By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Go ahead. Hate him.
Jock Friedly couldn't care less. This is a man who counts being burned in effigy among his career highlights. So he's hardly going to be bothered by all these congressional staffers who think he's pretty much the Devil incarnate.
Friedly became the scourge of Capitol Hill by creating LegiStorm.com, a Web site that makes it super-easy to look up the annual salaries and financial disclosures of congressional staffers. All this stuff is public information, mind you. But it used to be a pain to find: Hike up to Capitol Hill, descend into the bowels of a House office building and thumb through books filled with tiny type.
Friedly brought it all into mouse-click range. His site offers a trove to keep the snoopiest snoop occupied for hours -- bank accounts, investment portfolios, trust funds, even information about spouses. Wondering why so-and-so cruises to work in a Beemer? Aha, that's why: His wife's a big-shot partner at a law firm. It's all there in the reports.
Often, the site is one of the first things that pops up in a Google search of a staffer. It's enough to make many of them -- especially the most senior and highest-paid -- supremely cranky.
Jeff Loveng, chief of staff to Pennsylvania Republican congressman Bill Shuster, shot off an e-mail to Friedly calling him a "peeping Tom."
"I hope you savor this time in your life where you feel you have other people at your mercy while you conduct your witch hunt," wrote Loveng, who worries about identity theft and pesky sales calls from stockbrokers.
Others have taken the preferred Capitol Hill route -- trashing Friedly anonymously because their bosses frown on them speaking publicly about, well, almost anything. Internet chat rooms swell with outrage.
Friedly chuckles about all the fuss he's wrought with the site he's nicknamed "transparency's sidekick." In person, the scourge does not appear particularly menacing. He's a self-effacing, youngish-looking 40-year-old with thick, somewhat dowdy glasses, a nascent bald spot at the crown of his head and soft features. Nothing about him screams "bird of prey."
He's matter-of-fact, and utterly unmoved, by all these people who despise him and his site.
"I've never found it to be a problem to be a hated person," Friedly said one recent afternoon. "I'm perfectly happy when people are yelling at me."The Salary Question
Going to work for the government has always involved trade-offs. When the public is your boss, it gets to ask annoying questions, like "How much do you make?" Still, that doesn't stop some public employees from viewing their salaries as a kind of taboo.
Every few months, it seems, there's another blowup about someone publishing salary databases. It happened in 2007 when the Lansing State Journal posted the salaries of more than 53,000 Michigan state employees; it happened again last year when there were howls of complaint after the Houston Chronicle published the salaries of municipal employees. Now there's the hubbub about naming the recipients of bonuses from AIG.
Here in our cozy company town of Washington, there usually isn't much mystery about government salaries. Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who work for government agencies are paid on a standard scale. If the guy down the street is, say, a GS-7 (Step 2), he's going to get $42,584 a year. The GS-14 (Step 4) gets $112,995.
But on the Hill it's different. Members of Congress decide how much to pay their staffs, and there can be big, big variances. A couple of quick searches on LegiStorm show, for instance, that Loveng made $154,553 in fiscal 2008. Paul Protic is a chief of staff, too -- he works for Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri. But he made $138,267. And Amy Brinkmeyer Asselbaye, the chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, got $126,500.
It's the big differentials in salaries that make the people who revile LegiStorm also kind of addicted to it.
"Quite frankly, I don't know many of my friends and colleagues who haven't looked up plenty of our colleagues on the site," a House committee staffer said. "They want to compare and contrast."Secrets He Won't Keep
Friedly came to Washington more than a decade and a half ago with big plans: He was going to knock heads, ferret out corruption, kick some butt. He'd gotten a taste for muckraking while working as an editor at the Stanford University newspaper. His big coup was uncovering what he described as a group of Marxists bent on recruiting college students to undermine the government.
The Marxists were the ones who burned him in effigy. That was much more thrilling than his physics classes. He left Stanford in 1990 without a degree but received his physics degree from the university two years later.
In Washington, Friedly's career path meandered along in fits and starts. He had the "crazy notion" of writing a book about abuse of congressional investigatory powers. But that never happened.
He worked as a researcher for investigative whiz Seymour Hersh, then moved over to The Hill newspaper where he was a reporter from 1996 to 1999. His first story led to an angry call from a press secretary, he said.
"He was screaming at me," Friedly happily recalled. "Calling me every name in the book."
It was during those days that Friedly became entranced by the underbelly of Capitol Hill, the reams of paper filled with dots waiting to be connected. It appealed to the student scientist in him. He had hypotheses and he wanted to prove them.
"A lot of people have said there are no secrets in Washington -- I beg to differ," he said. "The stuff that's buried in documents in this town is incredible."
So incredible, he thought, that there might be some money in it.Online Storms Brewing
Demonstrating exquisitely awful timing, Friedly set out on his own not long before the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. He talked a group of investors into ponying up money for a Web site that would aggregate government documents. His old mentor, Hersh, put in a small amount "as an act of friendship" and recommended Friedly to others. Like Friedly's book plan, the business fizzled. His backers lost everything they invested, Friedly said.
