Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German broke stories that could spur change. In 2017, he reported that mass shooter Stephen Paddock, from his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, had first fired his gun at two jet fuel tanks before turning it on the crowd of concertgoers below him. The attack, which killed 60 people, was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. German’s scoop sparked an independent review that recommended heavier security for jet fuel tanks.

Then, following the mass shooting, he started digging into emergency response plans for casinos on the Las Vegas Strip and discovered that Nevada officials hadn’t been making casinos comply with a 2003 state law to file safety plans with the state. In response, state officials created a task force to strengthen legal requirements on casinos. (See “Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German killed outside home,” by David Wilson, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sept. 3, 2022.)

German’s reporting also exposed corrupt politicians. He broke the news that the FBI was probing a city councilwoman’s campaign finances. He led an investigation that revealed how the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority rewarded elected officials who served on its board with first-class overseas trips. (See “Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German killed outside home.”)

And, over the course of a 40-year career, German earned a reputation for being a tenacious reporter who didn’t seem to worry much about angering the powerful — and the dangerous. He made enemies covering mafia crime families and their fight to control the casinos of the Vegas Strip in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In a 2021 episode of the podcast “Mobbed Up,” German recounted the time one particularly disgruntled gangster punched him in the face.

“One night, years ago at a social gathering of politicians and courthouse movers and shakers at the old Sands Hotel, I was sucker punched by a mob associate unhappy with the way I portrayed him in one of my stories,” he said. “A couple of hours later and four stitches under my lip, I had a war story to tell.” (See “The Strip’s Kingmaker,” June 21, 2021, Las Vegas Review-Journal and “Remembering Jeff German: A year after slaying, immeasurable impact of RJ reporter’s work lives on,” Katelyn Newberg, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sept. 2, 2023.)

In an interview with news show 48 Hours, Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said that German was “guided by an innate sense of right and wrong.” According to Cook, “If he knew someone was engaging in criminal activity, unethical activity, inappropriate behavior … he wanted to do that story, he wanted to bring it to light.” (See “How slain Las Vegas journalist Jeff German may have helped capture his own killer,” by Peter Van Sant, 48 Hours, Feb. 20, 2024.) It was those qualities — the tenacity, the commitment to exposing the truth — that Washington Post reporter Lizzie Johnson says inspired her to pick up and finish reporting the last story German had been working on before his death in 2022.

“He seemed like a very old-school, shoe-leather reporter who was out talking to as many people as he could and wasn’t afraid to tell stories that were possibly dangerous,” Johnson tells Fraud Magazine in a recent interview. “I just wish I would’ve gotten the chance to meet him.”

On Sept. 2, 2022, Jeff German was found stabbed to death outside his home in Las Vegas. He was 69. His alleged killer, a Clark County, Nevada, elected official named Robert Telles, was arrested just five days later. German had written a series of stories examining claims that Telles, head of the Office of Public Administration, was bullying his staff and having an inappropriate relationship with one his employees. (See “County office in turmoil with secret video and claims of bullying, hostility,” by Jeff German, Las Vegas Review-Journal, May 16, 2022.) The stories had most likely been the reason that Telles lost his bid for re-election to an employee who had decided to run against him. (See “How slain Las Vegas journalist Jeff German may have helped capture his own killer.”) According to Telles’ arrest report, he was upset over the stories German had written about him. In March 2024, Telles’ trial was postponed without a new date to give prosecutors more time to review German’s cellphone and computer records for evidence. (See “Video captures suspect minutes before reporter’s killing,” by Sabrina Schnur, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sept. 13, 2022 and “ Trial date postponed for ex-elected official accused of killing Las Vegas journalist,” Associated Press, March 12, 2024.)

In the days and weeks following his death, German’s colleagues would set to work reporting on his murder and tying up his unfinished stories. German’s murder was big news in the journalism world, and fellow journalists across the U.S. reached out to his colleagues at the Review-Journal to see if there was anything they could do to help. One offer of help from Craig Timberg, deputy managing editor of the Washington Post, was met with this suggestion from Cook: to finish a story on a Ponzi scheme that German was in the early stages of investigating. The scheme had bilked more than 900 members of the Church of Latter-day Saints out of $500 million. Timberg asked Johnson, who had just finished a project, if she wanted the assignment. She readily agreed to see German’s report to the end. “It was an immediate yes,” she says.

The completed story was published simultaneously in both the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Review-Journal in February 2023. (See “An investigative reporter was slain. What about his unfinished story?” by Jeremy Barr, The Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2023.)

