Old Word Wolf hopes the journalism interns next summer get better guidance from Charlotte-Sun's seasoned editors than intern Gabriela Mares did this morning on her story, “Safe Home Solutions.” No one seems to have checked whether she did her homework. The result is a story that makes what’s probably a fine and honest business seem like a very shady operation. Mares’s single-source reporting raises all kinds of red flags and there doesn’t seem to be any effort on her part to address them.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: A company promises to negotiate deals with lenders when a home mortgage holder faces default or foreclosure. The firm is run by two principals, Leroy Andrew Darden and Richard Stusek. They give their business address as 1239 Sumter Blvd., North Port, and claim 20 years in the real estate business.
Here’s what intern Mares missed by not checking the background: Darden is not a currently licensed real estate agent or broker. He is not listed as a licensed financial consultant or a banker. Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s division of real estate has no listing for him, active or inactive, past or present. Same for his partner, Richard Stusek, except he is credited with a license as a residential property appraiser, issued late last year.
Why is this important? Our cub reporter lets the men brag in print about having 20 years experience in real estate. But she doesn’t seem to have asked them what phase of the business, how, where, or when. Maybe they came here from out of state. If so, our reporter needs to look into their background. Darden has been local long enough to have been hauled over to the county jail and booked on a DUI in Charlotte County back in 2006, where he was listed as "self employed," but gave no profession.
The North Port business address they give the reporter is not the same as a Port Charlotte address listed with Florida Department of State for “Safe Home Solutions.” However, the North Port address was registered just last Tuesday for a firm called Hydro Farms International, registered in the name of both Darden and Stusek on March 11. So what business are they in? Mares also omits any mention of when the business itself opened. According to the Department of State, it was registered as an entity in January -- hardly the 20 years claimed.
There's no evidence in the story that Mares checked out the firm's Web site, where Safe Home Solutions uses a lot of scare tactics to encourage people facing foreclosures to contact them. More interestingly, the site also offers a sideline: a come-on for people who want to become "an affiliate” of Safe Home Solutions. There’s a lot of hype in the affiliate literature about inside secrets and tons of money to be made, punctuated with lots of exclamation points. Affiliation seems to boil down to acting as a lead-generator for the Darden-Stusek enterprise. Two purported affiliates in St. Louis provide testimonials about how much money they made in just a few weeks from the arrangement. Why didn’t the reporter ask about any of this – all readily visible on the company Web site?
Most telling, I think, is their claim homeowners can’t negotiate with lenders, but Safe Home Solutions can. Why is this so? There is nothing reported in the article that describes what special access the men provide after taking the desperate homeowner’s $1,500 check. In fact, they talk about “persuading the lenders to take less than what’s owed to them.” What’s their leverage? Mares doesn’t ask and the men don’t tell.
And finally, the story is single-sourced. The man who has the most to gain gets to tell the whole story. A journalism intern at a decent newspaper would have been ordered to call up a mortgage banker and get the rest of the story. She would have taken some of the buzz words from Darden’s Web site, such as “loss mitigation,” and asked what they mean in the industry. Most importantly, instead of just taking the man’s word for it, a real editor would have directed the reporter cub to trot out the phone book and call up a couple of local customers to see if they thought their $1,500 was money well spent.
Old Word Wolf isn’t saying Darden’s operation is deceptive or dishonest -- only that the reporter’s negligence to the standards of her own field make it seem that way.
And meanwhile, free help is available from HUD.