It is a classic mantra of investigative reporting: Follow the money.
In the case of the free-wheeling special unit at the Bal Harbour Police Department, no one tracked the millions of dollars being funneled through a money-laundering task force that carried out a sting operation.
Not the small, affluent village. Not the FBI. And not even the U.S. Justice Department.
Tipped by a former police officer, Miami Herald investigative reporter Michael Sallah began to follow the money.
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He spent eight months dissecting hundreds of records and interviewing dozens of sources. He found that over two years, the Bal Harbour task force had laundered at least $71.5 million — kept $2.4 million for the officers and their informants — and returned the rest of the money to the same criminal groups selling drugs on the streets of America.
They did not make a single arrest for money laundering while they traveled across the country on first-class flights, stayed at luxury hotels and doled out hundreds of thousands in cash rewards to their informants.
Last week, Sallah’s investigative series, License to Launder, was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting. Others who worked on the project included videographer Emily Michot and reporter Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein.
We are in good company.
Three Florida newspapers won Pulitzer Prizes: the Tampa Bay Times for exposing the inequity in five predominantly African-American schools; the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for a joint investigation into Florida’s mental health facilities; and the Charlotte Sun for editorials demanding answers after the deadly assault of an inmate by corrections officers.
For the past 100 years, the Pulitzer Prize has represented the highest standards of journalism excellence in the country. Beyond the accolades and bragging rights, that is the enduring power of the prize. This year’s winners exemplify courageous and penetrating work from news organizations of all sizes across the country. It is the most tangible reminder of the important public service that journalists continue to provide, even during this turbulence in the industry.
The Miami Herald has a long and proud tradition of producing the caliber of work that every now and then gets a Pulitzer nod. We have won 20 prizes since our first in 1951. And in the past decade, we were finalists four times and won in 2007 for local reporting and 2009 for breaking news photography.
Today, the Miami Herald is devoting as many resources to investigative reporting as it did when I was first hired 30 years ago. And the work goes far beyond the investigative team. License to Launder was just one of nearly a dozen watchdog and investigative stories we produced last year.
In the wake of Higher-Ed Hustle, a project by Michael Vasquez that delved into the sometimes questionable practices of for-profit colleges, the federal government took a hard look at Dade Medical College and its politically powerful owner, Ernesto Perez. It slowed his access to federal loans and Pell grants, resulting in the closure of the school.
As a result of Julie Brown’s investigations into abuses at Florida’s prisons last year, there have been legislative hearings, the installation of more cameras in the prison system to discourage abuse, the hiring of more corrections officers, and new rules protecting inmates with mental illnesses from being subjected to pepper spray and other chemical restraints.
In 2014, her reporting led to the exit of the head of the prison system, as well as the warden and assistant warden at Dade Correctional Institution.
China Pipeline, a report by Jay Weaver and David Ovalle, put a spotlight on the epidemic of synthetic drugs in South Florida.
Carol Marbin Miller’s series Bitter Pill revealed that despite a large budget surplus, Florida health regulators had kicked thousands of children out of a state program that provides comprehensive care to kids with chronic and serious medical conditions.
In the wake of her and other critical coverage of the department, the state’s surgeon general was replaced.
The recognition by our peers is wonderful. But the real reward is the impact of the work we do. In the case of Bal Harbour, the Herald’s stories prompted an ongoing federal criminal grand jury investigation.
“If we don’t do these stories, no one is going to do them,” said Sallah. “They are too difficult and they take too much time. But just think about the consequences when we don’t pursue these kinds of stories.”
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez: 305-376-3429, email@example.com, @MindyMarques. The mailing address is 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, FL 33172.