MIAMI - The Pulitzer Prize, the American newspaper industry’s highest honor, was awarded Monday to Debbie Cenziper of The Miami Herald for House of Lies, a riveting series on widespread problems in Miami-Dade County’s public housing agency.
Winning in the category of local reporting, Cenziper led a team that wrote more than 30 articles in the 2006 series, which revealed developers took millions of dollars in taxpayer money to build affordable housing for the poor, but failed to deliver, leaving thousands without their promised homes.
The series led to massive changes in the county housing agency and the arrest of three developers.
“This woman is one of the most impassioned reporters I’ve ever seen,” said Michael Sallah, the investigations editor who edited the series. After going over spreadsheets and detecting massive problems, Cenziper began talking to victims - some of the 40,000 persons on the waiting list for affordable housing.
“She came back one day, flush-faced, tears rolling in her eyes,” said Sallah. She said she had just interviewed a mother of three. “`They were living in a rat hole. And there was no reason for this. She had money to put down on a home.”’
Concluded Sallah: “I knew right then and there this project was in her heart.”
Cenziper praised the way readers responded to the revelations. “It’s so easy for people to take a look at this community and say it’s numb to this kind of scandal and corruption. And it’s not ... The leaders called the state attorney’s office. They marched through neighborhoods. They staged an overnight protest on the steps of county hall.”
Cenziper’s prize was the 19th Pulitzer won by Miami Herald staffers. In addition, John S. Knight, co-founder of Knight newspapers and Miami Herald publisher, won a Pulitzer in 1968 for his columns against the Vietnam War that appeared in The Miami Herald and other Knight newspapers.
A veteran reporter of the investigative team, Cenziper was a Pulitzer finalist last year in the category of explanatory journalism for her series revealing a lack of funding to support hurricane research.
In early 2006, she began looking at the Miami-Dade housing agency, the nation’s sixth largest. She examined hundreds of contracts, invoices and budgets. She built a database to show the business and personal relationships of 300 persons linked with the agency and developers.
One article told the story of Ozie Porter, a cafeteria cook living in public housing, who saved $5,000 in order to take advantage of a housing agency program offering affordable housing for lower-income residents.
But while Porter waited for a home, developers were getting rich. The series revealed that the agency lost more than $12 million to developers who were supposed to build homes but didn’t. What’s more, top county officials had been warned for years about problems in the housing agency and hadn’t responded.
After the initial articles, the county dismissed seven of the top managers in the agency. Local agencies found money for Porter, the cook, to get a home.
Eventually, the series led to the arrest of three:
+ Oscar Rivero, who is accused of receiving $1.7 million in public housing dollars but building only one house - his own - an 11,000-square-foot mansion with a wine cellar and billiard room.
+ Raul Masvidal, charged with using housing agency money to buy his own sculpture of a watermelon slice.
+ Reynaldo Diaz, accused of receiving $940,000 to build 28 affordable homes, but building only two.
All three have pleaded not guilty.
“It was a blatant attempt to steal money and rip off the poor,” said Manny Garcia, The Miami Herald’s assistant managing editor for metro coverage. “We did what The Herald does best - we shined a light on them.”
“There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about journalism today,” Sallah said to Miami Herald journalists, who gathered to toast Cenziper with champagne Monday afternoon. “Anybody who thinks that investigative journalism has gone away, let them come to Miami and see what people do.”
Cenziper thanked other staffers for contributing to the success of the series: Larry Lebowitz, Tim Henderson, Susannah A. Nesmith, Monika Z. Leal, Charles Rabin, Matthew I. Pinzur, Jose Luis Rios, Chuck Fadely, Nuri Vallbona, Jason Grotto, Robert Beatty, Garcia and particularly Sallah - “the best editor I’ve ever worked with.”
Other editors cited the contributions to the project by staffers Shawn Greene, Carl Juste, Eddie Alvarez and Paul Cheung.
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