The FinCEN Files

Credit: Alicia Tatone, Buzzfeed News / ICIJ
Published

Michael Hudson on the power of collaboration for global investigative projects.

Michael Hudson

“Many of the most important stories are too big, too complex, and too global for a ‘lone wolf’ reporter or a Woodward-and-Bernstein-esque investigative duo to tackle.”


What were the major findings of your story?

The FinCEN Files investigation exposed how global banks move staggering sums of dirty money — and how laws intended to stop money laundering have instead allowed it to flourish.

What impact did your story have?

The project sparked a push for reforms around the world. More info here

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

The project began when BuzzFeed News received a remarkable collection of highly secret suspicious activity reports that banks file with the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). It was clear to us that the first task was to review these dense financial reports and extract the details of 200,000+ suspect transactions. 

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

16 months.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

The project presented major tactical and legal challenges. After we provided U.S. authorities a description of our findings and requested their response, they issued a public notice declaring that exposure of suspicious activity reports constituted a national security threat and announced they’d referred the matter to the Department of Justice for investigation. After putting our work through rigorous fact checking, editorial vetting, and legal review, we moved forward and published.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

Leaked documents including suspicious activity reports. Additionally, audit reports and court documents. The suspicious activity reports’ irregularly formatted data tables required custom-built Python programs to unpack. The 3 million words in their narrative sections were too complex for machine learning, so we read every word. Then we fact-checked it all, three times over. This took 85 journalists in more than two dozen countries more than a year to complete.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face, and how did you overcome these challenges? 

Coordinating among more than 400 journalists from 110 media outlets in 88 countries was a huge challenge. The team relied on ICIJ’s encrypted, virtual newsroom, which allowed reporters to communicate securely across time zones, search and swap documents and compare findings in real-time. 

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Trust the power of collaboration. Many of the most important stories are too big, too complex, and too global for a “lone wolf” reporter or a Woodward-and-Bernstein-esque investigative duo to tackle. It takes teamwork and trust among a large team of journalists to do these kinds of stories with power and impact. 

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

U.S. authorities made public statements that seemed to suggest it might take legal action against the news organizations involved in the project. We published despite these statements, confident that we had handled our stories responsibly and that the information we were revealing was in the public interest. 

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

For many involved in the investigation, it drove home the benefits of collaboration among journalists.

Pétrolegate

Cars in a government office parking lot
Credit: Ferdinand Mensah Ayité
Published

Ferdinand Mensah Ayité on relying on outside sources to contextualise information and the necessity of protecting them long after the story is published.

Ferdinand Mensah Ayité

“Not being in the field, we often had to recourse to oil companies to explain certain aspects to us, but in a discreet manner. We have to protect the identity of these experts to this day.“


What were the major findings of your story?

A minister embezzled about half a billion dollars in corrupt funds in 14 months. The CSFPPP, a public agency, had Francis Adjakly as its head, his son as financial director, and his two daughters as members.

What impact did your story have?

The coordinator of CSFPPP was fired, the government reduced the oil prices, an audit was conducted, and many recommendations called for reforms in the sector and arrests of the corrupt people.

Was your story based on another publication’s work?

We reported on oil imports in Togo in the past.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

We used to write about the CSFPPP but it was on superficial subjects as access to their inside workings was difficult. A whistleblower leaked us some files, which we analyzed. We then started by investigating the people mentioned, searching the trade register, and requesting details from the tax authorities, before we decided to move to the publication phase.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

It took us 3 months to report, write and edit this story.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

The issue of oil imports is very delicate, complex, and dangerous. Not being in the field, we often had to recourse to oil companies to explain certain aspects to us, but in a discreet manner. We have to protect the identity of these experts to this day. 

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

We had put our documents in several places so that we could secure them. Telegram messaging has been very useful for sharing certain data.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

There are several types of advice. First of all, discretion, then patience, confrontation of documents, and the opinion of a lawyer before any publication.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

We are the subject of a complaint before the courts by some of the people involved and the trial is currently continuing before the Court of Appeal after the first ruling of a 6 million franc fine at the Court of First Instance by a justice system that was totally in favour of the government. Our lawyers have appealed and the case is currently before the Court of Appeal. We have received several death threats and we are currently under the protection of human rights organizations.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

It was risky but exciting. We are proud to have succeeded in revealing this scandal, which led to some changes in the sector. It is a source of satisfaction for me and an encouragement to continue.

Luanda Leaks

Credit: Marwen Ben Mustapha - Inkyfada / ICIJ
Published

Fergus Shiel on how a young journalist can get into investigative journalism.

Fergus Shiel

“Global stories like this are a huge training opportunity for journalists. Training is a huge part of ICIJ’s work.”


What were the major findings of your story?

“Luanda Leaks” exposes the inner workings of a global business empire fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in public money siphoned from one of the poorest countries in the world.

What impact did your story have?

