Watchdog Q&A

Published — July 26, 2019

Q&A: Buzzfeed’s Jason Leopold

Introduction

We’re publishing a series of Q&As with reporters who have published powerful investigative stories. This week, we spoke with Buzzfeed’s Jason Leopold about one of his favorite stories he’s reported on since Trump was elected. When Trump filed for bankruptcy in 2009, a lawyer who had billionaire clients told police and the FBI that he got a menacing phone call from a man with a thick New York accent who threatened his family. Jason learned about the story through documented he obtained from the FBI in response to a FOIA lawsuit he filed right before election day 2016. He says he heard the FBI had a huge file on Trump, the Trump Organization and its subsidiaries. Jason was curious as to whether the FBI had any documents that would reveal investigations the bureau had launched into Trump or his businesses. 

Getting information about the caller was a huge challenge. The FBI left information that suggested that Trump made the phone call, but the contents of the phone call were completely redacted from the documents. 

How did you get the story? The documents revealed that almost all of the information the FBI withheld was on privacy grounds. The FBI did not redact a zip code. After a few reads, my eyes focused on the zip code of the complainant that the FBI did not redact. I just kept staring at it. It was all nine digits (the last four which is used by USPS for delivery routes). A light bulb just went off in my head and I decided to type that zip code into Google. High up on the first page was a law firm in lower Manhattan. I checked out the website and typed in “Trump Entertainment Resorts” in the search box. The search results showed that 10 attorneys had represented the casino group’s debtors and creditors but only one was listed as the attorney of record on the bankruptcy court filings for Trump Entertainment Resorts: Kristopher Hansen.

There was another clue: Jason saw that in addition to notifying one of the FBI’s New Jersey field offices about the phone call, the unnamed complainant also contacted the police department. But the name of the police department was also redacted on privacy grounds. After doing a background search on Hansen, Jason found that he lived in Holmdel, New Jersey. (He declined to talk.) Holmdel fit the amount of characters inside of the redaction box that would have identified the city where the police department was located and where the person (who he thought was Hansel) also filed a report about the threatening phone call. 

Jason says: So, on a whim, I decided to file a public records request with the Township of Holmdel city clerk and asked for a copy of a police report filed by Kristopher Hansen on either Feb. 18 or 19, 2009. A few weeks after I filed my request, I received an email from the city clerk along with an attachment. It was a copy of the police report I asked for and it confirmed that it was Hansen who received the threatening phone call. Even better, the police report contained a transcription of the threatening phone call the FBI redacted. And it also revealed that the call was made after Hansen left a courthouse in New Jersey where he attended a bankruptcy hearing for Trump Entertainment Resorts.

I had my story. The FBI must have read it because after I published it the bureau reprocessed the records and decided, on its own, to unredact additional information, including the transcript of the threatening phone call. Unfortunately, I was never able to determine who made the call.

Jason’s takeaway: In hindsight, I’m actually quite happy the FBI redacted the documents because it forced me to tap into my investigative and sleuthing skills to good use that I didn’t even realize I had. 

You can find Jason here. 

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