Spencer native investigated Secret Service scandals

Saturday, June 16, 2012
Spencer native Chris Halsne is an investigative reporter in Seattle who reported on allegations of misconduct by Secret Service agents in El Salvador. (Photo submitted)

Friday marked the release of a 229-page document revealing details of Secret Service misconduct dating back to 2004.

Spencer native Chris Halsne is not only aware of some of those allegations, but also helped bring them to light.

As an investigative reporter for KIRO-TV in Seattle, Halsne traveled to San Salvador, El Salvador, to research allegations of unqualified mechanics fixing Boeing passenger jets.

"Boeing has manufacturing plants in Seattle, so there's a huge audience," Halsne said.

While working to uncover that story in March of 2011, he stumbled upon news of a Secret Service scandal.

"I met a person who told me about partying with President Obama's Secret Service team," Halsne said. "It involved strip clubs, hookers and heavy drinking, then they'd get a few hours of sleep and provide protection for the president."

Once the individual realized Halsne was serious about investigating the allegations, he refused to go on the record or name a strip club where the alleged actions had happened.

Without that information, Halsne did not have a story.

More than a year later, when news broke about a Secret Service prostitution scandal in Colombia, Halsne called his source again.

"He said if I flew down, he'd talk to me," Halsne said. "Since the news was out, he thought it was less risky. To my company's credit, they said, 'It's a big story if you can get it, so go down and see if you can corroborate it."

Halsne, along with his photographer and his field producer, spent four or five days substantiating the story.

They returned to the U.S. on a Tuesday morning and planned to run the story on that Thursday evening. In the meantime, he asked the chief of the Cox Media Group's Washington, D.C. bureau to reach out to key politicians for a response to the story.

Sen. Joe Lieberman was one of those politicians and went to CNN with the brief information the bureau had shared, which they tweeted to their social media followers.

"We decided it was best to actually utilize that other media outlet to play off that and start rolling our investigation off early," Halsne said. "I wrote a full story for our website telling people if you hear this rumor, it's because of us and here's our investigation."

Halsne figured the Associated Press and maybe CNN would pick up on what he wrote, but learned they were not the only interested parties.

"I was at home and at midnight on Wednesday CBS's Charlie Rose is calling, saying, 'We need you live to lead the East Coast newscast,'" Halsne recalled. "It was bizarre, but the boss said that's what we have to do."

The national attention led to visits from the Secret Service, State Department and congressional investigators.

"We knew we struck a nerve and that everyone believed it to be true," Halsne said.

For him, investigative reporting comes down to common sense. He learned that as a 10-year-old boy sitting around a coffee table with his dad and his friends.

"At 10, I could look across the table and see he's making that up, he's telling the truth and that's a stretch there," Halsne said. "Being involved in common sense conversations has really helped me."

While many investigative reporters can become overwhelmed by the intensity and pressure of the job, Halsne said he is a laid-back person who relishes that pressure.

Criticism, on the other hand, can be harder to take.

"For me, the hardest part is dealing with an intense amount of criticism for work that is accurate and powerful and important to the community," Halsne said.

Though his Secret Service story resulted in scrutiny, he is proud of it and believes there may be even more involved.

"We have information of other agencies with similar behaviors," Halsne said. "We're picking away at it. My goal is to investigate things that matter to my viewers in Seattle. I have stories that fit those guidelines, so to pursue national stories is something I need to do on the side."

For those interested in becoming investigative reporters, Halsne advises them to first be good listeners.

"It takes you back to the core principles: listen to people, listen to their stories and then see if their stories are true," Halsne said. "That's what people expect from a journalist."

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