The dos Santos empire has had most of its assets frozen and faces several civil cases.

Was your story based on another publication’s work?

It was informed by a Forbes article but based entirely on original documents and work.

Did you receive any funding to do the story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

We began with 715,000 documents, shared with us by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa. ICIJ journalists combed through public corporate records in different parts of the world and extracted company names and other identifying information from the leaked records. We identified more than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries linked to the dos Santoses.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

Nine months.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

Team members spent weeks in Angola and chased leads from Lisbon to the Brazilian Amazon. We interviewed hundreds of people and pored over hundreds of pages of additional records provided by sources, including invoices from Sonangol, the Angolan state oil company. All of our work and communication is done in confidential and encrypted forums.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

ICIJ journalists combed through public corporate records in different parts of the world and extracted company names and other identifying information from the leaked records — many in Portuguese. All told, we identified more than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries linked to dos Santos or her husband, including 94 in secrecy jurisdictions like Malta and Mauritius. We pulled the documents into a tool we built called Datashare that organizes files and makes them searchable.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

ICIJ’s model is to assemble a cross-border team of journalists from different news organizations to take on stories of global concern. Our in-house reporting, editing and data teams anchor the effort. The concept is simple; the execution is not. We solved mysteries. Hours after dos Santos was fired from her job at Sonangol, the company made a $38 million payment to a contractor. The payment, we discovered, went to a bank account in Dubai controlled by a dos Santos friend.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Stories of corruption in far off places are often told as if despotic governments are singularly to blame. But it takes a global village to loot a country, our investigation found.

Western accountants, bankers, lawyers, and financial advisers helped dos Santos and her husband move hundreds of millions of dollars from Angola and into offshore accounts, where it was used to buy up fancy homes and stakes in legitimate businesses around the world. Our advice? Global is local, too.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

When the stories went live, the floodgates opened. Angola’s attorney general charged dos Santos with embezzlement and money laundering. A provincial court labeled a deal to acquire the jewelry company de Grisogono that was a focus of our reporting as “fraudulent.”

In Portugal, authorities froze dos Santos’ bank accounts and seized all of her assets. In the Netherlands, a criminal investigation was launched. Yet, we faced criticism that we had somehow targeted an African “success story.”

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

It reinforced my belief that it is vital for journalists to shine a light on dark deals.

The Mexican Army diverted 156 million dollars to shell companies

The construction of the General Felipe Ángeles Airport, in Santa Lucía, Mexico. Credit: Andrea Murcia/Cuartoscuro
Published

Zorayda Gallegos Valle on how to stay on track when reporting a big story.

Zorayda Gallegos Valle

“They should formulate a hypothesis from the beginning and come back to it when it seems like they are losing focus of the story.”


What were the major findings of your story?

The stories reveal that the Mexican Army resorted to a corruption scheme to divert $156 million through 250 shell companies contracted for the construction of various military and public works.

What impact did your story have?

The issue had a huge media impact and President López Obrador was questioned about it at a press conference, where he asked the Secretary of Defense to provide a report on these contracts.

Was your story based on another publication’s work?

Yes, it’s based on the investigative report, “Public Works: The Dark Business of the Army,” published on Dec. 9, 2019.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

This report arose from another investigation that had been published months before. In that story, I found clues that led me to come across contracts that the Army did not want to reveal because it had signed them with companies that simulate their operations.

Therefore, one of the strategies was to request this information from the tax authority, which collects all tax revenue in Mexico.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

12 months.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

One of the challenges was security during on-the-ground reporting since some of the companies were located in dangerous areas. In some of the offices, the managers of these companies responded with verbal attacks.

I established a monitoring system where I communicated every 30 minutes with another colleague who, in the event of any threat that I reported to him, would alert journalists’ protection organizations.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

This investigation was started to find out what was behind these military projects, but we ran into reserved contracts and had difficulty accessing the documents relating to the tender process.

During the year that the investigative work lasted, a dozen requests for information were made and a lawsuit was launched before the Institute of Transparency in Mexico for the Army to hand over the information it refused to provide.

Notarial acts of a hundred companies, contracts and audits were also reviewed.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

Although there were press releases that pointed out the work of the Army as a builder, the opaque contracting model used was unknown. It was also unknown whether the military could act as contractors. Therefore, the first challenge was to understand under what model these contracts operated. The reporting work made it possible to identify that the projects were executed by direct award contract, a legal process where the contract is awarded without a competition and in this case with zero transparency.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

The main advice is not to discard any data and if the authority denies information that should be public, fight to get it, even in court. They should formulate a hypothesis from the beginning and come back to it when it seems like they are losing focus of the story.

If they are not experts in public procurement, they should learn about regulations and get an expert opinion. Before publishing, they should carefully reread the text and support each data with documents and testimonials.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

The only pushback I faced was the opacity of the authorities.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

I realized that it is preferable to do this kind of research as a team.

Schools of Illusion

Students at school
Credit: Al-Aalem.
Published

Asaad Al-Zalzali on uncovering how the funds meant for building schools in Iraq were wasted.

Asaad Al-Zalzali

“I believe in the power of change journalism can bring even in countries that are dangerous for journalists.”


What were the major findings of your story?

We found that funding given to construct schools in Iraq had been misappropriated by contractors who were supposed to build the schools.

What impact did your story have?

A government office moved to hold accountable those who were negligent. One of the contractors who stole the money faced seven years of imprisonment and his movable and immovable property was confiscated. The government also created a file to form committees on the fate of the country, and to draw attention to the lack of education in schools.

Was your story based on another publication’s work?

Some simple news reports that did not go into detail. 

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

Yes.

What were the sources of funding you received to do this story?

We received funding from the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism Network (ARIJ) and from a new independent electronic newspaper in Iraq.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

The beginning was a coincidence, as I was covering a journalistic issue in Karbala Governorate and I saw structures and an empty square. I asked about the facilities and they said it was an abandoned school that was supposed to be completed several years ago, which caught my attention and I started searching until I came upon important facts.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

Between the research phase, writing assignments, reading and editing, the period took about seven months. If we talk about writing and editing only, it was about a month.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

I was the producer and the journalist, and the difficulties were great until I remembered the death of a main source during the research phase, which prompted me to use an alternative plan. We had to obtain documents from difficult sources. The situation in Iraq is really dangerous for conducting an investigation, especially when traveling between distant provinces. 

What resources and tools did your team find useful?

The team was only me and the photographer, and there were many documents and data that had to be obtained. The most difficult task was to obtain information from sources without promising anything according to professional ethics, so we resorted to talking and convincing the sources by tracking them for weeks and months to convince them that I had the real intention of exposing the corrupt.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

  1. Fear of being exposed before the investigation was completed.
  2. Moving around in remote and dangerous governorates.
  3. Communicating with local sources in those governorates to secure our access and exit safely and in secrecy.
  4. Placing documents in several safe places and documenting steps.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

  1. Patience, planning and studying all steps.
  2. Do not be in a hurry and get drawn to bright information.
  3. Check information and documents with more than one source.
  4. Do not believe everything that is said.
  5. Protect yourself legally.
  6. Work in secrecy.
  7. Tell the story succinctly without going into unimportant side details.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story?

There were many difficulties. I was threatened and warned and the contractor filed a lawsuit against me. I resorted to staying away until things calmed down. Legal authentication of all documents and preservation of pictorial certificates. Show the story to legal professionals and consult the experts.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

I believe in the power of change journalism can bring even in countries that are dangerous for journalists. I’m also in the midst of a follow-up story on corrupt contractors that have remained in the country.

The Extortion Economy

A man holding back an octopus behind the door
Credit: Wesley Bedrosian for ProPublica
Published

Renee Dudley on how to trace seemingly impossible financial transactions.

Renee Dudley

“Following the money trail in the ransomware economy is notoriously difficult, but it’s not impossible. Cryptocurrency tracing firms can help show where ransom payments end up.”


What were the major findings of your story?

“The Extortion Economy” series examined for the first time the ways that American industries, from data recovery firms to insurers, have abetted the rise of ransomware for their own profit.

What impact did your story have?

We put a spotlight on cybercrime enablers – like data recovery firms – that now are at the center of a national conversation on ransomware. We also highlighted the work of volunteer ransomware fighters.

Did you receive any funding to do the story?

Yes, from ProPublica, where I am a staff reporter.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

In mid-2018, I began to notice many daily news stories on ransomware. I looked at federal crime data, which suggested that ransomware was being underreported. My editor and I decided we should look into the reasons for that. We sensed that there was an American connection to ransomware beyond victims – a hunch that proved correct when I began reporting on the data recovery industry.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

I started reporting in August 2018. The series included six stories published between May and December 2019.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

I had heard from a source that some data recovery firms were misleading victims by telling them they could unlock their ransomware-encrypted files without paying a ransom. These firms obviously did not want their “trade secret” made public. We proved the deception by talking to former employees, tracing payments made to hackers’ bitcoin wallets and reviewing public records. The firms we reported on were paying the ransom without telling victims while also charging a hefty fee on top.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

Some clients of the data recovery firms we reported on had public-sector clients, such as local police departments, whose records are public. I submitted records requests for their contracts and correspondence with the firms, which helped to prove the deception. We used the analysis of a bitcoin tracing company to show that the firms were making ransom payments to known hacker wallets. I also reviewed SEC filings such as 10-Ks, 10-Qs and 8-Ks to show how public companies handle attacks.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

1) Set up Google Alerts for topics you’re interested in, then read the results daily. I had one for “ransomware” and read the resulting research papers, news articles, and blog posts each day. This research helped me find sources and generate ideas. 

2) Use LinkedIn as a way to find and reach out to sources. 

3) Following the money trail in the ransomware economy is notoriously difficult, but it’s not impossible. Cryptocurrency tracing firms can help show where ransom payments end up.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

One source involved, who agreed to talk on the record at the outset, became nervous as publication neared and wanted to back out. Over the course of several phone calls, I kept this person on board by explaining how the story was contributing to the public interest by describing for the first time the workings of an industry most people had never heard of.

Tajikistan: Money by Marriage

Credit: Edin Pašović
Published

Vlad Lavrov on how to work around opaque systems that prevent the access of public information.

Vlad Lavrov

“Even in the most untransparent countries, the government still publishes a trove of documents which would often contain important information. Also, if you can’t find the information in one country, think about other jurisdictions that might have it, as very few important business deals in the current world are 100 percent local.”


What were the major findings of your story?

We documented the main business activities of Faroz, a company owned by the Tajik president’s son-in-law, and showed how the market was artificially skewed in its favor by the president’s decrees.

What impact did your story have?

The company announced discontinuing its operations due to “unfair media coverage.” This story proved that open source investigative reporting is possible even in the toughest of places.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

It started at the IR training in Tajikistan where we helped local reporters get company records from the local registry using a brief window of opportunity when the government would allow this. Some of the records back then helped start documenting the president’s family holdings.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

We obtained our first records in 2013, started reporting actively in 2016 and the story was published in 2018.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

We totally anonymized the Tajik reporters who worked on the story. Also, we only worked with sources who lived outside of Tajikistan, as we wouldn’t be able to guarantee their safety otherwise. We kept all the communications encrypted, naturally.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

We found a way to scrape the Tajik company registry, which otherwise was not available, and that really enabled us to map out the entire structure of Faroz that no one was able to do prior to that. Because this information was not accessed by anyone before us, the real beneficial owners didn’t feel the need to hide their ownership.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

The absence of land and court records in Tajikistan was the main challenge. I think to some extent you really cannot compensate for this. But we’ve been able to use the footprint that our main characters and businesses left abroad to the maximum potential.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Even in the most untransparent countries, the government still publishes documents that often contain important information. Also, if you can’t find the information in one country, think about other jurisdictions that might have it, as very few important business deals in the current world are 100 percent local.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

One of the sources was kidnapped while abroad and forcibly taken back to Tajikistan where they were forced to denounce any criticism of the regime. Thankfully, there was a swift international reaction and they were released quickly.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

I never realised that some stories can take so much time, mainly because of excruciatingly painstaking data collection.

The Profiteers

The Profiteers
A still from “The Profiteers." Credit: Africa Uncensored
Published

John-Allan Namu on the importance of knowing who to work with when doing a story that restricts access to on-the-ground reporting.

“We chose to work through experts who had been studying the region first, then by approaching sources directly for more contextual interviews.”


What were the major findings of your story?

We found evidence of war profiteering by South Sudan’s political & military elite, and their engagement in money laundering. Destruction of forests to fund civil war efforts was also a key finding.

What impact did your story have?

An investigation into the role of SPLA-io officers in the illegal sale of teak was initiated by the SPLA-io military council. It also led to a protest by South Sudanese citizens against the role of banks in illicit financial flows (IFFs).

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

Yes.

What were the sources of funding you received to do this story?

Commercial funds generated by Africa Uncensored and grant funding to the organisation.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

We discussed the story with a civil society group working on the issue of possible IFFs from South Sudan. A member of the civil society group helped with some of the initial desktop research into the story and connected us to key sources who helped our team better understand the context. When we found significant evidence of the same, we created a story planner detailing our goals for the story.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

Collectively it took 3 months, spread over a nine month period.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

We chose to work through experts who had been studying the region first, then by approaching sources directly for more contextual interviews. We offered some (security) sources anonymity and kept our information safely stored. Still, one of our sources was targeted and had to leave the country.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

Previously published reports and leaked data was very important to our story. A lot of this information was already well organised, so it wasn’t a challege to read them.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

Entering South Sudan to conduct the investigation was deemed too dangerous to do, so we had to conduct most of our investigation in neighbouring countries. Meeting sources in far-flung parts of these countries was a challenge, but proper planning and discussions prior to travel helped. The emotional toll of interviewing people who lived through very violent episodes was particularly difficult, for them and for us.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Plotting out what you need to do prior to going out is crucial.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

The television station that we had initially agreed to publish the report on rescinded its decision on the scheduled day of broadcast. We chose to respect their decision not to air the story, and published it ourselves.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

Yes. It made it very clear to me how important it is to remember that some of these concepts we report about and discuss have real world impact.

The unlikely partnership that unlocked Congo’s crude

Stacked barrels of oil behind a chainlink fence
Published

Philippe Engels on corruption and the strength of cooperation between experienced, determined and enthusiastic journalists. This story was co-authored by Khadija Sharife from the OCCRP.

Philippe Engels

“Create spaces and times for exchanges, even when working at a distance.”


What were the major findings of your story?

In order to import oil into Africa, the trader Gunvor relied on a firm – Semlex – already established on this continent and which helped him conduct corruption at a high level.

What impact did your story have?

The OCCRP/Médor’s investigations into the actions of Semlex, which was also active in the identity papers sector, put it under great pressure in Africa, where its contracts in some companies (e.g. in the Congo) were not renewed.

Was your story based on another previously published report?

Other articles about R Case by Reuters/OCCRP/Médor.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

Yes.

What were the sources of funding you received to do this story?

Fonds pour le journalisme.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

Secret indications about corruption pacts and previous articles about Semlex.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

More than six months.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

Working over distances (Khadija Sharife in South Africa & myself in Belgium).

What resources and tools did your team find useful?

Secret of sources, sorry. Too delicate to describe.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

Creating trust between authors, writing in two different languages, four hands working on the same text, checking and finalizing.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Be patient, cross-check rigorously, protect sources at all times. Create spaces and times for exchanges, even when working at a distance. Positive cooperation at all times.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

Yes; about the strength of cooperation between experienced, determined, and enthusiastic journalists

Secrets in the Sky

Photo Credit: The Boston Globe
Credit: The Boston Globe.
Published

Kelly Carr and Jaimi Dowdell on the importance of on-ground reporting, being persistent and not getting overwhelmed by the scope of the story.

Jaimi Dowdell

“Ask if there are ancillary files or files that are only obtainable via FOIA. Had we done this sooner, we would have shaved off weeks in the reporting process.”


What were the major findings of your story?

More than a year of reporting uncovered a lax American system for monitoring airplanes, which allows thousands of foreign owners to hide behind shell companies and other fronts to keep their identities secret. We unearthed a government-sanctioned system that allows drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and potentially terrorists to use the United States as a secrecy haven. 

Our reporting showed the FAA does no better monitoring pilots and airplane mechanics, allowing some to keep their licenses even after they’ve been convicted of aiding terrorists. Some highlights of our findings include:

  • 1 in 6 US aircraft are registered using known secrecy techniques
  • Nearly 11,000 planes registered to corporations in Delaware
  • More than 7,500 aircraft are registered to companies who provide registration services to non-US citizens using a loophole in aviation regulations
  • The FAA does not vet citizenship or company information on aircraft registration applications 

What impact did your story have?

The results of our investigation were a revelation, starting a national discussion about a little known, but serious safety and security weakness that wrongdoers already knew well. Following our report, other news organizations cited our work. Several members of Congress introduced a bill requiring greater transparency in plane ownership. The Department of Transportation Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office launched their own investigations into the FAA and civil aviation registry following our report. In March of 2020, the GAO released its findings that underscored our work and made 15 recommendations to the FAA to help prevent fraud and abuse.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

Yes.

What was the source of funding you received to do this story?

Spotlight Fellowship from Participant Media. We were the first recipients of the fellowship.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

Our obsession with aviation began when a search of business registry data found more than 1,000 entities named “Continent Aircraft Statutory Trust.” While each firm listed a Wyoming registration address, the mailing city traced back to a PO Box in a Texas town of 2,500 residents and no airport. We wondered: Why would an obscure town have more planes registered to it than Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles? 

Almost all of the planes in Onalaska were registered to one company, Aircraft Guaranty. A tragic crash involving one of their planes was our introduction to a cottage industry that helps foreigners register their aircraft under the American flag. This was just the beginning of our journey into a secret world hiding in plain sight at the Federal Aviation Administration.

We took a two-pronged approach to our initial reporting that focused each of our strengths as reporters. Kelly Carr dove into the world of aircraft trusts and the shell companies at play, and Jaimi Dowdell scrutinized the FAA’s Civil Aviation Registry. Eager to pursue our project further, we applied for and won a national contest sponsored by the makers of the movie “Spotlight.” 

The following weeks and months led our reporting to Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico and Denmark as well as into corners of Middle and Southwest America. What began as a simple look at the administrative activities of a federal agency turned into a complex analysis of corrupt activities, drug trafficking networks, fraudulent pilots and more.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

The project took roughly a year and a half to report, edit and write.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

Since we were reporting on a global story, we had to navigate communicating with sources overseas. There was both a language barrier and challenges when accessing documents in foreign jurisdictions. Some of our sources were “on background” as well, which required diligence to protect their identity and independently track down information they shared. 

What resources and tools did your team find useful?

