Investigative Reporting

  • How two small-town reporters in Kentucky took down a corrupt sheriff

    Journalists Adam Sulfridge and Samantha Swindler were both in their 20s and working for a small newspaper, the Times-Tribune in Whitley County, Kentucky, when they began investigating rumors about Sheriff Lawrence Hodge and his ties to drug dealers.

    How two small town reporters in Kentucky took down a corrupt sheriff   John TedescoFederal agents had investigated Hodge in the past but their inquiry fizzled. The sheriff was too insulated and powerful. People were afraid to talk. The feds thought Hodge was untouchable.

    He wasn’t.

    Check out this fantastic 60 Minutes video about how two young journalists were able to do what the feds couldn’t — bring down a corrupt sheriff.

  • Stimulus critics sought stimulus money

    Construction workers on the Mission Reach of the River Walk
    Construction workers on the River Walk's Mission Reach

    I had written some stories about local stimulus projects a few months ago, so it was interesting to read this report by the Center for Public Integrity that showed how elected officials who publicly criticized the Recovery Act had privately sought stimulus funds for their Congressional districts and states.

    A cool thing about this project is that bloggers can embed the findings in their own posts. It allows their readers to search the documentation — and uses social media to help the story go viral.

  • 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)

  • The next step: Bloggers as journalists

    Reporter's notebook

    Zachary Adam Cohen penned a great piece for bloggers who want to do more than write clever riffs off the work of others:

    I personally love blogs that rip content from a bigger site and comment on it. I think there is tremendous value in this kind of commentary when you find the voices that provoke you, or nourish you. But blogging has to evolve past this. It already is in many cases. Blogs need to become news breakers in their own right. They need to be hubs of information, commentary, original reporting, even investigative reporting.

    Cohen notes that newspapers are here to stay: “To any bloggers out there revving their engines at the thought of newspapers going away, stop now and get off your bike.” But at the same time, cutbacks have decimated newsrooms, and this creates an opportunity for bloggers to fill a void in their community by breaking news, not just opining about news:

    Blogs that break news and do their own investigate reporting will rise above the rest. They will be providing extra value to their readers and to the community. You will get noticed by new readers and other news outlets. It all cascades from there.

    Bloggers that are interested should try to perform some original investigative reporting. Are you a food blogger? Then how about investigating whether restaurants are living up to their words with regards to where and how they source their food. Are they paying their employees properly? Do they have illegal immigrants working there?

    Well…FIND OUT! And write about it. You don’t need a degree from Columbia to break news. You need a pen, a telephone, a recorder and the desire to do it. Bloggers are writers. Writers investigate. I am not advising bloggers to all of a sudden and drop everything to do expensive, intensive investigative reporting. That can only be afforded by newspapers and magazines with budgets and timelines to support such a thing.

    But a blogger can do light investigative reporting and perhaps publish a monthly piece. It can be worked on in the background as other content is created and other obligations are met. But I know that once bloggers realize they can investigate their own stories, we can activate a huge segment of the population to fill in some of the gaps left by the absence of newspapers.

    Even if a small portion of bloggers took Cohen’s advice, the results would still be impressive:

    How many blogs are there now? Hundreds of millions. If only a small percentage of those blogs did occasional investigations, the kind of work that local newspapers and publications used to do, we would be much better off. We would be a more informed citizenry. Does it matter who is doing the reporting? Those that are competent, good writers and maintain their credibility will be found out. This is the democratizing and meritocratic aspect of the web. It is the most important thing about the web and the fact that we all have our own outlets. Let the people be the judge.

    Most people blog as a hobby, not as a job. But even if you’re not getting paid, you can still whittle away at a cool idea and work on it over time. File an open records request about an uncovered topic. Call a key official and interview them in your spare time. Keep chipping away at your project, and you might learn something no one else knows.

    It’s an awesome feeling when you share that knowledge with your audience — trust me.

    (Photo credit: sskennel)