Eagle reporter talks about how he built story alleging ethical violations by Wichita's mayor

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Chance Swaim says he spent months investigating how the city ended up awarding the contract for a new water treatment plant to Wichita Water Partners. Chance Swaim says he spent months investigating how the city ended up awarding the contract for a new water treatment plant to Wichita Water Partners.
WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) -

"It affects all of those people, half a million people, relying on Wichita for water," said Chance Swaim, the reporter behind the Wichita Eagle's investigation alleging Mayor Jeff Longwell steered the contract for the city's new water plant to his friends.

So, how did the story happen?  Swaim says it began with a simple question.

"I wanted to know why, you know?" he explained.

He says it all started  when the mayor made a comment last July about diverting from the regular bidding process in deciding who would win the contract - Jacobs Engineering, a company nationally recognized for its work building water treatment plants, or Wichita Water Partners, a team of local construction companies.

"I figured that would be worth a second look," Swaim said about the change.

He already knew the names of the key players from his coverage of the city's aging treatment plant and its efforts to replace it.  He began submitting open records requests, mostly for emails and other communiques among the key players.

"It's a mountain," he said about the thousands of pages of paperwork that resulted.  "When you get all of that at once and you don't know what you're looking for exactly but you know there's probably a story in here somewhere, you know, you're just reading every one."

But the issue of clean water in the metro area is so important, he felt it was worth the work.

"It's clear Wichita needs this project.  And it's not just Wichita, you know?  We have a military base here and we have all of our outlying communities tied into our water system," he explained.

After months of digging through the records and comparing them to the mayor's schedule, Swaim wrote the article behind Sunday's headline concluding Mayor Jeff Longwell had steered the contract to Wichita Water Partners, a company that included several of his friends and political supporters.

The mayor told KAKE News on Sunday that Swaim left details out of the story including his friendship with at least one member of the Jacobs team. He added that while it's his job to lobby the other council members for what he considers the best for the city, he doesn't control their votes.

"It's sad for them to do a story because it disparages the entire council," Longwell said.  "We have seven independent council people that pride themselves on representing their city."

"I feel like the amount of time, thought, question, opportunities to respond that were provided to the city, I think we did a very fair job," Swaim said.

He added, "I think that's a legitimate thing to say is, 'Yeah, I'm friends with someone on the other team.'  But the extent of the trips, the meet-ups, the strategy sessions, different things... there's a different proportion of those thing with the Wichita Water Partners team than the Jacobs team from my investigation.  And I looked very hard at that calendar.  If there are more than just the one member (who was a friend) he brought up late last week, I'd very much like to know who they are.  And I will include that in future coverage."

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