Anatomy of a story

Anatomy of a story
Denise Dunbar. (Courtesy photo)

By Denise Dunbar

In response to an outpouring of interest in the page one story that ran in last week’s Alexandria Times, “Former mayor Euille was focus of FBI probe,” I thought it might be instructive to provide background on how this piece came to be. 

The most frequent question I’ve heard regards the timing of the story, and why it took so long to come to the public’s notice. While we answered that question in the final “Outcome” section of the story, I also realize that many people may not have waded through all 6,800 words of the piece. 

The short answer is that a situation like this – a payment to an elected official from someone doing significant business before City Council – is seldom discovered in anything close to real time. The Commonwealth of Virginia actually makes it difficult to ever recover such information since state code requires the financial disclosure forms of candidates to be kept for only five years. 

This means that, for someone who serves 10 or 20 years in public office, their early financial disclosures are already destroyed by the time they leave office. If readers want to make a difference, they should lobby the General Assembly to significantly lengthen the time that financial disclosure forms of candidates must be retained. I’d say 30 years is reasonable. 

In this particular case, it seems only the two people directly involved with the payment knew about it for the first five years. The FBI then investigated for three years. By the time a U.S. Attorney declined to press charges, the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to sweep the world. 

Former Mayor Allision Silberberg told me about the check during this time, either in 2020 or 2021. I urged her to go public with the information, for there was no story unless the people who found the check were willing to talk on the record. It’s just as well that she waited, for the Alexandria Times did not have the staffing or financial resources to write a story requiring this level of research. 

For a few years, my husband and I had been pondering the idea of establishing a foundation to fund investigative journalism, journalism scholarships and journalism education. We finally established the Alexandria Journalism Project Foundation in April 2023. Content produced by the AJP is the property of the foundation, and the Alexandria Times has the right of first refusal to run it. This is a partnership similar to those of many other nonprofit journalism foundations and newspapers. 

A few months after the AJP was formed, Silberberg told me she was ready to share her part of this story with the public. 

At this point, the AJP needed a freelance journalist experienced in research, particularly land use and title searches, to take the lead on this story. Coincidentally, I had recently received an email from Alexander Fernandez, who has a master’s degree in investigative reporting from American University and experience with land use searches. I hired Alex last fall and he began his extensive research. 

Alex was paid by the AJP, as was a graphic artist who designed the charts and timeline that ran with the print version of the story. The AJP also paid for the license from Getty Images to run the photo of Bill Euille on page one in the Times. I donated my time spent on this story to the AJP, and actually have no idea at this point how many hours that was other than “many.” 

Amazingly, some people have also asked why we decided to tell this story at all. I find this mindset alarming. 

A payment of this kind from a prominent developer to an elected mayor must always be told, no matter how long it takes to come to light. A story like this is about the people involved – but it’s even more a warning salvo to current and future officeholders that journalists are eventually going to uncover behavior that appears to be unethical. 

We did not conduct a criminal investigation in this story. We offered no opinion about whether anything illegal took place on June 18, 2012. We did, however, tell the story as fully and fairly as we could so the public could be the judge of what happened that day. 

The public absolutely has a right to know about this. We can’t ever forget that rights protected by the First Amendment are vital to a free society, even when what is spoken or printed is inconvenient or even offensive. Though the industry has been much maligned in recent years, stories like this are why journalism is essential. 

The writer is a trustee of the Alexandria Journalism Project Foundation, publisher of the Alexandria Times and president of the D.C. Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists