Stabile project wins IRE Award

hree students from the Stabile Class of 2014 were given the award for Best Student Work in 2014 by the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). The award went to Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein, Julia Harte and Nicholas Nehamas for the series Payday Nation, on payday lending operations run by Native American tribes. The report was published last October by Al Jazeera America.

The award citation reads:

In “Payday Nation,” reporters at Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism detailed the rise of a new moneymaking venture among Native American tribes: online payday lending. Reporters visited tribes in California and South Dakota. The stories used government data and interviews with reluctant sources to reveal a system of exploitation, both at the individual level for poor Native American consumers and for tribal leaders chasing false promises of economic prosperity.

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Polk Award for Stabile alumni

Three alumni of the Stabile program were part of a team from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who won the 2014 Polk Award for Business Reporting. The award was for a series of stories on how wealthy individuals and companies avoided taxes. Two graduates from the Stabile class of 2010, Madrid-based Mar Cabra Valero and Brussels-based Delphine Reuter, and Cecile Schillis-Gallego of the class of 2014 were among the journalists who shared the prize.

The prize-winning reports are part of three-year investigation on tax dodging involving offshore companies. These reports showed how, in the words of the Polk jury, “corporations like Pepsi, Disney, and FedEx used the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg to stash cash and reduce global tax bills, how members of China’s wealthy elite hid their enormous fortunes, and how criminal enterprises used New York real estate to launder money.

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Conservationists vs chainsaws

When a UK environment group set out to save a Sumatran forest, they were met by landless settlers who also laid claim to the land. In a story published in February by The Guardian, Colm O’ Molloy, Stabile ’13, narrates what happened next and reveals what are at stake in Harapan, a logged over rainforest the size of greater London that is owned and managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

O’ Molloy worked on this project while enrolled in the Stabile program. He traveled to Indonesia to document a different type of environmental conflict. This one does not involve a big logging company cutting down a forest for profit. Instead, this is a story of how landless migrants settling in logged over rainforests found themselves at odds with a conservation group.

In 2007, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds bought Harapan as part of an effort to save and replant Sumatran rainforests. The environmentalists soon found themselves in conflict with migrant farmers who were cutting down the trees, even as the RSPB was planting new ones. Satellite data shows that since 2007, Harapan has lost at least four times as much forest as it has replanted with trees.

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Reconstructing a kidnapping

This week’s issue of the BBC Magazine features a report on kidnappings in the Sahel written by four students from the Stabile Class of 2012. The report, “Is it Right to Pay Ransoms?” reconstructs a 2009 kidnapping of four Europeans – an elderly retired teacher from Germany, a Swiss couple and a British citizen named Edward Dyer. All four were driving down a desert highway after taking part in an annual concert of Tuareg music on the Mali-Niger border in 2009.

The German and Swiss hostages were eventually released after several months when their governments paid ransom. But Dyer was shot and then beheaded by Islamist militants belonging to the Al Qaeda in the Maghreb or AQIM. The UK government bans paying ransom to abductors.

The students – Derek Kravitz, Colm O’Molloy, Jan Hendrik Hinzel and Lindsey Bever – began reporting this project while they were enrolled in the Stabile program. They spoke with the released hostages, negotiators, security consultants and government officials. They also found evidence of the payoffs, including minutes of a special government meeting in Switzerland. The minutes showed that Swiss government ministers had agreed to make a payment to reimburse the costs of freeing the two Swiss citizens.

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Subsidies for deadbeat adoptive parents

Hundreds of adoptive parents in New York City are continuing to receive monthly subsidies of up to $1,700 even if they have sent the children elsewhere – to the streets or in foster care. Nick Nehamas, Stabile’14, found this out while researching his master’s project, which was published today by the New York Daily News.

“Because of a confusing tangle of bureaucratic rules and a lack of city oversight,” Nehamas wrote, “the parents can continue receiving the government subsidies for months, and even years, until the child turns 21.”

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