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Uncovering hidden ties between state Rep. Jose Menendez and a housing developer

News story by Karisa King

After Reporter Karisa King began writing about the complicated world of tax breaks for housing developers — and how those incentives are being abused — tipsters told her to check out state Rep. Jose Menendez.

Karisa did. And what she found out was published on the front page of last Sunday’s San Antonio Express-News:

After the development firm NRP Group LLC lost its second bid for tax credits to finance an affordable-housing project on the city’s West Side, an influential ally intervened in the company’s cause.

State Rep. Jose Menendez took the lectern at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and urged board members to fund the San Juan Square II project, a 144-unit apartment complex that would replace blighted public housing. …

What Menendez did not tell the board at the meeting was that the development represented something else: a financial boon for the company he works for, Stewart Title, which had received $91,000 for issuing title insurance on the project’s first stage, and landed nearly all of NRP’s business on affordable-housing deals.

Payouts from the San Juan developments were among about $1.8 million paid to Stewart Title from NRP housing deals since 2003, records show.

Since joining the Legislature in 2000, Menendez has been one of the most outspoken supporters of NRP and other developers in the affordable-housing sector.

At the same time, the San Antonio Democrat has ascended the ranks of Stewart Title to become vice president for commercial development in the company’s national division.

Karisa said she spent six weeks working on the story about Menendez. It was easy to confirm that he worked for Stewart Title. But his ties to the company raised a hard-to-answer question: How much money did Stewart Title make from the housing deals? That’s not something you can answer by Googling it.

Sometimes journalism is simply the act of quantifying something. You might know the broad outlines of a story very early in the reporting process, but you have to figure out how to fill in the gaps.

Related: Find an investigative reporter in Texas

If you’ve ever bought a house, you know real-estate transactions churn out tons of paperwork. Normally most of those records are private. But because tax breaks were involved in the housing deals Karisa was looking at, the real estate records were considered public information, open to anyone who asked.

Karisa found the fees paid to Stewart Title by driving to Austin and reading the records for housing projects that receive tax breaks, which are filed at the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs in Austin. “I spent two days just going through boxes and boxes of documents,” Karisa said.

As she read through the files, Karisa typed key information such as the title fees into a simple Excel spreadsheet. After days of work, she was able to add up the fees for each housing project: A grand total of $1.8 million in title fees were paid to Stewart Title.

What did Mendendez have to say about that? Check out the whole story, it’s a great read.

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