How I Got That Story: Alan Prendergast

"You're In Bad Hands" Westword

Coming from a liberal arts education and working with publications such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Newsweek, Alan Prendergast acknowledges his background is “a little different” from other reporters within the alternative press.

But his desire to do long form reporting brought him to Denver’s Westword, where he’s been a staff writer since 1995. This year, he took first place in long form reporting, in the over 50,000 circulation division, for “You’re in Bad Hands,” about a woman’s legal battle against Milwaukee-based insurance company Assurant Health for breach of contract.

Prendergast, 54, is also the author of a true crime novel, The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Terror, and teaches at Colorado College.

Why and how did you decide to pursue this story?

I guess the overarching issue wasn’t a hard one to get interested in; there was a lot of debate about health care reform raging at the time that I was looking at this. But the real question was how to find someone, find a story that would capture some of these issues in a really dramatic way—rather than doing some wonky piece about Whither Healthcare, or something like that.

That part of it was a little trickier because there were all sorts of problems. So, I got interested in the issue of post-claim underwriting, which I’d never heard of before until I heard about this case. The more I looked into what was happening with this particular woman’s situation, the more I realized this was not going to, in any way, sum up the whole health care debate, but it was a pretty good indication why reform was needed—because of this type of corporate policy. This is not some incidental thing, or somebody falling through the cracks; this is someone who made an effort to have coverage for herself and her children and it was taken away from her under a very flimsy pretext, at a time when she needed it most, and that opened up the whole door of looking at this particular company and its history of doing this.

[As to how I heard about this story, by] hanging out with lawyers and hearing about an interesting case that’s coming up, that’s headed for court, where the parties involved are not going to settle this quietly, but really want to sort of thrash this out in public.

What surprised you about this story?

There were a few things; I guess what was most astonishing to me—I really had no idea the verdict would turn out the way it did. It was one of the largest punitive damage verdicts in the state’s history and when I sat through the trial, I kind of understood why that would happen. I still was surprised it happened; I still didn’t expect it. There’s no way to predict anything like that.

I guess part of what surprised me was how clueless the defense, the attorneys for Assurant Health, seemed to be about how their case was coming across to the jury. The jury was incredibly, when I interviewed a couple of them, they were incredibly critical of just how tone deaf these attorneys seemed to be about the nature of the story they were telling. That this woman deserved to have her health insurance taken away because of some bureaucratic issue, which they were trying to raise about what she’d done on her application well before she got into this accident. That was pretty astonishing. They had brought in a team of lawyers from Mississippi who just didn’t seem to play well in front of a Boulder jury and didn’t seem to realize how they were coming across.

What was the hardest part of reporting this story for you?

That’s a good question. I think trying to convey some of the nuances of what was being presented in the courtroom, what was happening. There are aspects of testimony that you only really can capture if you’re there, if you’re watching the interplay between the lawyers and the witnesses and the judge.

So, that’s a big time commitment, especially these days to say to an editor, “Hey, I want to go spend a week or more sitting in a courtroom, watching this trial.” Even though long stretches of it might be boring, you really have to be there for the moments that are going to illuminate the story. There are several moments in that story, I think, that sort of show what’s really going on between this insurance company and their clients. Just by the way they try to dismiss her claims and the way they treated her when she was on the stand, the total lack of concern they seemed to have about the ordeal they had put this woman through.

You mentioned time being an issue. How long did it take you to put this story together?

It actually, compared to some features, was fairly compressed. I mean, there was a little bit of document work and tracing some of the other cases this insurance company had been involved in, but it was turned around over the week or so of the trial.

I remember, unfortunately, the verdict came quickly. The closing arguments were made, I think, on a Friday morning, the jury came in late Friday afternoon. I was talking to jurors over the weekend and posting quick blog items about the story, prefatory to the actual feature writing. So, you’re talking about essentially maybe, one to two weeks of reporting time and five days of writing time.

What kind of response did the story receive, once published?

Legal cases are never really finished until they’re finished. The insurance company, Assurant Health, also known as Time, wouldn’t really issue much of a comment to me; they did say they intended to appeal the case, which was, eventually, quietly settled for a fairly substantial sum—obviously, not the $37 million, but not peanuts either—many months later and that was not made public. So, really, there was nothing further to disclose.

A verdict does close a chapter on a story, even as you’re wondering if the appeals are going to take the thing into a different direction somewhere.

How did readers respond?

