Five Questions For … KUOW Radio Reporter John Ryan, On Investigative Reporting, International Searches, and Making the Most of Online Resources
Evergreen College professor Jorge Gilbert fled the country after the state of Washington fined him for misappropriating his students’ payments for a study abroad program in South America. KUOW radio reporter John Ryan (Twitter: @KUOWJohnR) in Puget Sound, Wash. tracked him down in his native Chile.
1. Other publications had covered the story, but didn’t go far with it. What made you want to stick with it?
I was lucky to get great tips from people who weren’t satisfied with the way the basic story — “Professor Gets Hand Caught In Cookie Jar” – had been covered. An Evergreen State College alumnus told me there was much more to the story: The school had known about Jorge Gilbert’s misuse of funds a decade before it stopped him. So I exposed the school’s prolonged failure to stop Gilbert from ripping off his students. Then a neighbor of Gilbert’s told me that Gilbert was selling his Olympia, Wash., home, as the state was barely beginning its long process to seize his assets.
2. In the big scheme of things $120,000 isn’t much money but it represents a significant breach of trust. How seriously is the state taking the search?
It is the largest ethics fine in state history. The state says it’s doing all it can to get Gilbert to pay, though it has, to date, certainly moved too slowly to recover its money.
3. What’s been the reaction from your listeners?
Not much, though one wrote in, “Bravo! Love having our own investigative reporter!” My favorite reaction came from the Seattle Weekly:
“If life was like an episode of Scooby Doo, and former Evergreen State College instructor turned man-on the-lam Jorge Gilbert… was the unmasked villain at the end of the show, KUOW’s John Ryan would play the part of “those meddling kids.”
4. Could you share some of your techniques for tracking Gilbert down, and do you have advice for reporters who have to attempt a similar search?
First, for international searches, I’d say: network with journalists or others who may be able to help you. Many useful tools, such as Accurint, won’t work overseas, so a local guide is invaluable.
Gilbert is Chilean, so I suspected that’s where he was when all my efforts to reach him here in Washington hit dead ends. But it wasn’t easy to pinpoint his whereabouts in a nation of 17 million people that I knew little about.
A bare-bones LinkedIn profile showed a Jorge Gilbert working at Universidad ARCIS in Santiago. Of course, I had to make sure I had the right Jorge Gilbert. For reasons unknown, I could not get anyone at the university to provide any useful information.
I asked for help on an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) listserv that I’m on. Eventually, through listers’ help, I was able to connect with a source in Chile who hooked me up with Gilbert’s Chilean credit report.
Fortunately, documents I’d obtained in Washington had Gilbert’s birth date, which matched the Chilean information. I was also able to triangulate the Chilean and Washington Jorge Gilberts as author of the same Chilean sociology textbook.
In the end, I used public records, anonymous sources and old-fashioned shoe leather, often without results. I’ve never heard back from Jorge Gilbert, though I tried every method I could to contact him: phone, email, certified letters, seeking him through his employers, realtor, former lawyer, and more. I tried to visit his condo in Olympia, but it was inside a gated community – and I had to draw the line at trespassing.
No hablo mucho Español, so KUOW reporter Liz Jones worked the phones to Chile and tracked down some Spanish-language documents I’d missed, including ones that revealed Gilbert’s Chilean email address and documented his work at Universidad ARCIS.
5. What surprised you about this story?
I was surprised that it’s possible for American creditors to collect debts in other countries. I thought Gilbert was off the hook once he’d sold his condo. But in a global economy, it appears, you can’t just flee your debts by moving to another hemisphere.
This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.