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How ’09 Barlett & Steele winners tracked criminals

Matt Haggman, Jack Dolan

Matt Haggman, Jack Dolan

Miami Herald reporters Jack Dolan, Matt Haggman and Rob Barry produced a series called, “Borrowers Betrayed,” in January that “found that the state had licensed over a thousand convicted felons as mortgage brokers and had allowed two thousand felons to work as unlicensed loan originators.” That series won the top gold award and $5,000 in the Reynolds Center’s third annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism this week.

Part One of the series says:

“State regulators allowed thousands of ex-convicts to enter a profession that gave them access to the most sensitive and personal financial information: credit cards, bank accounts and Social Security numbers.

Those criminals went on to commit nearly $85 million in mortgage fraud, the newspaper found. They stole their customers’ identities. They stole their money. They even stole their homes.”

The team’s eight-month investigation started after visiting a mortgage broker. The broker bragged about being able to sell all types of loans, and his backroom call center raised red flags for Jack and Matt.

“We half-jokingly checked his criminal background,” Jack said. The check revealed drug and financial crimes, which led the two to ask: “If he can get a license, who else can?”

That revelation, plus a designation for Florida as the No. 1 state for mortgage fraud, made them want to pursue the story.

“A lot of reporting had been done at the top of the food chain on Wall Street, but we wanted to get to the bottom,” Matt says. “The mortgage-broker people were coming face-to-face with the victims.”

Jack says, “The database [of 222,844 Florida mortgage professionals] was the world’s greatest tip sheet, but it took a tremendous amount of shoe leather.” Some of that leather was worn while tracking convicted bank robbers late at night, they say.

Today’s Tips: Realize that once you have the data, there’s still a lot of reporting to do, Jack and Matt say. Also, make sure all of the reporters on a project can work together as a team.

The trio worked together on the reporting, and each wrote one installment of the three-day series. Each part carried all three bylines.

Tomorrow: How did Barlett & Steele silver award winners Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston of Bloomberg Markets magazine investigate the endorsement fees charged by AARP that resulted in higher insurance costs for seniors?

In Barlett & Steele Awards, Basics.

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