Untangling the story with facts, figures and FOI

Simcoe Reformer reporter Monte Sonnenberg was standing in his driveway when
a local factory worker stopped by with a news tip. Here’s how that tip turned into a National Newspaper Award-winning investigative series.

Monte Sonnenberg

Monte SonnenbergLike many interesting newspaper articles, my series on Ontario’s Home Owner Employee Relocation Program (HOERP) began with a tip. I was working outside my home in Port Dover when a factory worker pulled in my driveway and unloaded about something that was bothering him.

A co-worker had told him about a local police officer, a former member of the Norfolk OPP, who was being relocated and sold his house to the province for considerably more than it was worth. The tipster wanted to know how this was possible and – if true – who was footing the bill. Good questions.

The first order of business was confirming that the transaction took place as described. This I was able to do through the local land registry office. Confirmation of this kind is important for any investigative piece. It is helpful to have documentation in hand before making phone calls. If you don’t have documentation, the people you call will think you are fishing when you contact them. It’s easy to be evasive under these circumstances because the reporter will sound unsure of his information. As well, he might sound like he is prying into things that are really nobody’s business. This story is, after all, about selling a home, a private transaction.

Also, when you begin the conversation with a document secured from a public agency about a real estate transaction involving a provincial ministry and, thus, public money, a source can be put in a position where he or she has to justify his or her actions.  For my story, the police officer in question could have said “I have no comment” or “It’s none of your business” and hung up.  Instead, he felt compelled to share his feelings, saying he was also uncomfortable with the transaction and had complained about the process. This was an important confirmation that we were dealing with a serious issue.

After that, the story pulled together rather easily and was a matter of contacting the relevant people at the assorted agencies involved and asking them prepared questions. As well, the local real estate establishment was ready to talk. This transaction was a hot item because it had a real aroma. The province paid $805,000 for a modest house that ultimately sold for $545,000. Once the reporting began, I received many on- and off-the-record confirmations of my findings. Most every realtor in the local area knew of these transactions and was disgusted.

The biggest challenge was untangling the flow chart of individuals and public agencies involved without confusing readers or losing their interest. The players in this series included – among others – the Ministry of Government Services and Consumer Relations, the Shared Services division of the same ministry, Royal Lepage Relocation Services, the Ministry of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Coldwell Banker and Royal LePage Brown Realty in Port Dover. HOERP also involves a number of complicated formulas and processes that had to be explained clearly and concisely.

Another key challenge was getting what I needed by means of Freedom of Information. FOI is an important investigative tool. For it to work, your request must be precise. If a request is not worded properly, the reporter won’t get what’s needed. (Think Air Bus inquiry and Brian Mulroney.) Even then, I had to make follow-up phone calls to government officials before they delivered my documents. You have to stay after these people.

As for rewards, a National Newspaper Award is nice as is the knowledge that fewer tax dollars are going down the drain thanks to the articles. It was also good to see our humble newspaper – the Simcoe Reformer – receive national recognition at a time when newspapers everywhere could use a boost.

Read the articles in the Simcoe Reformer series here, here and here.

Monte Sonnenberg, a 14-year veteran of the Simcoe Reformer in Norfolk
County, Ont., won this year’s prestigious National Newspaper Award for
local reporting.