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Florida Today finds pledger’s broken promises

May 26, 2011

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Florida Today laid out the facts that it found about pledger Tom Garo's past business dealings in an interactive graphic.

If you listen to public radio, you’ve probably heard your share of pledge drives. But just like the car your parents promised you’d get at 16, you have to wonder if the money will ACTUALLY come in.

That’s what the Brevard Schools Foundation is wondering about a $3.1 million pledge, according to a Florida Today piece by Mackenzie Ryan and Michelle Spitzer. Businessman Tom Garo made the “anonymous” pledge in August 2010, but the school district foundation hasn’t seen any money yet. So for now, student athletes have to wait for stadium renovations, and band members have to wait for new instruments and uniforms, the story says.

To explore the likelihood that the donation will ever come, Mackenzie and Michelle did some background checks and found Garo had a reputation for not following through.

“Dig through public records available to you – and then layer the facts to allow readers to form their own opinion,” Mackenzie says.

Michelle Spitzer, reporter, Florida Today
Michelle Spitzer

Mackenzie did a Nexis public records search and a criminal background check through the state of Florida, she says. Then she looked at civil, criminal, bankruptcy and U.S. District Court records. “The court cases, and individuals involved in those cases, offered telling details about his previous business dealings,” she says.

They also checked on information Garo’s attorney provided about Garo’s past donations and current business deals. “We discovered a church was left scrambling after work started on a parking lot Garo promised but never paid for,” she says. “And a company that owns a building [that] Garo’s attorney said Garo was in the midst of purchasing had never heard of Garo or his company.”

Mackenzie Ryan, reporter, Florida Today
Mackenzie Ryan

Mackenzie says they story never addresses whether the $3.1 million will be donated because no one can be certain. “But we did present enough facts about previously unfilled promises and broken contracts for readers to form their own opinion,” she says. A nifty interactive graphic lays out those facts, using videos.

The value of backgrounding also is demonstrated in Annie Johnson’s recent story in the Nashville Business Journal about a developer who proposed a $750 million theme park in Spring Hill, Tenn. She looked into the background of the developer and found he owes at least $750,000 in legal judgments.

Here are more tips on backgrounding people and businesses from Jaimi Dowdell, training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, which also offers a book by Cynthia Hetherington on “Business Background Investigations” for $18 to $21.

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