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Our 17 Biggest Investigations Of 2017

An innocent man freed after 23 years behind bars. Russian assassinations. Psychiatric hospitals beset by violence. Sexual assault at America's largest massage chain. Shadowy CIA contractors. And, yes, Donald Trump.

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1. Helping to free an innocent man who'd spent 23 years behind bars

Jon Lowenstein for BuzzFeed News

People in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood had been whispering for years about Detective Reynaldo Guevara. They said the Chicago cop framed people for murders. But few listened — until reporter Melissa Segura published a series of devastating investigations into Guevara and the system that enabled him. She found that more than 50 people had accused Guevara of framing them.

Her first story focused on a man who had been imprisoned for 23 years, Roberto Almodovar. Just eight days after it was published, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which had refused to budge on this and many other cases for years, announced it was “no longer in the interests of justice” to keep Almodovar locked up. He walked out of prison and into the arms of his daughter, who had been an infant when he was charged.

A later story sparked a review of another man's case. Then, through the lens of two murder investigations undertaken in one frantic night, a third story provided a step-by-step account of how the detective and his enablers flouted fundamental police procedures over the span of many years, letting murderers roam the streets while condemning the innocent to decades behind bars.

2. Exposing the true scale of Russia's targeted assassinations in the West — and how UK and US authorities have turned a blind eye

Rex / Getty / BuzzFeed

The London square was still and cold when the body fell, dropping silently through the moonlight and landing with a thud. Impaled through the chest on the spikes of a wrought iron fence, it dangled under the streetlamps as blood spilled onto the pavement. Overhead, a fourth-floor window stood open, the lights inside burning.

So began one of the year's most cinematic investigations, in which a transatlantic team of reporters uncovered evidence connecting Russian hitmen to 14 deaths in the UK and one in the US — all of which were treated as nonsuspicious by authorities. The series revealed how the British government, leery of antagonizing the Kremlin, has deliberately sidelined evidence of Russian involvement for years, while senior U.S. intelligence officials sent warnings from across the Atlantic, increasingly concerned that the pattern of assassinations would spread to American shores.

With the pace and propulsive power of a thriller, the series' longread showed how a circle of high-flying lawyers, fixers, and business partners of oligarch and fierce Putin enemy Boris Berezovsky died one by one in mysterious circumstances that US spies suspect are linked to Russian state security or organized crime, two groups that sometimes work together."

The reporters on this series were Heidi Blake, Tom Warren, Jason Leopold, Jane Bradley, and Richard Holmes, with contributions from Anthony Cormier and Ken Bensinger.

3. A prescription for violence

Desperate for mental health care, they came to hospitals owned by UHS, America’s largest for-profit chain of psychiatric facilities. Many of the troubled patients were children. But far from being helped, they were assaulted, dragged across the floor, and manhandled — incidents proven by shocking internal surveillance video obtained by reporter Rosalind Adams. The result: devastating portraits of hospitals plagued by riots and violence even though they are owned by a corporation whose 2016 profit margin exceeded 25%. And following our reporting, one the hospitals and its director came under investigation for abuse and neglect. UHS, which has disputed our reporting and insisted it provides quality care, responded to our series by trying to snuff out our reporting and silence its own staff.

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4. Sexual assault at Massage Envy

Kelsey Dake for BuzzFeed News

Across the US, people go to Massage Envy spas in search of a soothing, affordable escape. But reporter Katie J.M. Baker found more than 180 people who said what they got instead was sexual assault.

At first, the billion-dollar company said that’s not its problem to solve. But just over a week after our investigation was published, Massage Envy announced sweeping changes in how it will instruct franchisees to handle sexual assault allegations.

5. A dirty offshore bank — and its blue-chip Western enablers and protectors

Sian Butcher / BuzzFeed

Blatant forgery. Snarling guard dogs. Shredded evidence. Through leaked documents, reporters Tom Warren and Alex Campbell revealed the farcical scramble inside one of the world’s dirtiest banks to conceal incriminating information – while some of the planet's most prestigious accountants and lawyers used their powers to keep the bank, FBME, in business.

Meanwhile, financial giant Deutsche Bank facilitated hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions for FBME, which the US government decried as a hub for illicit money from “the darkest corners of the criminal underworld.” Indeed, a network of secret slush funds inside FBEM exposed Kremlin connections to people fronting for Syria's chemical weapons program, ISIS, and organized crime.

