Wednesday’s editions carried the news that a jury convicted Regina Preetorius on 10 counts of wire and mail fraud and three counts of money laundering.
That was the culmination of five years of reporting that started with a phone call from a source.
Sandy Hodson got a tip from someone who noticed something odd with a couple of cases in small claims court. In the cases, tenants of rent-to-own homes were being evicted despite paying their mortgages.
That tip led to a monthslong investigation by Sandy as she delved in property records, interviewed people and sought information on real estate law.
The newspaper investigated Preetorius and her businesses through transactions involving properties with a current market value of more than $10.6 million. Lawsuits and people whom Sandy interviewed accused Preetorius of fraud.
The story was on the front page of The Augusta Chronicle in Augusta 2008 and contained interviews with people who had lost their homes from dealing with Preetorius’ businesses in addition to investors in properties her company controlled.
The week after that story broke, an investigation was launched into Preetorius and her company, several agents and others told Sandy. Her story connected the dots.
Sandy covered the working of that case and the associated bankruptcy action. Preetorius was indicted in August 2012. The FBI investigation culminated in this week’s trial.
Sandy was subpoenaed as a witness to testify for the defense.
Our lawyers filed a motion to quash the subpoena based on Georgia’s shield law covering reporter privilege and the federal common law application thereof.
The lawyers on both sides agreed not to keep her out of the court to do her job – reporting on what was happening.
She wasn’t called to testify and wrote stories each day about the trial.
The defense did send her a check for $56 for time and mileage. She returned it.
Sandy has been covering courts off and on for 17 years, including most of her time at The Chronicle, and also has been a part of our public service team. A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalism organization, she also has performed database analysis for the newspaper.
This week’s story is a powerful testament to why watchdog reporting is so important, whether the lens is focused on the government or a private individual.
Readers might not remember that Sandy brought this to light, but anyone not defrauded benefited from her work in going to court every day.
It is the kind of reporting that newspapers do. And the kind of reporting that benefits Augusta.