As a result of the News8 investigation into the planting of fake drugs, about two dozen innocent people had drug charges against them dropped. The police officer at the center of the investigation was prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison. Three other officers were prosecuted and sentenced to probation. For News8, said Smith, “it built a following, it built a viewing audience of people that really wanted to see more.” It also helped further build up investigative reporting as a distinctive signature of the WFAA “brand.”
That is something Mike Devlin, WFAA president and general manager, considers good business. “The war we’re in is against parity. There is a sameness in newspapers. There is a sameness in television. The average viewer says this is all the same,” said Devlin. “Aside from outlandish personalities—and they come and go—strong investigative reporting is one of the key components in fighting this issue of parity, or the homogenization of the industry.”
Shipp and Harris usually follow up on their stories as they develop. That puts them more frequently on the air and also reinforces WFAA’s reputation for investigations. The unit has a lot of latitude on stories—which range from fraudulent autopsy mills and unqualified airline mechanics to pastors using church jets for personal business and local voter fraud. Their story ideas are not always approved, says Harris, a thirty-five-year veteran of WFAA. “I describe us as Labradors. The Labrador is supposed to go get the duck and come back with it. That’s what I do. Sometimes the hunters”—the managers—“say, ‘we don’t like the story—go get another duck.’ ” He does so, he says, because “they’ve got the rifle.”
Harris is sixty-three, a silver-haired, natty dresser with the manner of a slightly prickly professor. He seems to have a particular nose for financial wrongdoing—and is proud of WFAA for allowing him to cover those stories. “God, how many local TV stations do stories about the Export-Import Bank?” he asks.
The very thought of a complex financial investigation would likely induce yawns at many stations. But Harris and Smith pulled off a series about the taxpayer-funded bank called “Money for Nothing,” the second of the three series that earned WFAA the 2009 duPont gold baton. It took a year of hard digging. “We waited eight months just to get the documents to do the story,” says producer Smith. He is fifty-four, a former investigative journalist at the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News who came to the station in late 2000. An intense, energetic man, Smith gets many of the tips and does much of the groundwork for the dozen or more short, medium, and long-range stories the team may be juggling at any one time.
In an effort to boost U.S. exports, the Washington, D.C.-based Export-Import Bank lends about $12 billion a year to foreign firms seeking to buy American products. The problem, Harris and Smith discovered, was that the bank did little due diligence. Hundreds of millions of dollars in loans were going to nonexistent companies in Mexico—thus the Texas angle—to pay for nonexistent American goods. Much of the money was pocketed by phony “exporters” who fabricated borrowers and suppliers through false applications and fake invoices. When the loans defaulted, the taxpayers picked up the tab—an estimated $243 million between 2003 and 2007 alone.
The bank refused to speak to Harris, but after an eight-month delay, loan documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act finally arrived. Though sparse, they told a story. Shortly after they got the records, Harris and Smith jumped in a car and made a 1,500-mile road trip in four days, visiting dozens of Mexican “importers” and American “suppliers” embroiled in a swindle that stretched from coast to coast and across the Mexican border. They found that some addresses didn’t exist. They found firms that didn’t make the kind of goods specified on the invoices and companies that had no idea their good names had been stolen. As a result, a San Antonio man was sent to federal prison and one from El Paso was charged in March. Others are still being investigated, and the Export-Import Bank appointed the first inspector general in its history.
“Documents are the key,” says Harris. As he speaks, he sits at a conference table picking through a tote bag crammed with papers, receipts, bills, direct-mail ads, and other items—all related to an investigation of firms that take money from banks to maintain abandoned and foreclosed homes, but then fail to pay the mom-and-pop contractors who mow the lawns and do the maintenance.