Q&A with Sandy Frost about her new book "Shriners' Shame"
Wed Jan 7, 2009
by Scott Butki
Sandy Frost is one of Newsvine's gems, one of many reasons she has received the RAV.
I interviewed her previously here about her journalistic accomplishments - awards and other recognition - as well as the downside of such, namely Shriners who came to Newsvine to not just question her (which is understandable) but also to harass her (clearly not ok.)
Now Sandy has put out an e-book - the first book, I think, consisting almost entirely of pieces published at this site previously by a single Newsvine writer.
Cartooncat had a book - I interviewed her about it here but if memory serves some of that was published on her personal blog.
In the next few weeks I will also be interviewing Shawn about a new book out consisting of some of the best writing at Newsvine by a variety of authors. Details on that book are are here
There are so many positive things I can say about Sandy but I think I will just quote from the introduction I wrote for her book:
Sandy Frost is a perfect example of what citizen journalists can be on a site like Newsvine - focused, ethical, empathetic but then not giving an inch if and when those displeased by her work try to hijack discussions at Newsvine.
She takes the classic journalism motto of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted and applied it to the Shriners.
Like many I only knew the Shriners as those guys in tiny cars in parades who donate to good causes but Sandy has opened the metaphorical windows of what is really going in with some shriners. For,as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
I will tell readers here what I told Shriners who came to object to her articles: Yes, there may be other groups who are also doing bad things but that's no reason for her to stop her reporting - rather it means there should be others like Sandy Frost exposing other groups's questionable deeds.
Put a different way, if one uses the argument that one should not write about the Shriners because most Shriners are good and well-intentioned then it's not a stretch to suggest other groups (be it the Red Cross or the United Way) should also be offlimits along with corruption in government and, well, I think you get the idea.
Scott: How did you decide which pieces to include?
Sandy: There are 44 chapters, one for each online article, arranged chronologically. The readers will learn what I learned as different news articles and editorials were written. Ten of the sixteen articles published this year alone covered the Shriners’ secret sub-group, the Royal Order of Jesters, and their east-coast network of sex crimes.
Why did you decide to collect this material into a book?
This is one of the most underreported story of the year, if not the decade. “by Sandy Frost” is the world’s #1 source of online information about the Shriners’ secret sub-group, the Royal Order of Jesters, and it’s time that the world learn about their dirty little secret.
One of the main reasons I decided to publish was to provide a resource for other editors and reporters to help them learn about what I’ve found.
Last Human Rights Day, I got a hold of my publisher, Carol Adler, president of Dandelion publishing, and we decided to donate $1 per copy to ECPAT-USA, which stands for “End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes-United States.” The sooner things get going, the sooner we can support this important group and raise awareness about the horrific crimes of human trafficking, sex slavery and child sex tourism.
This investigation began because a Shriner asked me to. I want to give voice to those hundreds of thousands of hard working Shriners who believe in helping the kids. Instead, they are kept in the dark by those leaders who abuse their positions of public trust for personal gain.
Elders should be honored, not used. Many of those concerned Shriners I’ve interviewed are also military retirees and vets, some highly decorated. These men are heroes and should be treated as such by their brothers who, instead, use the politics of punishment to protect their secrets as if they are above the law.
I also want to help other editors and reporters identify resources and get mentally prepared to report on the epidemic crimes of human trafficking and child sex tourism. I was not prepared and kind of hit the wall and went a little crazy after reading documents included in a federal defamation case between two fishing tour operators. These included a witness list for the defense that named 19 Jesters who were expected to testify about their first hand knowledge of drug use and sex with minor prostitutes while in a fishing trip to Brazil.
Also included were depositions given by five Brazilian girls to their federal police that describe how they were lured from their Indian reservations to work on fishing boats as underage prostitutes for North American tourists. One was left pregnant at age 13.
Then there were the depositions of two Brazilian fishing guides that described drug use and identified Jesters, who preferred to be called Masons, having sex with underage prostitutes because they allegedly asked for girls over 13.
Then I was doing research for another Jester case and read an FBI request for search and arrest warrants and realized things were way beyond prostitution. I realized that these guys had been caught by the FBI in a human trafficking sting and when they pleaded guilty, further realized that the Jesters who were at the weekend parties in New York, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada appear to be involved in some sort of prostitution network. In other words, these “pillars of the community” were caught taking sex slaves to their weekend Jester stag parties so their brothers could have sex with them.
I’ve singlehandedly uncovered the biggest nonprofit scandal of our time and it’s time to share my findings with the world.
How important was/is Newsvine?
I could not have done this without Newsvine. The support of co-founder and visionary Calvin Tang and columnists like you and Pamela Drew has been one of the things that has kept me going.
