The Dallas Bar Association, or DBA, announced the Dallas-based WFAA-TV team of Tanya Eiserer, Rick Rysso, and Mark Smith as the 2023 Stephen Philbin Award grand prize winner during the DBA’s Fellows Luncheon on October 25.
The team’s entry, titled “Broken Trust,” discovered that the small town of Onalaska, Texas, was the epicenter of a practice that allowed foreign nationals to transfer ownership of their planes to U.S. trust companies, according to a press release. The team uncovered one company that allowed drug traffickers to disguise ownership of their planes. The piece spurred on a federal investigation that led to drug and money laundering charges, the discovery of a $240 million Ponzi scheme, and a $1 billion disruption to drug cartel flights, according to a press release. The WFAA team received a $12,000 cash award for its entry.
The Texas Tribune and ProPublica investigative team of Kiah Collier and Jeremy Schwartz won second place and a $5,000 cash award for a series of articles titled “Gun Loopholes in Texas Legislation.” The series includes individual pieces titled “Texas’ Law on Gun Background Checks Plagued by Critical Omissions of Minors’ Mental Health Records,” and “Texas Just Closed a Critical Gun Background Check Loophole.” Following the May 24, 2022, school shooting in Uvalde, the team learned that court clerks were not reporting mental health hospitalizations of juveniles and that troubled youth could purchase semi-automatic rifles on their 18th birthday, according to a press release. Following the report, lawmakers passed a bill to close this loophole, according to a press release.
The Philbin Award was established in 1983 in honor of Stephen Philbin, an authority on media law and an active member of the DBA who died in 1982.
For more information about the DBA and its Stephen Philbin Awards, go to dallasbar.org.