Busted is a tale of police corruption—and of a newspaper on the edge

Philadelphia Daily News reporters turn Pulitzer-winning series into a new book

DETROIT, MI — They’re a reporter duo who have turned an acclaimed newspaper series into a new book, so the Woodward and Bernstein comparisons are inevitable. But make no mistake: Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker are an investigative team for the 21st century. Which means that they have insight, nerve…and insecure jobs.

The pair from the Philadelphia Daily News won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for “Tainted Justice,” a 10-month investigation that exposed an astonishing level of police corruption in the city—rogue narcotics cops who allegedly falsified warrants, sexually assaulted women, and systematically stole from immigrant-owned bodegas. The initial tip was offered to them on a platter. Benny Martinez, a drug informant, walked straight into the Daily News office, asked for Ruderman (a police beat reporter), and unleashed his story.

But that didn’t make “Tainted Justice” easy to report. The reporters mined records and knocked on literally hundreds of doors to confirm Martinez’s story. Publication of the series—which came out around the time a number of Philly officers died in the line of duty—led to fierce pushback; at a news conference, the reporters were called out by name by the local Fraternal Order of the Police. They received intimidating phone calls and emails.

And it was excruciatingly difficult to track down the people who had been victimized by Philly’s cops—many of them off the grid, with changing phone numbers and irregular addresses. But when Laker and Ruderman finally found them, they interviewed them on record with a healthy balance of scrutiny and compassion.

“Tainted Justice” won the big prize; it also launched a still-open—though seemingly stalled—FBI investigation into Philadelphia’s police department. And this month, Ruderman and Luker published their investigation as a book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love. In a nod to the story’s roots, the first page of each short chapter is designed like a column in a newspaper.

“We decided to write the book because we wanted to have ownership of the story,” said Ruderman said. (CJR interviewed both reporters via email.)

Busted is more than a stitched-together collection of their old articles. Ruderman and Laker are cast as characters in a first-person narrative that tells a story of police corruption, but also the story of modern-day reporting: their scrappy home paper, both in 2009 and today, struggles to survive, let alone invest in high-stakes journalism. The precariousness of the institution that employs them adds an alarming dimension to the story.

Not four pages in, we read that: “We subscribed to both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, even though I could get them for free at work. As fewer and fewer people bought newspapers—let alone had them delivered—I felt it was my duty to support the dinosaur of an industry that was mine.” The Washington Post circa 1972, it ain’t.

During the reporting for “Tainted Justice,” the Daily News was headed into bankruptcy. The one in-house lawyer for the company (which also owns the Philadelphia Inquirer) was absorbed in the associated legal proceedings, but nonetheless, Ruderman and Laker badgered for legal support on their series. They were having difficulty accessing search warrants, which the city claimed were not part of the public record.

“Finally, we made our own case—Barbara and I—to the records custodian and he granted us access on Christmas Eve and we hugged him,” Ruderman said. “Once we got access to the search warrants, we were off and running. But that was a big hurdle for us at the jump.”

Turning serial reporting into a book is an act of translation. The reporters pull it off fairly well, though they hit a few snags. Five years after its initial publication, the story inevitably loses some of its timely urgency. The target audience for the book stretches well beyond the paper’s Philadelphia readership. And the new medium presents new stylistic choices. Busted is told in Ruderman’s voice—which is a little jarring for a co-written book (Laker is a third-person character), but does avoid the flattening effect of a “we” voice stretching for hundreds of pages.

The reporters suggest that the introspective, first-person approach was important to creating a balance between the storytellers and the story. “Since we have many characters in the book—drug dealers, bodega owners, drug informants, women who say they were sexually assaulted, police officers, attorneys, and editors—it was only fair we share our personalities, flaws and all,” Laker said.

Shifting from serial to book also means that the reporters are revisiting material that they’ve steeped in for years—but with the perspective that comes from time and distance. Ruderman called the experience “a bit cathartic” because for a long time, she did not see “how manipulative [Benny Martinez, the informant] was and the extent of his drug use” until after they had interviewed his friends and family. The after-the-fact revelation is detailed in Busted:

Of course Barbara and I didn’t realize that Benny was still a drug addict, who often told lies to feed his habit, until long after he first came to the Daily News. He told us that he had given up drugs years ago and wanted to be an informant to make things right and clean up the hood.

He was convincing. He was good, real good.

“I had felt tremendous guilt—or Benny made me feel tremendous guilt—and responsibility for his well-being and safety and he felt we owed him something,” Ruderman said. “But in reporting out the book, I finally saw things more clearly and in a sense, it was freeing. I realized that he wasn’t a victim—far from it.”

There is a letdown at the end of the Busted narrative, but one that was out of the reporters’ hands: at the crucial last act of the investigation—accountability—there is, unfortunately, little to report. The City of Philadelphia has paid $2 million to settle 33 lawsuits filed by bodega owners and two of the victimized women. The FBI hasn’t closed the case, but it’s not clear if they have finished the investigation and found it unwinnable, or if they are still seeking information. [Update: The police won’t face charges.] None of the assaulted women have been interviewed by the FBI. José Duran, one of the bodega owners raided by the police, had a video of five cops cutting the surveillance camera wires at his shop. He has since lost his business and had to sell his home—a circumstance the reporters suggest is particularly unfair when the cops he caught on video remain working with the police department. Duran now rents a smaller space and works in the meat department of Costco.

“It’s frustrating,” Ruderman said. “Especially with the women [who were assaulted by the police officers] … we just can’t understand why charges haven’t been brought and we can’t help but think that if these women were white and from the suburbs, they would be taken seriously.”

Just as the police story remains open-ended, so does the future of the Daily News. Two years after a group of owners bought Philadelphia’s biggest papers, they are now battling each other for control while accusing one another of back-handed dealing. The question of whether or not to close the Daily News keeps coming up. One small sign of the dysfunction: Links to the “Tainted Justice” series on Philly.com are broken. (A side benefit of winning that Pulitzer is that 10 of the stories are collected on the prize site.)

“Because we have a shrinking newsroom,” said Laker, “we have decisions to make. We let go of some stories so we can focus on investigative pieces. We have to pick and choose the stories we chase. Also, some reporters end up doing three, four stories a day, so investigative reporters like Wendy and me can have the time to do what we do.”

As for her own future? All that Laker wants is to do investigative reporting with job stability. But the Daily News can’t afford to make promises.

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Homepage credit courtesy of HarperCollins.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , , , ,