The mission of the CPI is "to serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism."
CPI was founded in March 1989 by Charles Lewis, a former producer for ABC News and CBS News 60 Minutes. By the late 1980s Lewis observed that fewer resources—time, money and space—were being invested in investigative reporting in the United States by established news outlets and major publications. In his book entitled 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity Chuck Lewis recounted how he recruited two trusted journalists, Alejandro Benes and Charles Piller—whom he had met through his television work— to serve on the board of directors of the nascent CPI. All three had grown dissatisfied with what was being done in the name of investigative journalism by established news organizations. They chose the name public integrity as a way of underlying the "ultimate purpose of investigative journalism" which is "to hold those in power accountable and to inform the public about significant distortions of the truth." In their tenth anniversary Annual Report Piller described their first meetings in their "Boardroom—the cheap seats at the Baltimore Orioles game.
In May 1990, Lewis used the money he had raised and his house as collateral to open an 1,800-square-foot (170 m2) office in Washington, D.C. In its first year, the CPI's budget was $200,000. In 1996, CPI launched its first website, although CPI did not begin to publish reports online until 1999.
In August 2000 the CPI published a story entitled "Cheney Led Halliburton to Feast at Federal Trough: State Department Questioned Deal With Firm Linked to Russian Mob," in which the authors argued that while Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton—from 1995 to 2000—the company received "$3.8 billion in federal contracts and taxpayer-insured loans."
In 2001, Global Integrity, an international project, was launched to systematically track and report on openness, accountability and the rule of law in various countries. It has since been incorporated independently.
Lewis served as CPI's director until January 2005. As of his departure, CPI had published 14 books and more than 250 investigative reports. In 2005, CPI had a staff of 40 full-time Washington-based reporters who partnered with a network of writers and editors in more than 25 countries. Years later, Lewis said he decided to leave his position at CPI because "he didn't want it to become 'an institution that was Chuck's Excellent Adventure." Lewis' departure surprised and upset philanthropists Herb and Marion Sandler, who had partially funded the CPI's activities.
In December 2004, CPI's board of directors chose television journalist Roberta Baskin as Lewis's successor. Baskin came to CPI after directing consumer investigations for ABC News's 20/20 and serving as Washington correspondent for PBS's NOW with Bill Moyers. Lewis wrote that "most of the Center’s carefully assembled, very talented, senior staff had quit by the fall of 2005."
In September 2005, CPI announced that it had discovered a pattern of plagiarism in the past work of staff writer Robert Moore for CPI's 2002 book Capitol Offenders. CPI responded by hiring a copy editor to review all of Moore's work, issuing a revised version of Capitol Offenders, sending letters of apology to all reporters whose work was plagiarized, authoring a new corrections policy, and returning an award the book received from Investigative Reporters and Editors. Moore went on to work for a political consulting firm that specializes in opposition research. In March 2007, Moore told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the Center's official version "is not accurate in telling the full story of why I left the center," but did not elaborate.
Baskin led the organization until May 24, 2006.
Baskin was followed by Wendell Rawls Jr., who was named the center’s interim executive director. Rawls had previously worked as the center's managing director — being named to that post by Baskin on Dec. 19, 2005. He joined CPI in August 2005.
In 2007, Rawls was succeeded by William Buzenberg, a vice president at American Public Media/Minnesota Public Radio. Buzenberg was first interviewed for the position in 2004 during the hiring process that ultimately led to the selection of his predecessor, Roberta Baskin.
According to a report by Lewis, "the number of full-time staff was reduced by one-third" in early 2007. By December 2007, the number of full-time staff had dropped to 25, down from a high of 40. At the time, Buzenberg said "It's a great, great place, but I will not mislead you... [Lewis] quite frankly left the center in great shape financially, but when you have a visionary who leaves, how do you continue? 'With difficulty' is the answer."