He decided to try again, this time without investors. Over the next six years, he built five Web sites, each with a niche in the government document game. He has an advertising-supported site that offers free patent information (PatentStorm.us), one that collects and sells arcane Pentagon reports (StormingMedia.us) and ad-supported sites that offer free government energy abstracts and science grant information (EnergyStorm.us and ScienceStorm.com).
He houses the whole operation in an old brick school building that has been converted into hipster lofts on the urban-pioneering fringe of Capitol Hill in Northeast Washington. He has four employees; to save money, he farms out the programming work to Romania and the data-entry chores to a firm in Cambodia that employs land-mine victims. Friedly says he does not pay himself a salary, but he does receive any profit generated by his companies. He declines to reveal his profit-and-loss figures, saying they're not public record and could be used against him by competitors.
Friedly lives around the corner from his office in a classic brick rowhouse with his wife, Deborah Gist, 42, the state superintendent of education for the District. In the spirit of LegiStorm, we feel compelled to say that her annual salary is $134,805. (Gist resigned yesterday to become commissioner of education in Rhode Island. Friedly says that when she moves, he'll split his time between Providence and D.C.)
Gist and Friedly met in 2002. Friedly was "talking to himself" in front of an elevator, Gist recalled, furious about some injustice or inefficiency he'd uncovered.
Somehow, she was charmed by that. They married in 2005, becoming one of Washington's quirkier power couples. They climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with an Ellen DeGeneres banner -- Gist's a huge fan -- and she was invited onto the show. This Valentine's Day, Gist -- as part of a cancer fundraiser -- let 112 men and women kiss her in one minute, setting a world record (pending official word from the Guinness Book people). At least her husband was one of them.
Gist has tried to be patient with Friedly's sometimes quixotic business ventures, knowing he has "always had this conviction around transparency in government."
For a time, she called LegiStorm "his hobby."
"It was more about conviction than a business strategy," she said.
Friedly now makes a living with his sites, but it's LegiStorm -- which he says lost several hundred thousand dollars last year -- that he loves. LegiStorm is free but generates a tiny amount of revenue from Google ads, and he hopes to eventually introduce services by paid subscription.
LegiStorm launched in fall 2006 and was immediately dubbed "salary porn" by the blogger Wonkette, who described Friedly's creation as both "useful and terrifying." Within months, the site was being referenced by reporters across the country. The Wichita Eagle cited LegiStorm when it published the salaries of Republican Sen. Pat Roberts's chief of staff, Jackie Cottrell, whom the paper reported as making $155,000; and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback's then chief of staff, Rob Wasinger, who was getting $145,000. The headline was "Congressional staff can make big bucks." A New York Post headline read "N.Y. Pols' D.C. Aides in 150G+ Salary Club."
Salary figures began popping up in newspapers even when the staffer being mentioned wasn't the main subject of the article. In 2007, the Mobile Press-Register's "Political Skinny" column wrote about a communications director jumping from one Alabama senator's office to another. The staffer refused to disclose his salary, so the Register published the salary of the woman he was replacing -- Shannon Hines -- who was making more than $160,000 at the time. Hines, now working on the Senate banking committee, was willing to discuss the disclosure but was banned from doing so by Jonathan Graffeo, a spokesman for the committee's top Republican, Alabama's Richard Shelby. (Indeed, Capitol Hill can be a curious place. Graffeo -- who made $94,877 in fiscal 2008, according to LegiStorm -- gets to boss around Hines, who made $165,125.)
There was such a clamor over LegiStorm that Mississippi Republican Rep. Roger Wicker -- who is now a senator -- made a failed attempt to pass a bill that would remove congressional salaries from publicly disclosed reports.
"Having your salary bandied about the world is an intrusion that doesn't serve a public purpose," Wicker, who now earns the standard $174,000 congressional salary, said, according to the Associated Press.
Friedly expanded his site in 2008 to include financial disclosure statements. (He also is now posting information about foreign gifts, privately financed travel and earmarks requested by individual members of Congress.) Last spring, after weeks of complaints, Friedly accepted the House's offer to cover the $3,000 cost of removing signatures and home addresses from disclosure forms posted on LegiStorm. In a few instances, Friedly has agreed to take down some sensitive information about congressional staffers who might be in danger, such as victims of stalkers.
But, in general, he isn't inclined to cut the people on Capitol Hill much slack. In his view, Washington is a place of sleazy deals, cronyism and greed. His site, he believes, can play a role in policing them.
"Washington dirties people," he said. "They come to Capitol Hill wide-eyed and wanting to do the public good. Washington changes them."
One afternoon not so long ago, Friedly and some of his employees recalled, the wife of a congressional staffer broke down in tears in the LegiStorm office. She begged Friedly to remove her husband's financial disclosure statement from the site, horrified that their neighbors would figure out that they were "the millionaires next door" despite their modest lifestyles.
Friedly listened. He considered her argument.
Then he pronounced judgment.
The answer was "no."