Our reporting relied heavily on traditional investigative reporting techniques: tenacity, data analysis and public records were key. But the analysis was daunting as we worked to show how seemingly simple FAA administrative failures help facilitate corruption. Additionally, the FAA admitted it does not have the resources to vet the information it collects, so we developed our own systems to piece together information like criminal investigators. In order to unravel various schemes, we obtained thousands of aircraft records from the FAA and compared the information with business registries, news clips and other sources in the US and abroad. Because the true ownership of aircraft often doesn’t become public until something goes wrong, we spent much of the early part of our reporting conducting thousands of manual searches of aircraft online to find potential case studies. The FAA does not keep track of aircraft registered to foreigners through trusts so we developed methodology to identify such planes and providers. We built internal databases, including a list of planes registered to the top five trust operators we identified, a survey of the top 15 trust providers, and a master file of all case studies. We logged flight patterns and created timelines to track criminals and others utilizing American aircraft. Developer Gabriel Florit ran a massive online search of the tail numbers for U.S. planes owned by foreigners and created a searchable database that reporters then mined.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

No one has tackled a project about aviation security quite like this before. We broke down the secrecy tactics created through front men, trusts, shell companies and PO boxes. By meticulously pulling apart dozens of original case studies we identified how gaps in FAA oversight create an aviation system ripe for abuse. Through our own data analysis, we identified that one out of every six aircraft registered with the FAA is cloaked in secrecy.  

This project was built from the ground up and fueled with passion. We did not receive any tips, leaks or help. Examples were meticulously pieced together from multiple sources. We used data to identify shadowy figures and key businesses operating in an industry that thrives on secrecy. The very anonymity that criminals use to hide made the reporting challenging.

We peeled away layers and combined multiple pieces of information, often from different state and federal agencies, to be able to see the full picture.

Case studies led us to different corners of the world, requiring us to file records requests in Mexico, translate court records from Venezuela, and travel to Denmark. An additional obstacle was the FAA’s unwillingness to cooperate. They refused to give us interviews and would only answer questions in Q&A format. Delays were commonplace. We asked one question in October of 2016 that the FAA didn’t answer until almost a year later.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

We learned several key lessons during this project: 

  1. Don’t give up. It is easy to say, “This is too hard,” when an agency refuses to respond or give you the information you need. We wanted to quit often, but we knew that if we didn’t do this work that it would likely go unreported. We were stonewalled at various levels and found that persistence was key. 
  2. When records are available online or to order, make sure that there are no other pieces of the file hidden from the public. Ask if there are ancillary files or files that are only obtainable via FOIA. Had we done this sooner, we would have shaved off weeks of the reporting process. 
  3. There is nothing quite like being there. We went to the FAA’s Oklahoma City offices because the agency wouldn’t agree to an interview and wouldn’t give us a tour of the Civil Aviation Registry. We saw online that the public could schedule a visit to the Public Documents room so we did. Had we not made this trip, we would have never learned that the very agency that regulates the aviation industry rents out space to businesses to give them easier access to the FAA. 
  4. Build timelines and keep organized. With thousands of airplanes and dozens of sources, we quickly became overwhelmed with our information. We built spreadsheets to keep track of requests made and documents received. We also built roadmaps of key examples that included timelines and links to documents or data. This proved very useful during the writing process.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

There were no challenges to our report and we have not run a correction or clarification.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

The main takeaway from this report for us was a fundamental understanding that even tiny threads found in the most obscure places can morph into global investigations.

Investigation into Israel’s binary options industry

A photo of an empty call centre
Published

Simona Weinglass on an underground industry that stole billions of dollars from mom-and-pop investors worldwide.

Simona Weinglass

“I think I would advise working in international teams. There is strength in numbers and in geographical variety.”


What were the major findings of your story?

I found that there was an underground industry, consisting of thousands of employees and hundreds of companies, that had stolen billions of dollars from mom-and-pop investors worldwide.

What was the impact of your story?

My story led to a 2017 law banning the entire industry as well as to the indictment of two dozen alleged fraudsters so far by the U.S. Justice Department and civil enforcement action against many more.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

I was contacted by a whistleblower who had worked in the industry for a year and a half.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

The first story took about two months to report, write and edit.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources? How did you navigate these challenges?

Many of the sources were very scared. Most didn’t know who was behind this industry but many suspected they were dangerous people. We’ve had to significantly beef up our cyber-security. One big challenge has been people not being who they claimed to be. For instance, we were frequently approached by “money recovery” specialists who claimed to be opposed to the industry and we later learned were scammers themselves.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? 

There are many binary options companies in the Panama Papers and I spent a lot of time pouring over those–they showed that the Ultimate Beneficial Owner’s (UBO) of this industry were an international group. Company databases are invaluable. I have friends with access to Orbis and Sparks (for Russian companies) but can’t afford them myself. My main source of information is the Israeli courts database. My work focuses on the offshore world and that is most frequently exposed through lawsuits.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

We got lots of legal threats. Some of the stories we write take a week to write and then spend a week with the lawyers. It’s slow and laborious.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had is working in teams, with journalists from around the world. For instance, I worked on a story about a fraudulent call center in Kyiv with the OCCRP and journalists in about two dozen countries. Each reporter did a little piece and it was amazing how the bigger picture became clear when it was reported from many countries at once. I think I would advise working in international teams. There is strength in numbers and in geographical variety.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story?