Readers responded very strongly and there was a lot of outrage over the story. The story was picked up by a lot of websites. It won a laurel from Columbia Journalism Review, which was very gracious and flattering, on account of what we did. That was gratifying; you’ve obviously hit a nerve. I mean, this is a local story, but it’s also a national story and it really got picked up a lot of places for what it illustrated about the private health care market and the problems that were arising out of this kind of coverage.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share about the story?

To me, this kind of story is a combination of sort of old-fashioned trial reporting, which most of us don’t get to do much any more, and trying to weave in the larger issues by bringing in other cases and context. To me, that’s a very satisfying combination because you have an opportunity to break some news at the same time you’re really getting elbow-deep into a serious issue that affects a lot of people. I was just glad that that opportunity arose and that we were in a position to do something with it.

How I Got That Story: Alan Prendergast

Alan Prendergast is Denver District Attorney Carol Chambers’ supervisor — unofficially.

“DAs aren’t subject to the same oversight as police. Who can supervise a district attorney? Nobody. You either don’t elect them or don’t re-elect them — or they’re removed by the judiciary somehow,” Prendergast says. “There aren’t checks and balances with DAs, let’s put it that way.”

“The Punisher” and “A Thumb on the Scales” appeared in Westword, where Prendergast has been a staff writer for over two decades. The stories examine Chambers’ use of Colorado’s “habitual offender” statutes, which give prosecutors leeway to seek longer sentences for repeat offenders regardless of the nature of the crimes. Prendergast says Chambers — who has used the habitual offender law zealously against petty criminals — employs the law differently than any other prosecutor he has seen.

Where did you get the idea for the story?

Chambers was already in the news for having been involved in a number of controversies with police and defense attorneys. She was being investigated for her interference in a civil case. Overall, this seemed like a much larger issue that was being ignored largely because it was difficult to talk about. And the people that she was going after aren’t people that are naturally sympathetic to readers. They are criminals, but the question is whether you should use this kind of law against these chronic but low-level offenders. I guess there was also enough level of concern. I heard about it through attorneys that were representing some of these people and through inmates in the jail who couldn’t believe what some of these guys were up against.

What was your biggest challenge?

The challenge was trying to do this long, complicated kind of piece and have readers care about it because, number one, these aren’t easily sympathetic people. And number two, it’s kinda hard to understand sentencing. How can someone steal a couple of hundred dollars worth of CDs, or something like that, and end up facing 40 years in prison?

Why did you decide to dig deeper than the dailies?

I think sometimes the temptation with weeklies is to shy away from stories that the dailies are already doing. But, often those stories in the dailies are poorly covered, or there are just a lot of questions left unanswered. I had a lot of questions that weren’t being answered in the daily coverage. Clearly, none of them were focusing on this particular issue, which I thought was in many ways — in terms of the costs involved and the impact on people’s lives — going to have more of a long-term effect than some of these controversies. I basically decided that, although it was a daunting thing to do, it was worth doing.

What was your stance on the DA’s habitual sentencing practices?

My view comes out through a lot of these individual stories. I don’t think that it’s bad for an article to have a point of view. It seemed to me that the important thing was to try to get a sense of who were the people who she was putting away — and what they had actually done. The best way to do that was, partly, to hang out in the courts and get some of the history and interview some of these people. It’s kind of unnerving when you see someone who has that much power as a prosecutor and seems to be somewhat detached from the consequences of these kinds of sentences. Personally, I don’t think she knew much about these people, so that’s what I was trying to get at. Her office did not even have numbers on how many of these people were given habitual sentences. I went to the state courts and did some number crunching to come up with the figures of their reports, which they then agreed with. They did’t seem surprised by it, but it was easily twice what any other jurisdiction was trying to do. The fact that she doesn’t even have those kinds of numbers tells me that I don’t think she looks at these individual circumstances very much.

What did Chambers think of the story when it came out?

I have since done many other stories regarding this prosecutor and she has continued to take my calls. She continues to be interviewed and even wrote a letter complimenting me about this one story — not this one, obviously. I think she’s aware that this policy’s being scrutinized and that’s a good thing; as journalists, that’s what we’re supposed to do. Frequently, these sorts of things get out of control because nobody’s looking. I can’t say it’s dramatically altered what she’s doing, but it certainly has given her a sense that someone may question the rationale for it.

Read the stories that garnered Prendergast a first-place finish in News Story — Long Form (circulation 55,000 and over):

The Punisher
A Thumb on the Scales

Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.

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