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May 5, 2018

More to the story: Redlining, wildfires and Trump’s mansion

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Reveal digs deep – and gets results. This week’s episode shines a light on the consequences of some recent investigations.

By mining data from 31 million records, we discovered a pattern of racial disparities in mortgage lending across 60 U.S. metropolitan areas. We zeroed in on one city, Philadelphia, to show how black applicants are nearly three times more likely to be denied a home loan than their white counterparts. Now, officials in Philadelphia are demanding changes and accountability.

While many people of color have trouble getting mortgages, we investigate one high-end property that didn’t even need one. Our reporters try to untangle a web of unusual dealings that involve a big-donor Republican couple who flips houses, a minister who promotes himself as an Egyptian pop star and the future president of the United States.

The episode concludes with an examination of what went wrong during the wildfires that killed more than 40 people and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their Northern California neighborhoods last fall. With journalists from radio station KQED, Reveal sifted through emergency dispatch calls and 911 recordings to determine how problems with firefighting preparedness and coordination among agencies culminated in catastrophe.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: For people of color, banks are shutting the door to homeownership
  • Read: A small-time scam artist gave Trump a mansion for $0. Why?
  • Read: ‘My world was burning’: The North Bay fires and what went wrong

Credits

Aaron Glantz, Emmanuel Martinez, Matt Smith, Lance Williams, Patrick Michels, Eric Sagara, Marisa Lagos, Sukey Lewis and Lisa Pickoff-White, Deborah George, Brett Myers, Cheryl Devall

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:17:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
If you've been listening to our show for awhile, you know there's a moment - you can almost sense it coming - when we track someone down and put them on the spot. And it goes a little something like this.
Aaron Glantz: I mean, when you see these numbers after doing the analysis in Mobile, Alabama-
Al Letson: That's Reveal's Aaron Glantz.
Aaron Glantz: -Ocala, Florida; Greenville, North Carolina; Vallejo, California; Columbia, South Carolina-
Al Letson: Aaron's talking to Thomas Curry, the man who was the country's top bank regulator under President Obama, about why people of color are being denied home loans.
Aaron Glantz: All of these cities where our statistical analysis shows the reason you'd be denied for a loan is the color of your skin and yet, under your tenure, under the previous head of the agency, 99% satisfactory. How can everyone be getting this satisfactory rating?
Thomas Curry: Again, I can't answer that.
Aaron Glantz: But we found the same thing in Memphis, in Wichita, in Little Rock ... If all of these banks are getting satisfactory Community Reinvestment Act assessments, how come in all of these places people are being denied?
Thomas Curry: I think the results from your studies are unacceptable, from the standpoint of what we want as a nation, and to make sure that everyone shares in economic prosperity.
Al Letson: "Not acceptable." A lot of people find what we uncover unacceptable, and some people do something about it. Like with Aaron's investigation into modern-day redlining that he worked on with Reveal's Emmanuel Martinez. That story brought us back to the civil rights era.
Newscaster: Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

Al Letson: In April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. The shock and outrage over his death gave Lyndon Johnson the ability to push a law through Congress.

 

Lyndon Johnson: Fair housing for all, all human beings, who live in this country, is now a part of the American way of life.

 

Al Letson: The Fair Housing Act was the final major piece of legislation of the civil rights era. It made it illegal to discriminate in renting and selling homes. Last year, we launched an investigation to see how much had changed in the last half century. The answer: not nearly enough.

 

Rochelle Farrul: My experience was so horrible.

 

Al Letson: We told you the story of Rochelle [Farrul 00:02:39], a young African-American woman in Philadelphia who had been teaching computer programming at Rutgers University. She wanted to buy a house, but when she applied for a mortgage, she was turned down. The loan officer said it was because she was an independent contractor and didn't have a full-time job. So Rochelle switched fields. She found a full-time job at the University of Pennsylvania, managing a million-dollar grant. Then she applied for a loan again, but still wasn't able to get a mortgage.

 

Rochelle Farrul: I, understandably, was really upset, because I'd been looking for awhile, so I was like, "Well, what do I do?"

 

Al Letson: Her partner, [Hanuko Franz 00:03:17], offered to help. The two had been dating for less than a year, but she offered to sign onto the application. Now, Hanuko didn't have a full-time job.

 

Hanuko Franz: Yeah, we did this after I was a schoolteacher for four years, quit my job, moved to Japan, was making nine dollars an hour at-

 

Rochelle Farrul: Selling French fries.

 

Hanuko Franz: Yeah, selling French fries.

 

Al Letson: Hanuko was working part-time at a grocery store. Her most recent paycheck was only $144, but she may have had something else going for her: she's white-adjacent, as Rochelle puts it. Her mother is Japanese and her father is white. Hanuko identifies as Asian, but she wonders if the loan officer saw her that way.

 

Hanuko Franz: Legally, my first name is Mary. And nobody calls me Mary. My email is Hanuko, you know? He would call me Mar. And then towards the end, just completely stopped answering Rochelle's phone calls. Just ignored all of them.

 

Rochelle Farrul: Wouldn't talk to me.

 

Hanuko Franz: And then I called, and he answered almost immediately and was so friendly.

 

Al Letson: At this point, Rochelle had been trying to buy a house for over a year. A few weeks after Hanuko signed on, Rochelle finally got a mortgage.

 

Rochelle Farrul: Santander allowed me to get a loan-

 

Hanuko Franz: Because I came on.

