Ann Arbor journalist launches government travel tracking website funded by Mark Cuban
Photo courtesy of JunketSleuth.com
Chris Carey, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who moved to Ann Arbor in 2005 for a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, is leading a startup called JunketSleuth.com.
The site offers searchable records detailing the travel expenditures of federal officials and Congressional leaders — part of a series of web-based journalism startups Carey has launched from his home.
The project officially went live a year ago but it's taken time to build a critical mass of databases because government agencies take a long time to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests — and it can take time to translate their responses into user-friendly digital databases.
JunketSleuth's "main purpose is transparency and accountability," Carey said. "People in Washington are saying we have this terrible financial crisis now, both with annual budget deficits and long-term federal debt issues. And yet some people in Washington are spending like there's no problem."
Among the databases already available are records from the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Energy, Federal Communications Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission.
"Anyone can go in and look through millions of travel records. You can see who went to Paris, who went to London, who went to Aspen and you can ask what government purpose was served by going to those destinations," Carey said.
The website, which is set up as a nonprofit and is not accepting advertising, is funded by Cuban — who also backed Carey's previous projects, bank bailout fund tracker BailoutSleuth.com and stock fraud tracker ShareSleuth.com.
JunketSleuth is contracting with high-profile journalists throughout the country — including Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Carollo — to analyze the databases and generate in-depth content.
Carey said he would measure success by the impact of JunketSleuth's databases and coverage. He said some government agencies have already said they'll consider publishing travel records on their own sites to avoid processing annual FOIA requests.
Carey, who moved to Ann Arbor in 2005 for U-M's Knight-Wallace Fellowship program and never left, said annual government travel spending is estimated at $15 billion.
One of JunketSleuth's early findings is that members of Congress and their staff are more likely than government bureaucrats to fly first class.
"Even on relatively short trips," Carey said. "Most government agencies are more conservative in how they fly and how much they spend."
He said the site's records would be limited to federal travel spending unless additional funding surfaces to allow the pursuit of state government travel records.