It took a sassy American to force stuffy British lawmakers to come clean over their expenses.
Heather Brooke, a 38-year-old Pennsylvania-born reporter, has become the scourge of parliament, forcing the publication of legislators' expenses claims following a five-year legal battle that has exposed Britain's deep-rooted culture of official secrecy.
The expense bills reveal how lawmakers frittered away public money with claims for porn movies, chandeliers and housekeepers or repaired their tennis court, swimming pool or helicopter pad.
One legislator charged the public for sacks of horse manure, while an ex-minister submitted a claim for cleaning the moat that circles his lavish country home — a request he now says was made in error.
Shocked by British apathy
The revelations have ravaged the reputation of Britain's political class even as ordinary citizens worry about ballooning government spending, soaring unemployment and a painful recession.
Even bankers are breathing a sigh of relief, having been pushed off the front pages of newspapers — at least temporarily — by the lawmakers' outrageous charges.
But the scandal may never have been exposed if Brooke hadn't targeted Parliament after moving from the United States in 1997 to study literature. She says she was shocked by British apathy toward abuses of power, and suspicious of a society that seemed to block the public's right to know at every turn.
"I think there's a culture of deference here, where the public believe that people who are in power — the great and the good — still know what's best for everyone," Brooke told The Associated Press in an interview. "I come from an American tradition, that you should always be skeptical of government and have a right to know what's been done with your money."
Brooke was raised in Seattle by parents who had emigrated from the northern England city of Liverpool.
She worked previously as a reporter at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, in South Carolina, and the Spokesman-Review, in Spokane, Wash. — where as an intern she was dispatched to the state legislature to rifle through lawmakers' expenses. A trawl through box after box of airline tickets and room service bills brought no story, but left Brooke certain about the importance of accountability.
"I couldn't find anything wrong, they were all totally above board," Brooke said. "I think now the reason is not that they were better people, but that they knew that their expenses were a public record and anyone could look at them."
Brooke wrote a book "Your Right To Know," suspecting that the British public needed a lesson in how to use freedom of information laws — legislation being newly introduced to the U.K.
In 2004, drawing on her experience in Spokane, Brooke lodged a request for details of British lawmakers' expenses. Her claim was met with derision by authorities at the House of Commons.
"They pretty much laughed in my face, because it was just so unheard of that a common person would dare to ask for them," she said.
Undeterred, Brooke made a second attempt in 2005, which was also blocked.
Three years later, when Britain's information ombudsman ordered that lawmakers' receipts be released, parliament speaker Michael Martin tried to block publication of the data by appealing to Britain's High Court.
Brooke said she and her lawyer were pitted in court against a pack of government officials and lawyers.
"It was outrageous, all that taxpayers' money was subsidizing a battle to keep information from the taxpayer," Brooke said.
The court rejected Martin's appeal in May last year, ordering the release of around 2 million receipts submitted by lawmakers.
Authorities planned to release the details in July — but Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper obtained copies last week and disclosed the details that Brooke had fought to expose.
Chandeliers, pornographic films, a moat, a washing machine and cat food are among the items that members of parliament have expensed in recent years, according to British media reports.
Katherine Gundersen of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said the work of Brooke and others will encourage more Britons to use their right to public data.
"The great thing is that it's shown people how to use the laws, and what kinds of information you can obtain," she said.
Brooke said she has no regrets that the Telegraph, which won't say how it obtained the records, beat her to publishing the juicy details. Instead, she is taking pride in her role in exposing British hypocrisy.
"Britain trades on a mythical reputation about the health of its democracy," she said.