6. TrumpWorld

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

No American president has taken office with a giant network of businesses, investments, and corporate connections like that amassed by Donald J. Trump. His family and advisers have touched a staggering number of ventures, from a hotel in Azerbaijan to a poker company in Las Vegas. So we compiled and published a list — the largest public list of people and organizations connected to Trump.

Reporter John Templon — who worked with Anthony Cormier, Alex Campbell, and Jeremy Singer-Vine on that monumental effort — used the TrumpWorld data and other reporting to show that more than a quarter of Trump's overseas partners have tangled with the law. Trump promised voters that in office, he would work with only the “best people.” But Templon's examination of his international real estate deals shows that in business, he chose to work with a remarkable number of partners who have been investigated, charged, or convicted of crimes.

7. The most influential racist you never heard of

Regnery: Will Vragovic for BuzzFeed News

William Regnery II, a man who inherited millions but struggled in business, tried for 15 years to ignite a racist political movement — and failed. Then an unforeseen phenomenon named Donald Trump gave legitimacy to what Regnery had seeded long before: the alt-right. The press-shy white separatist broke his silence in a story by Aram Roston and Joel Anderson.

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8. Following the money in the Trump-Russia investigation

Elsa / Getty Images

A day before the indictment of Paul Manafort, reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier detailed much of what would end up in that indictment, including a series of suspicious wire transfers in which offshore companies linked to Manafort moved millions all over the globe.

Then they and Jessica Garrison discovered that the FBI was scrutinizing more than 60 money transfers sent by the Russian Foreign Ministry to its embassies across the globe, most of them bearing a note that said the money was to be used “to finance election campaign of 2016.” A spokesperson for the Russian government said the money was used to pay for overseas voting in its parliamentary election.

9. She told the DEA its agent was a stalker — then things got really bad

Wesley Allsbrook for BuzzFeed News

A US law enforcement agent based in Brazil shared sensitive information about international drug trafficking investigations with his girlfriend — and then, after she ended their affair, pursued a campaign of stalking and harassment. Reporter Daniel Wagner exposed how the DEA agent got away with terrorizing his ex-girlfriend, even as she repeatedly begged the US government to stop him.

10. Donald Trump's lawyer

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Long before he became Donald Trump’s feared attack dog, or began to visit the White House as the president’s personal attorney, or took a position with the Republican National Committee, or partnered with powerhouse lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs, Michael Cohen backed a different kind of venture: a gambling cruise that stiffed employees and vendors and blew off many of the ensuing lawsuits. In an interview, Cohen said he was a passive investor and didn't manage the business, so bore no responsibility for how it was run.

That was just one story that reporter Anthony Cormier (often teaming up with other reporters) wrote about Trump's consigliere. There was that time a check for $350,000 was deposited into a trust account he managed, to be disbursed to a woman living in South Florida. As the lawyer in charge of the account, Cohen was supposed to ensure that she got the money — doing so is one of the core duties of an attorney. But he didn’t. Why not? And what ultimately happened to all that money? “I don’t recall,” Cohen said in a deposition. The missing $350,000 — which has never been recovered — became the centerpiece of a lawsuit in Miami, where Cohen was accused of civil fraud. After years of litigation, Cohen prevailed, in part because the suit was filed past the statute of limitations. Cohen dismissed the story as “another poor attempt to malign my impeccable reputation."

Then there was that powerful Ukrainian oligarch who has been investigated for money laundering. The FBI has tied three of his employees to the Russian mob. When he and his partner wanted to build an ethanol factory, their company sought help from Cohen to pitch the deal to American investors from Morgan Stanley. The president's attorney said he played only a bit part in the venture and barely knew the oligarch, adding, “Your attempt to concoct a scenario between this individual and me is ludicrous.”

And Cohen vehemently denied one of the key allegations in the dossier published by BuzzFeed News after it was circulating at the highest levels of the US government. The dossier asserts that Cohen traveled to Prague during the 2016 US presidential election for a secret meeting with Kremlin officials. "Profoundly wrong," is how Cohen described the claim, and even showed BuzzFeed News his passport, which has no stamp for the Czech Republic.

Other reporters who contributed to this series include Chris McDaniel, John Templon, and Tanya Kozyreva.

11. BP's dangerous accidents in Alaska

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images (3)

At least 27 accidents happened at BP’s oil and gas operations in Alaska this year, including five that risked the lives of dozens of workers, BuzzFeed News has learned. As a result, BP’s top officials were scrambling to “reset” the company’s safety culture before one of these scares turned into a human or environmental catastrophe on the Alaskan North Slope, according to internal emails, recordings, interviews, and other documentation obtained by reporter Jason Leopold, who wrote the story with Zahra Hirji.

