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WaPo finds same tax sale crooks the Sun found 6 years ago

December 5, 2013

wapoThe Washington Post’s excellent series on tax sale scams, published two months ago, explained in detail how DC residents were forced from their homes by a brace of professional tax sale investors and an indifferent city hall.

The series had pathos, drama, and three familiar names to Baltimore Sun readers: Steve Berman, Jack Stollof, and Harvey Nusbaum.

As the Medill Watchdog notes, Fred Schulte and June Arney, former Sun reporters, plowed the same ground in 2007, earning for themselves a Pulitzer nomination and foreshadowing the federal prosecutions of  many of the tax sale profiteers for bid rigging.

The Post hardly mentioned the Sun, which is kind of shitty. It would not have hurt their story at all to link to the Sun’s earlier work. (Whether The Sun would do so if the situation is reversed is unclear – the paper often credits reporting in local media, including City Paper, but editors seem to have a policy against crediting the scoop machine at The Brew).

There is a larger point though: Stories like the WaPo’s and Sun’s which point to bad actors seldom dolly back to depict the full system in play. Even though the local system of tax sales was well and truly explored in each instance, there is yet no hint that maybe the tax sale system in almost every US jurisdiction might feature the same small-group dynamic and clubby atmosphere that gave rise to bid rigging in Baltimore. Consider:

One spring morning in 1999 I was in an Orlando, Florida area courthouse looking up land records involving David Siegel,  the now-infamous builder of the biggest house in Christiandom. Just outside the main records room sat a brace of tax sale bidders, openly discussing with each other who was going to bid on which properties.

I know what they were doing that because I asked, and they told me. As I recall it, we were in earshot of the clerk. The whole bid-rigging procedure was so routine that I, then preoccupied with what I thought was a bigger fish,  figured it must be legal. With the benefit of hindsight—and the strong reporting of the Baltimore Sun and the work of the U.S. Attorney for Maryland (and now the Washington Post’s reporting)—I’ve reconsidered.

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