Inside Public Integrity

Published — February 17, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Center wins Polk award for financial coverage

Honor marks second time Center wins prestigious award


The Center for Public Integrity has won a prestigious George Polk award for its “After the Meltdown” series, which revealed that many of the major players responsible for the 2008 financial crisis have faced few consequences for their actions.

The award, announced Sunday evening, is the second for the Center, which was similarly honored in 2003. The Polk awards, given by Long Island University, are considered among journalism’s most prestigious; they recognize journalism that “places a premium on investigative and enterprise work that is original, requires digging and resourcefulness, and brings results.” The Center’s citation is for business reporting.

It goes specifically to managing editor for finance and “After the Meltdown” project manager John Dunbar; team leader and senior reporter Alison Fitzgerald; reporter Dan Wagner; and former Center intern Lauran Kyger. A total of 30 recipients from 15 news organizations were recognized in 13 separate categories.

“I’m delighted that the Polk judges recognize the extraordinary investigative work of the Center,” said Executive Director Bill Buzenberg. “The ‘After the Meltdown’ series was a six-month investigation that built on our 2008 report on the subprime 25 — ‘Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown?’ This project was a true team effort, and reflects the Center’s commitment to deep reporting.”

The four stories in the “After the Meltdown” series were published five years after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. went bankrupt. The Center’s key findings revealed that:

  • The mortgage executives at Bear Stearns Cos. Inc., who led that firm down a path to its own destruction, are now doing similar work for Bear’s former competitors.
  • The chief executive officers of five of the major Wall Street banks that got into the most financial trouble in 2008 are all living in luxury, none of them having faced any criminal or even civil liability for their mismanagement.
  • The top executives — many of them founders — of every one of the 25 largest subprime lenders from the boom years 2005 through 2007 are back in the mortgage lending business.
  • The majority of the regulators tasked with preventing or cleaning up the meltdown are back in the private sector, earning big fees from writing books and lecturing about their experience.

To report these stories and gather the rich details they featured, Center reporters combed through court records, SEC filings, real estate records in several states, mortgage term sheets, the National Mortgage Licensing System and many other documents. Reporters also tracked down the principals in each story, and interviewed friends, former colleagues, business associates, bridge partners and golf caddies to gain more insight and detail into the stories’ many subjects.

The series made it clear that the nation’s regulators and prosecutors failed to hold those most responsible for the financial crisis accountable for damage to the economy, including the steepest recession since the Great Depression, the loss of millions of jobs and trillions in wealth.

Following this series and other stories that highlighted the government’s lack of action against major banks and executives tied to the crisis, the U.S. Justice Department and SEC became more aggressive in their pursuit of sanctions against corporate wrongdoing. JPMorgan Chase for example, entered into multibillion dollar settlements with the government and for the first time acknowledged wrongdoing.

The George Polk Awards were established in 1949 to honor a CBS correspondent killed while covering the civil war in Greece. Past honorees include Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, Christiane Amanpour and Gay Talese.

The awards will be presented at an April 11 luncheon in New York.

Other winners of this year’s Polk awards include The Guardian and The Washington Post for their reporting on the U.S. government’s collection of phone and Internet communication based on documents obtained by National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden. The Post was honored with a second Polk for a six-part series on the U.S. food stamp program and The New York Times was awarded two Polk Awards, for reporting on the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and for a five part series called “Invisible Child” about a homeless girl in New York City.

“In the tradition of George Polk, many of the journalists we have recognized did more than report news,” said John Darnton, curator of the awards. “They heightened public awareness with perceptive detection and dogged pursuit of stories that otherwise would not have seen the light of day. Repercussions of the NSA stories in particular will be with us for years to come.”

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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