Anyone who thinks investigative reporting on the local station level is dead need look no further than WWL-TV in New Orleans, which aired more than 50 reports in one month about fraud in a public agency tasked with assisting poor and elderly residents after Hurricane Katrina.
Peabody-winning anchor-reporter Lee Zurik launched a probe instigated by a tip from a community activist. It revealed that a multimillion-dollar program run by the nonprofit New Orleans Affordable Homeownership program, or NOAH, may have been a scheme to funnel money to unscrupulous contractors connected to the one-time head of the agency.
NOAH gave $2 million in federal and local government funds to contractors to demolish homes that were damaged by the hurricane, the first step in rehabilitating and rebuilding the houses.
An investigation revealed many properties where work was never performed, or other irregularities that reeked of corruption.
The station’s stories were a lightning rod in the community from the start. After the first report, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin accused the CBS affiliate of hurting the hurricane recovery efforts and ordered Mr. Zurik to stop looking into the issue.
“We looked at a new list that raised even more questions,” said Mr. Zurik. “Some of the work that city-hired contractors claimed they had done had not been done. Some of the homes didn’t exist. Contractors billed for work that wasn’t done. As we dug in deeper, we realized many contractors had ties to the head of the agency, her past business partners and the mayor’s brother-in-law.”
Within a week of the first report on July 21, 2008, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and the New Orleans Inspector General launched their own investigations. A federal grand jury is now looking into the situation.
Ten days after Mayor Nagin’s news conference, NOAH voted to suspend its operations. Five days after that, all of its employees were fired. The head of the agency had quit her job a month before the first WWL report.
“We’re still looking into it,” said Mr. Zurik, who got a huge viewer response to his reports, each of which ran five to seven minutes long.