Behind The Beacon: Accountability journalism leads to new leadership for Kansas City’s Land Bank

For the past several months, The Beacon’s Celisa Calacal and Emily Wolf have been reporting on community complaints and issues of public interest surrounding the KC Land Bank. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

This month, we’re going behind The Beacon with economics reporter Celisa Calacal and local government reporter Emily Wolf, who recently completed an investigation into the Kansas City Land Bank. The story found potential conflicts of interest between Land Bank board members and buyers, and failed to hold buyers accountable to requirements.

Following the revelations, the Kansas City Land Bank chair, attorney Julie Anderson, was replaced. Now, the Kansas City, Missouri auditor’s office is looking into conflicts of interest on other city boards and commissions.

In a conversation with The Beacon’s audience director, Jennifer Hack Wolf, Celisa and Emily described the unseen legwork in investigative journalism and reflected on how collaborative newsgathering approaches strengthen our newsroom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about the story you did on Kansas City’s Land Bank. How did the story come about?

Emily: It’s a bit of a complicated story. When I first started at The Beacon, I decided I was going to start putting in records requests to start building my beat. One of those requests was a list of Land Bank property owners.

Celisa and I talked about the need for more housing accountability stories and once we started analyzing that database, it quickly became clear that there was a big issue that needed to be addressed.

What were the big surprises? When did you have a moment of ‘Oh, this is going to be juicy’?

Emily: There were a few big surprises for me. One was seeing how many buyers were big players in the Land Bank game, who were effectively buying up 10, 20, 30, and in our investigation’s case, 43 properties all in a single day.

What stood out to us was the number of LLCs — they’re not necessarily bad things but can trigger an alarm bell in reporters’ brains because business entities will use shell LLCs to get around using their name on a purchase of property.

And what did the reporting show?

Emily: Our reporting showed that Julie Anderson, the interim Land Bank chair, had a professional relationship with a Land Bank buyer. We showed that DC Capital and Investments, an LLC, had been using Anderson’s law firm, which is well known here in Kansas City and Jackson County, for work in eviction cases representing larger business entities or larger landlords. Because of that, there was concern from several organizations and KC Tenants that Anderson was not able to be impartial on the Land Bank’s board, where she was approving land transfers to her own clients.

Celisa: Emily and I went to the office of the City Clerk in Kansas City because, as a commissioner, Julie Anderson had to fill out a conflict of interest form. When we looked at them, she said she did not have any conflicts to disclose.

What happened after the story ran?

Celisa: After all of our reporting, she’s been replaced with a new commissioner.

Emily: There had been discussions privately that housing leaders would like to see Julie Anderson replaced as chair. After our reporting, Mayor Quinton Lucas reasserted his promise to go ahead and appoint a new chair and we saw that happen two weeks after our reporting. He appointed LaDonna Gooden as the new chair.

Congratulations on that really notable impact from your story. What does accountability mean for your beat?

Celisa: For me, personally, especially working at The Beacon, accountability means looking at the systems at the local level, looking at the policies that are in place and asking “Are they actually working? Who are they benefiting?” The accountability aspect goes back to the people who are in positions of power, the people who created those systems, and holds them to account as they impact people in our community.

When you two partner on a story, how does it get divided up? Do you each bring any certain expertise? How does it work?

Emily: It’s a mix. I came to The Beacon with a data focus within my beat so I knew I would do the initial analysis of this database. To get us started, I went through the database and I went back to Celisa and said, “Here are some interesting things, what do you think? Where do we go next?” Celisa is a wizard with KC Parcel Viewer, an online tool you can use to check the ownership of properties, so we did a lot of work independently verifying what we saw.

Celisa: Emily has a great data brain. Having her do that initial analysis to get us rolling was super helpful. From there, we talked about where we have good sourcing in our respective beats.

The ability to connect Julie Anderson with this buyer made the sparks fly in this investigation. Once I got that tip about concerns with Julie Anderson, I thought, “Why don’t I just go on CaseNet and see if DC Capital and Investments has been involved with eviction cases?” and when I clicked on each case to see the attorney who was representing, it was Julie Anderson.

We also buddied up a couple days to go see these properties IRL — in real life.

Emily: I think readers might not realize just how much footwork went into this story. Celisa and I did a lot of field trips. We plugged in the GPS and drove there. Sometimes people were not happy to see us. Sometimes dogs were not happy to see us. You gotta be quick on your feet.

It’s the sort of reporting that’s incredibly time intensive but doesn’t necessarily show up in the writing.

What other stories do you have in the pipeline? Anything you’re excited about?

Emily: Local government touches every aspect of folks’ lives in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. Oh, the rent is up. The utilities are up. Oh, the traffic on Broadway… That is because of city decisions.

Collaborating with Celisa allows me to dig into the human impact of these policies and, in the case of the Land Bank, what it means more generally for the value of these properties, for the real estate market in Kansas City and for the ability to find affordable housing.

Can you forecast what 2022 is going to look like for KC news?

Emily: I’ll be talking a lot about the city’s efforts to prepare for climate change. We recently passed an emergency ordinance on climate. I’ll be following up to see what the city is doing day to day to make sure that Kansas Citians are resilient in coming years. I’d also say The Beacon is dedicated to continuing its public safety reporting. I did a lot of reporting regarding police and firefighters because it is very important to the folks who live here and it’s an issue that’s going to continue.

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We power paywall-free news with a public service mission because people need to know what’s happening in their communities, and people in charge need to know someone’s watching. The Beacon, a nonprofit, has newsrooms in Kansas City, Missouri, and Wichita, Kansas.

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Jennifer Hack

Jennifer Hack

Design thinker working to save local journalism in Kansas and Missouri at The Beacon.

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