“You know, I looked at the work that he’d done, and I just had so much admiration for him. This was a journalist who had covered his community for decades, exposing wrongdoing and making his city a better place to live in and that’s the kind of reporter I want to be with the kind of career arc I want,” Johnson tells Fraud Magazine.

In June, both Johnson and German will be honored with the Guardian Award for their work on the story at the 35th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference in Las Vegas. The Guardian Award is presented annually to a journalist whose determination, perseverance and commitment to the truth has contributed significantly to the fight against fraud. Fraud Magazine recently talked to Johnson about reporting on the scheme and what it was like to finish another journalist’s work. And, like Johnson, journalists have a history of collaborating to finish the work of their fallen colleagues.

Safety in numbers

In a 2018 interview with Fraud Magazine, Guardian Award-winner Clare Rewcastle Brown, the independent journalist who exposed the massive 1MDB corruption scandal, said, “Every journalist treads a dangerous path every day if they write anything about the rich and powerful.” Brown was referring to the threats journalists face to their reputations and livelihoods when they go up against the powerful, but threats to their personal safety aren’t out of the question when people with things to hide are willing to do whatever it takes to keep those things hidden. Indeed, Brown was stalked in London because of her reporting. (See “Lone brave journalist exposes 1MDB corruption,” by Sarah Hofmann, CFE, Fraud Magazine, May/June 2018.)

The work of journalists isn’t without its dangers. After all, the job can take them to the frontlines of wars and the scenes of disasters. As of March 21, 2024, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that at least 95 journalists and media workers have been killed in the Israel-Gaza war since it started in October 2023. (See “Journalist casualties in the Israel-Gaza war,” CPJ.) Johnson herself has been in harm’s way more than once in the course of her work. She’s reported stories recently from the war in Ukraine, and before that she covered wildfires in the western U.S. for the San Francisco Chronicle. She says concerns about personal safety are ever present, but she also has a job to do.

“There are some stories where I’m having to knock on the doors of people who don’t want to talk to me and having to pull people out from those dark corners who don’t want to be pulled out,” she tells Fraud Magazine. “And I think in those moments it does cross my mind that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult for someone to figure out where I’m at. But I also deeply believe in the work that we do as journalists, and I think if you linger on what could go wrong or the fear for too long, it will incapacitate you from doing the work.”

The murder of a jounalist because of a story they’ve written is a rare occurrence in the U.S., and German’s murder is especially extraordinary considering that his suspected killer was an elected official. (See “Murder of Jeff German brings historic challenge to reporter shield laws,” by Briana Erickson, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Oct. 8, 2022.) But the killing of a reporter who writes a story that challenges the corrupt, the powerful or the criminal is not without precedent, and as in German’s case, those tragedies brought journalists together to finish their stories. As German’s fellow reporter at the Review-Journal, Briana Erickson, told 48 Hours, “The main thing here is you cannot kill a reporter and kill the story.” (See “How slain Las Vegas journalist Jeff German may have helped capture his own killer.”)

One example of journalists uniting to finish a fallen colleague’s story occurred with the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles, who was killed by a car bomb while reporting on organized crime. His death brought together 38 journalists from 28 newspapers and TV stations across the U.S. in what became known as the Arizona Project to complete his work on mob activities. In 2007, Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey was shot and killed while investigating the finances of a bakery. His murder was allegedly ordered to stop his coverage. People from California news organizations and journalism schools formed a coalition called the Chauncey Bailey Project to finish his reporting. (See “An investigative reporter was slain. What about his unfinished story?” by Jeremy Barr, The Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2023.)

And then there’s the ACFE’s 2020 Guardian Award winner Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist killed by a car bomb in 2017. Caruana Galizia was famed for her critical, in-depth investigations of Malta’s ruling elite. In 2017, French journalist Laurent Richard created the nonprofit organization Forbidden Stories to bring journalists together to complete the work of those who had been killed or jailed. Forbidden Stories’ first project, “The Daphne Project,” published stories following up on her reporting of official corruption in her country. (See “An investigative reporter was slain. What about his unfinished story?” and “Daphne’s message lives on,” by Emily Primeaux, CFE, Fraud Magazine, May/June 2020.)

Richard, in an interview with the Washington Post, said collaboration is a show of strength against intimidation. “Collaboration makes sense because, first, collaboration brings protection. If you show that you are not alone, then there is no interest to kill your journalist if you know that 50 others will continue his work.”

