A team of Miami Herald journalists who exposed a corrupt police task force that turned a sting operation into a massive profit generator for the officers and their informants was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in the nation’s most-prestigious journalism awards on Monday.
The series License to Launder, led by investigative reporter Michael Sallah, prompted a federal grand jury investigation of the Tri-County Task Force, a unit that reaped millions in profits while officers spent lavishly on first-class flights, stayed in five-star resorts and doled out hundreds of thousands in cash rewards to informants.
Posing as crooks, the officers laundered at least $71.5 million in drug cash for criminal organizations — including millions for Venezuelan traffickers through Panama banks — but did not make a single arrest, the Herald found. Freelance reporter Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein and Herald visual journalist Emily Michot were also named for their roles in the investigation, as was animation specialist Sohail Al-Jamea of the McClatchy Washington Bureau. The project was edited by Casey Frank, the Herald’s investigations editor.
“This kind of work is at the heart of community watchdog journalism and we are proud and humbled to be acknowledged along with the top journalism in the country,” said Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez.
The Pulitzer for local reporting was captured by the Tampa Bay Times for its Failure Factories investigative series that showed the disastrous results of resegregation of Pinellas County schools. The New York Times and Minneapolis Star Tribune were the other finalists in that category. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Tampa Bay Times also won for a joint investigative project on Florida’s mental hospitals.
Bolstered by thousands of confidential task force records, Miami Herald reporters showed how two small law enforcement agencies, Bal Harbour and the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, struck more than 300 deals with criminal groups with the stated purpose to infiltrate and arrest criminal money brokers and cocaine traffickers.
Operating from an obscure trailer in Bal Harbour from 2010 to 2012, the officers traveled across the country to pick up drug cash in suitcases and duffel bags. More than $20 million was laundered through storefront businesses and export shops in Miami-Dade, but to this day nearly all of the businesses are still in operation.
The Herald stories prompted the U.S. Justice Department to reopen an investigation that had been started by the Miami office of the FBI in 2013, but closed a year later with no action taken. The Herald found the FBI had never conducted an examination of the tens of millions taken in by the task force.
The investigation is now being led by the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, where the task force traveled more than 80 times to pick up drug cash with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
Other members of the project team were: photographer Carl Juste, graphics designers Kara Dapena and Chris Alcantara; Kenny Malone, who produced radio broadcasts for WLRN and National Public Radio, and Antonio Delgado of El Nuevo Herald.
2016 Pulitzer winners
Public Service: The Associated Press, for a series of articles documenting the use of slave labor in the commercial seafood industry in Indonesia and Thailand. More than 2,000 enslaved fishermen were freed after officials took action as a result of the AP’s reporting.
Breaking News Reporting: Los Angeles Times staff, for coverage of the San Bernardino massacre and the ensuing investigation.
Investigative Reporting: Leonora LaPeter Anton and Anthony Cormier, of the Tampa Bay Times, and Michael Braga, of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, for a project on escalating violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals.
Explanatory Reporting: T. Christian Miller, of ProPublica, and Ken Armstrong, of The Marshall Project, for a story about police and prosecutors who didn’t believe an 18-year-old Washington woman when she reported that she was raped at knifepoint, and the two Colorado detectives who were able to connect a suspect back to her.
Local Reporting: Michael LaForgia, Cara Fitzpatrick and Lisa Gartner, of the Tampa Bay Times, for a story that studied the effects on education in Pinellas County, Florida, when schools in poor neighborhoods were essentially resegregated and neglected.
National Reporting: The Washington Post staff, for an examination of killings by police officers in the U.S., which found that 990 people had been shot and killed by on-duty police officers nationwide in 2015.
International Reporting: Alissa J. Rubin of The New York Times, for coverage of abuse facing women in Afghanistan.
Feature Writing: Kathryn Schulz of The New Yorker, for a story about the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line.
Commentary: Farah Stockman of The Boston Globe, for columns on the legacy of busing in Boston and its lingering effect on education.
Criticism: Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, for television reviews.
Editorial Writing: John Hackworth, of Sun Newspapers in Charlotte Harbor, Florida, for editorials on a deadly assault of an inmate by guards.
Editorial Cartooning: Jack Ohman, of The Sacramento Bee.
Breaking News Photography: Mauricio Lima, Sergey Ponomarev, Tyler Hicks and Daniel Etter, of The New York Times, for photographs of refugees and the peril of their journeys, and Thomson Reuters staff, for photos of migrants covering hundreds of miles.
Feature Photography: Jessica Rinaldi, of The Boston Globe, for photos of a boy who strives to find his footing after being abused.
LETTERS AND DRAMA
Fiction: “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Drama: “Hamilton,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda
History: “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America,” by T.J. Stiles
Biography or Autobiography: “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” by William Finnegan
Poetry: “Ozone Journal,” by Peter Balakian
General Nonfiction: “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” by Joby Warrick
“In for a Penny, In for a Pound,” by Henry Threadgill, recording released on May 26, 2015 by Zooid.
The Associated Press