Letter to Voice of San Diego

From: Joel Thurtell

To: Scott Lewis, Andrew Donohue


Will Carless claims he broke the Poway school bond story.

That is false.

Will Carless knows that I broke the Poway story on my blog more than three months before his Poway article was published August 6, 2012 in the Voice of San Diego.


On May 2, 1988, the public school in Holt, Michigan issued a “creative” financial instrument known as a Capital Appreciation Bond. It was the first of a wave of CABs that swept over Michigan school finance. Until 1987, school debt declined. Between 1987 and 1992, it doubled. The state’s schools were incurring huge debt. On April 5, 1993, I reported in a set of Detroit Free Press stories that Michigan schools were being drowned in debt from borrowing at very high rates of interest using CABs. The following year, as a direct result of my reporting, the Michigan Legislature banned CABs. No question that my stories made the difference, because no other mainstream news organization wrote about it. The Free Press and I won a Michigan Education Association School Bell Award for the CAB stories.

On January 9, 2009, I posted my Free Press stories on my blog, joelontheroad.com.

On March 27, 2012, a comment appeared on joelontheroad: “Thank you for keeping this blog up….you are one of the few journalists that have written about the ugly side of school bond financing.” We began to correspond. I found that she is a CPA and member of her California school district bond oversight committee. She’d caught on that her district had issued CABs and wanted to know what they were. She googled and found my stories. She said that in the past 19 years, I was the only journalist who had extensively written about CABs. She got her CAB education from me. But she educated me about California CABs. We began collaborating. I posted my first article about California CABs on April 27. She told me about a district — Poway — that borrowed $105 million and would have to repay nearly $1 billion. I explained to her how exposing individual districts’ bad scenarios helped convince Michigan legislators to ban CABs. I told her Poway could be a poster child for explaining why CABs are bad. It might prod the California Legislature to ban CABs.

I broke the Poway story on May 1, 2012 in a blog essay, “CABS = compound trouble for California”.

On May 4, Javan Kienzle, once my copy editor at the Detroit Free Press, sent copies of my CAB articles, including my May 1 piece, to editors at the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and to California Gov. Jerry Brown.

I wrote again about Poway: “Disaster shadows Poway” on May 10 and “CAB scam in Poway” on May 12.

On May 11, 2012, Kevin Dayton of the Dayton Public Policy Institute wrote about my CAB stories: “Please Read This, Even If You Think Municipal Bonds Are Really BORING: We’re setting Up the Next Generation of Californians to Pay Really Staggering Property Taxes.”

Then on May 14, 2012, Dayton followed with another piece based on my articles: “Reporter Behind Michigan’s 1994 Prohibition of Capital Appreciation Bonds (CABs) Watches and Writes About the CAB frenzy at California School Districts.”

Kevin Dayton, not Will Carless, was the first California reporter to write about CABs, and Dayton gave credit to me.

On July 12, 2012, I found a comment on my blog from Will Carless: “Hi Joel. I would love to talk to you as soon as possible about some of this reporting. Can you email or call me at your earliest convenience. I’m an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. I would appreciate it if you didnt publish this comment. My cell number is 760.—.—-. Call any time. Thanks. Will”

Will Carless had seen my CAB stories on joelontheroad and wanted help understanding CABs. In several phone conversations, I explained how CABs work. My source in California, the CPA, also helped him.

On August 6, 2012, Will Carless’s story about Poway CABs ran in the Voice of San Diego. He did not mention me or my blog.

On August 7, 2012, Will Carless was interviewed on CNBC. He was given and accepted full credit for finding and breaking the Poway CAB story.

He corrected the CNBC staffer for mispronouncing his name, but allowed the CNBC staffer’s statement that Carless broke the Poway story to pass.

Will Carless and the Voice of San Diego did NOT find, nor did they break, the Poway story.

That story was found by me, reported by me, written by me and first appeared on joelontheroad on May 1, 2012, more than three months before Will Carless’ CAB story ran.

Here are links to my Poway stories, the Carless Voice of San Diego story and the CNBC piece:





I am a retired Detroit Free Press reporter. The journalism faculty of Wayne State University in 2011 named me Journalist of the Year. I’m the author of SHOESTRING REPORTER, a journalism textbook published by Hardalee Press in 2010. I wrote the book UP THE ROUGE!, published by Wayne State University Press in 2009. UP THE ROUGE! was named a 2010 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. My blog, joelontheroad.com, is the “best independent blogger raising hell,” according to Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper.

I’ve written many stories about Capital Appreciation Bonds.


Without my Detroit Free Press articles from 1993 and my recent blog posts about California CABs, Will Carless could not have written his story about Poway bonds.

In fact, Will Carless said just that in an August 6, 2012 e-mail: “Couldn’t have done it without you Joel. You spotted this and deserve a lot of the credit for figuring this stuff out! Thank you!”

By now, many media have given credit to Will Carless. This is an issue of journalistic integrity.

Is the Voice of San Diego content to tolerate such journalistic impropriety?

Thank you.

Yours truly,

Joel Thurtell


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4 Responses to Letter to Voice of San Diego

  1. Jeff says:

    What happened to your post from Monday titled “Voice of San Diego does CABs” where you state “Finally, somebody in California media picked up the story. Voice of San Diego reporter Will Carless turned in an excellent account of how Poway Unified School District in San Diego turned $105 million in principal into a nearly billion dollar debt not due to be paid for two decades.”

    Still posted:

  2. Jeff says:

    Not sure what that site is that you link to, but if someone goes to http://www.joelontheroad.com that post is nowhere to be found.

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