Looking forward to the future of journalism

About that $5.5 million debt, Mr. Leibowitz

The Bexar County Courthouse
The Bexar County Courthouse
Reporter Karisa King wrote a story published Sunday that revealed state Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, is accused of defaulting on $5.5 million in debt. Aside from being an interesting read (Leibowitz denies owing that much money), the story is a good example of the power of public documents.

Related: Different ways to contact a journalist in Texas

If you’re writing the same kind of story or blog post and need to check someone’s financial track record, a good place to start is your local courthouse. You can search online and even download scanned images of the actual documents, often for free.

  • For federal courts, which include bankruptcy cases, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts set up Pacer, where you can search for free and, in many cases, download court records for a small fee.
  • In San Antonio, the Bexar County District Clerk offers a “litigant inquiry” on its Web page, where you can type in someone’s name and see if they have ever been sued. The county’s law firm sues people and companies that fail to pay property taxes. If you find any cases that look interesting on the Web site, you have to go to the courthouse to the clerk’s office on the second floor to read the actual case file. The clerk’s office has recently started digitally scanning filings, so hopefully those documents will be posted online like Pacer.
  • To find tax liens, judgments and other records filed at the courthouse, you can use an amazing, free site set up by County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff. After registering, you can search and download a wide variety of records. A search for “Leibowitz” on the site found numerous hits for the Texas lawmaker, including three federal tax liens here and here and here. The most recent one was filed in 2007.
  • When I first started out as a reporter in 1997, you had to trek down to the courthouse, figure out the county’s antiquated computer system, and ask someone to pull the physical records. Today, parts of the county’s computer system are still antiquated, but you can still find and download many types of records on the Internet in minutes. Pretty amazing.

    (Photo credit: Zereshk)