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APNewsBreak: Phone tip leads to shady company linked to border wall contract

Prototypes of border walls are shown to the media near the Mexican border in San Diego, Oct. 26, 2017. The company receiving the first federal contract for construction of a section of the wall Ð SWF Constructors Ð is linked to a company with questionable business practices and a history of legal problems. (AP Photo / Elliott Spagat, File)

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The short Associated Press story out of San Diego about the first border wall contract awarded under the Trump administration made only a brief mention of the Omaha, Nebraska, company that had won the contract. But that mention was enough to prompt a woman to call the AP. She made several claims to Chicago-based Central Desk editor Jeff McMurray without offering proof, but he figured it was interesting enough to pass along to News Editor Scott McFetridge, who the next day asked Omaha breaking news staffer Margery Beck to check into the company.

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A border wall prototype – one of several – is erected near the border with Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 19, 2017, in San Diego. – AP Photo / Gregory Bull

Some of the tipster’s claims didn’t pan out, but as Beck examined state business records and court documents, she discovered even more interesting facts about the Omaha company, including its history under a different name and many court fights.

Beck learned the company, SWF Constructors, operated at the same address as another business, Coastal Environmental Group, and this company had been sued a dozen times, including at least three times by the federal government, for failing to pay subcontractors on government projects. Not only had Coastal failed to pay subcontractors for materials and labor, it had used underhanded schemes to cheat some subcontractors.

Beck found an Interior Department audit that questioned $2 million in billing by Coastal for a Superstorm Sandy cleanup contract. Calls to the Interior Department, the suing subcontractors and attorneys confirmed that Coastal and its president, Richard Silva, were the same ones named in the lawsuits and audit. A check of government contract documents confirmed that SWF was an offshoot of Coastal.

Juggling her work on the story with her other daily BNS responsibilities for Nebraska and Iowa, Beck then worked with McMurray to complete the story, which moved as an APNewsBreak.

Beck’s story got extensive online use and prominent play by Nebraska members,including front page placement in the Lincoln Journal Star and on the Omaha World-Herald’s business cover.

For aggressive records-based reporting that resulted in a timely story no one else had, Beck receives this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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