Baskin publicly disputed Buzenberg's claims in a letter to the American Journalism Review where she wrote, "contrary to the statement from current Executive Director Bill Buzenberg, the center was not left 'in great shape financially' by my predecessor. Much of the money raised during the year prior to my tenure was used to offset budget overruns on several previous projects. I replaced our director of development and made fundraising my number one priority, much as Buzenberg has done. As a rookie fundraiser, I take pride in the fact that I was able to raise millions of dollars."
In 2008, Lewis reflected on the transition period following his resignation and said, "I regret what happened to my staff and the condition of the Center. It’s no secret it had a less than enviable few years. But that’s one of the reasons I thought it was important to leave. I had founded it and run it for 15 years, and at some point the founder does have to leave the building...I don’t regret it, I think it was important that I left, but I do feel badly about the hardship it brought to people I think the world of."
In 2010, The Huffington Post Investigative Fund merged into the CPI, and eight Huffington Post journalists moved to CPI.
In 2011, CPI eliminated 10 staff positions in order to compensate for a $2 million budget shortfall. Buzenberg and other senior staffers also took salary cuts. CPI board chairman Bruce Finzen said the budget would be “reduced between $2 and $3 million, more like $2.5 million. The budget for next year will be in the 6 to 7 million range.” As of 2012, there were over 50 staffers at CPI, making it one of the largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative centers in the country.
In April 2011, with support from the Knight Foundation, CPI launched iWatchnews.org as its main investigative reporting website. In August 2012, CPI stopped using iWatchnews.org and returned to its original domain.
Buzenberg stepped down from CPI at the end of 2014, at which time Peter Bale was named CEO. In November 2016, Peter Bale resigned from the Center to "pursue other international media opportunities" and John Dunbar assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer.
A list of CPI's donors may be found on the organization's official website. CPI's annual reports are also available on the organization's website. CPI ceased accepting contributions from corporations and labor unions in 1996. In its first year, CPI's budget was reported to be $200,000. In 2010, CPI had $9,264,997 in revenue and $7,708,349 in expenses.
CPI reports receiving foundation support from a number of foundations, including the Sunlight Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Barbra Streisand Foundation reports that it has funded CPI.
In July 2014, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation donated $2.8 million to CPI to launch a new project focused on state campaign finance. According to the International Business Times, "as CPI was negotiating the Arnold grant, Arnold’s name was absent from a CPI report on pension politics." Arnold has spent at least $10 million on a campaign to roll back pension benefits for public workers.
CPI's board of directors includes Elspeth Revere, Bill Kovach, Ninan Chacko, Bruce A. Finzen, Arianna Huffington, Richard M. Lobo, Craig Newmark, Gilbert Omenn, Dan Emmett, Matthew Granade, Jennifer 8. Lee, James A. Kiernan, Steve Kroft, Hendrik-Jan Laseur, Susan Loewenberg, Bevis Longsteth, Olivia Ma, Scott Siegler, Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, and Matt Thompson. Past board directors include Christine Amanpour, Sheila Coronel, and Molly Bingham.
In 1997, CPI launched the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). This international network, based in Washington, D.C., includes 165 investigative reporters in over 65 countries. Gerard Ryle is the director of ICIJ. Its website publishes The Global Muckraker. ICIJ is focused on issues such as "cross-border crime, corruption, and the accountability of power". In 2013, the consortium reported having 160 member journalists from 60 countries. The ICIJ brings together teams of international journalists for different investigations (over 80 for Offshore leaks). It organized the bi-annual Daniel Pearl Awards for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting. ICIJ staff members include Michael Hudson, while the Advisory Committee in 2013 included Bill Kovach, Phillip Knightley, Gwen Lister, and Goenawan Mohamad.
