Stirring the sauce for a spicy story

In a memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a saucy story that questioned a politician’s charitable claims generated wide interest in New England:

For years, former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci’s face has beamed from the label of his Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce, which promises that sales are “Benefiting Providence School Children” and that it has helped hundreds of students attend college.

In this Aug. 8, 2014 photo, bottles of former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci's pasta sauce sits on the shelf at a grocery store in Providence, R.I. Below his photograph is printed the line “Benefiting Providence School Children.” In recent years, no money from sales of the sauce has been donated to Cianci's charity scholarship fund. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)

Something was fishy about the sauce, and Providence, R.I., correspondent Michelle Smith could taste it.

Smith dug into the charitable claims and discovered in recent years that in truth, no money from the sauce’s sales had been donated to Cianci’s charity scholarship fund. And from 2009 to 2012, the sauce made a total of $3 in income.

A Cianci adviser acknowledged to Smith that the label could be seen as false advertising and that he’d like to see it changed. Cianci himself admitted to Smith that even if the sauce didn’t make money, “There’s a certain public relations aspect to it all to me,” he said, “I can’t deny that.”

The concessions did not  come easily. Over 10 days of reporting _ around her other daily news duties _ Smith dogged Cianci’s lawyer for answers. Smith also pulled hundreds of pages of documents, set up a spreadsheet and got watchdogs to analyze the finances. She finally got what she needed from the lawyer by showing up in person to a Cianci event and eliciting a promise that he would turn over the relevant documents. This was critical because the specific financials were not available in any public documents.

A day after the sauce story,  Smith followed up with an examination of Cianci’s charity’s finances, finding it gives just a small fraction of assets out in scholarships every year, and spends most of its money on expenses other than for kids.

The one-two punch, both crafted in partnership with East day supervisor Jon Poet, created a ton of buzz.

The stories played atop the website for the Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s biggest newspaper. Both the Projo and The Boston Globe editorialized on it. Smith received notes and comments of congratulations from several [AP] members and sources.

Smith accompanied her reporting with her own photos, use by several members.

For hitting the sauce in a way that made the AP proud, Smith wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.