FOIAengine Reveals a Savvy Journalist’s Big Impact
Bloomberg’s 320,000 terminals are life blood to Wall Street traders. The company, with 20,000 employees in 176 offices, derives an estimated 90 percent of its $12.2 billion annual revenue from those machines. And that enables the company’s marquee journalistic enterprise, Bloomberg News, to pay for top talent at a time when layoffs and cutbacks are the publishing-industry norm.
Bloomberg’s 2,700 journalists and analysts file thousands of stories each day– first and always, to the terminals, then to the company’s many other outlets on cable, radio, online, and elsewhere. The terminals produce the cash, but Bloomberg News generates the prestige and name recognition.
“We unpack the trends and issues in a way no one else can,” Bloomberg News boasts on its website. “Our content is designed for the New Guard, the rising generation of global leaders.”
But 10 years ago, it seemed the Old Guard – the money guys in charge of the cash-cow terminals – wielded the real power over Bloomberg News.
In 2013, Bloomberg’s investigative reporters in China were gunning for the company’s first Pulitzer Prize. They had a hard-hitting investigative story fact checked, vetted by lawyers, and ready to go. Their story was a deep dive into the wealth of Communist Party elites in China – “the immense, shadowy fortunes of close relatives of the incoming Chinese president, Xi Jinping,” as Howard W. French, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former Shanghai bureau chief of the New York Times, later described it. (Disclosure: Like many Washington journalists, I have past connections to Bloomberg. I was a reporter and, later, an executive at a company that Bloomberg acquired some years after I left. My wife was a news director at Bloomberg Law.)
The events, as recounted by French in the Columbia Journalism Review, happened this way: Bloomberg journalists reached out to Chinese officials for comment when the story was ready to go. Their reporting, they said, would reveal that “Xi’s extended clan had accumulated business interests in minerals, real estate, and mobile-phone equipment, and included investments in companies with total assets of $376 million.”
It was a blockbuster story that China wanted to suppress. China’s ambassador in Washington made one thing clear to those at the top: “If Bloomberg publishes this story, bad things will happen for Bloomberg in China. If Bloomberg does not publish the story, good things will happen for Bloomberg.”
Bloomberg’s 90 percenters, fearful of losing out on lucrative future terminal contracts in China, got the message. The story about Xi Jinping’s wealthy relatives was killed. Matthew Winkler, then the founding leader of Bloomberg’s newsroom, was caught on tape agreeing with the decision not to publish. The company’s nondisclosure agreements effectively silenced the reporters involved. Two senior editors on the Projects and Investigations team resigned. (It’s unclear whether founder Michael Bloomberg was involved. He had just finished three terms as New York City’s mayor and hadn’t yet returned to the company.)
“The defining moment,” wrote French, “[and] the one that has dealt the deepest shock to Bloomberg and may affect it for years, was a widely reported speech by the company’s chairman, Peter T. Grauer, who in March  said, in effect, that Bloomberg had gotten carried away with its investigative journalism in China to the detriment of its true vocation: selling computerized terminals that provide financial information.
“´We have about 50 journalists in the market, primarily writing stories about the local business and economic environment,’ Grauer said in answer to a questioner after a speech at the Asia Society in Hong Kong. ´You’re all aware that every once in a while we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably . . . should have rethought.’” French’s exposé in CJR ran to nearly 4,000 words, but one word summed up his view of the entire Bloomberg News enterprise at that point: “Tainted.”
Fast forward to July 2022: When Bloomberg News picked up four investigative reporters from struggling BuzzFeed a year ago, it was a strong statement about the company’s commitment to hard-hitting journalism – and its new appetite for controversy in furtherance of that mission.
To prove the point: One of the reporters who moved over from BuzzFeed is Jason Leopold, a “self-styled FOIA terrorist” in the words of the National Security Agency, which has tangled with him in court. Leopold has jumped around the media universe, swinging like a one-man wrecking ball from one outlet to another, always building an interesting – and often controversial – backstory that includes accusations of plagiarism and improper sourcing (which Leopold disputes).
And always, always filing FOIA requests and lawsuits.
Leopold isn’t alone on this mission. Bloomberg’s various journalistic units – including Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Industry Group – have made a collective 366 FOIA requests in the past two years, according to PoliScio Analytics’ competitive-intelligence database FOIAengine, which tracks FOIA requests in as close to real-time as their availability allows.
Since January 2021, more than one-third of Bloomberg’s FOIA requests targeted the Food and Drug Administration (129 requests). Other agencies receiving the highest numbers of requests from Bloomberg reporters during that time: the Securities and Exchange Commission (75 requests) and the National Labor Relations Board (69 requests).
Bloomberg Law reporter Parker Purifoy accounted for 37 requests to the NLRB during the same period, ranking second among Bloomberg reporters who are identified by name in the FOIAengine database. Purifoy has made the most of what might otherwise have been a backwater beat, filing multiple FOIA requests with the NLRB about Starbucks’ unionization battles – source of the vitriol between independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Howard Schultz, the coffee giant’s on-again-off-again CEO (most recently, off). Purifoy also has recently written about Portland strippers who are on strike and seeking representation by Actors’ Equity. (No FOIA requests about that, yet.)
Among other news organizations represented in our database, only the Wall Street Journal (393 requests) exceeded Bloomberg’s FOIA-request tally.
But that balance could shift now that Leopold – the master of the FOIA request – is at Bloomberg.
In a 2015 New York Times profile, aptly entitled “A Wizard at Prying Government Secrets from the Government,” Leopold was quoted as calling himself “a pretty rageful guy.” He was fired from an early job at the Los Angeles Times after threatening to rip a co-worker’s head off. (Leopold gets motivated by listening to heavy-metal bands. The co-worker told him to turn down the music.)
“The rush of adrenaline [that Leopold gets from FOIA], he said, can be compared to a cocaine high,” the Times profiler wrote. “Leopold would know. He has written, in a book entitled News Junkie, of his addiction to the drug and his felony plea for stealing CDs to feed a $300-a-day habit. . . . ‘I love the score,’ he said. ‘So maybe there’s this drug-ish thing in me that still exists, maybe that was always part of my personality. I love the score. I love the score!’”
Whew. Leopold caught our attention because he has 47 requests listed in FOIAengine. His numerous recent requests have targeted, among others, the SEC (Leopold made blanket requests for emails and employee lists) and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (a broad request for correspondence between Buttigieg and airline executives).
Sometimes, even a non-answer to one of his FOIA requests is enough to deliver a bombshell report, as happened just two weeks ago. Leopold submitted a FOIA request for the “standing order” – if it ever existed – that former President Donald Trump claimed as authority for keeping Top Secret documents at Mar-a-Lago. The Justice Department dragged its feet. Leopold filed a lawsuit, forcing action. DOJ then asked the court to dismiss Leopold’s case – because the sought-after document couldn’t be found. Bingo. Leopold had just scored another scoop for Bloomberg News. His report, that Trump’s “standing order” was a fiction, quickly went viral.
Leopold also has at least 128 FOIA lawsuits catalogued in Docket Alarm – and those numbers still don’t begin to describe his FOIA obsession. Numerous interviews and articles describe over a thousand requests by Leopold during his 30-year career – a number that he doesn’t dispute. Bloomberg rarely filed a FOIA lawsuit before Leopold came aboard. In the past year, Leopold has been the named plaintiff in seven Bloomberg News FOIA lawsuits.
When we reached out to Leopold, he referred us to a Bloomberg spokesperson, who told us: “We don’t discuss our ongoing newsgathering, but as the public record makes clear, Freedom of Information laws are important tools that many of our reporters use to gather facts and push for greater transparency. We continue to increase our use of FOIA as a tool, and are pleased to have Jason Leopold spearheading these efforts.”
We’ll be keeping an eye on future FOIA requests from Leopold and others from Bloomberg, because such requests to the federal government can be an important early warning of bad publicity, litigation to come, or major share-price moves.
Or, in Leopold’s case, one more bad day for a FOIA bureaucrat.
Leopold recalled, in a 2013 interview, how he first heard about his nickname. “I found out about it during a phone call with a FOIA analyst . . . who said he saw an email from his boss that said, ‘the FOIA terrorist strikes again. We just got two dozen new requests from him.’ I actually liked the term because it made me feel that I was doing my job and doing it well if it meant I was angering government officials.”
Next: Meanwhile, back at the FDA . . .
John A. Jenkins, co-creator of FOIAengine, is a Washington journalist and publisher whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and elsewhere. He is a four-time recipient of the American Bar Association’s Gavel Award Certificate of Merit for his legal reporting and analysis. His most recent book is The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist. Jenkins founded Law Street Media in 2013. Prior to that, he was President of CQ Press, the textbook and reference publishing enterprise of Congressional Quarterly. FOIAengine is a product of PoliScio Analytics (PoliScio.com), a new venture specializing in U.S. political and governmental research, co-founded by Jenkins and Washington lawyer Randy Miller. Learn more about FOIAengine here. To review FOIA requests mentioned in this article, subscribe to FOIAengine.
Write to John A. Jenkins at JAJ@PoliScio.com.