Reporter’s notebook: Tips for putting together the pieces of a puzzling, complex story

Reporter’s notebook: Tips for putting together the pieces of a puzzling, complex story

Jigsaw puzzleOn March 26, City Hall reporter Josh Baugh got an adrenaline-pumping tip: FBI agents had seized files at the office of Fernando De León, a city official who reviewed permits for real estate development in San Antonio.

The tip sparked a frantic series of phone calls that afternoon as Josh and I tried to figure out what was going on. Authorities said they couldn’t discuss many details — there was still an active investigation, and De León hadn’t been charged with a crime. It was an understandable response, but we had to tell readers what was happening at a city department funded by their tax dollars and permit fees.

Trying to find answers in a story like this is like working on a jigsaw puzzle, only you have to go out and interview people and dig up records to find the missing pieces. And even then, you’re only going to see part of the picture. But after a lot of work, here’s the gist of what we know today:

  • Authorities are scrutinizing at least two players: De León and a permit-expediting company called Rapid Permit Services. Federal officials subpoenaed records last year at Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc., one of the largest engineering firms in town, to gather information about Rapid Permit Services and possibly others. Pape-Dawson is not the target of the inquiry;
  • Rapid Permit Services got a plum job at the Rim, an 800-acre shopping center;
  • De León reviewed and approved some of the paperwork for the Rim that had been filed by Rapid Permit Services;
  • De León’s sister and possibly one other family member are tied to Rapid Permit Services.
  • There’s certainly far more to this story, but it’s a start. If you’re digging into a murky topic like this for a blog or news organization, here are a few tips that can help you find the missing pieces of the puzzle:

  • Follow the bread crumbs: Knowledgeable people and pertinent documents can lead you to more people and more documents. For example, once we learned about Rapid Permit Services, we turned to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. That’s where companies file incorporation papers. For a small fee, you can search those records online, and look up pdf files of the original documents:

    Incorporation papers for Rapid Permit Services by John Tedesco

    These records lead to other people and records — in this case, the name of Rebeca Lopez, who turned out to be De León’s sister. Keep following the bread crumbs and see where the lead.

  • Request the licensing file: When you’re backgrounding someone and learn the person works in a profession that requires a professional license — such as an engineering license — contact the state agency that regulates that profession, and request a copy of the person’s licensing file. The records in the file are usually public and contain things like the license application, educational history and any reprimands. De León is an engineer, and the Texas Board of Professional Engineers quickly provided us with a pdf of De León’s complete file. His license application listed an address in Laredo that proved to be pertinent.
  • Connect the dots: In many investigative stories, you’re trying to find connections between people and organizations. In our case, the goal was to find connections between De León and Rapid Permit Services. As we examined documents and interviewed people, we kept track of every name, date, phone number, address, and other tidbits. Then we saw where the information intersected.

    When De León applied for his engineering license, he listed an address in Laredo. That turned out to be a key piece of information — in another document tied to Rapid Permit Services, that same address was mentioned. A woman named Marcela Alicia Marquez had filed an assumed name certificate with the county to register Rapid Permit Services as a proprietorship, and she listed the address in Laredo:

    Assumed Name Certificate for Rapid Permit Services by John Tedesco

    She could be related to De León — and we might have missed that connection if we hadn’t typed in every address we came across.

  • Build a chronology: Plug all the dates you find into a chronology, and interesting angles might emerge. Rapid Permit Services was incorporated around the same time the Rim was being developed. Was the firm specifically created to get a piece of the pie at the Rim?

    Who knows? It could be another piece of the puzzle.

  • (Photo credit: liza31337)