Friday, June 20, 2008

Mortgage fraud story sees light of day....finally

OK, I had hoped to lay off the Flint Journal for awhile, but then the U.S. Attorney filed charges against a series of mortgage fraud suspects and my blood boiled over again.

Yes, we're talking about Kurt Heintz and his Great Lakes Mortgage company that I had researched just about a year ago right now. To keep from having you search back through 130 posts, here's the Reader's Digest version.

Last year in April 2007, thanks to a number of Davison Township residents, I was turned onto a large mortgage scam that had occurred in a high rent subdivision called Rivershyre. I spent more than two months pulling tax records, Treasury records and other documents to show quite clearly that Kurt Heintz and his company had seriously inflated the value of the Rivershyre properties in getting loans.

My wife and I spent a romantic evening driving through the subdivision logging each property by address, noting whether it was occupied, empty or for sale or any combination of the three.

Not to be immodest, but it was one of the more detailed and well put together investigative pieces I had done for the Journal, or any other newspaper for that matter. When I finally filed the story, I had, of course, attempted to get comment from Mr. Heintz and had visited his home and place of business. After a young child answered the door at the Heintz's rented home in Grand Blanc Township, I asked to see Kurt Heintz. The child said he would go get him. A man and woman came to the door and when I identified myself, he denied that he was Mr. Heintz.

Before going to the house I talked to a neighbor who knew Mr. Heintz and told me what he looked like and said he was home. So I knew the man was lying to me. I called him on it as politely as I could, but he wouldn't budge from the story, but assured me that as soon as "Mr. Heintz" came home he would have him call me. I explained to him I was working on a story and must hear from "Mr. Heintz" soon.

As you can probably guess, no call ever came. So I submitted the story for publication last August or September. A couple of months work and a fortune in copy paper for all the documents were complete.

At that point, the top editors immediately started wringing their hands and turned the story over to the REAL editors of the Journal, a bunch of high-priced lawyers, who began ripping the story apart. Without a comment from Heintz, I was told, there could be no reference to him.

Note to Journal story subjects: Want to avoid having your name in print: Don't make yourself available and don't comment. That's basically what the paper's management was saying.

What emerged from the editing, by the law firm, was a story about a subdivision which had a bunch of empty houses and high weeds. A bare passing reference to a possible FBI probe, but no mention of who or why this had come about. They ran from that story like it was a bag of anthrax

Because he lied to me, refused to call me back, Kurt Heintz escaped the publicity he so richly deserved last summer. Only when the local television station WJRT-TV, Channel 12 began pursuing the story (after I left with my buyout) did the Journal grudgingly start following the story of Mr. Heintz.

That coverage came about because an angry investor stabbed Mrs. Heintz sometime in December in the same home where I had confronted him and her. Mr. Heintz was interviewed the night of the stabbing, and yep, it was the same guy who told me that "Mr. Heintz" was not home. Someone called me from the paper and asked if I still had my documents. I won't say here what I wanted to tell them.

Just Friday, my former colleague Bryn Mickle (who should demand to be paid by the story considering the number of recent bylines of his I have noted) apparently caught up with the indictment of Mr. Heintz and the fact he may be on the hook for as much as $20 million in fraudulent loans. No offense to Mickle, but we could have told that story last August with just a little bit of nerve from the folks who call themselves leaders at the Journal.

But then I have heard a theory about why my story never saw the light of day back then. This is not my theory, but I have to admit it makes a lot of sense.

The theory: My work on the Great Lakes case came just months after another similar type of investigative reporting blew up in the paper's face.

That story had to do with a building company - Son Rise - and some difficulties and defaults that company had run into. A business reporter set out to tear into it, but in the end there were so many errors in the story that in one of the most embarrassing and bizarre situations, the paper allowed the owner of Son Rise a free shot in a front page, unedited rant against the newspaper.

Don't take my word for it, here's what the Columbia Journalism Review wrote:

Now mind you, a few days before the Sunday front page rant, the top editor called us all together in the newsroom to explain ahead of time what the paper was doing.

He started his explanation by absolving the reporter of any blame and said he did not believe the paper did anything wrong and that he still believed the story was solid. But went on to explain that the Journal's lawyers (read: real editors) believed it was the best way out of the situation.

Image this, we were being told we didn't do anything wrong, but to avoid a lawsuit we were turning our front page over to an angry story subject. I had never seen anything like it before, or since.

Any intelligent person would ask, if you didn't do anything wrong and the story was solid, why would you turn over your front page to anyone. But turn it over we did. Many of us viewed it as throwing the reporter under the bus.

But back to my Great Lakes story. The theory goes that after such a bad experience that, the editor no longer had the spine to push against another developer or mortgage broker no matter how solid the reporting.

