish.

Tie game!!!

The play-by-play announcer’s voice cracks as they head to commercial. You feel like hugging him. Your guys dance over to their bench, their teammates skipping over and practically tackling them. The phone starts ringing again. You’re too excited to talk to anybody. You can’t speak. Your heart feels like it might pound out of your chest. You keep pumping your fist, even though nobody else is in the room. You’re a mess. This can’t be happening.

1. Six minutes left.

2. Tie game.

3. Anything can happen.

4. You believe.

And that’s March Madness for you.

Now …

Most people aren’t fortunate enough to attend colleges with strong basketball programs; even if your school features a decent hoops team, your entire post-graduation life might pass without your school reaching that hallowed “Hoosiers” point.

Me? I was buried in No Man’s Land. I graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in ’92. We haven’t fielded a team that seriously threatened someone in an NCAA Tournament game since the Reagan presidency was kicking off. After awhile, you learn to live with it. It’s like dealing with asthma or rooting for the Red Sox. You learn to live with it.

Last March, everything changed. My school made it to the “Guys jumping up and down and going bonkers on the bench late in the second half” point. We fought the good fight. We pulled a Maximus and won the crowd. We had announcers screaming. We had random bandwagon fans high-fiving in bars all over the country. We played well enough that Kentucky–20-point favorites, the No. 2 seed in the East, the recent two-time champion, a veritable basketball institution, for God’s sake, Kentucky–was forced to execute three high-caliber plays down the stretch just to maintain their lead. As amazing as this sounds, if Holy Cross had gotten one or two breaks, they could have advanced to Round Two.

Yup, as far as moral victories in sports are concerned, “Kentucky 72, Holy Cross 68″ ranked right up there. But that’s not even the point. I finally experienced the special side of March Madness, the sacred side, the only side. Six minutes left. Tie game. Anything could happen. And I believed. For a die-hard sports fan, it’s the most addictive roller-coaster ride you can imagine.

And here’s the best thing: I just bought another ticket. Thursday night, Round One, Midwest Regional, St. Louis, No. 16 Holy Cross vs. No. 1 Kansas. Time to climb back on, strap myself in and get ready for another ride.

And then David took the stone out of his bag, and aimed it at the Philistine…

(Editor’s note: Life being what it is, the final score Thursday night was Holy Cross 59, Kansas….70.)

If you want more of Simmons, you can go to the ESPN site: http://espn.go.com/page2/index.html.

If you want even more, Simmons’ archives are at: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/archive?columnist=simmons_bill&root=page2