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Commentaryby Fern Shen6:00 amFeb 24, 20110

BALTILEAKS: election-year dirt diggers or crusading citizen journalists?

They’re heaving spaghetti at the wall – will any of it stick?

Above: Annotated BALTILEAKS spreadsheet of 2010-2011 contributions to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake toward her election campaign for Baltimore mayor.

Earlier this month, an anonymous data-dumping, crowd-sourcing website popped up and hit the Baltimore political scene like a spray of buckshot, publicizing documents and campaign contributions they said show the cozy relationship between incumbents and developers and other city power players.

The media — alternately exhorted by BALTILEAKS to investigate and chided for failing to do so – have nevertheless been retweeting their juicy-sounding snippets regularly.

Some tweets referenced “a lead-paint lawsuit” involving Baltimore City Councilman Carl F. Stokes (who declined to discuss it here), while others noted second-degree assault charges filed against a public official (which were apparently later dropped.)  “Pushing and shoving is ok in city government?” the tweet asked?

Most of what’s been getting attention, though, is the flood of BALTILEAKS tweets about campaign contributors who gave money to incumbents, mostly Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Photo from Ekaterina Nazarenko myspace page.

MySpace page, Ekaterina Nazarenko

Nothing technically unknown (or unknowable) has emerged so far — it’s all been publicly-available material. But BALTILEAKS is making waves because it’s not just linking to data, but framing it, with pointed analyses and insinuating questions blasted to some 317 Twitter followers.

“Grant Capital Management’s relationship with the city is worth over $125K in donations? What’s happening here @MayorSRB? 10:17 AM Feb 15th via web Feb 15.”

ANALYSIS: Nick’s Fish House in Port Covington contributed $9,250 to MayorSRB. Is there a development deal afoot? http://bit.ly/edPQRi Thursday, February 17, 2011 5:30:20 PM via Timely App

Some contributions were deemed tweet-worthy simply because they were not only big, but made by people with exotic Russian-sounding names.

“Baltimore: help solve a mystery. Who is @kotina_kisa and why did she give $3K to O’Malley and $4K to MayorSRB?Mysterious Russian donor. 11:37 PM Feb 15th via web.”

“Who is Ekaterina Nazarenko? Contributed $4,000 to @MayorSRB; also to O’Malley. No obvious explanation. http://bit.ly/edPQRi 11:13 AM Feb 14th via web.”

When they found what appeared to be her MySpace page, they posted a link to it. (We have left messages for Nazarenko at an East Baltimore phone number,with a woman who said she was her aunt,  but she hasn’t called us back.)

Ian T. Brennan, a spokesman for the Mayor’s office, said they had no comment on the website or its Tweets.

Otis Rolley, the former city planning director who plans to challenge Rawlings-Blake in the September mayoral primary, said he has nothing to do with BALTILEAKS but applauds their efforts.

“I’m excited about their entry into the Baltimore political scene,” he said, in a phone interview. “It really does bring a level of openness and transparency that will help government and the citizenry.”

Tech entrepreneur Dave Troy, an enthusiastic supporter of Rolley, declined to answer, when asked if he is involved in BALTILEAKS, saying “I am sympathetic to their stated desire for anonymity.”

“Any answer I might offer to this line of questioning,” he said, ‘would help someone deduce what individuals might be involved, either by ruling me out or implicating me.”

Longtime investigative reporter Joan Jacobson, meanwhile, called the BALTILEAKS effort “pathetic” and said she couldn’t get past their anonymity.

“Anonymous journalism is far worse than real journalists using anonymous sources,” said Jacobson, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, sometime Brew writer and the co-author of a recent Daily Record investigative series on the East Baltimore Baltimore Development Inc. project. “It is easy to hide behind biases, twisted facts, and fabrications (not to mention lack of experience) when you don’t want anyone to know who you are.”

Intrigued though they’ve been by the guerilla reporting campaign, the city’s working press is also somewhat irritated by it. Upon seeing the tweet “Please help spread the word about @baltileaks. Light For All!”,  the Sun’s City Hall reporter Julie Scharper shot back “That’s our motto! Get your own motto!”

Trending now in Baltimore

BALTILEAKS is only the latest in a group of local websites with a civic purpose that have begun mining, blogging and social networking about documents and data. Empowered with increasingly easy access to online databases, Baltimore Government Watch has been publishing documents and links about lawsuits and city corruption cases. Baltimore Slumlord Watch has been running photos and links showing trashy or vacant property and calling out the property owner, which sometimes turns out to be the city of Baltimore itself. (Both those sites are run anonymously.)

And the tech community recently held its first  Civic Hack Day, to come up with interesting or useful web visualizations or applications, using government data recently made available as part of the city’s Open Baltimore initiative.  (This group is  not anonymous.)

