The South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s uncovering of millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent hurricane relief claims won the Associated Press Managing Editors association’s 35th annual Award for Public Service.
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette won the award in the 40,000-100,000 daily circulation category for stories documenting alleged unethical conduct by a powerful West Virginia state legislator, the association of newspaper and online editors also announced Monday.
In the under-40,000 circulation category, the Marine Corps Times of Springfield, Va., won for its investigation into substandard military body armor.
The winners were among entries from 44 newspapers of above 100,000 circulation, 33 between 40,000 and 100,000 circulation and 20 below 40,000 circulation. The circulation categories were reorganized and a third added this year. Submitted work was published between June 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005.
The awards will be presented during the association’s annual conference Oct. 26-29 in San Jose, Calif.
Stuart Wilk, APME’s immediate past president and one of the judges, called the Sun-Sentinel’s series “Cashing In On Disaster” a “textbook example of watchdog journalism.” Examining 1.1 million claims and reviewing other records, the Fort Lauderdale newspaper documented more than $31 million in federal hurricane aid to Miami-Dade County residents largely unaffected by the four hurricanes that hit the state in 2004.
The newspaper reported residents hosed down furniture and destroyed belongings to give the appearance of hurricane damage. It also reported that hundreds of new relief inspectors had little training and some had criminal backgrounds.
“In the best tradition of public service journalism, the Sun-Sentinel staff kept digging, poring over thousands and thousands of documents,” Wilk said. “Ultimately, they were able to make a bullet-proof case about questionable and outright fraudulent disaster relief claims and payments.”
In selecting the Charleston newspaper, the judges said reporter Eric Eyre relentlessly pursued West Virginia House Education Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta, reporting how he “double-dipped” in collecting two taxpayer-funded salaries, diverted state school money to local fire departments and improperly used his influence to solicit grants.
State investigations were launched, and Mezzatesta was removed from the education committee post and voted out of office. He and his wife, a staffer on the House Education Committee, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of altering and destroying legislative computer records.
Of the Marine Corps Times entry, the judges said the investigation was more than great journalism. “Sometimes great reporting is a case of life and death. Such was the case when an anonymous tip led the Marine Corps Times to establish that the Marine Corps had knowingly provided substandard armored vests to 19,000 troops,” they said. After the newspaper’s inquiries and on the eve of publication, the Pentagon recalled 5,000 vests.