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Millions Spent on Privately Sponsored Pentagon Trips

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June 12, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold

Ellen Shearer, director of the Medill School of Journalism's Washington Bureau, discusses the project that revealed private interests spent more than $26 million on travel by Pentagon officials between 1998 and 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. --- Three years after uncovering millions of dollars worth of privately sponsored trips for members of Congress and their staffs, graduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism today revealed that private interests spent more than $26 million on travel by Pentagon officials between 1998 and 2007.

The project -- spearheaded by Medill’s Washington Bureau Director Ellen Shearer and done in partnership with the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity -- created a database of about 22,000 trips taken by Pentagon officials during the ten-year period.

The searchable online database -- the first of its kind -- now is available to the public at http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/pentagon_travel/. From the raw data, analysis and personal interviews, Medill students produced a total of 10 stories that hit media outlets today. All are available online at Medill’s Washington news site at http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/specialreport.aspx?id=133645.

“Medill has a long history of taking on investigative projects to help connect citizens with the centers of power and give them information that is otherwise hard to access,” Shearer said. “Students this academic year tackled the tough job of talking to Pentagon employees and private interests about a practice that is allowed under Pentagon rules but has not until now seen the light of day.”

Sara Sargent, a 2008 Medill graduate, found that pharmaceutical companies -- including Pfizer Inc., GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson -- often sponsor military trips. The data reveal that the medical industry represented at least 40 percent of the 22,000 Defense Department trips that were sponsored by foreign countries, nonprofits and private industry.

And that’s not all. A story by Medill students Rob Runyan and Frank Carlson reveals that the military took about 1,500 trips paid for by foreign countries over the 10-year period ending in October 2007. The trips -- which cost foreign governments more than $2.6 million -- ranged from a $200 visit to Mexico to an eight-day, $15,000 tour of Southeast Asia taken by Admiral Michael Mullen and six of his staff. Mullen, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore as part of what is called a counterpart visit.

“Very often in computer-assisted reporting classes, teachers substitute arbitrary or invented metrics for real world scenarios,” said Carlson, a 2008 Medill graduate who now works on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” “We had access to original data nobody else had seen, so this meant there was the potential to find irregularities that mattered not just in an academic sense but in the world of consequences.”

With the help of adjunct lecturer Steve Henn, Medill obtained 25,000 paper records of all reported Defense Department trips that took place from 1998 through 2007. Medill and the Center for Public Policy hired a data entry firm to input the records into an Excel spreadsheet, which then was standardized and cleaned. After preparation, about 22,000 records remained. Industry codes were assigned to individual sources and Medill reporters began looking for trends in the data.

Sifting through piles of previously unorganized paperwork, groundbreaking discoveries didn’t jump out at the students. “The reality is that much of investigative journalism is crunching numbers, looking for clues, double checking your numbers and then realizing all of that may ultimately lead nowhere,” said Carlson. “That doesn’t invalidate the process, it only shows why it can be such an expensive venture and why honing these skills through application is so important.”

While students found most trips were within the bounds of federal law, the law stipulates that payment is not permitted for travel that is “essential or required to carry out an agency’s statutory and regulatory functions.” How that distinction is made is unclear when it comes to trips taken by top officers to countries around the world -- many with strategic interests to the U.S.

Mullen’s weeklong trip to Southeast Asia in July 2006 to meet his counterparts in the navies of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia is one example. Captain John Kirby, Mullen's spokesman who was on the trip, said these counterpart visits are a routine act of military diplomacy.

Making the searchable database available to the public is a key component of the project. Using the database, Medill reporters recently checked on a former Army surgeon accused of falsifying research in favor of medical technology giant Medtronic Inc. in a New York Times article. They discovered, while on active duty between 2003 and 2006, he had taken 16 trips at a cost of nearly $14,000 paid for by Medtronic.

“We hope other journalists as well as citizens will use this database as a reporting tool when writing stories about Pentagon officials,” Shearer said.

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