When newspapers, or any media, loses its nerve to push against those who are doing wrong, then they are useless. Most of us got into this business to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." (That is certainly not an original quote from me, but I have always lived by that).

So to all those wonderful Davison Township residents who helped me pursue Mr. Heintz and his scam last summer, your story is finally out, but with no thanks to the timid boss or lawyers at the Flint Journal.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Back to Buffalo

I'm heading back to Buffalo today to pick up my wife and bring her home. Her father's health has improved and it looks like he can return home. For that we are grateful.

Blogging will be sporadic for the next few days as we get ready for our trip to Alaska.

Just checked my Blogger Analytics this morning and I've picked up a couple new countries as visitors here.

Someone from South Korea checked in and a blog reader in Romania (picture above is Sibiu - Romania's Orthodox Cathedral) spent nearly 12 minutes on my site. A lot of the foreign visitors find their way here, probably accidentally, and drop right off. But someone hanging around for 12 minutes is pretty unheard of. Maybe they fell asleep while they had the site up.

Anyway, I am averaging more and more visitors every day and I'm grateful for your visits. I really write this blog as an outlet for my writing passion, but the fact that more than 1,500 different individuals have stopped by, and that many return, is truly flattering.

Things will obviously slow down while I'm in Alaska, but maybe we all need a break from me. Heck, sometimes I even need a break from me.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A little change

A few dial-up visitors have complained about how long it takes to load

Part of that probably relates to my finding out how to put pictures and graphics up. So I have changed my settings to allow only the last 20 days of posts to appear. That should help folks load the page a little quicker.

If you want to see the older stuff, just click on the links to the right under "archive" or click on "older posts" at the bottom of the page.

Hopefully, that will clear up the problem. If it doesn't, I'm sure you will let me know.

Monday, June 16, 2008

More good-byes at the Journal

The long parade of buy out recipients is nearly at an end. The final four will be leaving at the end of June.

Vertie Brewer, Bruce Edwards, Rickey Hampton and Dan Schantz are bringing up the rear of the parade that started last November and December with Gary Piatek and me. I think the final count is about 80 employees, 40 some from the editorial department, who have taken the money and ran for the hills. For some reason I couldn't make the picture of the four (at the top) any larger.

Because I will be in Alaska (hey, I wanted to have a little fun with my big check) when the party for Vertie, Bruce, Rickey and Dan is held, I just wanted to note the end of an era.

I particularly want to thank Vertie, the head of personnel, for all his kindnesses over the years. It had to be hard to oversee the flood of buy outs and retirements during the past six months and Vertie was a class act about it, even as he knew his career was coming to an end.

Bruce Edwards, who was a photographer when I started in 1989, became a talented videographer in the era of the new media at the Journal.

Bruce was a kind person who I never saw angry and who was always willing to go the extra mile.

Rickey was a columnist for the paper who waxed on issues of sports and community during his long career. I didn't always agree with Rickey, but he was always friendly to me and we shared a number of fruitful conversations. Rickey brought a needed perspective to the paper, one that will be interesting to see how they replace.

Dan Schantz I ran into occasionally, but to him and all others leaving I wish much success and happiness in life after the Journal.

In case you're in town, the party for all four is at Bubba O'Malley's, 1076 S. Belsay Road in Burton on June 26 from 5 p.m. until they throw them out.

Good luck guys.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Flint vs. Buffalo, Russert wins it for the NY city

As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I arrived in Buffalo, NY about an hour after the tragic news of Tim Russert’s death.

Perhaps some of the best analysis I saw of Russert’s untimely death reflected frequently back to his Buffalo roots. The local Buffalo coverage of his death was filled with video clips of his frequent visits back to his hometown, especially the Blackthorn restaurant and bar. (This bar and restaurant is less than a mile from my wife’s parents and we have been there several times – but never when Russert was there).

The television reporters descended on the Blackthorn and everyone had a story about a Russert visit to the bar and his unpretentious manner when he was home.

There is no doubt that Tim Russert loved Buffalo, but more than that, Buffalo loved Tim Russert. His death cast a pall over the city Friday and Saturday that was palatable.

Everywhere you went, people were watching and talking about the loss of their favorite son.
In the past I have reflected on the similarity of Buffalo and Flint. Separated by Canada and 300 miles, they have so much in common it is like looking in a mirror. Whenever we have traveled to Buffalo – and that’s dozens of times – I am struck by the similarity of neighborhoods – decaying and otherwise – the loss of business, the once thriving steel business is virtually gone and the hard boiled, balled fist populations of both cities.

