David Fahrenthold on How He Became an Investigative Reporter

From an Inside the Times story by Terence McGinley headlined “A ‘Moral Role in Society,’ Investigated”:

David Fahrenthold of The Times discusses why the world of nonprofit charities is prime for investigative reporting.

In 2017, David Fahrenthold, who was working for The Washington Post at the time, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s misappropriation of charitable funds. (Two years later, President Trump had to pay $2 million to a group of charities as part of a settlement.) Exploring — and scrutinizing, when appropriate — the world of charities made Mr. Fahrenthold interested in diving even deeper, and in January, he joined The New York Times to investigate nonprofit organizations.

He reported in May that a little-known United Nations agency had doled out millions of dollars in questionable grants and loans. His latest article, which he worked on with the Times journalists Julie Tate and Troy Closson, is about one man who was accused by prosecutors of operating a long-running charity fraud and getting dozens of fake charities approved by the Internal Revenue Service.

In an interview from his home in Washington, Mr. Fahrenthold explained how he had shaped his beat and become an investigative reporter.

How did you end up investigating nonprofits?

It goes back to 2016 when I was covering politics for The Post and stumbled onto this story about Donald Trump’s charity. The more we learned about it, the more we learned that it had been breaking charity laws for a long time without getting caught. It used charity money to make a donation to a political campaign and used charity money to buy things that decorated Trump’s hotels. I was amazed at the lack of enforcement there was for a charity like this.

I covered Trump’s business for a few years. When Trump left office, I thought back to that time. I thought, there is so much information out there about charities and they occupy such an important business and moral role in society, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enforcement there. So maybe there are great stories to tell. That’s what got me interested in taking on the beat.

What tools do you rely on for your reporting?

I think Google alerts are one of the best tools for keeping track of a sector like this. I have Google Alerts set for “nonprofit,” “nonprofit arrested,” “nonprofit charged” and a few other things. You’re always grateful as a reporter when somebody with subpoena power is looking at the same question you are and is able to get beyond some of the roadblocks you have.

I’m a big spreadsheet person. I start with a spreadsheet, try to take all the data that’s out there and put it in one place so that I can remember the connections between things. I can trap all the information and put it in boxes where I know where to find it.

How did you and the other two reporters who worked on the latest article divide the work?

I tried to understand, who is this guy, and who are these other people he listed as his directors? Julie was the one who knew how to look them all up, how to get the phone numbers, how to find the people. If you have a mystery, she adopts it as her own mystery.

Troy covers courts in Brooklyn, so he went to the court hearings. He talked to the district attorney’s folks. He was the one who did the law enforcement side of it.

How did you become an investigative reporter?

The most recent experience that started me on this was around 2013 and 2014 at The Post. Before that, I had covered a bunch of different beats: the cops in D.C., the environment, Congress. But in 2013 and 2014 — that was the era of the Tea Party — there was all this effort to cut budgets. I got to spend a couple of years writing about things the government spends money on. Those stories were the first time I got to try to find bureaucratic dysfunction or a big thing happening in the government that people ought to know about.

You also try to find a person you can tell that story through. How can I tell the story in a way that you’re going to want to read it, but you’re also going to learn something? You’re trying to understand completely the problem you’re describing, but it’s also storytelling.I love doing that.


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