Spending last summer investigating shady government and businesses as an intern at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel taught me some vital lessons. Perhaps the best were the ones I learned about shoe-leather reporting from watching Raquel Rutledge on her "Cashing in on Kids" series about the Wisconsin Shares daycare subsidy program.
On Monday, Rutledge and her newspaper received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. It was the paper's second Pulitzer, journalism's highest honor, in the last three years. (The other, also for local reporting, went to UW-Madison grad Dave Umhoefer for his 2007 series on Milwaukee County's pension scandal).
I rode along in August as Rutledge and photographer Kristyna Wentz-Graff encountered Latasha Jackson, the most infamous character in the series. We spent hours camped out in a car near Jackson's daycare center on Milwaukee's north side, then drove out to Menomonee Falls to see the woman's home.
Well, "home" doesn't really capture the scene. It was a mansion, complete with indoor swimming pool, indoor basketball court, and Jaguar parked out front. (Months after the story ran, Jackson's 7,600-square-foot home mysteriously burned to the ground).
As Rutledge reported, the then-32-year-old Jackson acquired her fortune from the taxpayer-funded child-care program, "billing the state for kids not in her care, providing false information and otherwise defrauding the system for more than a decade."
Jackson over time made nearly three million dollars from Wisconsin Shares, and the checks kept coming $90,000 in August 2009 alone even as police and regulators pegged Jackson as running a "child-care ring."
We always joked that I would be the muscle if the stakeout turned sour, but a few weeks after I came back to UW, the reporter and photographer had a scare after being chased down in a car by someone angry with the snooping. This was serious reporting.
Rutledge began investigating the series in late 2008. She received a tip from a reader reacting to a story about a baby who died in a vehicle outside a day-care center. The child should not have been there. The fraud associated with that case was just the tip of the iceberg, and Rutledge began to unravel the tangled mess inside the subsidy program.
Most scams included falsifying records so that the state would shell out day-care funding for low-income workers. In reality the "employer" was in on the sham and helped the parent, and provider cash in on the $350 million program. No one worked, and everyone got paid. Others simply over-counted their children to bilk the state out of more money.
The reports are exactly the type of journalism Wisconsin, and the country, needs. Rutledge took a local problem and investigated it to its fullest. She requested every document she could get her hands on, and meticulously worked her way through the various bureaucracies that should be overseeing the system. And in the end, Rutledge's reporting led to legislative change and federal indictments.
I caught up with Rutledge amid all the hoopla Monday to talk about the win. The Journal Sentinel now boasts two Pulitzers for local reporting in three years. She acknowledged the recognition but gave credit to those who blew the whistle in the first place.
"It's about the people who risked their jobs and helped expose this," she said. "[The award] is not something you set out to get, but you work hard and it's an amazing byproduct."
The paper's win comes after wave after wave of newsroom layoffs amid the economic downturn and changing media model. The paper cut its newsroom nearly in half.
"It's inspiring," said Rutledge, who has many other projects in the works but continues to report on the Wisconsin Shares scandal. "Despite the cuts in Milwaukee and elsewhere, we're retooling our strategy. People want to see investigations; it can set us apart from any other medium, that's where we're committed."
Nick Penzenstadler is publisher of the Badger Herald and an editorial intern at Isthmus.