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2018 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

The Taking

About the Project

“The Taking,” a joint reporting project by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, examined the first effort at a border wall — an ill-fated, profoundly unfair, bipartisan bungling undertaken a decade ago. Then, hundreds of properties were taken in Texas under the federal powers of eminent domain. The rich got paid; the poor got shafted; fundamental property rights, beloved by conservatives, were traduced; the corrupt got rewarded; money and time got wasted; cases to this day remain unresolved.

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica spent months reviewing more than 416 eminent domain lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department against property owners in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California for construction of the border fence. To analyze those cases, we built a database, entering data by hand to better describe the properties, the attorneys involved and the final outcomes. We also used the federal Freedom of Information Act to acquire a broader dataset of all eminent domain lawsuits filed in the past decade by the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which handles such cases for the federal government, and annual reports on eminent domain seizures by the Department of Transportation, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The revelations were disturbing and many: the federal government secretly waived some of the protections meant to safeguard private property owners; things as basic as credible land value assessments were set aside; options that would have better served those too poor to afford a lawyer were ignored; the entire set of lawsuits had to be done over after it was learned that none of the payments to landowners included money for their water rights, holdings that were often far more valuable than the land itself.

The San Antonio Express-News captured the damning truths at the heart of project:

“President Donald Trump’s expensive and unnecessary border wall shouldn’t be built, but if it is, the federal government must not be allowed to abuse landowners and the nation’s eminent domain laws to get it done.

“Past practice is not encouraging in this regard. Abuse is precisely what occurred when the government acquired border land a decade ago, including for a barrier in southernmost Texas, according to an investigation by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

“The reporting by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune’s Kiah Collier and Julián Aguilar told of “takings” that were saturated with incompetence, ignorance of the law, harmful shortcuts and government heavy-handedness.

“How this land was ‘taken’ should make us concerned for border landowners in any future with a Trump border wall in it. More than that, it should make us mindful of the vast powers the federal government has to take property. With that comes the ability to do it right — or grievously wrong.”