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Sniff out the public records trail

webster_MaryJo Pi PressMake It Great 10.29.09 Pi-PressMaryJo Webster, Nicole Garrison-Sprenger and Jason Hoppin of the St. Paul Pioneer Press follow the rise and fall of Denny Hecker, a car dealer with about 236 businesses, in a two-part series.

“We wondered, ‘How did this guy get this empire that most people didn’t know about,’” says MaryJo, the computer-assisted reporting editor. “How did he get so big, and how did he fall so fast?”

Hecker’s lavish lifestyle also made the story interesting, she says. The story says his possessions included a personal jet, a 53-foot Hatteras yacht and a different watch for every day of the month, including five Rolexes.

But the point of the story was how he paid for it:

“But others said Hecker used his businesses as a personal piggy bank, siphoning money from his dealerships and rental-car companies to fund his other ventures and maintain his lavish lifestyle. State and federal investigators are looking into charges of money laundering, conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and bankruptcy fraud. His St. Louis Park headquarters was raided twice this summer and his records seized. A grand jury has been convened in the case.

And to top it all off, his wife has filed for divorce, asking for $15 million. She’s also accused him of hiding assets.”

Today’s Tip: Use public records to find information on private companies.

MaryJo says previous divorce filings in which Hecker’s wives sought alimony provided a lot of information about Hecker’s finances. The reporters also used lawsuits filed against him, his bankruptcy filing and mortgage data from title searches.

The mortgage information “helped inform us as to how he operated and where he was getting the money from,” she says.

The series also includes a very clever interactive graphic that details his holdings.

Here’s some more info on using public documents to find out information about private companies from University of Kansas journalism professor James Gentry.

About the Author

Rosland Gammon is a former business journalist turned college instructor. Her newsroom experience includes reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and reporting and editing at Bloomberg News. Gammon currently teaches communications at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Rosland Gammon

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