One short article penned by higher education beat writer Ryan Gabrielson led to the delivery of a four-page anonymous letter that told Gabrielson he had only touched the proverbial tip of an iceberg. Over the course of his two-month investigation, Gabrielson discovered that Maricopa County Community College District auditors had unearthed falsified enrollments, theft and gross mismanagement. Those reports, however, were rarely seen by anyone other than the perpetrators and their bosses.
Patti Epler, projects editor at the East Valley Tribune, said, “For years, local reporters have let this 10-college system with more than 200,000 students and 11,000 employees slip under the collective media radar.” That is, until Gabrielson took a closer look.
Judges lauded Gabrielson’s work as “very organized and thorough. He uses clear, distinct and detailed examples to show readers what was going on and shares many of the documents and letters that confirm how things operated in the community college system.”
The series, published in late October, brought change within the community college system, and more is likely on the way, according to Epler. “State legislative committees are meeting this session with an eye toward creating a new agency or board to oversee the district,” she said.
In addition, the Maricopa County sheriff and the county attorney announced criminal probes into the community college district. Other impacts of the investigation included the firing of two college presidents and a re-election bid lost by an incumbent who had failed to attend any audit oversight meetings in the past four years.
Gabrielson said he had never “completed an investigation or project on that scale. Now I have far greater confidence in my reporting and writing abilities.”