Yes, we did, from high-priced lawyers. We dealt with it as best we could. There’s definitely a feeling sometimes that the criminals have the upper hand.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

I don’t think so. I always admired writers and good journalists. When I read a really great piece of investigative journalism, I feel moved. I try to write what I like to read.

Panama Papers

Illustration of papers swirling all around a businessman
Illustration by Arthur Jones / ICIJ Investigations
Published

Will Fitzgibbon on working with a team of 380 journalists from more than 80 countries sifting through 11.5 million leaked documents from a firm in Panama that detailed financial records of the famous and wealthy, including three Prime Ministers and a host of Hollywood celebrities.

Will Fitzgibbon

“Large-scale, hard-hitting and sensitive investigations always take longer than you think.”


What were the major findings of your story?

A giant leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records exposes a system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing, hidden by secretive offshore companies.

What impact did your story have?

Protesters hit the streets, politicians resigned or were charged with crimes and dismissed, police raided offices and officials launched investigations in more than 82 countries. 

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

The Panama Papers investigation was based on 11.5 million documents (emails, bank statements, passport photos and more) from Mossack Fonseca. Two journalists at Süddeutsche Zeitung, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier (no relation) obtained the documents and shared them with ICIJ, who assembled a team of some of the world’s best investigative reporters.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

ICIJ worked with a team of 380 journalists from more than 80 countries. The investigation took 12 months to complete, including researching, writing, shoe-leather reporting.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

The first challenge was understanding complex financial and tax documents. Journalists spent months developing reliable, discreet sources who could help us interpret leaked files. The second challenge was the risk of leaking the leak. Journalists prioritized encrypted emails, Signal and ICIJ’s bespoke communication platform, I-Hub.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

The Panama Papers files offered a unique set of challenges. The overall size of the data (2.6 terabytes, 11.5 million files), the variety of file types (from spreadsheets, emails and PDFs to obscure and old formats no longer in use), and the logistics of making it all securely searchable for hundreds of journalists around the world are just a few of the hurdles faced over the course of the 12-month investigation.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

Panama Papers was the largest collaboration of journalists in history. One major challenge was coordinating hundreds of reporters and ensuring no data or information leaked before publication. Given the nature of the high-profile people involved, journalists also faced threats, law suits and intimidation from officials, business leaders and criminals.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Large-scale, hard-hitting and sensitive investigations always take longer than you think.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

The Panama Papers was a well-kept secret during the reporting phase. When journalists, at an agreed time, began to contact subjects of our investigations, threats began around the world. This included threats of law suits and threats online. Given the threats, journalists paid extra attention to fact-checking and legal vetting of sensitive stories.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

The power of true collaboration. The investigation had more impact, achieved more public attention and changes in laws than it would have if journalists had worked on their own.

Syria: Lafarge’s troubling arrangements with Islamic State

A cement truck
Published

Dorothée Myriam Kellou on investigating Lafarge, a French industrial company, and its connection to the Islamic State from a distance.

Dorothée Myriam Kellou

“I came to experience first hand the need for protection of journalists, especially those who work as freelancers and take personal risks to uncover scandals and expose those involved.”


What were the major findings of your story?

The French group’s cement plant in Jalabiya was supplied by, and paid taxes to, the Islamic State organization in 2013 and 2014 to continue operating during the war.

What was the impact of your story?

The French NGO Sherpa and the ECCHR, as well as 11 complainants who are former Syrian employees, filed a suit against Lafarge and its Syrian subsidiary LCS on account of their actions in Syria.

Is the story or series in any way based on another previously published or aired report?

Partly published by the Syrian website close to the opposition, Zaman Al Wasl.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

Partly.

What was the source of funding you received to do this story?

Did not receive funding for the first article published in June 2016. I received funding from le Monde for traveling for the two other articles published in November 2016.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

Looking for testimonies from Syrian Lafarge employees after hearing of employees being endangered. 

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

I began to look for more testimonies from Syrian Lafarge employees and documents on Lafarge practices in mid-2014. After almost two years of intermittent work, I was able to publish the piece.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

Working from a distance was not easy. I had to gain the employees’ trust, and many of them feared talking to me. They were still in Syria at that time. In September 2014, the Islamic State (IS), took over the Lafarge site. Employees had to flee using their own resources. After this event, anger grew online on the Facebook pages I was monitoring and more employees became willing to talk and share documents. The [other] main challenge was working by myself and being sure I was not taking any inconsiderate risks for myself.

What resources and tools did your team find useful?

I used encrypted communication tools to collect testimonies of Syrian employees in Syria and Europe. I also had access to leaked documents. They were very useful to cross-check the many testimonies from Lafarge employees. I was then confident that my sources were sufficiently credible, and that I could continue investigating this story and publish it.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

I would suggest them to be surrounded by a team of experienced journalists.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

I came to experience first hand the need for protection of journalists, especially those who work as freelancers and take personal risks to uncover scandals and expose those involved.

Maritime ‘Repo Men’: A last resort for stolen ships

Three people on a boat
Ian Urbina reports in Miragoâne, Haiti on maritime 'repo men', who recover stolen ships. Credit: Josué Azor Photo: Josué Azor
Published

Ian Urbina talks about lawlessness at sea, shadowing the work of “repo men” – men who are hired to help steal, take back, or repossess ships on behalf of banks, mortgage lenders, insurers – and how some of the best stories are hiding in plain sight.

Ian Urbina

“Don’t be afraid to work on a story for a couple of years before you even tell editors about the idea.”


Ian is an investigative journalist and director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization chronicling lawlessness on the high seas. To stay up-to-date on his reporting, consider subscribing to the newsletter here.


What were the major findings of your story?

Thousands of boats are stolen each year and some are recovered using alcohol, prostitutes, witch doctors and other forms of guile.

What impact did your story have?

Broadened awareness of maritime crime and the cast of gritty characters who operate offshore.

Was your story based on another publication?

The New York Times, Maritime ‘Repo Men’: A last resort for stolen ships, December 29, 2015. [Original story]

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

In the midst of a 2-year investigative reporting effort about lawlessness at sea, part of The Outlaw Ocean series, I repeatedly heard about a specialized type of troubleshooter who on behalf of banks, mortgage lenders, insurers or ship owners helped to steal, take back, or repossess ships. So I set out to find these types of operators and to chronicle the work they do.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

3 months.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

The reporting on Martime Repo Man happened first for the story in the newspaper and a year later for a chapter in the book. The foremost challenges were convincing repo men to allow me to shadow them during their missions because the work is somewhat extra-illegal. There was also risk from law enforcement officers or other disgruntled parties.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? 

To estimate the frequency of ship thievery, I consulted the United States Coast Guard Investigation Services. To understand the process of making or revealing fake documents, I consulted a private database run by Tryg-Mat Tracking. To chronicle the tactics used, I interviewed nearly a dozen repo men from around the world about their experiences. To monitor specific stolen ships, I used data from AIS, VMS, and online marine traffic tools.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series and how did you overcome these challenges?

Bed bugs in Haiti, a drunken Cessna pilot who fell asleep at the wheel airborne over the coast of Jamaica, thuggish mafia-type ship owners in Greece, a diabetic translator experiencing insulin-crash while stuck in a boat off the coast of Greece and a proclivity among repo men to embellish their own stories. These are some of the challenges of reporting the story.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Some of the best curiosities are hiding in plain sight. If it can be imagined it probably exists. Don’t be afraid to work on a story for a couple of years before you even tell editors about the idea.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story?

No, the difficulty after the story was not pushback, but rather an overflow of an interest from insurers, law enforcement, P&I clubs wanting to get advice on tactics for managing these problems that few before had been willing to discuss openly.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

Perhaps it reinforced the anthropological sense that crime as a journalistic lens allows for interesting and narrative storytelling, as well as a different sort of window into hidden worlds.

The rise and fall of Imtech

Construction
Published

Sönke Iwersen on discovering massive fraud, bribery, corruption, a cartel, and why journalists can’t listen enough.

Sönke Iwersen

“Just let the sources talk. It may take several hours to pick up the one piece of information you need.”


What were the major findings of your story “The rise and fall of Imtech”?

We discovered massive fraud, bribery, corruption, and a cartel.

What impact did your story have?

Several people were fired, the German and European antitrust authorities launched a large investigation, and two people received prison sentences.

Was your story based on another publication?

No, we did the original reporting.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

I got a tip from construction workers at the twin towers of Deutsche Bank detailing problems with Imtech. That led to the first story, triggering another tip later. Then the insider [information] just kept coming.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

All in all, our reporting spanned more than 4 years.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

Some sources were extremely shy, only wanting to meet in total anonymity, and then changing the place of the meeting at last notice. We faced a lot of stonewalling and legal threats, but in the end prevailed on all fronts. At one point though, several sources were too scared to talk at all and we could not convince them otherwise. 

What is the key motivator for sources? 

Revenge. There simply is no greater motivating force.

What resources and tools did your team find useful?

All information was gathered in personal meetings.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

At several points of the story the wealth of information was just too great to put it all into one story. We solved this by splitting it up into several pieces and also kept an online timeline so the readers could follow the story easily.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

Just let the sources talk. It may take several hours to pick up the one piece of information you need. But you can’t listen enough. And remember, usually each source can open the way to several others.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? 

We had a lot of threats and insults, but no actual lawsuits coming forward. And interestingly, it was possible to turn some of the “opponents” into new sources.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

I was surprised how some journalists wrote stories on Imtech years after us, using all of our groundwork and then tried to tell their readers it was their exclusive story.