Four Investigations

C Smith

A selection of what I consider my best investigations.

Culled from six years as an investigative reporter, and later Head of Investigations, at the Voice of San Diego.

1. Poway Unified’s Billion-Dollar School Bond Debacle

August 2012

In 2011, the Poway Unified School District borrowed $105 million to finish off its modernization program. Because the district borrowed the money via a then-little known financial gambit called Capital Appreciation Bonds, taxpayers will eventually pay back almost $1 billion on the initial loan.

My stories on this and other local school bond disasters sparked national outrage and led to a statewide rethink of the school bond market. In 2013, lawmakers passed legislation outlawing Poway-style bonds and potentially saving taxpayers billions in interest payments to Wall Street. The author of the bill, a San Diego legislator, credited my stories as the starting point for the legislation.

The original story:  “Where Borrowing $105 Million Will Cost $1 Billion: Poway Schools”

The follow-up:  “What’s Really Exotic About Poway’s Bonds: Millions in Extra Cash”

The impact:  “Governor Signs Bill Cracking Down on School Bond Deals”

2. The Redevelopment Investigations

July 2008

At the last count, four people have ended up in jail as a direct result of my journalism. Two of them were arrested after my series of stories into corruption at a local redevelopment agency in San Diego. After I discovered that officials there were paying themselves lavish secret bonuses, rather than spending the money revitalizing the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the FBI swooped in.

After prosecution by the US Attorney’s office, the former leader of the agency and her accomplice were arrested and later pleaded guilty to embezzling the public’s money.

I won an IRE medal for the reporting on this story.

The original story: “Without Oversight, SEDC Officials Award Themselves Bonuses

The follow-up: “FBI Seized SEDC Computers

The impact: “One Word, ‘Guilty,’ Erases Years of Dogged Denial”

 3. The Staggering Swindle

April 2009

A lot of crazy financial crime went on in California in the mid-2000s, but Jim McConville’s massive mortgage fraud, orchestrated across California, is one of the wildest. Along with my colleague, Kelly Bennett, I spent months unravelling the staggering swindle, which involved rented identities, forged documents, dozens of abandoned and overvalued apartments and a fleet of Lamborghinis.

A few months after our story, Jim McConville was arrested by the FBI. He’s currently serving an eight-year prison sentence in federal prison.

The original story: “Rented Identities, Extravagant Prices and Foreclosure: A Post-Boom Real Estate Scam”

The follow-up: “A Staggering Swindle: McConville Arrested”

The impact: “Mortgage Fraud Mastermind Sentenced to Prison”

4. Justice for Sale

May 2013

Consumer rights are not what they once were. Corporations have spent the last decade creating an alternative system of justice that forces consumers to challenge them in the private world of arbitration, rather than the court system. By inserting mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts for everything from cars to cell phones,  they’ve radically changed the playing field for the little guy.

In this series of three stories, I pull the curtain back on consumer arbitration, examining its flawed processes and detailing how, in California, arbitration firms have been breaking the law with impunity for years.

The original stories: Part I: “Arbitration Purgatory” / Part II: “Ignoring the Law” / Part III: “The War on Consumer Class Actions”

The follow-up: “Arbitration Results Will Stay Secret, for Now”

The impact: Watch this space.