Why employment contracts are so much fun for a public records geek

July 9, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

What is your favorite public record to request? Employment contracts are near the top of my list. They can tell you so much more than what someone’s salary is. For instance, did you know that some public employees get private jets, personal drivers, country club memberships and other benefits as part of their job?

Journalists around the country have discovered these perks by requesting the contracts of prominent public leaders, such as superintendents and college coaches, whose salaries and other benefits are public record.

Kelly Hinchcliffe

Kelly Hinchcliffe

Several years ago, I collected contracts for all 115 public school superintendents in North Carolina and found that some received thousands of dollars in bonuses, cars, security details and money to pay for their mortgages.

One of the most memorable contracts came from a small coastal community whose new superintendent got school board members to give her a house. But that wasn’t all. She also convinced them to install a nearly $4,300 fence for her dogs, all paid for with taxpayer money.

‘Oh boy, this is going to be good’

Chris Papst

Chris Papst

Chris Papst, an investigative reporter at WJLA-TV in Arlington, Va., found some other surprising perks when he looked at contracts of 29 local school superintendents in his area this past May.

“I really didn’t expect to see what I found,” he said. “The second contract I got … (the superintendent) had a personal driver. I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be good.'”

Papst also found a superintendent who received a $24,000-a-year housing allowance on top of her $265,000 salary. Plus, up to $65,000 a year in retirement benefits, which is roughly equal to the average teacher salary.

Another superintendent was given 51 days – more than 10 weeks – of paid vacation per year.

“When the story hit, it got a lot of attention,” Papst said. “I talked to a couple superintendents off the record. They were interested to see what other superintendents were getting so they could work it into their contract next time.”

‘That was an interesting perk’

Nick Baumgardner

Nick Baumgardner

Sports reporter Nick Baumgardner discovered some even higher-dollar incentives earlier this year when he requested the contract of Jim Harbaugh, the University of Michigan’s new head football coach.

Baumgardner, who covers football and men’s basketball for MLive Media Group, reported that the new coach would be paid more than $40 million over seven years. But that wasn’t the most interesting part of the contract.

Harbaugh was also allowed to use a private jet for recruiting and up to 25 hours per year in private aircraft travel for “personal, non-football related use,” according to the Jan. 23 story on MLive.com.

“That was an interesting perk,” Baumgardner said. “That was kind of a sign of Michigan’s willingness to spend more money on football.”

“When a coaching change or any new coach is brought in, we usually try to FOIA the contract just because there’s always more than just how much he’s getting paid,” Baumgardner added. “You want to get the contract to see how much he’s actually making, not how much they say he’s making … They’re always trying to spin stuff.”

‘I had to really hound them’

If you’re a reporter, hopefully you’ve already requested a spreadsheet of public employees’ salaries on your beat. I encourage you to take it one step further and find out who has a contract and request it. I think you’ll be surprised by what you find.

You might also be surprised by the responses you get at different agencies.

In Papst’s case, he spent about a month collecting all 29 contracts. Four or five of the school districts had the contracts posted on their websites. Others were not as helpful.

“Some I had to fight to get it. I had to really hound them,” Papst said. “The most important thing is you don’t give up. People aren’t going to want to give you the information. The more they don’t want to give you the information, the more you should hunt for it.”

Baumgardner suggests wording public records requests very carefully.

“Don’t leave anything out. Be very clear,” he said. “If you’re not clear, then that gives the person a reason to sidestep it.”

When requesting a contract, make sure to ask for the full document and any addendums, not just the page that lists the salary. Since public records laws vary by state, you can get ideas for how to word your request on the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s website, which has sample letters by state.

Have you requested a contract on your beat? What perks did you find? Let me know in the comments section or contact me on Twitter @RecordsGeek.

Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C., and is passionate about public records. She previously worked as an education reporter at The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., and The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Md. You can follow her on Twitter @RecordsGeek.