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Heat on the Beat: Former Cynic Editor on How to Win a Pulitzer

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Eric Lipton - COURTESY OF ERIC LIPTON
  • Courtesy Of Eric Lipton
  • Eric Lipton

In April, University of Vermont alum Eric Lipton won the Pulitzer Prize for the second time. The New York Times reporter and one-time editor of UVM's the Vermont Cynic student newspaper took the prize for investigative reporting for "Courting Favor," a series on the lobbying of state attorneys general by corporate interests.

Seven Days interviewed Lipton about his journalism career, which took him to the New York Times in 1999. Based in the Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, he's currently working from the paper's London office while his wife, attorney Elham Dehbozorgi, is on temporary assignment there. They have two daughters, ages 1 and 2.

Lipton grew up outside Philly in a home that received three newspapers a day: the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Bulletin and the New York Times. His father found time to read them all and run an automotive parts distribution company. "My dad's always been obsessed with reading newspapers," Lipton said. "He's kind of an expert on everything."

In high school, Lipton's grades were "nothing too impressive," and he was not particularly good at standardized tests, he recalled. His decision to attend UVM was somewhat haphazard. It was among the schools Lipton was admitted to, and on a visit he felt an immediate affinity to Burlington and the campus. It was a school "with a lot of quirky characters — students who were carving their own paths," he remembered. "I only really learned how to properly study while at UVM, and ended up getting an outstanding education."

A few months after graduating in 1987, Lipton landed a job at the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H. From there, he went to the Hartford Courant, where he won his first Pulitzer, in 1992, for stories he coauthored about the flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope. His next stint was at the Washington Post, after which he took a job at the New York Times.

Winning a second Pulitzer was "almost an out-of-body experience, almost like someone was talking about someone else, but they were talking about me," Lipton said in a telephone interview from London. "I felt, like, enormous pride that something that I had worked on so hard was being recognized," he added.

The series revealed that in some states, attorneys general were being swayed by lobbyists and outside law firms to start or drop investigations. Lipton spent more than nine months reporting for the series and accumulated at least 8,000 pages of public records to document the problem.

"It became clear that simply knowing who the characters were and who was donating money and interviewing the characters wasn't going to be sufficient ... They weren't going to give us the true story," Lipton said.

So in May 2014, Lipton submitted public-records requests to about 25 states. "What I did was ask for any email correspondences between certain lobbyists and the AGs and their top staff members."

Some AGs turned the records over quickly, while others denied parts or all of the requests. Doing so, however, put them in an awkward position, and Lipton often appealed denials or reframed his requests. "The thing that was really sort of convenient, the attorney generals in all the states are the chief public records officers," Lipton said. They are the people who give PowerPoints to the rest of state government on open-records law and the importance of transparency, Lipton said. "So that helped."

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell's questionable contacts with lobbyists appeared in Lipton's stories — contacts Sorrell has defended.

As Lipton sees it, Sorrell was not among the attorneys general who drew the most attention from "the beehive of corporate lobbyists, which is a sign, I think, that they thought he was somewhat less susceptible to influence.

"He had his own agenda that he was pursuing — even if it meant he was losing some pretty high-profile cases, like campaign finance. My focus on him related to his retention of contingency-based lawyers to handle litigation on behalf of Vermont." But AGs in other areas — particularly in Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico — were "much more frequent players in the contingency-fee world," Lipton said.

His reporting found that much of the schmoozing takes place at resorts, where groups such as the National Association of Attorneys General host conferences and promise lobbyists access to AGs if they pay hefty attendance fees. Some of the money collected from the lobbyists then goes toward campaign donations to the AGs.

"The thing that most amazed me was just the size of the ecosystem that's built up around the AGs," Lipton said. "It's like a road show. They are constantly going to these resorts."

Lobbyists chat with the AGs over drinks, on beaches and at ski slopes and make campaign contributions, often indirectly, to the AGs they are courting. They also give closed-door presentations to AGs at the resorts, which, in Lipton's view, is different from a lobbyist going to an AG's office. "To do it in this kind of secluded atmosphere away from their staff ... is something that I think really merited attention ... The whole practice is disturbing, but the key for me was where it affected outcomes, and I think I was able to find some of those cases."

For example, Lipton found that the Florida attorney general dropped a tax lawsuit against online reservation companies — including Travelocity and Priceline — after being pressured by lobbyists at Dickstein Shapiro, the firm that represents those companies.

Needless to say, Lipton wasn't always welcome at the posh resorts where the conferences took place.

"Yeah, I got kicked out a few times, mostly notably at the Hotel del Coronado," Lipton said. He started out as a legitimate paying guest in an exclusive section of the San Diego-area hotel where the Republican Attorneys General Association was hosting a conference. "I got the least expensive room, but the only way I was actually going to be able to be in the area where the AGs were was to get a room," Lipton said. The New York Times paid the $2,500-per-night tab.

Initially, no one recognized him. "I intentionally hadn't shaved for a couple days. I had sunglasses and a baseball hat and shorts and a T-shirt. I looked like a tourist. I was doing my own thing." The AGs and lobbyists were all there, talking at the pool and the bar, Lipton said. "I just eavesdropped for two days." All the while he took notes surreptitiously and wrote down a few anecdotes and direct quotations.

After two days, the ruse was up. "Finally I was getting a little more comfortable about being there, and we hired a freelance photographer to take some pictures of them playing volleyball on the beach." That's when the AGs and conference hosts alerted security.

"There were these two really big-shouldered guys who came up to me and said 'Are you Eric Lipton?' They said, 'We'd like you to leave the property. If you don't leave the property, we're calling the police.'"

Lipton agreed to leave. "It was sort of like gravy at that point. I'd already got what I needed." He used material from his eavesdropping session, he said, but he went back to all the people named and told them what he'd seen, heard and was going to report — "Just to make sure it wasn't disputed."

When it comes to travel or spending on assignment, the New York Times is generous. "There's never really any question about it," he said. One editor always told him: Buy a one-way ticket and stay on assignment "as long as it takes."

"To have that kind of support to do the kind of work that I do is such a rare privilege and such a rare thing these days. I just hope the Times can maintain that commitment," he said. "It's a really hard time for newspapers."

Lipton started his journalistic career at UVM, where he earned a degree in philosophy, which taught him analytical thinking, history and narrative. "That's always what I've been interested in as a reporter, is understanding the narrative that emerges from the breaking news itself," Lipton said.

He describes his experience at the Cynic as invaluable. Lipton said he and the staff were as committed to the paper as they were to being students. "It was such a great thrill to run the paper ourselves, and, you know, it was a huge part of my undergraduate experience."

He visits Vermont every year or so. "I come and talk to students from the Cynic, and usually to political science students or English department students. My wife and I really love Vermont, and we come in the summers, although we haven't in the past couple summers because we have kids."

Asked if he would encourage young people to go into journalism, Lipton said, "If you're really willing, you have to go in knowing that it's a long haul, and be really committed and passionate about it and willing to make sacrifices in terms of how much you're going to make and what you do, where you live."

It's incredibly enriching and exciting for those who are dedicated, he said. "But it's something that you won't succeed at unless you are totally committed," he continued. "You will give up before you succeed."

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