 

Rochelle Farrul: Because Hanuko came on. This process, in a lot of ways for me, was really disempowering. It was humiliating. It was humiliating. And that's where a lot of my bitterness comes from. I was made to feel like nothing that I was contributing was of value, like I didn't matter, you know?

 

Al Letson: Rochelle's experience was part of a much larger story. Reveal analyzed millions of mortgage records. We found that in 61 cities across the country, people of color were far more likely to be denied a home loan than their white counterparts - even when they made the same amount of money, wanted to take on the same size loan, and buy in the same neighborhood. Philadelphia, where Rochelle lives, had one of the biggest disparities. African-Americans were nearly three times as likely to be denied a conventional mortgage than their white counterparts.

 

Our show came out in February, along with a series of articles published in newspapers across the country. When the investigation came out, it touched off a firestorm, with lawmakers talking about Rochelle's story.

 

Senator Masto: She had savings, good credit, and an undergraduate degree from Northwestern. When she first went to apply for a home loan, she thought she would be the perfect applicant.

 

Al Letson: That was Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. It was one of more than a dozen speeches on Capitol Hill about our story. Here's Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

 

Senator Warren: Lending discrimination is real. A new comprehensive report that looked at housing markets all across the country just came out from the Center for Investigative Reporting and Reveal. And its finding should make us all sick to our stomachs.

 

Al Letson: Congressman Keith Ellison from Minnesota read it into the Congressional record. And during a hearing, Ellison and Congressman Lacy Clay of Missouri, grilled Jerome Powell, the head of the Federal Reserve, about redlining.

 

Ellison: I've shared with your staff a recent article from my hometown newspaper. My question is, what can the Federal Reserve do?

 

Powell: Racial discrimination in mortgage lending, and in any kind of lending, is completely unacceptable. And wherever we have authority, we will use it to stop that from happening.

 

Al Letson: The biggest immediate splash was in Philadelphia. Lawmakers there held hearings too.

 

Johnson: This week I have seen a sickening, unacceptable, but most importantly, un-American, injustice.

 

Al Letson: That's Kenyatta Johnson, from the Philadelphia City Council.

 

Johnson: When we talk about segregation, we are usually talking about the Jim Crow era: separate schools, separate churches, separate water fountains ... And we sometimes give into the myth that the civil rights movement has relegated racial segregation to the darker days of American history. But here we are, on the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, and deep segregation is alive and kicking.

 

Al Letson: Delaware, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Washington State, and Washington D.C. have launched investigations. Pennsylvania was the first. Here's their State Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, days after our story came out.

 

Josh Shapiro: Frankly, I'm disgusted by it. We are chasing this down, and we take this seriously. I read the articles. It is not only wrong in terms of what's happening to that individual who's being denied a mortgage, but it holds the city back. It holds neighborhoods back. It holds people back from achieving what they are capable of achieving.

 

Al Letson: But it's not just politicians who were upset. When the story first aired, we asked our listeners to text us questions about redlining.

 

Here to help answer some of those questions are the reporters who broke this story: Aaron Glantz-

 

Aaron Glantz: Hey there.

 

Al Letson: And Emmanuel Martinez.

 

Martinez, Emm.: Hey, what's up, Al.

 

Al Letson: Okay so, we got about 2,000 questions from listeners. They wanted to know about the history of redlining, about which banks are to blame for today's racial disparities, and about how things might change under President Trump. A lot of people simply wanted to know, "What can I do?"

 

Elizabeth Holmes is an Escrow agent from Dallas, Texas.

 

Holmes, Elizab.: Well, I actually deal in real estate every day, and I don't typically see who's not getting mortgages; they don't generally get that far to me. But sometimes I do when I have a client who comes in, and they already have a deal, and then they find a lender. And in fact, oh, yeah, you're not gonna get that house, what do I do if I believe that I am being redlined or discriminated against?

 

Al Letson: So Aaron, what can someone like Elizabeth do?

 

Aaron Glantz: Well, if you think you're being discriminated against, the government wants to hear from you. In Washington, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a system where you can make complaints. You can call an 800 number or go online and make a complaint.

 

Al Letson: Yeah, but hasn't the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau basically been gutted under President Trump?

 

Aaron Glantz: Well, that is also true. And it's also true, as we've reported, that the civil rights division of the Justice Department is at an all-time low in morale, and that the Trump administration has not brought a single fair-lending case in the last year.

 

However, you ask me what am I supposed to do if I'm in this situation ... it's against the law. So you gotta report it to the proper authorities. There's also fair-housing groups all across the country that specialize in this, and they can help you bring a complaint if you feel like you're getting brushed off when you first make one.

 

Al Letson: We have another question from Myron Clifton, a sales director in Sacramento, California.

 

Myron Clifton: Hi, my question is, what does your reporting show for Wells Fargo in relation to redlining? 'Cause I know they've had issues. They've been in the news quite a lot for the past couple years for how they treated minority and black applicants. So I'd like to know how Wells Fargo shows that.

 

Martinez, Emm.: Well, Myron, in Sacramento, Wells Fargo is by far the biggest lender in that area. They made 3200 loans between 2015 and 2016, but only 62 of them went to black applicants and another 375 went to Latinos. And when you compare them to the whole industry, they're a lot worse than the average.

 

Al Letson: Here's the next question.

