Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The anatomy of a story not told
Congratulations to our local ABC affiliate - WJRT-12 - here in Flint for finally telling the story that could have been told by the Flint Journal last summer.
How do I know this? Because it was my story on a major mortgage scam that couldn't get by the top editors and lawyers at the Flint Journal. The reason: Fear of legal action.
Just to give you an idea of the investment we had in the story I had spent more than a week (40 hours) pulling and copying the property records for each property in the subdivision. In addition, I pulled all the tax records for each property and had called many of the banks and individuals named as owners.
My wife and I spent a romantic Friday night (on my own time and on our way home from dinner) driving slowly through the subdivision to make sure I had not missed any of the properties. With my wife's help we logged which homes were occupied, which were vacant, which were for sale and which were falling into disrepair.
I spent hours on the phone with Township Supervisor Kurt Soper, township building inspector Randy Stewart and many of the residents who were living or acquainted with the subdivision and its failings. Only two people would speak for the record out of fear of becoming a target themselves. The point being, the Journal had a significant investment in time, mileage and effort in this story.
The ABC story (see link below) has no more information than I had in August. Yes, the banks have finally filed a major lawsuit, but the reason my story was held was that Kurt Heintz refused to talk to me. His refusal to comment on a massive mortgage fraud was the reason cited to me why we couldn't go with the story. Forget that I confronted him at his front door after going to his former office and finding it closed.
Finding him was no small feat. After I found his office closed I went to his home address and found a bank security guard on duty keeping anyone from coming on the property. I did learn that the property had been seized by a bank (the one named in the Channel 12 story), but I didn't stop there.
I went next door and a nice neighbor pointed down the street to the rented home where Mr. Heintz was living and told me he was there at that time. That's when I drove down, talked to a young boy who brought Mr. Heintz to the door where he denied who he was. When I couldn't get him to admit who he was I left a business card so "Mr. Heintz" could call me later. Which, of course, he never did. This, by the way, is the same house where the stabbing occurred just a few months later.
Then the Journal's lawyers and top editor got involved and the story fell into a journalism black hole.
In the ensuing months, Heintz's wife was stabbed by an angry investor (trust me there are dozens of them as well as banks). But in August I had all the documents we needed to show a really massive fraud. Houses assessed at three times what they were worth. Dozens of homes in a high class subdivision in Davison Township standing empty and in foreclosure. But even with all the evidence, township and county documents, I could not get this story in the paper. I even had a better comment than Channel 12 from the FBI. At least I got them to confirm they were looking at the mortgage irregularities in the subdivision. I had plenty of background confirmation of what was going on as well.
So a month into my retirement I got a call from a Journal reporter - after the stabbing - asking me for all my information so they could NOW do a story on the whole mess. Unfortunately, I turned over all the documents to another reporter and frankly, was ticked off enough that I really didn't want to help. "Why would they want to run the story now with the same information I had in August?," I asked.
The next day they ran a weak follow, still not using all the documentation I had gathered.
By the way, when the Channel 12 reporter went to Heintz's door to get a comment, he got nothing as well. But at least the station went ahead with the story anyway.
The watered down story that finally appeared in the Journal was a pathetic recounting of neighbors complaints about high weeds and rotting homes and how the Township had failed to resolve their complaints. There was a passing reference to an investigation, but nothing about Heintz, his mortgage company or the massively inflated mortgages.
It was akin to an 1865 newspaper running a review of the Ford Theater play "Our American Cousin" and then mentioning in passing that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before the intermission.
Trust me, the neighbors and officials I had worked with over a month's time were stunned that the Journal did not see, or was not brave enough to tell the story last summer.
Want to know why some newspapers are failing? They are chicken.
I don't know how long it will be up, but here's the link to the Channel 12 story: