Click the arrow above to listen to Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton’s conversation with Mark Puente, accountability reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.
As a three-time Pulizer Prize nominated reporter, Mark Puente’s specialty is accountability. When Puente made his return to the Tampa Bay Times in 2016, he wasn’t looking to step back into his previous beat, covering real estate or St. Petersburg City Hall. He was fresh off his investigative reporting job at the Baltimore Sun, where he uncovered rampant police brutality in the Baltimore Police Department. It was his 2014 story “Undue Force” that the nation turned to when riots exploded in Baltimore the following year, to understand the history of police and community relations in Baltimore.
Puente didn’t know what he would find here. What he had was one mandate from his editors: to look at agencies and boards that the Times had not yet touched, the places where no one was looking, and see what he could find. So, when Puente had to be escorted into his first Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board meeting, when they questioned who he was and who sent him, his journalistic alarm bells sounded. Puente started digging.
The result of that digging was a four-part series on corruption in the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which had no oversight and was failing to hold fraudulent contractors accountable. Thanks to his stories, the state legislature passed legislation that eventually abolished the board in 2018.
That’s what justice for the readers looks like, according to Puente. “The public officials grew outraged when they learned this stuff,” he remembered. “They got rid of some of the board members, they changed the state law. Now it’s in the hands of the county and there’s oversight.”
Puente was also responsible for a series of stories that uncovered over-inflated job placement reporting and misuse of tax payer dollars at Career Source Pinellas. His series led to multiple investigations eventually taken over by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office. The investigations are still underway.
Investigative reporting, or “accountability reporting” as Puente prefers to call it, is no easy task in an era when some public officials make cries of “fake news.” He lives – and writes – by public record. “If it’s not in a document, I don’t write it,” he explained. That rule makes it a lot easier to battle claims of misinformation. According to Puente, on both a local and national level, often “it’s fake news because you don’t want to hear the news.”
Puente’s background has made him particularly suited for the bitter climate that investigative reports must inhabit. Journalism is his second career. He spent his first 15 years in the working world as a truck driver, a Teamster, raising three kids before going back to school to become a journalist. “I have thick skin,” Puente said. “Growing up in the midwest, blue collar community, blue collar background.”
During his Teamster days, few probably would have expected that blue collar kid to be in the running for Pulitzers, or that decades later, he’d be on his way to the Los Angeles Times. Puente announced last week that he’d be leaving the Tampa Bay Times for the LA Times, where he’ll have the colossal job of covering the Los Angeles Police Department as an accountability reporter.
As for the Tampa Bay Times, Puente says he’s leaving the community is in good hands. He hopes his colleagues will continue his work, especially in Pinellas County, to shine a light on the many small boards and agencies that operate “in the shadows” with little public oversight.
Click the arrow above to listen to the full conversation between Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton and Mark Puente.
Correction: It was previously reported that Mark Puente had won three Pulitzer prizes. The story was corrected to reflect that Puente had received three nominations.