Best Reporter (Newspaper Division)

Mike Fitzgerald
Belleville News-Democrat

Few reporters can say they've written stories that launched a federal investigation of a political figure, spawned an indictment and guilty plea and somewhere along the way prompted a death threat against the reporter and his family. But by July 2003, Mike Fitzgerald could add all the aforementioned to his résumé. Fitzgerald wrote a series about former East St. Louis Police and Board Commissioner and precinct committeeman Marvis "Swamp Dog" Bownes. The series chronicled the practice of property flipping, in which Bownes bought property, promised to fix it up and sold it at inflated prices but without the improvements to unsuspecting buyers. Banks foreclosed after buyers weren't able to pay the high-interest mortgages. The series triggered a federal investigation and indictment alleging that the scheme defrauded home buyers and banks of $4 million. Bownes entered a guilty plea in April to money-laundering and mail-fraud charges, but before his sentencing he told another reporter that Fitzgerald could end up in a grave. Bownes also reportedly threatened to hurt the reporter's wife and children. U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan listened to the taped threat in July and called the threats "bone-chilling." Then Reagan smacked Bownes with a 30-month sentence -- almost twice what prosecutors recommended. And it isn't over for Bownes. He could receive up to thirty years for the mail-fraud charges, plus ten for money laundering. Sentencing in that case is set for September 29.
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