Following the Wikileaks model, the BALTILEAKS group is asking people to send them documents, which they promise to verify before publishing. Crowd-sourcing the job of making sense of the campaign contribution data, they have converted the information to a spreadsheet and asked the public to help annotate it. It’s the kind of thing journalists have done for years — figure out the hidden connections so that  individual donations could be revealed as all coming from the same entity or interest.

UPDATE: We have now identified $28,000 in @MayorSRB contributions from Gallagher/Evelius. Appears every attorney was asked to give $1K. 12:40 PM Feb 16th via Twitter for iPhone

ANALYSIS: Parking operators account for nearly $15,000 to MayorSRB campaign; most are out-of-state. http://bit.ly/edPQRi Thursday, February 17, 2011 4:59:10 PM via Timely App

ANALYSIS: Northrop Grumman and Vidsys, Inc. donated $4,250 to MayorSRB campaign; pair operates surveillance cameras – http://awe.sm/5GXv7 Thursday, February 17, 2011 2:46:12 PM via Timely App

The BALTILEAKERS would say it’s the kind of analysis the local media maybe used to do, but don’t as much these days.

Who’s doing this and why?

The Brew asked this question of the BALTILEAKS people and they agreed to an interview via email. (Readers should know they’re still anonymous to us — the full interview is posted here, along with similar questions answered via email by Baltimore Government Watch.)

“There is so much going on in Baltimore that doesn’t really get reported and that happens behind closed doors,” they wrote. “We felt that the media didn’t really have the ability to do deep investigative reporting, in part because it has in some ways become part of the system.”

The BALTILEAKS “Welcome” page addresses the anonymity issue, saying the leakers don’t want “personality to interfere with our mission” or “to restrict the free flow of information by associating this effort with any real or perceived business or political interests.”

How, we asked in our emailed interview, can people trust you if they don’t know who you are? “We recognize that dilemma and hope to earn people’s trust through our actions,” they replied.

Baltileaks logo.

From @baltileaks

Baltimore Government Watch said, also via email, that they choose to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation. As to the purpose of their site? “To bring up to light various instances of government mismanagement, stupidity, nepotism and corruption,” they wrote. The recent replacement of retiring Baltimore City Councilwoman Agnes Welch by her son, William A. “Pete” Welch Jr., was what drove them to start their blog, they said.

They also described BGW as apolitical: “No one in our group has any ties to any political candidates or anyone running for office, nor has anyone given or plan to give campaign contributions to anyone on local, state or federal levels.”

Election year factor

Still, with a mayoral election coming up in September, it’s impossible to ignore the possible political agenda these sites could have. Although BALTILEAKS has put up campaign contribution documents for likely mayoral challenger Otis Rolley, none of the site’s tweets have been about him. The focus has very much been on showing Rawlings-Blake’s ties to developers. “Know that your city’s been sold out to lawyers and developers,” they tweeted on Feb. 17.

Ending business-as-usual in the city, calling out public officials’ tight-relationships with developers and builders whose projects don’t always benefit the average citizen — this theme has been central to Rolley’s campaign.

So, what do the BALTILEAK-ers say, when asked whether they have any ties to Rolley or others trying to unseat political incumbent? They won’t’ give a “yes” or” no” answer.

“Answering this question negatively or positively would undermine our anonymity,” they wrote. “However, our group is made up of three people and each has an independent political voice. We’re more concerned with the health of the system as a whole.”

Rolley said the group’s initial focus on Rawlings-Blake is inherent in their mission, to “keep government honest” which by definition means focusing on the incumbent. “She gave an oath of office . . . I can’t affect the Board of Estimates,” he said.

Fishing expedition? Fresh eyes?

Some of what the leakers are putting out there seems, at best, like reporting that’s just not soup yet.

After seeing a tweet that linked to a Brew story and announced that “Russian donor Ekaterina Nazarenko may be connected to Severstal, under investigation by MDE for violations,” we  asked them via email if they had any particular reason other than the last name to connect her to the Russian owners of the local steel plant. No, they said. (We haven’t found any so far.)

On the other hand, it may not be Pulitzer material, but figuring out in some detail who the big campaign donors are is  arguably a useful project and the group says to expect more documents and angles. BALTILEAKS has called attention to some disturbing facts that are well-known but somehow go unremarked – such as the fact that local “‘journalist’ Hassan Giordano” also does paid web work for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. (“Everybody knows it,” Giordano told us. “I gotta feed my family!”)

Are more serious patterns and problems hiding in plain sight? And if the leakers didn’t heave them up and into the public eye,  would stressed, sometimes jaded reporters on  shrunken news staffs ever get around to doing anything about them? Over time, the groups say, they hope to allay concerns about their motives and methods and provide a public service. That will mean winning over working reporters, as well as government officials and the public.

“We hope to have a symbiotic relationship with the city’s journalists,” the BALTILEAKS group said, in their email. “Our mission is probably not viable without their help, as we don’t have the resources to write and produce features.”

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