Carrying the light

Johnson’s title with the Post is enterprise reporter — her specialty is investigative work, focusing in-depth on one topic at a time, building narratives and ultimately producing deeply studied accounts of her subjects. Perhaps it was this background that made her so well-suited to German’s Ponzi scheme story and carrying it out, from perusing court records, to reviewing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents, and contacting many, many people. She told Fraud Magazine that she contacted 297 people who were victims of the scheme, and she kept track of every person in an Excel spreadsheet. She didn’t talk to all of them; in the end she says that only about two dozen people were willing to speak with her, and even fewer were willing to use their full names. Most were uncomfortable going on the record about being a victim of a fraud, she says.

“As you can imagine, people who are victims of this kind of crime often feel very embarrassed,” Johnson tells Fraud Magazine. “It doesn’t seem like anything they would ever get wrapped up in, and so people were very hesitant to talk to me.” Johnson says that to convince people to talk to her and open up about their experiences she told them she only wanted to interview them if they wanted to. “You don’t want to further victimize someone by taking their story away or making them feel like they’ve been badgered into talking with you. I just explained to them that it’s important for people to understand the real-world impacts that this had.”

Reporting on financial fraud is not Johnson’s usual focus. She considers herself a narrative reporter who “jumps into certain worlds for a bit of time and really gets to know how things work, and then I move on to the next thing,” she explains. But she says that she quickly found her way around the case. “I was actually surprised by how accessible it could be once you started learning. Oh, this kind of makes sense, you know, figuring out the statutes and figuring out where to find documents and understanding the framework that the scheme is built around,” she tells Fraud Magazine.

But thanks to German, Johnson didn’t have to step into the project without any direction. He left behind a few breadcrumbs for her to follow. When she first arrived at the Las Vegas Review-Journal office in November 2022 to begin work on the story, she was greeted with folders from German’s colleagues. (See “An investigative reporter was slain. What about his unfinished story?” by Jeremy Barr, the Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2023.) And they also handed her a three-paragraph memo German had written to outline the story he wanted to write about the scheme, which had originated with Mormons living in Las Vegas, but then had rippled out to church members across the U.S. west and eventually to other parts of the world. In German’s memo, according to Johnson, he described to his editor that he wanted to expose “the tangled web of wrongdoing.”

“Reading it, I realized he and I had very similar mission statements when it came to our work, which is putting the victims first, helping people understand what had happened.”

After she finished reading the memo, she got started pulling together all the documents that German had mentioned in his memo: SEC filings and court records. She then lined up an interview with the alleged perpetrator Matt Beasley, a Las Vegas lawyer who had been so mired in gambling debt that he came up with an investment scheme to recoup his losses (plus more). [See “An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire.” by Lizzie Johnson, The Washington Post and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Feb. 1, 2023.] Beasley had since been arrested and was sitting in jail when Johnson first interviewed him for the story. And, of course, she started contacting as many of the victims of the scheme as she could.

Johnson tells Fraud Magazine that as she prepped to write the story, she listened to German’s Mobbed Up podcast. It helped her understand who he was as a reporter, but she was also concerned with getting fixated on trying to figure out how German would’ve written the story. “I knew that if I focused too much on how Jeff would’ve done it or what he would’ve thought, I would’ve been incapacitated by the great responsibility of carrying one of somebody’s last stories through,” says Johnson.

“I did find that listening to his podcast was a really nice way to balance those two things. I got to hear the sound of Jeff’s voice and how he talked about his stories,” says Johnson. “It was just such an honor to follow in his footsteps and try to carry the light for him, knowing that just because Jeff had been killed, it didn’t mean his story had to die with him.”

Finishing the story

German’s story that Johnson completed was published on Feb. 1, 2023. The story opened with a standoff between FBI agents and Beasley, who had a gun and was threatening to take his life. FBI agents claim that he was pointing his gun at them, and agents shot him in the shoulder. He repeatedly acknowledged during the confrontation that he had in fact perpetrated a Ponzi scheme. Titled, “An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire,” Johnson’s (and German’s) story takes readers through the development of the scheme and how it devastated the lives of so many people who relied on the trust and the word of their fellow churchgoers to sell them an investment plan that they thought could help them make better lives for themselves and their families.

