After rifling through eating-club tax forms for his investigative reporting class as a sophomore at Princeton, Marcelo Rochabrun ’15 stumbled upon what would eventually become his last contribution to The Daily Princetonian: evidence of charities funneling millions of dollars to eating clubs to pay for social facilities.
On April 7, the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) recognized Rochabrun’s article as 2015’s best investigative journalism at a small student newspaper in their annual investigative journalism awards.
Rochabrun, who was editor-in-chief of the Prince as a senior, is now a reporter for ProPublica, an independent investigative news outlet based in New York, where he covers stories about New York City housing and real estate. This is how he learned about submitting to the IRE — on the day of the deadline.
“At ProPublica I sit close to the person who handles award submissions, and she was talking about the IRE awards,” he said. “I remembered that there was a student category, so I started working on it that day and sent my application.”
The story detailed how certain eating clubs set up foundations in order to give their donors tax breaks for contributions that pay for social facilities. Rochabrun started researching the story for his class and couldn’t resist revisiting it his senior year. The story took about three months to finish, he said.
“It was right there in the paperwork. It was so obvious, so blatant,” he said. “The day after I finished my thesis, I said, ‘OK, I need to finish this story now,’ and it came out a month after that.”
Although he had never really had a strong intention to report on the eating clubs’ finances, after bumping into some questionable numbers in the paperwork, he knew it would be an important story.
“The eating clubs are a centerpiece of every Princetonian’s experience, so obviously I was curious about what the eating clubs’ financials look like,” he said. “But who’s looking into this? The forms are easily findable — you can find them online and for free — but very few people look into them.”
Rochabrun found, for example, that the Princeton Prospect Foundation (PPF), a group founded to “stimulate and encourage the love of learning and pursuit of knowledge,” provided more than $4 million in a two-year period to pay for a tap room, dining hall, and terrace at Cap & Gown.
In a statement responding to the news of Rochabrun’s award, the Princeton Prospect Foundation said that while it does not agree with the writer’s conclusions, it is “in the process of undergoing a thorough review with counsel of its mission statement and internal guidelines to determine how best to protect those who donate to PPF in order to sustain the enormous positive impact that Princeton’s eating clubs have had on so many students for well over a century.”
Rochabrun credits The Daily Princetonian and his time at Princeton for the success of his story and his continued interest in investigative journalism.
“Everything I know about journalism I learned at The Daily Princetonian. And that’s how it’s always been. And it was through other student editors, some who have gone on to be journalists and some who have not. But I learned everything there and got the support to start looking into these things,” he said.