We’re publishing a series of Q&As with reporters who have published powerful investigative stories. Our first featured reporter is the New York Times’ Mike Forsythe, who wrote about how transportation secretary Elaine Chao’s family shipping business benefited from industrial policies in China that annoyed the Trump administration.
How did you get the story?
My colleague Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing got a tip in October 2017 that all was not right with a trip Elaine Chao was about to take to Beijing, her first since becoming Transportation Secretary. Sui heard from a good source that Chao was asking that some of her relatives be included. Those relatives had business interests in China in the shipping industry, which Secretary Chao oversees in the U.S.
The source told her that diplomats at the U.S. embassy there had alerted their superiors of the possible ethical problem. After my colleague Eric Lipton asked the Department of Transportation (DOT) about the trip, it was abruptly cancelled. In November 2017 Eric put in Freedom of Information requests to get information on the trio. At that point I had begun looking into the family shipping company, Foremost. I quickly realized that if we could report the events around the cancelled trip (if Sui’s source information was accurate and could be substantiated) then we had a major story.
No word from DOT or State Department. We all moved on to other stories. In mid-2018 I started pushing DOT to produce the FOIA but was given the run-around.
Finally in January 2019 we began a new effort to report out the story. We soon had many interesting leads, including the family’s ownership of a radar company, Secretary Chao’s use of Air China, and several examples of Foremost Group and Secretary Chao intersecting. By March/April we had sued the State Department. We began to receive highly redacted emails about the cancelled trip and in February had confirmed that Sec. Chao had flown Air China to Beijing in her April 2018 trip. We had also received the 367-page corporate record detailing the family’s shareholding in a Chinese marine equipment company. The pieces of the story were coming together. We were ready by early May to approach Sec. Chao and her sister Angela Chao, the chairman of the Foremost Group, to request interviews. The story was published at the beginning of June.
What were your challenges?
- Foot-dragging by the Senate Department and Department of Transportation on responding to FOIA requests
- When we got them, we were extremely frustrated because they had been carefully redacted to suck out almost all news value. But the redaction process isn’t perfect. I did a search for the number 212, the area code for NYC, hoping to find a communication between Foremost and the DOT. They forgot to redact one number and it matched Foremost’s fax number.
- Another challenge was getting Angela Chao, who had never sat down for a challenging interview, to talk. Fortunately she had hired a good PR firm that saw the wisdom in having her voice in the story. I think it made a big difference.
- Going through 35-year old Chinese corporate documents, many of which were hand-written (this must have been years before Chinese-language word processing software was common in China).
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