Nearly every block in Buffalo has a bar, restaurant or both. Not the Applebee’s, Chili’s kind of bar, but the kind you see in good, old movies. The bar built inside what was an old house. You have the feeling when the night’s over, the bartender and waitress, who are married, simply walk up the stairs to their apartment and go home.

We went to Houk’s (I think that’s how you spell it) on the lake in Hamburg Saturday. The menu outlines three generations of the same family ownership and it sports that retro 1950s linoleum that was popular then. Every restaurant has a fish fry and many carry the kummelwick sandwich I wrote about a few days ago.

The uneven linoleum floor required the use of several napkins under two table legs to keep the table from rocking back and forth and a smoking ban in all public places in New York, left us victim to healthy, cold gusts of wind as people went out on the deck to eat and smoke.

People in Buffalo have a certain appearance. I hate generalities, but Buffaloians are hardy stock. Tim Russert and Ron Jaworski with their large, round faces are the best examples I can offer right off the bat. For those who know me, I fit in perfectly.

Wolf Blitzer is a Buffalo guy, but obviously has a little different look. People are friendly, but frank and you have the feeling one wrong remark and you could be on the wrong end of a punch. The difference being that you know you would deserve the punch.

Roman Catholics, and their churches are everywhere, Tim’s family church, St. Bonaventure’s is on Seneca Street, also less than a mile from my wife’s childhood and her family’s current home. Many Catholic Buffaloians took advantage of the Saturday masses so they could watch Tim Russert at home on Sunday mornings.

It occurred to me that Tim Russert may be the difference in the public perception of Buffalo, versus the public perception of Flint.

Flint’s current most favorite son is Michael Moore. But Michael, unlike Tim Russert, does not conjure up positive images of his hometown. Really, he conjures up the opposite. Flint, for better or worse, has been defined by the lingering images of “Roger and Me.” A movie, by the way, that I like, enjoyed and thought was if not fair, at least provocative in examining what had happened to the city.

But unlike Tim Russert’s friendly sign offs and frequent shout outs to his home city, Michael Moore’s legacy was to leave Flint in ruins, no matter who is to blame.

Buffalo is in mourning because their best cheerleader, who was also a good friend, is now gone. Flint’s Michael Moore, doesn’t make those high profiled friendly visits home where he sits on a bar stool with the guys from his old neighborhood and just talk about the good ol’ days.

Some of those talking about Tim Russert at the Blackthorn remembered that Tim would often sit with his beer at the bar and just ask about “so-and-so” and what every happened to Nora Beasley, his best friend’s mother at school.

Well, on Friday night the local NBC affiliate interviewed Nora Beasley’s son, who recalled a warm little story about Tim Russert coming home to speak at a high school graduation. He was on a very short leash from NBC and was flown in from the airport by helicopter to give the speech and then be rushed back to the airport for his trip back to Washington, D.C.

When the speech was over, Nora Beasley’s son got word to Russert through a police officer that Nora was in the crowd and really wanted to see Tim. He told the helicopter to wait, waded back through the crowd until he found Nora and then stopped and visited with her for 15 minutes while an expensive helicopter waited.

It was illustrative of the love Tim Russert had for his hometown and its people, his old friends. Flint has no such friend and it shows in the kind of coverage it receives from the national media.
On Sunday, the day we left, local businesses purchased full-page ads honoring the life of Tim Russert and expressing their condolences for his death. Who in Flint today would inspire that kind of memorial?
Tim Russert was the best. Rest in Peace.

Miami Herald turns to its own "Chicken" for help

It appears that the Miami Herald will have to steal the Flint Journal's annual celebration of "Bounce the Chicken Day."
Each September for the past few years, the Journal remembers internally the front page photo of a group of people bouncing a rubber chicken up in the air. Everyone in the newsroom celebrates by wearing something chicken related and bringing in a food item that is likewise, related to the chicken. (I always liked the deviled eggs best).
Anyway, the Miami Herald has started a little celebration of its own. See the link sent by a faithful "" reader:

Navigating the links, and we're not talking golf

It was one thing to wade through a whole Editor's column focused on the "Wide Awake Club," but trying to negotiate some of the links inside the column were truly frustrating.
A link (warning: they may fix these by the time you check) in the editor's online column that was supposed to take you to the Wide Awake Club section, took you instead to the Editor's blog. There were other problems, like a link that brought you right back to the column you were already reading when you hit the link, but some of those seem to have been fixed already.
For a website that is already a challenge to navigate, bad links make it even worse.

Buffalo is grieving

What a strange weekend to end up in Buffalo. Tim Russert's death was announced about an hour before we arrived in Buffalo. For the entire weekend it was like a morgue. I'll have more to say about Buffalo and Flint when I get a few minutes later this evening.
But I'm back and blogging should resume.