Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

TOP STORY > > Leader writer featured on PBS

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

A recent PBS documentary relied in part on Leader senior staff writer John Hofheimer’s reporting of the housing construction problems at Little Rock Air Force Base and a pointed narrative by Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz, the base commander.
The film can be seen at www.pbs.org/wnet/expose. It aired on the nationally syndicated “Bill Moyers Journal” last month.
Tom Jennings, a New York City film producer, visited with Hofheimer in October in The Leader’s newsroom, where he explained how this story unfolded.
Hofheimer’s work supplemented that of Eric Nalder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which uncovered massive fraud at a half a dozen military bases.
With the help of a whistleblower at American Eagle Communities, the company responsible for building hundreds of homes at Little Rock Air Force Base and other military bases throughout the country, Nalder uncovered shoddy building practices for homes that were long overdue to have been completed.
Nalder’s reporting showed that the Pentagon awarded a $1 billion contract to a company run by politically well-connected officials with questionable business practices.
Merrill McPeak, a retired Air Force general, allegedly used his contacts at the Pentagon to help secure the deal for American Eagle without being vetted properly.
American Eagle’s managing director had previously run a California real estate company that defaulted on a multimillion-dollar project and had serious tax problems, Nalder found. He also discovered that the owner of American Eagle had been censured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for misusing project funds at another company.
Hofheimer discovered that many local companies hired to help build LRAFB homes had been stiffed by American Eagle. Some of those eventually filed for bankruptcy. Hofheimer also found that American Eagle was not paying subcontractors at its other building sites.
After researching American Eagle, Hofheimer realized that LRAFB problems were not isolated. The company’s building projects at the other five projects were also behind schedule.
American Eagle was also skirting its duties at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, the Army’s Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and naval installations in Washington state.
“It seemed like American Eagle was not treating the airmen fairly, and that they needed to be held accountable,” said Hofheimer, who was shown riding his yellow Harley-Davidson motorcycle on a lonely Lonoke County road on his way to work at The Leader.
He said that it was inspiring to have his work featured with that of a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Schatz’s frustration with American Eagle is clear as he tours the ghost town subdivision with dozens of homes that stand incomplete and abandoned.
Construction will soon resume under a new management company, the Hunt-Pinnacle Group.
“General Schatz is passionate about making sure that his airmen get what they need,” Hofheimer said of the base commander.
When Sen. Mark Pryor visited The Leader last year, Hofheimer used the opportunity to alert him of the bases housing woes.
The senator quickly began an investigation and is seeking to ban American Eagle and its owners and directors from getting government contracts in the future. Pryor’s response to the scandal was another aspect of Hofheimer’s reporting that Nalder admired.
Hofheimer last year won the I.F. Stone Award, a prestigious investigative-journalism prize, from the Arkansas Press Association for his reporting on this story.
Reporting like this highlights the importance of newspapers and community journalism.
“It is essential. Papers like yours are especially important, because you have taken a harder look at what is going on in your community. Without that street-level journalism, people in your community won’t know what is going on,” Nalder said.
It helped to give him a “good picture, from afar, of what was happening in the other states,” he said of Hofheimer’s reporting.
“I still have a balance of 14 minutes left on my 15 minutes of fame,” Hofheimer quipped about all the recent attention he has received.