In April 2016, the ICIJ made headlines worldwide with the announcement that it and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung had received a leaked set of 11.5 million confidential documents from a secret source, created by the Panamanian corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. The Panama Papers provided detailed information on more than 214,000 offshore companies, including the identities of shareholders and directors. The documents named the leaders of five countries — Argentina, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates — as well as government officials, close relatives and close associates of various heads of government of more than 40 other countries, including Brazil, China, France, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Malta, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Syria and the United Kingdom.
The ICIJ and Süddeutsche Zeitung received the Panama Papers in 2015 and distributed them to about 400 journalists at 107 media organizations in more than 80 countries. The first news reports based on the set, along with 149 of the documents themselves, were published on 3 April 2016. Among other planned disclosures, the full list of companies is to be released in early May 2016.
A 2012 The New York Times editorial described the CPI as a "nonpartisan watchdog group."
In relation to a story in February 1996, CPI was characterized as a "liberal group" by The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media watchdog, has described CPI as "progressive." The Center describes itself as "strictly nonpartisan."
CPI's first report, America's Frontline Trade Officials, reported that nearly half of White House trade officials studied over a fifteen-year period became lobbyists for countries or overseas corporations after retirement. According to Lewis, it "prompted a Justice Department ruling, a General Accounting Office report, a Congressional hearing, was cited by four presidential candidates in 1992 and was partly responsible for an executive order in January 1993 by President Clinton, placing a lifetime ban on foreign lobbying by White House trade officials."
In 1996, CPI released a report called Fat Cat Hotel: How Democratic High-Rollers Are Rewarded with Overnight Stays at the White House. This report, written by Margaret Ebrahim, won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The report was an examination of the connection between overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton presidency and financial contributions to the Democratic Party as well as the Clinton re-election campaign.
In 2003, CPI published Windfalls of War, a report arguing that campaign contributions to George W. Bush affected the allocation of reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Slate ran a piece arguing that due to a statistically insignificant correlation coefficient between campaign donations and winning contracts, "CPI has no evidence to support its allegations."
CPI first reports on LobbyWatch were released in 2005. In their January 2005 publication entitled "Pushing Prescriptions" CPI revealed that major pharmaceutical companies was the number one lobbyist in the United States spending $675 million over seven years on lobbying. They continued with this series in 2005 revealing how pharmaceutical companies had contacts even within the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Trade Representatives.
CPI's report, Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown?, looking at the roots of the global financial crisis, was featured in numerous media outlets, leading Columbia Journalism Review to ask, “Why hasn’t a newspaper or magazine done this?”
More than 100 newspapers, magazines, wire services and web sites cited CPI's report, The Climate Change Lobby Explosion, an analysis of Senate records showing that the number of climate lobbyists had grown by three hundred percent to four for every Senator.
Tobacco Underground, an ongoing project tracing the global trade in smuggled cigarettes, produced by CPI's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was honored with the prestigious Renner Award for Crime Reporting from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), and the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Online International Reporting. The Tobacco Underground Project was funded by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health. It is a cooperative project between the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) with journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. Journalists in Brazil, Belgium, Canada, China, Italy, Paraguay and the UK also participated. that won the Overseas Press Club Award and Investigative Reporters and Editors's Tom Renner Award for crime reporting.
In 2010, CPI partnered with National Public Radio to publish "Sexual Assault on Campus", a report which showcases the failures of colleges and government agencies to prevent sexual assaults and resolve sexual assault cases.
In 2013, International Consortium for Investigative Journalists released the results of a 15-month-long investigation based on 260 gigabytes of data regarding the ownership of secret offshore bank accounts. The data was obtained by Gerard Ryle as a result of his investigation into the Firepower scandal. The ICIJ partnered with the Guardian, BBC, Le Monde, the Washington Post, SonntagsZeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung and NDR to produce an investigative series on offshore banking. ICIJ and partnering agencies used the ownership information to report on government corruption across the globe, tax avoidance schemes used by wealthy people, the use of secret offshore accounts in Ponzi Schemes, the active role of major banks in facilitating secrecy for their clients, and the strategies and actors that make these activities possible.
