My biggest story? Jamscam

I was at the N&O on a Friday evening in May 1980, and Gene Cherry, the city editor, asked me if I was free over the weekend. And that’s how I ended up on the biggest story that I worked on as a reporter.

Cherry told me that the paper had a tip that money raised through the sale of grape jelly by the N.C. Jaycees to benefit the N.C. Burn Center was being used for something else.

“The annual convention of the Jaycees is in Asheville this weekend,” he said. “Can you go see what you can find out?”

I didn’t know much about the Jaycees or the jelly sale or the burn center, but I did know Asheville as I had worked there. And I had nothing else to do that weekend. That was qualification enough.

I drove up. Went to the convention center. Apparently, a finance officer had told the gathering of Jaycees that since 1978, more than $100,000 in money raised for the burn center had not gone to the burn center. I wandered around, talked with various men between the ages of 18 and 35, most of whom didn’t know what I was asking about or didn’t want to talk with me. Found officers of the organization. Got nowhere. Until finally, I found the right guy.

As it later turned out, $191,000 was diverted over three years to create fake chapters filled with members who didn’t exist, all to advance the standing of the state organization.

Siceloff

I sat down to write the story, but was overwhelmed with what I had. I came up with half a dozen leads, all terrible. I called the paper, ready to dictate the dreck I had and, thank god, got fellow reporter Bruce Siceloff on the phone. He calmed me down, asked what I had, and took over as the rewrite man. Saved me and the story. He should have given himself a double byline.

The story was published across the top of the Sunday front page. I can’t find it on the Internet; my guess the only place it’s archived is in the N&O’s morgue. A few days later, if memory serves, State Editor Dale Gibson nicknamed the story “Jamscam.”

Within a few days, I go ahold of a N.C. Jaycees membership book, given to me by a Jaycee who was appalled by what was being done in the Jaycees’ name. As the Washington Post story says, “The list contained scores of Jaycee chapters consisting of nothing but numbers (Jaycee No. 1, Jaycee No. 2). Still other chapters were composed of names duplicated as many as 33 times in 15 different cities from the mountains to the coast. Each bogus chapter contained exactly 20 names or numbers, the minimum required.”

IIn the end, criminal charges were brought against three past state presidents and two other Jaycee officials. The state Jaycee president in 1978 had his sights set on the presidency of the national Jaycees, but that was derailed. Within three weeks of our stories, the Jaycees purged about 4,500 “fake” members. And they vowed to repay all the charity money.

It was a helluva story that had national repercussions, and I was excited to be the lead reporter on it. It gave me a taste of investigative reporting on a major scale. I loved it. I wrote stories about it nearly every day, which was the N&O MO on big stories — “Keep the story alive,” we were told. I did my best to do that.

But after three weeks, I was sent back to my beat, which was the Guilford County schools. That pissed me off, but in truth, the story was pretty much played out until the various federal and state investigations were completed. I’ve forgotten all the details, and I didn’t really track what happened to all the principals at the time. Now, a Google search of the names of those involved doesn’t turn out much.

Two postscripts:

  • A year or so later, before the trials of the men, I got a call from someone describing themselves as a reporter. He said he was writing about the trial and asked me several questions, all pertaining to what I thought of the Jaycees and whether I thought the men were guilty. I deflected. I didn’t have an opinion of the men — Jaycees at that time were all men. I never saw a story, and I wondered if the call came not from a reporter but from an investigator for the defense.
  • In 1984, when I was interviewing with the News & Record, one editor later told me that my reporting on Jamscam was the main reason I even got in the door for an interview.

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