It's long work and it's not easy, but what a job

Public Editor

April 01, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Prosecutors and police say they wish their work were as simple, dramatic and conclusive as the TV show Law and Order. Journalists sometimes feel the same way.

But reporting a story can be grueling - long, hard and sometimes tedious. It took Sun reporters June Arney and Fred Schulte months of exhaustive document research before they wrote a series of articles about ground rents - an obscure Colonial-era law that was being manipulated by lawyers and investors to seize homes or extract large fees from unwitting homeowners.

Their series, On Shaky Ground (published Dec. 10-12, 2006), was widely praised in Baltimore and by other journalists. (It received a prestigious Investigative Reporters and Editors award last week.) It also produced results: Late last month the Maryland General Assembly passed several bills aimed at ending ground rent abuses.

Meanwhile, the two reporters had moved on, exposing in a March 25 Page One article the potential loss of homes due to the sale of homeowners' overdue water bills to investors. The article, "Small unpaid bills put residents at risk," documented how 400 city homes in the past three years were lost over debts other than property taxes. About half of those foreclosures involved unpaid charges of $500 or less.

Baltimore's City Council immediately began considering an amnesty program for those behind in their water and sewer bills and drafting legislation that would prevent homes from being sold for small unpaid liens.

There has been justifiable satisfaction and pride in The Sun's newsroom about the ground rent and water bill reporting. In my view, it embodies the best in public service journalism because it exposed injustice.

The crux of the issue is that Maryland has allowed counties and cities to sell debt collections to investors. Those investors buy the rights to charge interest and to impose fees on homeowners that are many times the amount of the money owed. This can result in property seizures that produce thousands of dollars in profit for investors. Elderly and low-income homeowners are those most likely to be put out of their homes.

Reporting for these stories was demanding and time-consuming. For the ground rent articles, Arney and Schulte had to spend many hours examining existing databases to create a usable one of their own before they could do any reporting about those people who lost their homes.

Arney and Schulte became aware of the water bill problem last year and began focusing on the issue shortly after On Shaky Ground was published. The reporters requested all of Baltimore City's water bill records and then began the process of cross-checking them with courthouse records on home foreclosures. The information showed that houses indeed were being lost because of these smaller bills.

Schulte told me last week: "The biggest problem in this story was getting the data itself. City officials act like it is their personal property. This is a continuing problem. Public officials jealously guard records like they work for IBM or somebody other than the taxpayers."

Once the city records were made available, the next step was linking the databases together to follow what happened to each piece of property. A property's street address is the only common way to link the databases, but because the addresses were entered in a number of different ways, Schulte had to examine every address to make sure the street designations were uniform. Said Bernie Kohn, assistant managing editor for business: "For two weeks, a great investigative reporter had to become a data-entry clerk."

There is nothing romantic about this kind of work, but the results paid big dividends for citizens and readers.

Reader Katherine Taylor said: "Thanks to The Sun for uncovering and writing about this situation with water bills. I had this same kind of thing happen to me. They never notified me about anything and then tried to foreclose on my house very quickly. When I tried to get information, the lawyers just laughed at me. Luckily my sister-in-law ... was able to help me finally get things straightened out and I saved my house. Please keep up the good work because they're too many people out there who won't be as fortunate as I was."

Said Dave Schmitz: "I have been following your story regarding the water bill and foreclosure issue. I am a defense attorney who lives in Canton and I know firsthand the problems addressed by your article. It was very refreshing to see that someone has finally brought daylight to this problem."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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