In early 2014 the ICIJ revealed as part of their "Offshore Leaks" that relatives of China's political and financial elite were among those using offshore tax havens to store wealth.
Kevin Phillips of National Public Radio has said, "no other investigative organization shines so many probing flashlights into so many Washington dirty-laundry baskets."
In 2006, Slate media critic Jack Shafer described CPI as having "broken as many stories as almost any big-city daily in the last couple of decades".
In 1996 the CPI received the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Online Journalism (Independent) for their report entitled "Fat Cat Hotel: How Democratic High-Rollers are Rewarded with Overnight Stays at the White House" by the Public i staff and Margaret Ebrahim.
CPI received the George Polk Award in 2003 for its investigation of US military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan ("Windfalls of War: U.S. Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan"). Its work led to widespread media coverage that increased congressional scrutiny of military spending.
In 2011, CPI won a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for their investigation of weak inspections endangering factory workers and surrounding communities.
In 2012, CPI reporter Michael Hudson won a "Best-in-Business" award for digital investigative reporting from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Hudson won the award for his report entitled The Great Mortgage Cover-Up.
CPI's work has also received awards from PEN USA, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, the National Press Foundation, the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and others.
CPI reporter Chris Hamby won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Hamby's story reported that doctors and lawyers working for the coal industry helped defeat benefit claims of coal miners who had contracted black lung disease. After CPI's Pulitzer win, Politico reported that "ABC News has accused The Center for Public Integrity of downplaying the network's contributions to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report, setting off a bitter public dispute between two news organizations that once worked as partners." CPI executive director Bill Buzenberg said that ABC News overstated its contributions to the story.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal in March 2005, commentator John Fund accused CPI of being a member of what he termed the "campaign finance lobby." Citing a speech by Sean Treglia, former program manager at Pew Charitable Trusts, Fund argued that a "stealth campaign" by "eight liberal foundations" fomented a false sense of public demand for new restrictions on the financing of public campaigns. Fund singled out CPI as a front group pushing Pew's agenda, arguing that "reporters are used to attempts to hoodwink officials into thinking an issue is genuinely popular, and they frequently expose them. But when "good government" groups like the Center for Public Integrity engage in the same tactics, journalists usually ignore it."
CPI's Bill Allison responded to criticisms arising from Tregalia's speech by emphasizing that Pew's contributions to the CPI's work on campaign finance have always been forthrightly disclosed. In a published argument with blogger Ryan Sager, Allison also disputed the notion that the CPI's work amounted to advocacy. Allison stated, "the purpose of our grants is to do things like code hundreds of thousands of public records, put them in a database and post them on our Web site so anyone can use them. The amount of money we've gotten to push campaign finance reform is $0.
In another essay on CPI's website, Allison challenged CPI's critics, and Fund specifically, arguing that "[Fund] doesn't cite a single instance in which the Center has attempted to "hoodwink" government officials (or anyone else, for that matter) into thinking campaign finance is a genuinely popular issue, because he can't. We simply don't operate that way. We don't do public relations campaigns. We don't lobby Congress. We don't petition the Federal Election Commission. We don't pretend we have legions of individuals contributing money to support our work. Our paid membership amounts to around six thousand people; we'd certainly be happy to have more...as for Mr. Fund, back in the days when campaign finance issues were of concern to him, he sought us out to lend authority to his writings on John Huang and quoted us in an Oct. 29, 1996, column on the subject. Is it Mr. Fund's view that when he wrote about various DNC campaign finance violations, he was trying to hoodwink federal officials into thinking that people cared about the issue?
In November 2010, CPI published a report on bluefin tuna overfishing entitled "Looting the Seas." Politico reported that "to obtain key information for the project, reporters accessed a database maintained by an intergovernmental fisheries regulatory body with a password given by a source, likely breaking the law." CPI's own lawyer and an outside law firm both determined that CPI's staff likely broke the law in obtaining information for the report. In addition, one of the experts quoted in the associated documentary was paid $15,000 as a project consultant to CPI. The investigative methods used to produce the report became a point of contention within the organization when CPI employee John Solomon made a number of accusations against the team that had worked on the series.
