Steve Andrews: Investigative Reporter

by Drew R. Hamilton

The USF Public Affairs Reporting class spent an afternoon with well-known Senior Investigative Reporter and Executive Producer of Investigations for WFLA News Channel 8, Steve Andrews.

Andrews took the class through a series of his own investigative reports that uncovered corruption at all levels of public service, which he confirmed or discovered through the use of public records.

The first two cases discussed involved a drug bust involving the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

A representative of Michael Difalco, of Lakeland, contacted Andrews to discuss a video tape surveillance tape shot at his home.  The individual was feeling disrespected by a competitor of News Channel 8 and wanted to discuss the tape with someone else.  After an hour-long conversation with the contact, Andrews only offered one promise, that the story will be big.

Andrews tells the class that the most important thing in his line of work is, “always be respectful.”  He credits this mantra and his handling of Difalco’s confidant for getting this story.

The video tape captured Polk County Sheriff’s Officers playing a video game in the Difalco residence during a 9-hour execution of a search warrant for the house.  Young sheriff’s deputies and supervisors alike, at the house, participated in the extra curricular activities.

Andrews contacted Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to request an interview.  Judd who is no stranger to the public eye granted Andrews’ request.  It is at this point where Andrews reminds the class again, that his ability to respectfully ask the tough questions allows him the chance to break these high-profile cases.  Sheriff Judd faced Andrews’ hard questions with tact and accountability.  Admitting that there was no explanation for the actions of his deputies, Judd was able to somewhat contain the media firestorm that this video tape had started.

Public records were used in many facets of this case.  Andrews executed a criminal background check on Mike Difalco to find out he had a lengthy arrest record.  Next, he acquired the arrest affidavit from the Polk County Courthouse to discover what the police were looking for at the Difalco residence.  By contacting the State Attorney’s office, he was able to get a copy of the search warrant.

Once Andrews had the surveillance tape, the interview with Sheriff Judd, the interview with the defense attorney and the documented public records which supported the entire story, the investigative team was able to turn this story in 24 hours.

However, the public records aspect of this story led Andrews into the second story discussed which involved requesting all the e-mails regarding the Difalco case from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Andrews explained to the class that a great tactic for chasing stories was to access all e-mails from public entities in the wake of a scandal.  Once a public office is under the cloud of bad news, their officers will likely be tightening the ship and reinforcing protocol that may be lacking, in order to avoid future publicity.  However, what Andrews discovered was quite the opposite.

Notes from the lead officer on the case to Sheriff Judd, lined out a very well-thought through plan that reduced the chance of violence from occurring.  The notes brought to light the fact that very good police work had been overshadowed by the surveillance tape that caught the officers in the act of the slip in judgement.

This story undoubtedly helped Andrews’ future working relationship with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.  A public office and it’s employees who were just recently embarrassed on the national stage, will likely appreciate Andrews’ tip of the hat for their hard work.

In the next story, Andrews was contacted by the spurned lover of former Florida Judge Thomas Stringer.  The judge and his mistress, an exotic dancer, had been hiding money earned by his mistress from her creditors.  She had accrued roughly 300 thousand dollars in credit card debt and was depositing her cash tips into bank accounts in Judge Stringer’s name.

The mistress had contacted Andrews after a falling out with the judge.  She supplied him with copies of all her deposits and information on a house in Hawaii that she and the judge had purchased together and photos of the judge being put up at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, paid for by his mistress.

Public records, in this case, were used in reverse.  Instead of Andrews using public records to discover the crime, he used the records to verify the crime.  Andrews compared the records kept by the mistress to the judge’s state disclosure funds, after already confirming that the judge had accepted these financial gifts from this woman.  He also looked up the mortgage on the house in Hawaii that the mistress told him about.

Going after a high-level judge with the word of his stripper mistress is a daunting task, but the use of public records allowed Andrews the nerve and proof to go forward with this story.

In the final story that involved public records, Andrews used the e-mails and records of Lowry Park Zoo, a tampa-owned and operated zoo, to discover that the CEO of the zoo, Lex Salisbury was funneling funds and special deals to his own for-profit exotic animal attraction, Safari Wild, in a neighboring county.

Salisbury had set up deals where Safari Wild would house to rare white rhinos and in exchange they would get to keep the offspring, a deal that would send the value of Salisbury’s rare animal collection through the roof.

Andrews went further into the story to discover that Salisbury had not sought out the proper zoning for such an attraction and that the neighbors of the park had no idea what was being built in their backyard.  The zoning commission had little to say for the mix up.

In all of these stories public records were used as a vehicle for bringing unfair and unprofessional practices to light.  Fighting the powers at be can be difficult and overwhelming, but with the use of public records, investigative reporting will have the necessary backbone to speak up for those who can not.

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Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 7:09 pm  Comments (3)  

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