 

Jose G.: My name's Jose Guajardo. I'm in Austin, Texas, and I'm in IT. My question was, is there a centralized place to research the companies that are less likely to discriminate?

 

Martinez, Emm.: Okay. So Jose, we've created a map for this very thing. We've broken down the lending patterns for each bank and lending institution by applications, loans made, and denials for each race and ethnicity. So if you wanna see how well Bank of America is doing, or Wells Fargo, or J.P. Morgan Chase, how well they behave in terms of lending to people of color, or not, you can go to the map at app.revealnews.org/redlining. Again, that's apps.revealnews.org/redlining.

 

Al Letson: On our show, banks said they didn't' discriminate people of color. They said that they based their decisions on credit scores, not race. So we got a lot of questions about credit scores. Like this one from Liz Morgan, an interior designed in Portland, Oregon.

 

Speaker 1: Who decides how credit scores work and why aren't we changing the way they work?

 

Aaron Glantz: You know Liz, this is a question that really interested us. Why do we use this old credit scoring model if it turns out that it has such big problems? And the answer turns out to be that 90% of conventional loans are purchased by these two government-created mortgage companies: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And these companies are insisting on using this outdated credit scoring model that there's a broad consensus that it hurts people of color.

 

Al Letson: Let's double down a little bit on the credit score. Brandon Block, he's a freelance journalist in Baltimore, had a great question about it.

 

Speaker 2: They said on the show that there are ways in which a credit score, the way a credit score is designed, can have a discriminatory effect on someone. And I was wondering how exactly that works.

 

Aaron Glantz: So, this is an excellent question. Back when the credit score system was created decades ago, it was actually created to solve the whole problem of discrimination. Because there were lots of loan originators, mortgage brokers, who would just turn people away because of the color of their skin. And there was a movement that said, if we create an algorithm, that you just put it all, somebody's financial profile into a computer, then that computer algorithm won't be racist.

 

The problem is that the algorithm that we ended up with has some documented racial impacts. There are a lot of things that don't get counted, like rent, for example, or payday loans. So people of color are targeted for payday loans. And these payday loans only report if you miss a payment. They don't report if you make a payment. There's lots of other things like that.

 

Then you have on the other hand other forms of credit that are used more by white consumers like traditional credit cards, for example. Every time you make the credit card payment, your score goes up; every time you miss it it goes down. But if you miss a payment you have all those positive payments to jack it back up again.

 

Al Letson: Okay, so another question about credit scores out of Brooklyn.

 

Speaker 3: My name's Thomas Cavanaugh, and I'm a video editor and designer. My question is about the release of credit scores. I'm wondering if you guys have had any progress knocking on more doors to see if the banks will release that information, or if that's just something that Congress would have to force them to do.

 

Martinez, Emm.: That's a good question. Remember the housing bust when banks were making all these bad loans? One of the things that came out of that was the Dodd Frank Act. One of the main pieces of information that act was going to force banks to release was credit score. And the reason why this is so important is that when Aaron and I questioned these banks on their lending disparities, they said that they denied people of color at higher rates because of their credit score. But then they won't share that information with us. So we kind of have to take them at their own.

 

It's honestly looking quite bleak. This spring, Senate passed a bill that would exempt 85% lenders in releasing credit score. So the majority of the data that we're going to work with still won't have that information there.

 

Al Letson: So our final question comes from Carrie Killingsworth.

 

Speaker 4: I live in Hilliard, Ohio, right outside of Columbus, and I work for an insurance company. My question is, what can I as an average citizen do to help improve this situation for the betterment of the society?

 

Martinez, Emm.: If you're looking to buy a home or refinance, you can use the interactive map that we've made to look at which banks in your area are lending to people of color and denying people of color at the same rates as their white counterparts. You know, and you could probably go to one of those banks. And you could get a loan from one of those banks.

 

The other important thing is that every bank is supposed to have their community reinvestment public assessment file on hand.

 

Aaron Glantz: This is a pretty amazing thing, actually. Most people don't know it. You can actually walk into your bank and ask to see their plan for serving the community. It's called the Community Reinvestment Act Public File. If other people have been complaining about your bank, they're required to keep that on hand. They're required to keep on hand their lending ratio, like do they lend to people of color or not in different cities. You know, people almost never ask for this.

 

So it's just a small thing. Maybe they'll start thinking about it a little bit if somebody comes in and asks.

 

Al Letson: That was Reveal's Aaron Glantz and Emmanuel Martinez. Their latest story out this week is about Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, lends almost exclusively to white people.

 

If you're wondering what's happening with lending in your neighborhood, you can find out more information right now. All you have to do is text the word "house" to 202-873-8325. That's "house", H-O-U-S-E, to 202-873-8325. And here comes the legal lingo: standard texting rates apply. And if you wanna stop getting texts, just text "stop".

 

Our reporters have been looking into some of President Trump's real estate transactions. The President's fond of saying that he can strike a good deal, but this one sounds unbelievable. He appeared to get a ten-

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:17:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:17:00 - 00:34:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: But this one sounds unbelievable. He appeared to get a $10 million Beverly Hills mansion. For nothing.

 

Matt Smith: And what we spent a good deal of time trying to figure out is, how could you possibly make a mistake that gave away a massive mansion.

 

Al Letson: That story when we come back. On Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

We've been talking about the way mortgage lenders can make it hard for some folks to buy a house. Recently Reveal's Lance Williams told me how some people have a much easier time landing prime real estate. He found out how easy one day last year, after an intriguing tip.

