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Howard Center Investigation Raises Questions about Federal Agents’ Behavior

May 11, 2020

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, a national reporting initiative at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, today released a multimedia investigation into how federal undercover agents torpedoed a major sex-trafficking investigation by engaging in sex acts with women they thought could be victims.

“Homeland Secrets: Operation Agent Touch” reveals how undercover agents from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) documented their sex acts in official agency reports signed by supervisors. When the federal agents’ behavior became publicly known, the multi-year investigation fell apart and charges against the suspected traffickers were dropped.

An agency spokeswoman said the agents’ conduct “was not consistent with HSI policy.” But the agency’s own documents, statements by local police and the federal government’s response refute the idea of a rogue action, the Howard Center found.

Nine Cronkite students spent nearly five months working on the investigation under the supervision of Maud Beelman, executive editor of the Howard Center and former U.S. investigations editor for The Associated Press, and Lauren Mucciolo, the Howard Center’s executive producer.

For their report, Howard Center students obtained more than 2,100 pages of police reports, photos and video as well as HSI and court records and interviewed more than 40 police policy experts, sex-trafficking researchers, law enforcement professionals and attorneys.

Included in the multimedia project are a seven-minute audio story, an interactive timeline of the joint local-federal investigation, a motion graphic explaining how some of the suspects’ assets were seized, despite charges being dropped, and a video.

“This was an extremely challenging investigation because it was so multifaceted,” Beelman said. “The Howard Center student journalists had to probe not only allegations of federal law enforcement misconduct but also understand the world of sex trafficking, especially from a victim’s perspective.”

Students working on the project faced an additional challenge when ASU moved to a virtual environment in mid-March and field reporting was suspended.

“When COVID hit, we went from working in the Cronkite School’s fully loaded edit labs to dorm rooms and student housing,” Mucciolo said. “We worried that we’d have to scale back the multimedia ambitions of our project. But the students were fantastic, and we were able to come up with clever workarounds to share files and maintain a high production value.”

Graduate student Molly Duerig said the word “pivot” took on a whole new meaning for the students. However, she said, “We were able to come together with resourceful ideas and an enhanced sense of collaboration to successfully tell a story that we all feel is very important. I think this project reminded a lot of us of the fundamental reasons why we chose to pursue a career in journalism.”

The Associated Press is distributing the project to news organizations around the country, leading to stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times . The
full version of the project is at Cronkite News, the news outlet of Arizona PBS.

“Operation Agent Touch” is the second in a two-part investigation by the Howard Center into Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The first report, released in February, revealed how HSI agents were involved in civilian shootings around the country, many of which had not been publicly investigated. In addition, work produced by students in the school’s investigative master’s program, of which the Howard Center is the centerpiece, have produced multiple short-term investigations into topics ranging from pedestrian fatalities to Arizona’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Howard Center at Cronkite and another at the University of Maryland were established in 2019 under grants from the Scripps Howard Foundation to advance deeply researched watchdog journalism and train the next generation of investigative reporters. The centers honor the legacy of Roy W. Howard, former chairman of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and a pioneering news reporter.

For more information on the Cronkite School’s Howard Center and its projects, email howardcenter@asu.edu.