Mid-Career Scholarship winner report

 Going Behind the Scenes at the Idaho Governor’s Cup

 by Audrey Dutton

I got a tip in 2018 to investigate spending by the Idaho Governor’s Cup. The Idaho Statesman published the results of that reporting in a story that ran Jan. 3, 2019.

We found that over 10 years, the annual fundraiser cost $6.1 million to put on, while awarding just $2.1 million in scholarships. An interview with a regulatory expert also prompted a question about the event’s purpose: Was it a political networking event, or was it primarily to raise money for deserving college students?

The cup’s chairman told me that anyone who “wants to take a shot at being critical of our event … should attend and see the philanthropy.” I thought that sounded like a good idea. But they didn’t give out press passes. Purchasing a ticket was financially out of reach — the multi-day event costs thousands of dollars to attend. Just an evening there would run $250 with travel and lodging. Paying to attend also posed a challenge in maintaining the Statesman’s impartiality.

I was relieved and thrilled to learn last spring that the Idaho Press Club’s Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship would cover the costs to attend one evening of the cup. Not only would it help me attend, it would put a degree of separation between the event and the Statesman.

With that assistance, I bought a ticket for the cup’s Saturday dinner and ice show, and I booked a room in a Bellevue hotel.

That Saturday, I spent more than four hours at the Governor’s Cup — doing interviews, shooting photos, taking notes on what I saw and heard. I counted at least 19 state legislators, 41 lobbyists and a few elected officials, either in the crowd or signed up for activities and competitions.

Was it a political networking event? Yes. If the name didn’t give that away, the sheer number of politicians in attendance confirmed it. The cup was also a business networking event, with CEOs and lawyers and business leaders everywhere you looked.

Was it an event to raise money for scholarships? Also yes. Was charity its primary purpose? Hard to tell from just one evening. The scholarship recipients weren’t there — one exception being a College of Idaho student, the keynote speaker. But there were several calls for people to donate, and plenty of people who volunteered to give thousands of dollars during the dinner.

I was surprised at how the cup blurred the line between public and private, government and non-governmental functions. The governor and first lady were the hosts, but Gov. Brad Little’s spokeswoman said the governor’s office isn’t involved. Gov. Little also told me it was “kinda my job” to be there and that it was “not an optional event,” yet it’s a private fundraiser with its own organization, separate from the governor. It isn’t beholden to open meeting or public records laws, and the records it leaves behind are minimal.

Once I got through the door, though, I was given access to do my job.

The cup’s chairman and executive director introduced me to people they wanted me to meet. Otherwise, they let me do my thing as a reporter. They didn’t attempt to limit where I went or whom I interviewed. They didn’t ask me not to take photos or videos. They never used the fact that it was a private event as a reason to limit my access. (I wore a name tag that identified me as from the Idaho Statesman, and I made it clear to everyone I interviewed that I was a journalist covering the event.) That’s more transparency and openness than I’ve experienced from even some government agencies. The Governor’s Cup administrators are to be commended for that.

Now, if only we could get the nonprofit to let journalists in with a press pass.

Until then, I am grateful to the Idaho Press Club and Don Watkins’s family and friends, who created the scholarship in his name, for making it possible to attend and cover this important event.

Audrey Dutton is an investigative reporter for the Idaho Statesman