 

Lance Williams: And I was having lunch at a restaurant and at the next table is a guy I knew from California politics. He said he knew a guy who knew about a really unusual real estate deal down in Beverly Hills involving the future president. Did I want to know about it?

 

Al Letson: Can I just say that that is the most gumshoe, hardcore news reporter story I've heard in a while.

 

Lance Williams: Well, you know-

 

Al Letson: You're like, classic.

 

Lance Williams: You never know where a story is going to come from. And some times it's just, you happen to be at a place and see a guy.

 

Al Letson: It's the kind of tip you just have to follow.

 

Lance Williams: And he put us together and the way of the wind.

 

Al Letson: Lance and his reporting partner Matt Smith started reviewing public documents. What they appeared to show was that in 2008, the future president Donald Trump got a $10 million mansion in Beverly Hills for nothing. Then, he turned around and sold it for $9.5 million a year later, all with the help of a lawyer you may have heard about, Michael Cohen.

 

I'm here with Lance and Matt to talk about what they found and what people close to the deal say went down.

 

Let's set the scene and go back a little bit. 2007, 2008. Who is Donald Trump at this time? Because he's not a political candidate at this point. He's just Donald Trump the business man, right?

 

Lance Williams: He's the star of the apprentice, which had been a huge hit when it began in the early 2000s. By 2007, the ratings were slumping. And they decided to move it to LA hoping to get a boost. He was out here with his wife and new son, living up on Mulholland Drive. And he became kind of a man about town. He even got his star on the Hollywood walk of fame, holding his little boy in his arms.

 

Donald Trump: That's Barron. He's strong, he's smart, he's tough, he's vicious, he's violent. All of the ingredients you need to be an entrepreneur. And most importantly, hopefully, he's smart. Because smart is really the ingredient. So Barron, good luck.

 

Al Letson: He's vicious. I've never described my 10 month old child ... and yeah, okay. So, he's in LA and knowing Donald Trump as we do, I imagine he's spending a lot of time in the Beverly Hills area.

 

Lance Williams: Well you know, he bought a mansion there in 2007. And he spent time at the Beverly Hills hotel across the street. We know that Stormy Daniels, the exotic film star, says that's where their liaison took place.

 

Al Letson: So this property that we're looking at, that we're concerned about, is right across the street from that hotel in Beverly Hills. So this is a really upscale piece of land, right?

 

Matt Smith: Yeah. 100 yards exactly away from his favorite hotel. And it's a big enough deal, this house is, that you can find videos on the internet. Beverly Hills. So it's palm trees, wide streets. And the house is actually big for the area. Big white house. You can fit a mega church inside it, probably.

 

Al Letson: This thing is huge.

 

Matt Smith: Swimming pool. It's own tennis court that you can land a helicopter on. Inside is this sort of white 1980s, make everything you can out of marble kind of sensibility. Everything white with sort of King Louis or Versailles type touches. Chandeliers.

 

Al Letson: Okay. So we've got this beautiful $10 million house. Donald Trump owns it. So, what's the problem? Why are we looking at it? Because I imagine Donald Trump has big beautiful houses like this all over the country.

 

Matt Smith: This, real estate deals can be complex. But this one was complex in ways that people we talk to have never, ever seen.

 

Al Letson: Tell me how this deal gets started. Who owns this property? And who'd they sell it to?

 

Lance Williams: Sure. It's Beverly Hills. So the house has a great pedigree. For a long time it was owned by the family of the dictator of Gabon, Omar Bongo. He sold it in, or that family sold it in '07 to Leonard and Selma Fish. They are millionaire real estate investors and also big time Republican political donors. They spent the night at the white house when George W was there. They bought it, held it for a year. Never lived in it, but had some parties there. And then, moved to flip it.

 

Al Letson: So they put it on the market and Donald Trump gets it?

 

Lance Williams: Yes, but not very directly at all. In the summer of 2008, the Fish's file a deed saying that they've sold the place to a guy called Muklas Gerges, an Egyptian pastor of a little tiny Baptist church. I mean, he only makes $48,000 a year. An unlikely buyer for sure. And six weeks later, Mr. Gerges flips it to a Trump shell corporation for no money. That's what the documents show.

 

Al Letson: So let me just get this straight. It looks like the future president gets this big mansion in Beverly Hills for free. Then what does he do with it?

 

Lance Williams: He flips it. Like on reality TV.

 

Al Letson: All this seems really, I don't know, out of the ordinary. People involved with this deal, what do they have to say?

 

Lance Williams: We got the idea that this wasn't their favorite topic. We reached out to Igor Korbatev, the seller's lawyer. We got no response until we went to the Beverly Hills school board and spoke to his wife, who is president of the board of education and the seller's daughter. After that, Mr. Korbatev said Gerges had been a prospective buyer, but the deal for the mansion fell through. Months later, when Trump bought the house, the wrong deed was filed by mistake, he said. Human error happens all the time, he said. Unfortunately Mr. Korbatev ignored important questions. How was the mistake discovered? How did Gerges, who had little money and a history of foreclosures and lawsuits, qualify to buy a $10 million home? And how in the world was he persuaded to give up title to the mansion once his name was on the recorded deed?