Newsvine provided me the perfect platform to work as interviewer, document specialist, reporter, technical writer, editor, publisher, photographer, editorialist and headline writer. One of this investigation’s greatest strengths is how I have linked from the text of an article right to the document I’m describing.
I don’t have the resources of the Seattle PI or MSNBC but my SPJ awards put me shoulder to shoulder with “traditional” reporters and editors. This is because Newsvine has provided me with the journalistic freedom to do it all without the corporate pressures of being beholden to advertising revenue. This is why newspapers are dying. I hope that those who’ve been laid off or given severance packages come here to Newsvine to explore digital journalism so they can write what they want.
How did this all start?
This all started in March, 2003 when I began looking into the nonprofit claims of a group made up of retired spies. For three years, it was like hand to hand combat, but three years later, in March, 2006, they finally posted their compliance documents online.
I’d wonder, “Why in the hell did I learn all this nonprofit stuff?”
About 30 days later, I got an email from Shriner whistleblower Vernon Hill. He’d been working with former IRS agent and tax specialist, Paul Dolnier and they were looking for an investigative journalist to check out their claims.
Dolnier’s expert findings mirrored what the Orlando Sentinel reported about the Shriners over twenty years ago, including:
A Shrine Circus ticket scam that allegedly lost $5,000 to $30,000.
How Shriner leaders misused charitable donations for things like parties, jewels, temple maintenance, travel and regalia.
How less than 2% of money raised to help the burned and crippled children actually went to the hospitals.
As I reviewed Dolnier’s “irregular” findings and read the Orlando Sentinel articles, one thing really jumped out at me. Sentinel had discovered that charitable proceeds were used to fund executive and employee mortgages.
I dug up the recorded documents that proved that the loans had been repaid but red flags flew after I discovered that these mortgage satisfactions hadn’t been reported to the IRS.
More digging revealed something really strange.
A handful of Shriner executives had a pattern of taking out personal mortgages on their homes and repaying them really fast.
Like repaying $150,000 in three months.
Or $100,000 in a year.
This is when I realized that something was out of whack.
And here we are.
Why should anyone read your book?
Shriners’ Shame is a collection of investigative articles that details the biggest nonprofit scandal of our time.
I wrote it because nonprofit leaders must provide benefits to society by serving others and not themselves. Neither should they intimidate, viciously retaliate against or use charitable contributions to sue critics into silence. It’s not right for such nonprofit groups to expect taxpayers to bear their burden as these leaders act as if they are above the law.
There’s a little something for most anyone, especially those interested in investigative journalism. The first part is quite technical as I describe tax returns, legal documents, real estate transactions, and regulations like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that, in this case, could provide protection to Shriner whistleblowers so they don’t get sued like Vernon Hill and Paul Dolnier did. Some of the topics include nonprofit transparency, misuse of charitable donations, FDA violations, tax fraud, whistleblowers, SLAPP lawsuits, prostitution and human trafficking.
What has kept you going for nearly three years now?
Sugar free quad shot soy mochas from The Spotted Cow and KZOK, home of Seattle’s only classic rock station. I knew I’d arrived after the barista started making my coffee before I got to the window. I always have mostly loud music playing while I work.
Being a good example for my daughters and their friends because I have learned more from them than they from me. Last spring, I spoke about investigative journalism at “Journalism Day” at the University of Washington in Seattle. I took the tax returns for the Royal Order of Jesters and put one on each desk. I began by explaining who I was and what I did and our first exercise was to take a look at the 990s. I told the kids that being an investigative journalist takes years of digging and reading documents such as this. I asked them to go through the document until one of them found the line where Jesters National reported spending over $540,000 on their “Book of the Play,” which is code for “weekend party.”
That’s over $11,000 an hour.
After one session, a few girls came up to me and said “We didn’t know that women did this.” I’ve since been invited to speak at their high school journalism class and my first question was “Can I bring cookies?”
It’s important that everyone answer their calling.
There is something for everyone; a passionate purpose.
For example, my gift for writing was discovered in 6th grade and my first editing job was when I started our junior high’s first newspaper. Then I excelled in high school and college, and then went into the Navy’s Advanced Electronics program. My path has taken twists and turns, like everyone elses, but I’m now living my purpose. I can’t explain why I’ve spent the past six years studying tax returns and investigating nonprofit groups, but who knew that the Shriners had a boys-gone-wild club involved with prostitution, human trafficking and possibly child sex tourism?
What do you hope to achieve?
Compliance. Once the Shriners and Royal Order of Jesters become compliant with nonprofit laws, all these scandals will go away. Then there will be only good news to report about how much they do for the kids, which is how it should be.
What’s the most shocking thing you’ve found?
The retaliation with which these ruthless leaders rule. If found out, they have a lot to lose, like those three Jesters who pleaded guilty after being caught by the FBI. Some of these leaders are nothing more than political junkies who need some sort of rehab so they can quit this out of control Potentate stuff. I mean, seriously. Who aspires to a title of potency? Google “thrice potent” and see what you find.
