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Saab Story | The Folha and Witness D


Suzana Singer is ombudsman of the Folha de S. Paulo, and a very conscientous one at that. In this case study on coverage of a local political subscandal, she points out a frequent defect in investigative reporting Sambodia-style: over-reliance on anonymous sources.

The  “Scandal of the Builidng Permits,” a series of articles alleging illegal conduct in the approval of  major construction projects in the city of S. Paulo, was broken by the Folha in May.

In a fine series of reports, the newspaper revealed the “explosive” growth in the net worth of the individual in charge of issuing permits to building projects, Hussain Aref Saab, and pointed to illegalities in the construction of various shopping centers.

These charges were not based on mere «he said, she said». The original article was based on 45 days of research in notary offices, showing that Aref acquired 106 properties while heading the city government’s building permit office, Aprov.

Prompted by the report she saw on TV Folha,  business executive Daniela Gonzalez then sought out the reporters with information on the payment of bribes by the company where she worked in exchange for giving the green light to construction projects at the  Pátio Higienópolis and Pátio Paulista shopping centers. She handed over notarized receipts and e-mails. Aref Saab denied all accusations.

The Folha then hit the bricks in serach of irregularities. Eleven journalists were assigned to the parking structure at the  Higienópolis mall to count the number of parking spaces. They found that some 349 spaces were missing.

I am not quite sure what this means. That there were 349 extra slots not accounted for in the bulding plan?  Or that there was a shortfall in the slots actually built? Rent for parking spots in upscale neighborhoods can run into the gazillions in this town.

«Hit the bricks» is a bit loose with the translation.

Ten days ago, as accusations multiplied, the Folha ran a front page story accusing the former municipal environment secretary Eduardo Jorge.

Mr. Jorge is Eduardo Jorge Martins Alves Sobrinho, health and environment secretary under municipal adminstrations ranging from Luiza Erundinha and Marta Suplicy to Gilberto Kassab — skipping the notoriously corrupt Maluf and Celso Pitta years, where the current Mayor Kassab got his start. Mr. Jorge is a sanitation engineer by profession and has the profile of a political technocrat.

In this case, our reporters had only the statements of a source who would not reveal his or her name, saying that the prosecutor had been informed of «meetings in which the secretary had been accused of taking bribes». This so-callled «Witness D,» an employee at the same firm where Daniela Gonzalez worked, said that R$ 200,000 was paid in exchange for a permit to remove trees during the construction of the Higienópolis mall.

«I am dissapointed with the irresponsible way our Folha deals with issues of this kind. These reports are biased to the extent that they accept accusations against transparent and ethical public figures with little or no supporting evidence», protests José da Rocha Carvalheiro, a professor of medicine at USP, who has known Eduardo Jorge «since the time of his discrete but principled activism in the city’s peripheral zones.»

The prosecutor’s case is confidential. The statement of «Witness D» was leaked to reporters who, rather than racing to publish the scoop, should have investigated further.

They could have studied the process of obtaining enviromental permits, talked to persons close to the matter or even investigated whether the ex-secretary showed signs of unexplained self-enrichment.

Last week, the Folha ran an article attempting to show that the deadline for the approval of a environmental license was very short. This conclusion, however, depends on the dates used.

Eduardo Jorge claims innocence, threatens to sue Witness D — whose identity he does not know — and says it was irresponsible for the Folha to report the story in this way.”What can you say to a reporter who says that someone is accusing you of corruption, but who cannot tell you who that person is or how you came by this information?», says Jorge.

The Folha should take care not to undermine a project with such an auspicious beginning. It should rely more on its own research rather than living on handouts from the prosecutor’s office. Generic accusations can prove hollow and do unjust harm to reputations.