 

Now a spokesman for First American Title Insurance said the company was to blame for the mistake. But he declined to answer questions. We interviewed a former escrow officer who worked on the deal, but couldn't remember it. But she said she would never have approved filing the deed, unless she had seen a sales contract with Gerges' name on it. And only after the money had been received.

 

Al Letson: There are some big red flags here. Let's take the first one. Who is this Gerges guy?

 

Matt Smith: Muklas Gerges is an Egyptian national who touts himself online as a major Middle East pop star. We couldn't find any good evidence of that. Has touted himself to parishioners at a small church he preached at as a major businessman on the side. That didn't seem to be true either.

 

Al Letson: The Trump organization declined to comment for this story. But how did the other people that are a part of this story, how did they respond to it?

 

Matt Smith: Well, Igor Korbatev is the son-in-law and the attorney for the Fish's. Over a period of a couple of months, he sent us several emails. The gist thing was that they had prepared a deed to grant the place to Muklas because he was a potential buyer. But that deed fell through. And so, at closing to the Trump organization, somebody pulled out this old signed deed and recorded that by mistake.

 

Al Letson: Okay. So I've bought a house before. And when you buy a house, you go down to the title deed office. You sign all these papers. Checks are exchanged. All that type of stuff. How do you make that kind of mistake? Because I, there are people there that are paid to make sure that those type of mistakes don't happen.

 

Lance Williams: Sure thing. There are attorneys, agents for buyer and seller. A notary. And everybody is there. And everybody is getting paid good money to make sure, number one, that the buyer gets the house. But in this case, the sellers and the title company both say, "Geez. We just accidentally filed the wrong deed."

 

Al Letson: Is that a possible explanation?

 

Lance Williams: Well, no. The lawyers we talked to, and some of them I talked to four and five times, they got sick of me calling up. They were laughing at me on the phone when I was saying, "Well, how could this have happened?"

 

Matt Smith: And what we spent a good deal of time trying to figure out is, how could you possibly make a mistake that gave away a massive mansion.

 

Al Letson: So, what's another possible explanation for this weird deal that really doesn't make any sense any which way you look at it.

 

Matt Smith: Well, the thing that just weighed on us more and more with passing months was the elusiveness of an explanation. If you have one implausible aspect of a deal, in this case Muklas Gerges walking through the door and having a deed written up in his name and filed, well that's hard to believe. But one in a million mistakes happen all over the world all the time. Why did it take six weeks to correct it? And we're not G men. We can't get into wire transfers. We weren't able to get into the head of Muklas Gerges. We just simply don't know what happened.

 

Lance Williams: We talked to many experts to try and figure this out. One was Ross Delston. A lawyer who consults with the international monetary fund on financial crimes. He said he couldn't make sense of the deal from the available information, but he thought it merits scrutiny.

 

Ross Delston: Lots of oddities, lots of unusual things here. And enough to get any law enforcement investigation or prosecutor quite excited about all the anomalies that are found in this set of transactions.

 

Al Letson: What was it like to report on this story?

 

Lance Williams: Well, it was hard slogging. We took it as far as we could.

 

Al Letson: What is the broader significance of this story? What does is tell us about the man who is the president of the United States? Matt?

 

Matt Smith: Many of the stories coming out over the course of the past year and a half about Donald Trump's finances, stories like that in the New Yorker, certainly in the Washington Post, certainly in the New York Times, about India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe. This real estate deal doesn't seem right. Now we have one in the United States and we're trying to unpack it.

 

Lance Williams: It's one more exotic, weird deal in his background. It helps inform you about who he is and where he came from.

 

Al Letson: We don't have all the answers on this deal. But you can read Lance and Matt's full investigation at our website. RevealNews.org. And if you know anything or have any information that can help them uncover more, get in touch with the reporters securely at Leap.RevealNews.org.

 

We've gotten a lot of answers since our recent show about last year's wild fires in Northern California. We uncovered a system where emergency responders had trouble understanding one another.

 

Speaker 5: I need you guys to send out a reverse 911 so we can tell them to evacuate.

 

Speaker 6: Okay. I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with what a reverse 911 is. I'm sorry.

 

Al Letson: Now officials say they're trying to make sure this type of thing doesn't happen again. That story next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

The San Francisco Bay area, where we're based, has its share of natural disasters. And back in October, I could barely see across the street. The air was thick with smoke. It triggered my asthma. My eyes were constantly bloodshot red, as ashes rained down from the sky. Eight counties to the north, including Napa and Sonoma, famous for their vineyards, burned for weeks.

 

Speaker 5: Hi, we need fire engines out here immediately. I mean, we needed them out here an hour ago.

 

Al Letson: These wild fires would prove to be the deadliest in California's history.

 

Speaker 6: Do you know where the fire-

 

Speaker 5: Yes! I have to drive out, because I would have died if I stayed.

 

Speaker 6: How big is the fire, do you know?

 

Speaker 5: How big is the fire? Acres!

 

Speaker 6: Okay.

 

Speaker 5: Hundreds of acres.

 

Speaker 6: Okay. Ma'am. Ma'am. Listen. I-

 

Speaker 5: You've been warned about this.

 

Al Letson: In all, 44 people lost their lives. Back in March, we partnered with KQED in San Francisco to investigate the first hours of those fires and the emergency response.

 

KQED reporters Marisa Lagos, Lisa Pickoff-White and Suki Lewis listened to thousands of 911 calls and dispatch recordings. Later, we'll talk to the reporters about reforms that are taking place to make sure a similar tragedy doesn't happen again.

