Despite budget cuts, layoffs, and taunts of "fake news," local journalists continued to churn out great work in 2018.
Here at New Times, our stories caused the Miami Police Department to change its policy on pot arrests and to reverse course on a labor contract that would have allowed officers to fail drug tests without facing discipline. Parking authorities in Miami Beach took a closer look at towing fees and stopped tow companies from a predatory practice. A former political candidate was indicted, a school tied to an international sex cult was shut down, and Trump's acting attorney general was taken to task for his role in a patent scheme.
1. Exposing acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker: Last year, staff writer Brittany Shammas wrote a story about a Miami company that was scamming would-be investors. World Patent Marketing took thousands from people looking to patent their ideas and, in many cases, did little more. When critics complained, CEO Scott Cooper enlisted the help of board member Matthew Whitaker, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, to intimidate them from taking legal action.
Flash-forward to November, when President Donald Trump appointed Whitaker to replace Jeff Sessions as interim attorney general. Shammas was the first to expose Whitaker's role at World Patent Marketing, and her reporting was featured in the New York Times and on the podcast Planet Money. House Democrats have now called for an investigation.
2. Shutting down an unlicensed school tied to the allged "sex cult" NXIVM: In April, daily news writer Jerry Iannelli learned about a school in Midtown Miami linked to Keith Raniere, the founder of an alleged sex cult, NXIVM. After Iannelli began asking questions about the Rainbow Cultural Garden, the Florida Department of Children and Families learned the school was not licensed to operate and ordered it to shut down.
3. Holding the Miami Police Department accountable for pot arrests: After a deep dive into county arrest data, writing fellow Meg O'Connor found that many police departments in Miami-Dade were arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana despite a countywide ordinance allowing officers to issue citations instead. The Miami Police Department, for instance, issued no citations for almost a year and a half even though the city agreed to a citation policy in February 2017. After O'Connor's story was published in August, Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina ordered his officers to issue citations for first and second violations.
4. Investigating a state Senate candidate for alleged fraud: In 2016, staff writer Jessica Lipscomb began looking into claims that North Miami real-estate broker and state Senate candidate Anis Blemur had been ripping off his clients. Lipscomb spoke with an Illinois doctor who had given Blemur $70,000 to purchase an investment property that Blemur apparently never bought. As it turns out, court records indicate Blemur had been sued multiple times for taking people's money for real-estate deals that never materialized.
In November 2018, the feds unsealed an indictment against Blemur charging him with four counts of wire fraud. The Illinois doctor who spoke with New Times says investigators contacted him after the story was published and used his account to secure Blemur's arrest. If convicted, Blemur faces up to 20 years in federal prison.
5. Calling out Nazi memes on a Parkland Education Advisory Board member's Twitter feed: In April, Brittany Shammas noticed that Wayne Alder, a member of the Parkland Education Advisory Board, had tweeted several disparaging comments about March for Our Lives leader David Hogg, including memes of the 17-year-old depicted as a Nazi. After Shammas' story was published, Alder resigned from the board, although he told New Times he had planned to do so prior to the story's publication.
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6. Keeping cops off drugs: Digging through a new labor contract for the Miami Police Department, Jerry Iannelli found that a policy was being changed to allow officers who failed a drug tests to keep their jobs if they went to rehab. After Iannelli wrote about details of the contract, the city's police union reversed course, saying it would amend the policy. The signed contract was amended so that recreational drug use is still a punishable offense, although there are exceptions for officers who become addicted to prescription drugs due to injury.
7. Reducing towing fees for unlucky Miami Beach drivers: In August, Meg O'Connor wrote a story about a man who had been charged a $40 "flatbed fee" after his car was towed by Beach Towing while he was at a business meeting in Miami Beach. There was just one problem: Surveillance footage showed that no flatbed was used to tow his car. After the story was published, Miami Beach Parking Director Saul Frances said the city would restrict Beach Towing and Tremont Towing from charging those fees unless a flatbed or dolly "is engaged at the scene of the tow while in the presence of a city agent for their notation."
8. Getting rid of Miami Police union leader Javier Ortiz: Can we take credit for this one? After years of New Times stories railing against the police union's outspoken leader, the rank-and-file finally voted out Capt. Javier Ortiz in a December 2018 election. New Times has documented Ortiz's dirty deeds ad nauseam, but just to recap: Ortiz once incited a boycott against Beyoncé, doxxed a civilian who dared to criticize a cop, called a dead 12-year-old boy a "thug," allegedly committed some light perjury, drew a demonic face on the mug shot of a black suspect, and racked up 38 citizen complaints. Good riddance.