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AP investigation: Pence family’s failed gas station empire cost taxpayers millions to clean up

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Some political and investigative stories come from tips, records requests or opposition research.

Indianapolis correspondent Brian Slodysko’s investigative story started from one sentence buried in a December news release,which was spotted by Indiana AP colleague Tom Davies. It said that the public was paying for environmental cleanup at a contaminated petroleum storage site in Indianapolis that Vice President Mike Pence’s family abandoned after their gas station empire,Kiel Bros. Oil Co.,went bankrupt in 2004. The release didn’t mention Pence,just Kiel Brothers.

After attending a demolition celebration,where he photographed a crew tearing down a massive tank that had long-blighted a neighborhood,Slodysko worked over the coming months to detail how extensive contamination from the business was – and quantify the public cost.

Slodysko filed records requests and pored over thousands of pages of documents from the company’s bankruptcy case,as well as environmental records from Indiana,Kentucky and Illinois.

When Indiana was slow responding to a records request for costs,Slodysko built his own data set,going through itemized reports to enter costs into a spread sheet. The result: Indiana taxpayers paid more than $21 million to clean up after the company,in all likelihood a conservative figure because many of the documents were redacted, missing or incomplete.

“Dirty is dirty, water or politics. Fantastic reporting by our friends at the AP.”

John Hiner,vice president of content, MLive Media

But cost alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Slodysko’s review of public records showed that the Pence family business – which was run by Mike Pence’s older brother Greg,who is now running for Congress – repeatedly received favorable treatment from the state at a time when Republicans controlled the governor’s office and Mike Pence was a rising GOP star in Congress who was burnishing a reputation as a fiscal hawk.

On a reporting trip with Indianapolis-based photographer Darron Cummings to the Pences’ hometown of Columbus,meanwhile, local residents described private drinking wells that were poisoned by contamination from one of the family’s gas stations and questioned why the company was let off easy.

Slodysko worked with Central enterprise editor Tom McCarthy and Top Stories desk Editor Chris Sundheim to get the story in shape so it could move quickly after getting responses from the Pences. He simultaneously worked with Central multimedia editor Shawn Chen to annotate and fill the story with supporting documents, and provided multimedia producer Francois Duckett with data for an interactive showing known cleanup sites connected to the Pence family.

The story moved just before 11 a.m. Friday and before 4 p.m. it had almost 19,000 page views with about a minute of engagement.

The story ran,or was teased,on the front page of at least eight Indiana newspapers,including the Indianapolis Star,which ran the story and photo across the top. The Richmond Palladium Item ran the story on its front page on both Saturday and Sunday. It was also featured on the website of the Columbus Republic,Mike Pence’s hometown newspaper.

Website play included MSN, NY Times and Chicago Tribune.

The story ran,or was teased,on the front page of at least eight Indiana newspapers, including the Indianapolis Star.

Facebook analytic figures on Saturday indicated that more than 191,000 people were talking about the story. One share by John Hiner,vice president of content for MLive Media in Michigan,included this: “Dirty is dirty,water or politics. Fantastic reporting by our friends at the AP.”

According to Newsroom,the story was downloaded about 55 times,and photos,including two that Brian had the foresight to shoot back in December,were downloaded 27 times.

For revealing that the collapse of a gas station chain owned for decades by Vice President Mike Pence’s family cost taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up more than 85 contaminated sites in Indiana,Kentucky and Illinois, Slodysko earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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