CPI board member and former New York Times Washington bureau chief Bill Kovach was asked by then-CPI president William Buzenberg to look into the matter. Kovach concluded that CPI's reporting was "sound, ethical and fully in the public interest." In addition, the board hired an outside law firm to answer the legal questions. Columbia Journalism Review reported: "As for the legality of using the password to access data, the lawyers concluded that, in theory, a prosecutor might argue it violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But whether it actually did was open to debate. And, in any case, it was highly unlikely that charges would ever be brought." In the wake of the controversy, David Kaplan and John Solomon resigned from CPI. CPI officials also withdrew their entry of the tuna story for a Pulitzer Prize. Andy Revkin of the New York Times wrote, "the relationship of the television production to a United Nations agency and an environmental group can prompt questions about objectivity, but the package, over all, appears robust." The Looting the Seas series won two journalism awards: the Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors and the 2010 Whitman Bassow Award from the Overseas Press Club of America.
In 2011, Politico called into question CPI's collaboration with advocacy organizations. Politico reported that CPI had coordinated the release of a report on Koch Industries with Greenpeace. Politico also reported that Pew Charitable Trusts, a funder of the Looting the Seas report, hosted a screening of a CPI documentary and then organized a call to action with other NGOs for the protection of bluefin tuna. In 2008, CPI published a report on tobacco that was both funded by and promoted by an advocacy group called Tobacco Free Kids.Borders, Rebecca; Dockery, C.C. (1995). Beyond the Hill: A Directory of Congress from 1984 to 1993. University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-9820-X.
Lewis, Charles; Benes, Alejandro; O'Brien, Meredith; The Center for Public Integrity (1996). The Buying of the President. Avon Books. ISBN 0-380-78420-3.
Fagin, Dan;; Lavelle, Marianne; The Center for Public Integrity (1997). Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health. Carol Publishing Corporation. ISBN 1-55972-385-8. CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
Lewis, Charles; The Center for Public Integrity (1998). The Buying of the Congress: How Special Interests Have Stolen Your Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Avon Books. ISBN 0-380-97596-3.
Green, Alan (1999). Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species. Public Affairs. ISBN 1-58648-374-9.
Lewis, Charles; The Center for Public Integrity (2000). The Buying of the President 2000. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-380-79519-1.
The Center for Public Integrity (2000). Citizen Muckraking: Stories and Tools for Defeating the Goliaths of Our Day. ISBN 1-56751-188-0.
Lewis, Charles; Allison, Bill; the Center for Public Integrity (2001). The Cheating of America: How Tax Avoidance and Evasion by the Super Rich Are Costing the Country Billions, and What You Can Do About It. William Morrow & Company. ISBN 0-380-97682-X.
Renzulli, Diane; Center for Public Integrity, The (2002). Capitol Offenders: How Private Interests Govern Our States. ISBN 1-882583-14-0.
The Center for Public Integrity (2003). Harmful Error. ISBN 1-882583-18-3.
The Center for Public Integrity (2003). The Water Barons: How a Few Powerful Companies are Privatizing Our Water.
Lewis, Charles; the Center for Public Integrity (2004). The Buying of the President 2004: Who's Really Bankrolling Bush and His Challengers--and What They Expect in Return. Harper Paperbacks. ISBN 0-06-054853-3.
Center for Public Integrity, The (2004). The Corruption Notebooks. ISBN 1-882583-19-1.
Center for Public Integrity, The (2005). Networks of Influence: The Political Power of the Communications Industry. Center for Public Integrity. ISBN 1-882583-20-5.
Center for Public Integrity, The (2007). City Adrift: New Orleans Before & After Katrina. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-3284-5.