When former Miami Herald publisher Jesus Diaz told investigative reporter Debbie Cenziper he wanted a local investigation, it didn’t take her long to focus in on housing.
“We decided it was time to look locally and track the money, which is one of the most important things we do in journalism,” said Cenziper, who has been with the Herald for four years. “We follow public money and see where it leads.”
She spoke regarding the investigation during a panel discussion at the Bill Cosford Cinema on Nov. 15. The event was moderated by members of the Joint Program on Law, Public Policy, and Ethics.
Michael Sallah, the investigations editor who supervised Cenziper, emphasized in an interview with The Miami Hurricane before the discussion how this was truly her project.
“Debbie initiated and investigated everything,” Sallah said, adding that she was really the driving force behind this project, working seven days a week. Other reporters and researchers also contributed to the investigation, he later noted.
For Cenziper, the subject just made sense.
“We all know affordable housing is a huge issue in Miami,” she said. “We are one of the least affordable communities in the nation, according to census figures.”
She said that when she drove around the county and saw numerous empty lots intended to be developed for low-income families, it was obvious something was wrong.
“In some investigations you get a tip,” she said. “In this case we had no one to guide us. This was a gut instinct.”
That instinct led her to the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, she said, the sixth largest in the nation. Cenziper came to the agency looking for records and communications in order to track building projects and the way taxpayer dollars were being spent, only to find the agency had no system to do so.
“There were just a couple people in the agency that seemed to know what they were doing,” she said. “They weren’t resisting, they just weren’t particularly helpful because they kind of knew what we were going for.”
Besides documents from the agency, Cenziper said she also spoke with hundreds of people in her investigation, including low-income families, housing advocates and developers, to determine the relevant issues.
While the articles were still being published, thereby bringing the issues into the public eye, Cenziper said the county fired seven housing officials. Also, as a result, several investigations in multiple levels of government, including county, state and federal, have been opened regarding the mismanagement of funds. Cenziper noted that some officials have been arrested, and she expects more to follow.
“That’s what you want in newspapers – to lead, find the problems,” Sallah said.
Though changes have occurred as a result of the articles, Cenziper said there is still much to be done.
For more information about the House of Lies investigation, visit www.miami.com. A follow-up article on the investigation appeared in the Sunday edition of The Miami Herald.
Greg Linch may be contacted at email@example.com.