Back in the days when Ronald Reagan was negotiating arms control agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev, the President had a slogan he liked to repeat over and over, in bad Russian: Trust, but verify.
That's good advice in any situation. Trouble is, most of us tend to forget that when we really want to believe. However, I have a friend who is more suspicious. Pat Clawson is a classic investigative reporter who has worked for CNN, among other places. He's spoken to classes I teach.
And while Clawson's a suspicious old bird, he lives in and cares about our poor battered town of Flint. Times aren't good for journalists, and he makes his living partly as a private investigator. That's sort of similar to what investigative reporters do.
Anyway, Clawson did us all a favor last week, even though he embarrassed the governor in doing so. Clawson likely saved some investors thousands or millions of dollars, though he isn't holding his breath waiting for thank yous. Here's what happened.
He was in Lansing Tuesday night, where the Society of Professional Journalists were holding a reception to raise scholarship money, and, as he told me, "I was introduced to a young Flint Journal reporter who asked me what I thought about the big economic development news out of Flint that day."
What happened was that the Michigan Economic Growth Authority had granted a $9.1 million tax credit to a firm he had never heard of, called RASCO, run by a man named Richard Short.
Clawson hadn't heard of it, or him. He asked the reporter what she knew about the people running the company. He told me "She said she didn't know anything about them, but was very enthused about all the new jobs the company would bring to Flint." RASCO, by the way, was promising to hire boatloads of people to sell renewable energy products to people in rural Africa and the developing world.
Clawson suggested she curb her enthusiasm until she knew more about the company and the people behind it. That would have been even better advice for state officials, including the governor, who that very day had highly praised Richard Short in public.
"When I got home that night I went on the Internet and read her story, then I accessed the company's web site," he said. The address was a mobile home park. He then ran some quick public records checks on Mr. Short.
Turns out he is a convicted felon. He served six years in prison for embezzling money from a battery maker in Muskegon, and for bank loan fraud. And he was being sought for not paying restitution for his past crimes.
Today, Short is back in jail.
The embarrassed state development authority now says it will start doing background checks. About time, you might think.
"All it took for me to find this out was 15 minutes," Clawson said. "I just used basic access to the same public records that every citizen has the right to inspect."
My guess is that the phony company would have used the tax break to attract investors, who probably would never have seen their money again. I suggested to Clawson that he deserved an award. "Keep it," he said, "I have a wall full of them."
"Hell," he added, "I need money!"