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IRE members among Barlett & Steele Awards winners

The New York Times, USA Today and a joint project by The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer were winners in the sixth annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism.

The awards are funded by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism and named for the investigative team of Don Barlett and Jim Steel, who won two Pulitzer Prizes among numerous other awards. This year's winners include:

“Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart after Top-Level Struggle,” by David Barstow of The New York Times, received the top gold award of $5,000. Barstow obtained hundreds of confidential documents and interviewed important players in the company’s internal inquiry. He discovered Wal-Mart had received powerful evidence that its Mexican executives used systematic bribery payments totaling more than $24 million to obtain zoning rulings and construction permits.

“Yet Wal-Mart never notified law-enforcement officials in the U.S. or Mexico about the bribes,” the judges said, noting their “astonishment” that the firm’s headquarters would cover up violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

“Ghost Factories,” by lead reporters Alison Young and Peter Eisler of USA Today, both IRE members, received the silver award of $2,000. The series involved a 14-month investigation that revealed locations of more than 230 long-forgotten smelters and the poisonous lead they left behind.  Reporters used handheld X-ray devices to collect and test 1,000 soil samples to prove there was a serious threat to children living in dozens of neighborhoods.

“As a result of their efforts, government officials in 14 states have reopened flawed investigations, tested soil or taken other action to clean up contaminated property,” said the judges.

“Prognosis: Profits,” by IRE members Ames Alexander, Joseph Neff, David Raynor and Karen Garloch received the $1,000 bronze award for a joint project of The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Reporters dissected finances of large institutions through documents and sources to paint a compelling picture of nonprofit hospitals that function as for-profit institutions—often to the detriment of their care and charity missions. Discovered were inflated prices on drugs and procedures, lawsuits against thousands of needy patients and minimal charity care to poor and uninsured patients.

“All of that is in contrast to their large profit margins, billions of dollars in reserves and top executives being paid millions,” noted the judges.

“The Fed’s Trillion-Dollar Secret,” by Bob Ivry, Bradley Keoun and Phil Kuntz of Bloomberg News.

“Playing with Fire,” by Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne of The Chicago Tribune.

“Chesapeake Energy,” by Brian Grow, Anna Driver, Joshua Schneyer, Jeanine Prezioso, David Sheppard, John Shiffman and Janet Roberts of Reuters.

The judges for this year’s awards were Amanda Bennett, executive editor/projects and investigations at Bloomberg News; Steve Koepp, editorial director of Time Home Entertainment Inc.; and Paul Steiger, ProPublica’s founding editor-in-chief, president and CEO.

“Cutting-edge, in-depth reporting on global ethics, environmental concerns and health-care finances led the way in this year’s competition,” Andrew Leckey, president of the Reynolds Center, said in a release. “The wide range of news organizations and the diverse issues they probed underscored the fact that investigative business journalism is operating at a high level.”

The awards will be conferred Jan. 3, 2013, during Reynolds Business Journalism Week at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix. The Reynolds Center will sponsor a panel of Barlett & Steele Award winners on June 21 at the 2013 IRE Conference in San Antonio.

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