 

First, I want to play you part of their original story. And take you back to that night, of Sunday October 8th.

 

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning, signaling extreme fire danger. In Cal Fire, the state agency that responds to wild fires, is on high alert. Suki Lewis and Marisa Lagos take the story from here.

 

Speaker 7: Around 7:30 in the evening, 911 dispatchers get a concerning call.

 

Speaker 6: Fire medical dispatch.

 

Speaker 8: Hey, it's county. I'm transferring a caller who's reporting, it sounds like a power line that was arcing.

 

Speaker 6: Okay. Sir?

 

Speaker 9: Yes.

 

Speaker 6: Go ahead.

 

Speaker 8: What is the address of the emergency?

 

Speaker 7: The man tells the dispatcher that winds knocked a power line into a tree.

 

Speaker 9: Blew out, but there are a lot of sparks and there's a super high fire danger area. But the power lines were definitely emitting sparks.

 

Speaker 8: Okay.

 

Speaker 9: What's that?

 

Speaker 8: Yeah. Okay.

 

Speaker 7: The dispatcher says, "Someone is on the way." Then makes this a top priority. She consults a computer screen to send the nearest engine out to respond. But the wind keeps picking up. About 20 minutes later, a woman dials 911 to report a transformer blowing, miles away.

 

Speaker 10: I'm sorry. Did you, tell me again what happened.

 

Speaker 11: Well, it looks like it was a big firework that went off. But it looks, I'm pretty sure it's a transformer.

 

Speaker 10: All right. We do have the fire department on the way. Stay safe and out of ...

 

Speaker 7: What's happening here is that high winds are knocking down power lines. These send out sparks, starting little fires. Then as lines go down, the electricity needs to go somewhere. So it gets redistributed. This overloads other lines, creating power surges. Transformers explode, taking down more of the electrical grid.

 

Speaker 12: Power lines are down. [inaudible 00:33:11], about 20 minutes.

 

Speaker 7: As Cal Fire gets these reports, they contact PGNE, the local utility company. And together, they have the ability to do a few things. The utility can send out linemen to deal with individual incidents. Or shut down power remotely. Or a combination of both.

 

Speaker 13: 911, with these power lines, the north bound shoulder is going to be on fire until PGNE can secure power for us.

 

Speaker 7: On that night, Cal Fire and PGNE go by procedure. Dealing with these incidents one by one, relying on linemen. They can't keep up.

 

Speaker 14: Information, we have multiple 911s ringing. And we're not being able to answer.

 

Speaker 7: This is when you can first hear things getting out of control. It's like a game of whack-a-mole. Cal Fire's map is getting crowded.

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:17:00 - 00:34:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:34:00 - 00:50:16]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Lisa P.W.: ... Whac-A-Mole. Cal Fire's map is getting crowded. They're running out of people to send, even as new fires break out.

 

Speaker 15: Back to the point where Cal Fire told us they've got no more resources, can't send [inaudible 00:34:11] to anybody.

 

Speaker 16: Okay, so ...

 

Lisa P.W.: With no one to send to put out all these small fires, two blazes explode almost simultaneously, about 30 miles apart. In the forested hills of Sonoma County, gusts of wind are sweeping up burning tree branches, and debris, and hurling these embers miles through the air. The blaze starts jumping from one mountain peak to another, leapfrogging valleys, racing through Napa Vineyards and devouring homes across both counties. It's now rushing toward the city of Santa Rosa, home to 175,000 people.

 

Marisa Lagos: For firefighters, it's becoming clear, these fires they're facing are of a different order.

 

Jeff Hogue: Multiple structures involved-

 

Marisa Lagos: [crosstalk 00:34:57] Cal Fire Captain Jeff Hogue is in the middle of all of this. He's like the voice of God to his troops. All night long firefighters hear him on the radio taking their calls and coordinating their response. From the Cal Fire war room, Hogue sends out a reminder crackling over the radio.

 

Jeff Hogue: The priority of the unit is safety of the public, rescue, as well as safety of the rescuer. Do what you can.

 

Marisa Lagos: Safety for the public, safety for the rescuer, do what you can.

 

Lisa P.W.: What that means is putting out fires isn't the priority anymore. For firefighters, the singular focus is saving human lives, including their own. At 10:30, Cal Fire starts calling local law enforcement agencies in Napa and Sonoma to initiate evacuations. In this game of telephone, you can hear a lot go wrong.

 

Michelle: Hi, it's Michelle.

 

Speaker 17: Hey, I need a reverse 911 done.

 

Michelle: Okay.

 

Speaker 17: Cal Fire needs it for the Calistoga area, mandatory evacuations.

 

Marisa Lagos: This Cal Fire employee [crosstalk 00:36:04] is asking a Napa County operator for a reverse 911. That's an evacuation alert that can target specific neighborhoods, warning people fire is approaching. It calls home phones, but only about half of Americans have landlines these days.

 

Michelle: Copy. We'll advise Cal Fire. Okay, I'm sorry. What's your question? Okay. See, the reverse 911. Are you [inaudible 00:36:28], or ...

 

Speaker 17: I need you guys to send out a reverse 911 so we can tell them to evacuate.

 

Michelle: Okay, I'm just not ... I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with what a reverse 911 is. I'm sorry.

