Surprise announcement comes on fifth anniversary of launching the Bulldog
Ken Martin, founder, editor and publisher of The Austin Bulldog launched its website April 1, 2010, saying, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously but we take our reporting very seriously.”
On the fifth anniversary of the organization that has relentlessly pursued investigative reporting in the public interest as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focusing on holding local government accountable, comes the news that the Austin American-Statesman will expand its reach into local government coverage by pushing into the areas covered by the Bulldog.
“We have the resources to expand the Bulldog’s focus and give local government agencies the same bruising coverage afforded to unlucky state agencies that have wandered into our crosshairs,” said Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott.
The Statesman came out on top after a bidding war broke out among the New York Times, NPR, Fox News, AlJazeera America, and The Guardian. The Chinese People’s Daily also wanted to bid but was excluded by U.S. trade regulations. “We just wanted to keep local control to the extent possible,” Martin said.
The Statesman recently swept up most of the major awards in statewide journalism competition—including on March 29 being named Newspaper of the Year for the second consecutive year. Statesman reporter J. David McSwane won the large newspaper division for Star Investigative Report of the Year.
A long strange trip
Martin, 75, has worked as reporter and editor in the three-county Austin metro area since 1981. He says that five years is about the right amount of time to invest in a startup before moving to his next adventure in journalism, which he declined to disclose.
“I founded the In Fact newsletter in July 1995 as a weekly, took it daily five days a week in July 1999 to make it what I believe was the first local newsletter delivered via the Internet, and sold In Fact Daily to Jo Clifton in July 2000, exactly five years after starting. In Fact Daily set the bar for intensive local daily coverage of city hall and local politics that continues today under the great leadership team at the Austin Monitor, the new name given to In Fact Daily when the nonprofit group led by publisher Mike Kanin acquired the newsletter from the Statesman in October 2013.”
The Bulldog achieved notable successes during Martin’s tenure. His investigation of open meetings violations triggered a 21-month investigation by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla that resulted in the mayor and council members signing deferred prosecution agreements to avoid being charged, prosecuted, and if convicted sentenced up to six months in jail.
“My investigative reporting over the decades has resulted in felony convictions and jail time for both a county commissioner and a con man, but the open meetings investigation was my first in which a city’s entire governing body could’ve wound up behind bars,” Martin said. “I know that would’ve been disruptive but I believe the citizens of Austin would have enjoyed a respite from the oppressive governance these conspirators had conducted behind closed doors.”
The Bulldog’s lawsuit against the mayor, council members, and City of Austin over their refusal to release e-mails they had exchanged on private devices and accounts resulted in release of messages that showed how they had plotted, out of the public eye, to among other things rig votes for approval of a half-billion-dollar water treatment plant. The lawsuit also led to major reforms to the electronic communication policies for these elected officials as well as all city employees and members of city boards and commissions. The Texas Legislature later updated the Texas Public Information Act to explictly confirm what numerous attorneys general opinions had previously stated: the e-mails about public business are public records that must be released upon request, regardless of what device or e-mail account was used in the communication.
Martin’s investigation into the illegal homestead exemptions enjoyed by Travis County homeowners resulted in cancellation of hundreds of these exemptions and the collection of hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes that local government agencies had been cheated out of.
“This investigation of illegal homestead exemptions proved once again what most people already know: if there’s a way to cheat on taxes then a lot of people will figure out how to do it and hope they don’t get caught. In the case of homestead exemptions there have been no prosecutions or even fines levied for for these illegal practices. If caught, homeowners just have to pay up to five years back taxes and they get away clean.”
Elected officials, watch out
Hiott and Martin are well acquainted. They were covering Austin City Hall at the same time when he launched In Fact in 1995, and she shared that beat for the local daily. Hiott went on to work her way up in the ranks to become the paper’s editorial leader in November 2011, following the retirement of Editor Fred Zipp.
“Frankly, I’m relieved,” Martin said of the Statesman’s takeover. “Raising money to support and sustain our coverage has not been my focus, and as a result we have not been able to expand coverage to include Travis County, the Healthcare District, and Austin Independent School District. Infusion of the resources made possible by the deep pockets of Statesman owner Cox Enterprises will take the Bulldog’s investigative reporting to the proverbial next level.”
“I know and respect Debbie’s fine leadership and I’m confident that with her team following the path established by the Bulldog local government officials will get the kind of intensive scrutiny they so richly deserve,” Martin said. “We just have to realize that anyone who’s crazy enough to run for public office certainly bears watching.”