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12. “If You Keep Fucking With Mr. Trump, We Know Where You Live”

Ben King / BuzzFeed News

Trump’s casino business went bankrupt in 2009, and then a lawyer representing investors trying to get their money back told police he got a menacing phone call. A man said “we’re going to your house for your wife and kids” if the lawyer didn’t stop “fucking with Mr. Trump.” As Jason Leopold reported, the FBI determined the call came from a phone booth across the street from the theater where Trump was to appear that very day on The Late Show with David Letterman.

13. Fake news

Oliver Munday for BuzzFeed News

Ideologues, opportunists, and internet marketers built a massive new universe of partisan news on the web and on Facebook. In 2016 alone, at least 187 new websites launched, as the candidacy and election of Donald Trump unleashed a golden age of aggressive, divisive political content that reaches a massive amount of people on Facebook. Those were the findings of our study — which was the most comprehensive ever published on the phenomenon, and which reporters Craig Silverman, Jane Lytvynenko, Lam Thuy Vo, and Jeremy Singer-Vine conducted.

But an elaborate hoax based on forged documents showed how fake news can escalate to fake evidence. Reporters Ken Bensinger, Jason Leopold, and Craig Silverman also revealed an audience on the left that seems willing to believe virtually any claim that could damage Trump.

Taking fake news to even more sophisticated and disturbing levels, some Americans were tricked into organizing actual political protests by Russian trolls bent on sowing divisions in US society. Rosalind Adams and Hayes Brown spoke to four people who organized black rights protests and taught self-defense classes after being unwittingly recruited by people pretending to be US activists but who were really working for Russia's most infamous troll farm.

14. The US government's shadowy national security contractors

Tyler Comrie for BuzzFeed News

The White House and the CIA have been considering a package of secret proposals to allow former US intelligence officers to run privatized covert actions, intelligence gathering, and propaganda missions. That proposal — by the small company Amyntor, whose officials and employees include veterans of US covert operations, ranging from the Reagan-era Iran–Contra affair to more recent actions in Iraq and Afghanistan — would even let private contractors capture wanted terrorists overseas.

Erik Prince, founder of the security firm Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, proposed privatizing the entire war in Afghanistan. We obtained his actual pitch, which showed he had his eye on mining Afghanistan's rare and valuable minerals.

Contractors have had problems. Less than two months after a CIA contractor purchased a powerful and sophisticated anti-tank missile, it ended up in the hands of ISIS terrorists — highlighting weaknesses in the oversight and regulation of America’s covert arms programs. All these stories were reported by Aram Roston.

15. Whistleblowers: FBI software contains Russian-made code

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

The fingerprint-analysis software used by the FBI and more than 18,000 other US law enforcement agencies contains code created by a Russian firm with close ties to the Kremlin, according to documents and two whistleblowers. The allegations raise concerns that Russian hackers could gain backdoor access to sensitive biometric information on millions of Americans, or even compromise wider national security and law enforcement computer systems. The story was by Chris Hamby.

16. "Domestic spying"

BuzzFeed News

The Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has been illegally rifling through and filing away the private financial records of US citizens, Treasury employees alleged. “This is such an invasion of privacy,” said one official.

Meanwhile, when knife-wielding terrorists attacked civilians on London Bridge, officials from another intelligence unit within the Treasury Department raced to help — but found they were shut out of critical classified computer networks. The problem has hampered several antiterrorist efforts and prevented the unit from fully complying with the Senate investigation into Donald Trump and Russia. Both stories were by reporters Jason Leopold and Jessica Garrison.

17. A secret meeting

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

In the days leading up to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration — when his soon-to-be national security adviser Michael Flynn was reportedly pushing a multibillion-dollar deal to build nuclear reactors in Jordan and other Middle East nations — Flynn and two other top Trump advisers held a secret meeting with the king of Jordan.

The meeting was the latest in a series of secret, high-stakes contacts between Trump advisers and foreign governments that have raised concerns about how, in particular, Flynn and senior adviser Jared Kushner handled their personal business interests as they entered key positions of power. And the nuclear project raised additional security concerns about expanding nuclear technology in a tinderbox region of the world. One expert compared it to providing “a nuclear weapons starter kit.”

The story was reported by Jason Leopold, Chris McDaniel, and Anthony Cormier.

Pulitzer-prize winner Mark Schoofs is the investigations and projects editor for BuzzFeed News. While working at The Village Voice, Schoofs won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his series on AIDS in Africa.

Contact Mark Schoofs at mark.schoofs@buzzfeed.com.

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