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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Raquel Rutledge wins Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism for “Cashing in on Kids”

February 19, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Raquel Rutledge is winner of the 2009 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism for her watchdog series “Cashing in on Kids.” In reports published over the course of a year, Rutledge exposed how lax oversight of a $350 million taxpayer-subsidized Wisconsin Shares child care program resulted in massive fraud.

In the course of her investigation, Rutledge helped uncover $20 million in suspicious payments to child care providers as well as criminal activity connected to the system that repeatedly put children in danger.

The $20,000 Bingham Prize will be presented at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., on March 4, 2010.

In selecting “Cashing in on Kids” as the Bingham Prize winner, judge James Asher noted, “Raquel Rutledge’s reporting on Wisconsin’s subsidized child care program is flat-out brilliant. Singlehandedly, she identified the parents, drug dealers and assorted ne’er-do-wells who bilked taxpayers of millions of dollars, stealing precious funds from hard-working parents who truly needed help paying for day care as they labored to pull themselves out of poverty. What she found was shocking. Yet state and local officials overlooked the malfeasance. Prosecutors were unaware. After a year’s worth of reporting, Rutledge’s journalism provoked indictments and new laws that reformed the system. And as a result, those who actually needed a lift are getting it. Bravo to her and to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.”

Judge Amy Nutt added: “Raquel Rutledge should be commended for her dogged reporting, her willingness to knock on doors and confront the abusers of Wisconsin’s child care system face-to-face, and her tenacious pursuit of the truth. There are few who would argue against the goodwill of social programs such as day care, which is one reason why it was easy for state and local politicians to ignore the rampant abuse of the system. Rutledge, however, decided to ‘look under the hood,’ and in the best tradition of the Bingham Prize, took a tip and turned it into an investigation that not only uncovered an ‘atmosphere of easy tolerance’ within state and local government offices, but resulted in criminal indictments and changes in the law. ‘Cashing in on Kids’ is a superlative piece of reporting and writing.”

Judges for this year’s prize were Audra Ang, a correspondent for The Associated Press based in Beijing and a 2010 Nieman Fellow; James Asher, investigative editor for The McClatchy Company in Washington, D.C.; and Amy Nutt, a staff writer for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey and a 2005 Nieman Fellow. Two additional 2010 Nieman Fellows, Beth Macy, a families beat reporter for The Roanoke Times, and Lisa Mullins, anchor/senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World” assisted the judges in the selection process.

Commenting on the high quality of all the submissions, Amy Nutt stated “If this year’s entries for the Bingham Prize are any indication, then investigative journalism is still alive and well in the United States. The reporting was impressive in both depth and breadth, from the use of old-fashioned shoe leather to high-tech computer databases. It is both satisfying and encouraging to note that exemplary stories came from both small local newspapers and large national magazines, and that some of the investigations were collaborations between different news agencies. Satisfying, too, in so far as the range of stories, from drug dealing in Afghanistan to lax oversight of nurses in California; from polluted drinking water to corrupt Philadelphia cops. Encouraging as well in that these news outlets allowed reporters the time to dig deep, without which investigative journalism would be impossible.”

Audra Ang added: “I was really impressed by the dedication of the journalists and the high quality of reporting that was shown in all of the pieces we examined. The scope of topics not only broke ground but added new depth to subjects examined in the past. The quality of the multimedia presentations was top notch and we learned new twists on stories that were eye opening. Many of the stories crossed both borders and boundaries. Our decision was hard to make. The reporting highlighted the continued importance and reach of journalism today and I want to commend every journalist for their tremendous commitment to see their stories through.”

James Asher concurred saying, “Judging this year’s submissions also provided proof that, despite the troubles afflicting the news industry, the art of journalism continues to thrive. Take heart America.”

Raquel Rutledge is an investigative reporter assigned to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Public Investigator team focusing on consumer issues. In addition to spending the past year uncovering widespread fraud in Wisconsin’s child care subsidy program, she also has written about doctors failing to test children for lead poisoning, risky levels of mercury in sushi and a furniture store owner who swindled customers out of thousands of dollars while avoiding state scrutiny. Before joining the Public Investigator team, she wrote about a variety of topics, from ethanol to Iraq, as a general assignment reporter. She exposed dishonest mechanics and dirty gasoline during a 2005 investigation that saved car owners in Milwaukee untold thousands of dollars. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Rutledge joined the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff in 2004 from the Colorado Springs Gazette, where she spent nearly seven years covering education, the military and city hall.

The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. Prize judges are guided by such factors as obstacles overcome in getting information, accuracy, clarity of analysis and writing style, magnitude of the situation, and impact on the public, including any reforms that may have resulted.

Worth Bingham, who died at the age of 34, achieved prominence as an investigative journalist and was vice president and assistant to the publisher for the Louisville Courier-Journal. His family and friends created the prize in his memory in 1967. He was a 1954 Harvard University graduate.

A complete list of previous Worth Bingham Prize winners is available online: www.nieman.harvard.edu/bingham-winners/

The “Cashing in on Kids” series can be read on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Web site: www.jsonline.com/news/38617217.html

Established in 1938, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard administers the oldest midcareer fellowship program for journalists in the world. The fellowships are awarded to working journalists of accomplishment and promise who travel to Harvard University for a year of study, seminars and special events. More than 1,300 journalists from 89 countries have received Nieman Fellowships. The Nieman Foundation also publishes the quarterly magazine Nieman Reports, the nation’s oldest magazine devoted to a critical examination of the practice of journalism, and is home to the Nieman Journalism Lab, which identifies emerging business models and best practices in journalism in the digital media age. Additionally, the foundation runs the Nieman Narrative Digest and Nieman Storyboard, two Web sites that showcase exceptional narrative journalism, and Nieman Watchdog, a Web-based project that encourages journalists to monitor and hold accountable all those who exert power in public life.