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Joe Mahr: Towing tales from St. Louis

A private towing company now under federal investigation used a specially created unit of off-duty St. Louis police officers to tow cars during the city's major Mardi Gras festival. Officers repeatedly towed cars parked outside of a towaway zone set up for the festival each of the past two years. The towing company failed to turn over nearly all of the $15,000 owed to taxpayers as required by contracts. After each of two details, the sergeant in charge of the off-duty detail bought a vehicle from the towing company at a price far below wholesale. This was all done with little oversight by police brass. This is the latest revelation of questionable ties between police and the company. Since July, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has uncovered perks the company gave to the chief's daughter, questionable tactics the company and police used to increase fees for vehicle owners, and $700,000 in missing money the company owed taxpayers.

How did you get started? (tip, editor assignment, etc.)
As part of our earlier research, we had a towing database listing all the tows of the past two years in St. Louis. We analyzed it and discovered that the company's business jumped six- and seven-fold on one day every year, which turned out to be the big day for the Mardi Gras festival. That started the digging to find out why.

What were the key sources? (people, documents, etc.)
The towing database confirmed the numbers of tows and other questionable towing activities. We obtained a separate parking ticket database to cross-reference tickets and confirm addresses of alleged parking violations, comparing that to the street-closure list for the festival, to determine vehicles in and out of the towaway zone. We tracked down last-know addresses of all vehicle owners and sent them a survey to explain their view of what happened, culling sources for the story.

What was the biggest roadblock you had to overcome?
Individual officers all would not speak to us -- perhaps predictably -- but that put a burden on other sourcing to be able to explain what happened. That's where the data becomes key, as well as a couple of well-placed off-the-record sources who can help you understand the context.

Do you have any advice for journalists working on a similar story?
Don't be afraid to use surveys to get sources. Sometimes people are leery when they pick up the phone and find that it's a reporter. (They're geared to say 'No' to a telemarketer, and sometimes extend that to any stranger who calls.) But it can be less startling to get a letter in the mail asking them to answer a couple questions about their experience as part of a survey. It gives them time to ponder the questions and gather information you've requested. Some will ignore it, but others will respond. That not only helps gather base-line info, but sets the stage for more extended interviews/photos.

Read the Post-Dispatch story.

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