In this month’s installment of Heliograph: The Investigative Journalism Playbook, IJB reporters Norma Hilton and Alina Snisarenko spoke with reporters Daniel Rivero and Joshua Ceballos about their series, “Unguarded” — an investigation that exposed how a government-funded program in Florida sold dozens of family homes for cheap to companies connected to Miami’s city attorney.
When WLRN reporters Daniel Rivero and Joshua Ceballos began examining a Florida government program designed to care for those deemed unable to do so themselves, they weren’t expecting to find a network of people and businesses making enormous amounts of profit from seized personal assets.
Rivero says the tip came over the phone: “Hey, there seems to be something happening here. I looked into it a little bit and I can’t make sense of it. Maybe you can,” the caller said.
“And that started off the process of corroborating those initial findings that were presented to me.”
After the tip, Rivero and Ceballos spent three months digging.
“It was like one of those classic onion scenarios where the deeper you get into it, the more layers of the onion start revealing themselves,” Rivero says.
The involvement of the city attorney — Victoria Méndez — through her family connections drove the story forward, Ceballos says.
“Her husband is the one who owns one of the companies that’s one of the main drivers in this pattern that we found,” he says.
Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez told reporters that she is not involved in her husband’s business, Express Homes, which bought homes from the government-funded guardianship program. But a property deed, below, revealed how Méndez prepared the documentation to transfer a condo to her mother on behalf of her husband’s company after it was bought from the guardianship program.
Rivero and Ceballos meticulously confirmed their findings as they emerged. But there was also uncertainty. The pair say they faced moments when they found themselves asking: “Are we right?”
Conversations with experts confirmed they were onto something big.
Guardianship cases in Florida are prohibited from being published online. The probate court, which is responsible for overseeing these cases, charged Rivero and Ceballos a hefty price for accessing records.
Each case can have up to hundreds of pages and the cost to review them is a dollar a page.
“Investigative journalism is not cheap, but if we didn’t have all these records, we wouldn’t have been able to tell the story,” Rivero says.
“We’re reporters … we have a right to these records,” Ceballos says. “And being able to do that with the knowledge of our laws and the rights of journalists was really empowering.”
Beyond the individual anecdotes, both Ceballos and Rivero have gained lasting journalistic lessons from their reporting on “Unguarded.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Ceballos says. “Always look for an opportunity to broaden your scope and find patterns, because what could be one instance could be a history of instances of something that needs to be brought to light.”
One key takeaway for Ceballos: invest more time and energy into getting the other side.
“I think I could have done a better job personally of trying to reach out to the people involved and really stressing, ‘I really think it’s important that you and I sit down together and really talk about this because I want to make sure that we’re getting your side,’” he says. “Everybody’s a human being. Everybody deserves the right to defend themselves and everybody deserves the right to explain themselves.”
Another revelation: look where no one else is. Publicly funded programs that have fallen off the radar are often the places where the public interest is being abused.
“Governments are good at passing laws and doing things in the moment, but once something becomes institutionalized, everyone’s eyes and attention turns away,” Rivero says. “But you need to turn your attention to it. And this [series] was a good example of doing that and then finding some things that we thought were pretty alarming.”
Heliograph is a monthly podcast from the Investigative Journalism Bureau examining powerful investigative work by reporters from across the globe.
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