What was your biggest challenge?
Not swearing like a sailor during interviews. Some of the guys I talk to just join right in but it’s always kind of awkward when someone tells me something really juicy and I say “No @!$%#?”
Then there’s my kitty. He’s so demanding. When I start to work, he’s laying all over my files and documents and if I don’t pet him and talk baby talk or give him treats, he will either start walking over my printer paper tray or will scoot around until he knocks off what’s on the desk. Fortunately, my papers are generally paper clipped so putting the files back isn’t too hard.
At first, handling the critical comments left at the end of my articles was challenging because I took them personally. I’d marvel at the “blind obedience” and would wonder, “Can’t these guys read?” Some Shriners would leave nasty comments after my Jester articles in an attempt to intimidate and discredit me. We discussed that in our first interview, remember?
All these comments did was keep asking “What is it that these guys are so desperate to hide.”
After nearly three years, the answer appears to be “lots.”
I do think that my most serious challenge has been information and data management.
My brain is like a frog in a blender but the frog lives. The good part is that analysis at the speed of thought helps me understand what I’m reading and how the puzzle pieces fit together.
It’s taken me decades of hard, hard work to become organized. The last time I let a stack of papers grow into a monolith was when I was researching clinical studies after I discovered that two of the Shriners Hospitals for Children got warning letters from the FDA for violating clinical study regulations.
I try to organize my documents according to the story’s least common denominator.
That’s the key.
What would you tell other journalists who want to do the same type of thing?
Number one is that no one has to tell us anything. There is no such thing as “journalistic entitlement.” If a potential source asks, “Why should I tell you?” the answer should never be “Because I’m a member of the press” or “Under the first amendment you have to” or “You’re a public servant and now your life revolves around answering my questions and providing me documents.”
If anyone thinks like that, get a different gig.
This investigation has been so successful because of what I call “alliance building.”
Investigative journalism is more like intelligence gathering than anything. Two of my favorite movies are “Spy Game” with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt and “Hunt for Red October” with Sean Connery because when I was an electronics tech in the Navy, I worked in the windowless two story building that Tom Clancy described in his book.
Before calling someone, I try to do as much homework as possible. This shows respect for your potential source. Nothing is worse than asking a source questions if the answers are on their website.
I once studied up on clinical studies and FDA warning letters and learned about the Office of Human Research Protection for three weeks before calling a source.
I always thank them for taking my call then introduce myself, explain why I’m calling and ask if that person has a few minutes or do they want me to call back? Once they understand why I’m calling them and what I’m looking for, most cooperate.
Don’t waste their time. If they have a few minutes, I direct them to my website so they can see who I am and browse the headlines to see what I write about.
Tell them you want to ask a few questions and you won’t take up any more than 5 minutes. At the end of 5 minutes, thank them for their time and get off the phone. Many times, they’ll want to keep on talking.
Sure, there were those calls when I was swore at, yelled at, threatened, told what a bad journalist I am or hung up on but those calls, again, just keep me wondering “What is it these guys are so desperate to hide?”
For those who want to work online, find digital depository so you can store and link to documents right from the text of your articles. This keeps your work on track by being document driven. Documents take you on a trail that becomes the story.
Not everyone sits around on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee nuked from the night before and studies tax returns or depositions or FBI applications for search/arrest warrants.
I do this with a yellow highlighter, sticky notes and a notebook. I think that ¾ of the time I spend on the story is research. It becomes easier for the reader to understand what I’m writing if they can go to the source document and read it for themselves.
What has the reaction been from Shriners in general and Shriner leaders?
Like I told you in our first interview, it’s been either “Yay!” or “Burn her!”
For two years now, I’ve tried to get the other side of the story, but Masonic, Shriner and Jester leaders have flat out failed to respond to my emails or answer any of my questions.
In the case of the Shriners East-West football bowl, the executive director has failed to provide their tax returns after three requests. That’s against the law.
In general, hundreds of thousands of Shriners have been kept in the dark about the mismanagement and corruption. Some of them have left angry comments about how a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole barrel. They’ll read about the mismanagement, corruption and sex crimes then leave comments about how these crimes should be excused because of all that the Shriners do to help the burned and crippled children.
A great part of this kind of work is cultivating trust with your sources. I am grateful for those sources who have come forward because some have told me that they fear for their lives.
Do you plan to publish this in non-electronic form?
The eBook form allows me to begin educating the public now while keeping “Shriners’ Shame” fresh and current. I see things on the horizon and anticipate updating the eBook as more news breaks and when things begin to settle down, I’ll self-publish “Shriners’ Shame” via print-on-demand. This means that as readers go to Dandelion and order “Shriners’ Shame,” their copy will be printed and mailed to them.