The scheme unraveled like this: Beasley, who was up to his eyeballs in gambling debt, was looking for relief. So, he pitched an idea to his friend Jeffrey Judd, who just happened to be Mormon. (Beasley isn’t Mormon.) The idea was that investors would loan money to slip-and-fall victims awaiting their settlement money. It was sold as a risk-free opportunity to earn annual returns of 50% on the settlement funds. Judd liked the idea enough to pitch it to his fellow church members. Before long, members of the church were investing their savings into the scheme, and people from as far away as Taiwan and Singapore were sinking their funds into it. An 81-year-old retiree from Buckeye, Arizona, told Johnson that 95% of his money — about $2.2 million — was tied up in the scheme. One woman, speaking about how she trusted her fellow church members when deciding to invest in the scheme, told Johnson that ‘’all the red flags were heart shaped.” (See The Washington Post and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Feb. 1, 2023.)

Johnson says that most of the people caught up in the scheme weren’t wealthy investors with lots of money to throw around. “I think there was this preconception that it was rich people losing a nominal amount of money and they were able to continue on with their life,” she tells Fraud Magazine. “But it was also, you know, people who were suffering from cancer and having to deal with this in the middle of treatment; people who lost their kids’ college funds, people who literally lost their homes because they were trying to attain a middle-class lifestyle.”

Between 2017 and 2022, more than 900 people invested approximately $500 million in the scheme. Beasley and Judd became very wealthy, buying fancy cars, expensive real estate, a private jet and cryptocurrency. (To date, Judd hasn’t been arrested in the case, and Beasley insists that Judd didn’t know it was a Ponzi scheme.) Beasley used his ill-gotten gains to pay off his gambling debts. According to the article, an SEC forensic accounting showed that he paid more than $6.7 million to his bookie. (See “An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire.” and Las Vegas Review-Journal.)

But Ponzi schemes have their hallmarks, and there was a small, select group of people who were getting suspicious. An attorney in Salt Lake City alerted the SEC after seeing one of his friends invest. An accountant with five clients tied up in the scheme sent an email to the investment firm Hindenburg Research, which specializes in investigating fraud. The firm’s leader, Nate Anderson, started looking into it, and saw an obvious scheme. Anderson told Johnson that he discovered that Beasley and Judd didn’t have liens, which would’ve been present in a legitimate investment to cover them if people didn’t pay back their loans. (See “An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire.” and Las Vegas Review-Journal.) Moreover, the investment didn’t have a website and relied on word-of-mouth amongst an affinity group to spread the word — all signs of a Ponzi scheme.

Johnson, who came into the investigation knowing very little about Ponzi schemes, says that she understands how people could’ve been easily taken in by the pitch. “I was really surprised by how legitimate the Ponzi scheme seemed if you didn’t know any better,” she tells Fraud Magazine. “I heard tapes of [marketers involved in the scheme] giving the pitch and well, if you aren’t financially literate and don’t understand what a sham this is, it sounds real, right? People who are really intelligent still got swept up into this because it was a good pitch coming from someone that they trusted. Anyone could be vulnerable to this, right? It’s just the right set of circumstances that allowed these people to slip past their defenses.”

The SEC eventually began investigating Beasley, culminating with the standoff between him and the FBI. Beasley was indicted in March 2023 on charges of wire fraud and money laundering and pleaded not guilty. Charges against him for allegedly pointing a gun at FBI agents were dropped. Beasley insists that he never pointed his gun at agents. (See “Las Vegas lawyer pleads not guilty to Ponzi scheme, assault charge dropped,” by Katelyn Newberg, Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 31, 2023.)

Johnson — and German—have received many accolades for their work on the story. In 2023, The National Press Club honored them with its highest award, the President’s Award. And the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press awarded Johnson, along with Review-Journal executive editor Glenn Cook and photographer Rachel Aston, with the Freedom of the Press Award for their work on the story. But Johnson tells Fraud Magazine that for her the most gratifying part of completing German’s story was seeing reactions from his colleagues at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and his family.

“The most important thing to me was that the folks at the Review-Journal really thought that it’s a story that Jeff would’ve liked and would’ve been proud of,” she says. “The most important thing to me  was that folks at the Review-Journal be proud of the story — and I think Jeff felt that way too,” she says. “Holding power to account, illustrating harm. All things  that would’ve been important to him, and were important to me too. In the end, after the story published, I actually heard from Jeff’s family, which meant the world to me. They said that Jeff would’ve been proud.”

Jennifer Liebman, CFE, is editor-in-chief of Fraud Magazine. Contact her at JLiebman@ACFE.com.

Image of Jeff German on the Las Vegas Strip Source: K.M. Cannon, Las Vegas Review-Journal