 

Marisa Lagos: [crosstalk 00:36:40] This is another one of those places where you can hear the system breaking down. The operator doesn't even know what Cal Fire is talking about, but that's actually because each county in California, there are 58, uses different technologies with different names to alert people. To Cal Fire, it's reverse 911. To Napa, it's called Nixle.

 

Speaker 17: I think it's just Nixle.

 

Michelle: Okay. Is this going out to the public and everyone?

 

Speaker 17: Yeah, it needs to go to all their phones, landline and everything.

 

Michelle: Mandatory [crosstalk 00:37:09] landlines.

 

Speaker 17: Evacuation, yeah.

 

Michelle: Okay.

 

Marisa Lagos: In this call, Cal Fire is requesting an evacuation order, but it still takes an hour before law enforcement officials in Napa issue text alerts to the public. They won't call people on their landlines until the next day. Over the course of the night, delay and confusion happen again and again.

 

Al Letson: KQED reporters Marisa Lagos and Lisa Pickoff-White are here with me in the studio. I got to say, listening to that again, it's really intense. I know you guys got a lot of reaction with this story, but Marisa, it's now been more than six months since all those fires started. Do we know anything more about what sparked them?

 

Marisa Lagos: Well, we don't still know the official cause. We are hearing that that may come out in the coming months. Although, these were many fires, right? So there will probably be many causes. As we heard in our story, we know that there were fires that night that were caused by electrical lines. One of the things that's already sort of being worked out, even though we don't know if they caused the biggest fires, is how to prevent a similar situation from happening this fire season, which is fast approaching and really upon us.

 

Al Letson: Okay, so we know that there were dozens of 911 calls about down power lines and arcing transformers, and Cal Fire, and PG&E, the local utility company, they told you that it wasn't their policy to shut down the grid when they're these high winds going on. Has that changed at all?

 

Marisa Lagos: It has. We have seen a series of conversations between Cal Fire and PG&E in recent months, and they have basically come to a place where this is going to be part of policy. Cal Fire knows they can ask for it and PG&E is on board with, something we should note, has been happening in other parts of the state already with other utilities. A lot of the sort of reasons we heard that it wasn't a good idea, seemed to have sort of been swept aside by an event of this magnitude.

 

Lisa P.W.: I think when we hear shutting down the power grid, we imagine a whole city going dark, but really, this can be targeted very specifically. We've already seen in southern California, they can just shut off the power to 100 homes in a really high risk area, for instance.

 

Al Letson: You guys reported a lot on how residents woke up to flames at their doorsteps, and that officials, they had serious problems communicating with one another around when to issue alerts, and evacuation warnings. How are officials beginning to address these problems?

 

Lisa P.W.: Well, one of the big things that's happening is a state senator has proposed legislation that would create one alert system for California. I mean, we have 58 counties here and each one has basically a different way of contacting people. That's one of the big problems that we saw during the fires.

 

Marisa Lagos: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things we saw here was that these sort of very rigid systems are not always going to work during a disaster that's moving quickly and is unpredictable. I think all these counties and at the state level are kind of reexamining whether those structures can be a little more fluid and a little more responsive. Maybe that means that not just law enforcement, but people in the dispatch center can call for evacuations, like we're looking at in Sonoma and Napa.

 

Al Letson: Okay, so I get Amber Alerts every now and then, and to be honest, they always startle me. Why wasn't this used for these fires? I mean, it just makes sense that I should get buzzed if maybe my house is going to be burned down.

 

Marisa Lagos: First of all, some of this was actually sort of a culture issue, in the sense that you had these county officials who were like, "We don't want to clog the roads with people and they could die in their cars if everybody's sitting in traffic trying to escape." I think some of that we've just sort of pushed past, that they realized that it's far worse to leave people-

 

Al Letson: For them to burn in their house.

 

Marisa Lagos: Yeah. There's a lot of sort of logistical issues. I mean, Napa wasn't even empowered to send out Amber Alerts, Sonoma County decided not to. I mean, the answer is a combination of procedure and bureaucracy, but essentially the long of the short of it is that I think next time you would get that alert.

 

Lisa P.W.: It's also had an impact on the national stage. These fires helped spark change with the Federal Communications Commission, where now those kinds of Amber Alert, for instance, there has to be a longer character limit, those alerts can go out to more specific areas, and they also need to be able to be sent in Spanish. Other big things that are happening, several senators have proposed some major changes to how the U.S. Forest Service budgets. Actually, last year was one of our most expensive firefighting seasons nationally. What has happened is that they're borrowing from prevention efforts, like forest cleaning, to pay for that firefighting. This bill would actually change that, so that both have more dedicated funding streams.

 

Al Letson: The Mutual Aid System, which was first developed here in California, and it's now standard across the country. Basically, if you're a fire department and you become overwhelmed, you can call other fire departments for help.

 

Lisa P.W.: Right.

 

Al Letson: In your story, Cal Fire Unit Chief Analee Burlew explained that the system broke during the fires.

 

Analee Burlew: Sonoma's depleted. They have a major fire going. They call Napa, Napa has a major fire going. They don't have any resources to send. They call Lake, Lake County is depleted. They have a major fire going, so they call their closest neighbor, Mendocino. Mendocino has a major fire going, they don't have any resources to send.

 

Al Letson: What can officials do to make sure this same thing doesn't happen again?

