A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Newspaper investigative reporting, Michele R. Marcucci, Sean Holstege, Ian Hoffman

By Quill

A mismanaged money trail sparked “Missing the Target: A flawed plan to protect the homeland.” Oakland Tribune reporters Michele R. Marcucci, Sean Holstege and Ian Hoffman sifted through grant applications and purchase orders to make sense of California’s homeland security expenses.

“Gathering the records was only half the battle,” said regional editor Mike Oliver. “The reporters had to make sense of them.”

The team added up the expense and asked grant recipients how the purchases combated terrorism. The reporters then matched up the rationale and with a list of 600-plus potential terrorists targets in California. In a final step, the team asked leading counterterrorism experts if the spending patterns made any sense.

“What emerged were stories that showed how the money flowed with little guidance on how to spend it, little regard to where it was most needed and sometimes to pricey gear unrelated to terror defense or response,” said Oliver.

Shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress heaped billions of dollars on America’s police and rescuers for a new mission: Protect the nation, one chuck of turf at a time.

There was no time to ask how – another attack may be imminent, lawmakers reasoned: States and cities knew best. The money soon flowed to police, firefighters, emergency workers, health departments, even coroners.

Three years later, California’s public safety agencies are certainly better equipped – but not necessarily for terrorism.

Officials bought heart defibrillators, intelligence-gathering software that filed monthly pesticide reports, night-vision goggles and traffic cones.

“If money tells the take, homeland security isn’t necessarily preventing and defending against foreign terrorists,” said Hoffman. “It’s often whatever your local police chief, fire chief or health officer wants it to be.”

The public responded to the four-part report.

“Readers across the political spectrum loved it,” said Hoffman. “Lawmakers and first responders held up our series as rationale for changing the approach that California and the San Francisco Bay Area takes to terrorism.”

Contest judges said they appreciated the complete package of “Missing the Target.”

“Not only were the art and illustrations great, but also the story itself was timely, topical, far-reaching, thoroughly presented and could be duplicated in every state in the country,” said the judges. “This entry stood out for its enterprise, completeness, clarity, attention to detail and dimension.”