Pulitzer winners talk police corruption

Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker have keen intuitions, contact information for Philadelphia police officers and drug pushers alike and, between them, a Pulitzer Prize.

But the two Philadelphia Daily News journalists can’t seem to find any pens.

“The Daily News is kind of janky,” Ruderman joked. “We never have enough equipment, and we never have enough pens.”

To Ruderman and Laker, the pen became an emblem of their adventures writing last year’s “Tainted Justice,” a series of articles about corruption in the Philadelphia police force. The series nabbed the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

“It was really a shoestring kinda thing, where all we needed was a notebook, a pen and sneakers to run from the crazy people,” Ruderman said.

Ruderman and Laker appeared at the College last Thursday to speak to journalism students about their experience writing the series – from finding rogue cops to finding pens.

Ruderman began working for the Daily News in 1997, after working for the Trenton Times for a number of years. She specializes in stories about police corruption.

“I’ve always had an interest in police officers, and when police officers cross that line,” she said.

Ruderman became involved in the case when Ventura “Benny” Martinez, a prolific police informant, approached her with his story.

Martinez was a former drug dealer. After the cops busted him one too many times, he became a police informant, working with narcotics officer Jeffrey Cujdik. Cujdik and Martinez forged a bond, which, according to Ruderman and Laker, ran inappropriately deep.

“Jeff rented a house to Benny,” Laker said.

Martinez and Cujdik both made money from the drug busts, but Martinez alleged Cujdik benefited most of all, taking most of Martinez’s share of the deal for “rent payment,” which was often collected arbitrarily.

“Benny would go up and try to make a buy. Jeff would write a search warrant to go over and search the house. It was a big-money operation,” Laker said. “Jeff was making money off this.”

In addition to the money collected for each drug bust, Cujdik would receive overtime for appearances in court related to each offense.

“Jeff would pick up Benny every night and go out,” Laker said. “Benny became the most prolific informant in Philadelphia.”

The duo’s efforts locked up nearly 200 drug dealers, according to Laker and Ruderman. But Martinez alleged something was afoul with a division of these busts.

“If Benny would tell Jeff, ‘Look, I can’t make that buy,’ … Jeff would say, ‘It’s O.K.,’ and send him down the road to buy from another dealer,” Laker said.

Cujdik would then obtain a search warrant for the original home under the guise that Martinez obtained drugs from it – whether he had or not.

Ruderman knew she needed to back up Martinez’s claims with evidence before writing an article about it. So she enlisted Laker for help, and the two launched their own investigation into the claims.

Efforts to corroborate Martinez’s story led to a search warrant room, drug dealers’ homes and two other explosive stories on Philadelphia police corruption.

Once the “Tainted Justice” series was complete, Ruderman and Laker had exposed three scandals in the department – the corrupt Cujdik/Martinez collaboration, unjust raids of bodegas by Cujdik’s narcotics squad and a number of sexual assaults on women by Officer Thomas Tolstoy.

Students appeared transfixed by Ruderman and Laker’s story. Introduced as “two kick-ass journalists” by Professor Emilie Lounsberry, the pair proved their mettle with stories of close encounters with drug dealers, ferocious attorneys and corrupt policemen.

Hands shot up when Ruderman and Laker asked for questions. ?One student asked if being women affected how they were treated when covering the stories. ?Ruderman and Laker smiled. ?“Since we’re both crazy and we’re both really daring, it was nothing but help to us,” Laker said. ?Read “Tainted Justice” at http://www.philly.com/dailynews/hot_topics/Tainted_Justice.html .