 

Marisa Lagos: We talked to fire chiefs who said, "You could've had every firefighter in the world available and they still couldn't have stopped these things once they started going," so I think a lot of what they're looking at is trying to stop fires from getting this big to begin with. We have a request from fire chiefs around the state and fire unions to put $100 million into extra staffing at the local level and into new, more modern engines, and equipment, and gear. Cal Fire's really looking at getting better at staging equipment ahead of time, so when we know that, say, in Sonoma there's a red flag warning, and it's hot and dry, we put engines there from the get-go so they're not trying to travel across the state once a fire breaks out.

 

Lisa P.W.: Yeah. Part of this is also acknowledging that because of climate change we're having fires all year now. Ene of the things that we use to fight fires a lot here in California, for instance, is planes and helicopters, so one idea is to put the money into it so we can keep these places where those helicopters and planes come from, open year round, so that if there is a fire in the winter, like there was in southern California this year, they're ready for it.

 

Marisa Lagos: Then there's also this issue of micro-targeting these red flag warnings, so instead of saying an entire region is at risk, they could say one valley, or one city should really be on high alert. I think, again, you're never going to stop every fire from starting, but once it does break out, can we get there and put it out quickly?

 

Al Letson: So much of this story is about where we live, like right outside the Bay, it's California. Is this a national story? Do other states and communities need to be worried about these same issues?

 

Marisa Lagos: I think so, because if you look at the sort of crux of a lot of the reason that people either lost property or lives, it's things that have to do with the fire, but have nothing to do with the fire. Like emergency alerts, understanding what the risks are of where you live and being prepared to sort of put into place a plan for your family and the people around you. I think that no matter where you live in the world, there are risks and there are increasing risk because our climate is changing. Even if you live somewhere which would never burn, you probably live somewhere which might flood. One thing we found that will stay with me forever, is something that sounds a little harsh, but it's kind of this idea that you're on your own. I mean, if a big disaster hits, you need to know that for the first few days potentially, nobody may be able to get to you. Even with all the technology and sort of connections we have, all of that stuff is really fragile, and any disaster can take it down.

 

Lisa P.W.: Yeah. I'm originally from New York, and my own family was really impacted by Hurricane Sandy, and I have family now in Florida, and places like this, and I think one of the really hard questions that we as a people have to answer now is, "Should I keep living here? What has changed? How do I need to change?" I've seen people who have lived for generations in the same place and they're like, "Really, you want me to move because I'm in a high fire risk area?" I really get that and I think that's something that a lot of Americans have to grapple with.

 

Al Letson: Before we go, I want to play one last portion of your story. Greg and Kristina Wilson survived the fire by hiding in their swimming pool with their dog Max. Their house completely burned to the ground around them and Greg's lungs were damaged in the fire, which caused him to speak with a whisper when you interviewed him.

 

Greg Wilson: You're kind of in a survival mode and I'm not sure my brain's even thinking or anything else, it's just watching that house burn, and we're just hugging each other on the ground.

 

Lisa P.W.: Then, Greg hears something.

 

Greg Wilson: This low whale of a siren ... I mean, it's just this low quiet. I'm like, "Honey, I think this thing's getting closer." At that point, I just ... I got up and I'm talking like this, but I'm just waiving, screaming, "Hey."

 

Lisa P.W.: The Wilson's are saved by chance. One of their neighbors managed to call a cop she was dating who got Cal Fire to save them. Rescuers drive the Wilson's to a hospital.

 

Greg Wilson: The last thing I remember, Kristina was lying on a gurney, I was lying on a gurney with Max and there was a nurse there saying, "Okay, I'm going to take Maximus." Then they said, "And then we're going to knock you out."

 

Lisa P.W.: Greg and Kristina, covered in burns, are put into a medically induced coma. Nurses have to move them to another facility, because even the hospital catches fire. Their dog Max is alive, but is nearly blind.

 

Greg Wilson: I have to say, I'm very impressed with my wife. She didn't panic at all. I mean, the only thing you're worried about is her.

 

Kristina Wilson: You just kind of do what you do to survive and we wanted to live, so ...

 

Al Letson: Have you talked to them since? I mean, do you know how they're doing?

 

Marisa Lagos: I think they're doing okay. Physically, they're doing a lot better. Greg's voice is back. They're both back at work. They're getting ready to move into a bigger house. They've been living in a kind of granny unit, but I think for a lot of people, the scars of these types of things don't heal that quickly.

 

Al Letson: Wildfire season is just about to begin again. I mean, what's that like for survivors like Greg and Kristina Wilson?

 

Marisa Lagos: I think it's tough. When I interviewed them, she talked about how they had a moment where she kind of panicked because they're up in the hills again, and they're surrounded by brush, and so there's a lot of trauma related to this and I think the whole community is really trying to work through that.

 

Al Letson: That was KQED's Marisa Lagos and Lisa Pickoff-White. They, along with Sukey Lewis, continue to follow the aftermath of this story. You can follow their coverage at KQED.org/wildfires. Thanks to KQED's Sonya Hudson and Peter Arcuni for additional reporting on these stories.

 

Katharine Mieszkowski, Byard Duncan, and Sukey Lewis produced our show this week. Deb George, Cheryl Devall, Andy Donohue, and Brett Myers were on our Editors. Our Production Manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Aruda. Our acting CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our Editor in Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning.

 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:34:00 - 00:50:16]