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2017 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Big Money, Unlikely Donors

Finalist(s)
David Zahniser, Emily Alpert Reyes, Len De Groot and Joe Fox

Organization
Los Angeles Times

Award
The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom

Program
2017

Entry Links
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About the Project

The Sea Breeze development — a proposed six-story apartment complex in L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood — was in trouble.

For years, the project’s backers had wanted to put 352 residential units in an area zoned for heavy manufacturing. But the neighborhood was divided. The Department of City Planning opposed it. And the mayor’s nine-member Planning Commission rejected it.

In early 2015, however, the mayor and the City Council changed the site’s zoning and approved the $72-million project.

What happened?

When the Los Angeles Times’ veteran City Hall reporter David Zahniser began examining campaign contributions to politicians who had supported the project at critical points, he noticed something strange. Over and over, contributions had poured in on the same day, in the same amount, but from seemingly unconnected donors across Southern California.

His search led him to a rundown house in West Carson, where four residents – none of them registered voters – had given more than $40,000 to local politicians. One donor, a repairman named Victor Blanco, could not explain the thousands given in his name. “I do not remember,” he told Zahniser.

This launched a months-long Times investigation that took Zahniser and colleague Emily Alpert Reyes across the vast geographical stretches of Southern California, seeking out scores of donors and their potential links.

The reporters drove from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County. They knocked on doors in the lavish estates of Pasadena and in the crowded apartments of Koreatown. They conducted interviews in English and Spanish. They studied real estate deeds, business documents, lawsuits, politicians’ calendars, and – seeking relationships between donors – marriage and birth records.

Their findings: More than 100 campaign donors — whose combined contributions topped $600,000 – had direct or indirect connections to Samuel Leung, the Torrance-based developer behind the Sea Breeze project. Some donors, like Blanco, worked at Leung properties. Others were business associates and their family members.

The reporters faced many obstacles. Leung and his representatives refused interviews. Dozens of listed donors also refused to speak to the Times, ignored the reporters, or couldn’t be found.

The Times investigation — launched by an experienced journalist doggedly working his beat – relied on old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting of the most tenacious and time-consuming kind. An interactive database on the Times website enhanced the presentation, allowing readers to navigate the complex web of political donors. A follow-up story focused on the outsized influence on City Hall of one of Los Angeles’ biggest developers.

The project generated a public outcry, with two Los Angeles-area elected officials calling for an investigation and a pledge from the district attorney’s office to review donations tied to Leung. Columbia Journalism Review praised the project as an example of the continued importance of “local watchdogging” at a time when so many metro newspapers have been cutting back the size of their staff.