News Column

EDITORIAL: Ben Shoval's rise and fall an important story to tell

August 3, 2014

Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

Aug. 03--Ben Shoval blew into Yakima from the East Coast five years ago as a former hedge fund manager hoping to put together business deals for himself rather than making deals for others. He spent more than $3 million buying more than 40 properties, launched a commercial development on an abandoned drive-in restaurant site in the city's highly visible but blighted northern gateway and got involved in civic activities.

And he ventured into politics in a big way, for a newcomer. As a member of the Yakima Planning Commission, he helped rewrite the planning code to make the city more business-friendly. He was one of three sponsors of a ballot measure to establish a strong-mayor form of government -- a measure that was narrowly defeated. He gained a huge victory for another ballot measure that requires a supermajority City Council vote to raise taxes.

Then there was his candidacy for the state House of Representatives, for which he formally declared in April, two months after publicly testing the waters. But almost as quickly as Shoval entered the race, he dropped out -- after raising some $43,000, more than any of his three other opponents. Shoval said internal polling showed he couldn't win, and he threw his support behind fellow Republican Gina McCabe of Goldendale. Supporters were already abandoning him before his withdrawal, some questioning his past and present business practices.

End of story, right? Not exactly. Shoval is still on the ballot, and because of a quirk in state law, he could advance to November's general election -- maybe even win it -- if he's in the "Top Two" in Tuesday's primary. He is still a public figure who warrants news coverage. But not just because he's still on the ballot.

Because of Shoval's rise in local politics, and questions that began circulating in the community about his business practices, Yakima Herald-Republic business reporter Mai Hoang began probing Shoval's background in Pennsylvania and New York, and his deals in Yakima. Her story -- headlined "The political rise and fall of Ben Shoval" -- was published Thursday.

We expected criticism from Shoval's supporters would follow: He's not running anymore; why'd you do the story? What public concern are his private business investments?

We did it because it's our job to report on people who affect public policy and the community. As journalists, we are not cheerleaders for one candidate or another; our job is to look at them with clear eyes and without an agenda, to provide information to readers they otherwise could not obtain themselves. This is a story that needed to be done given Shoval's quick ascension in the public's eye, regardless of whether he ran for the state Legislature.

Questions have been raised about the American Dream Home Ownership Program, a limited liability company Shoval started as a rent-to-own program to help people who are poor credit risks. This kind of program, while legal, is unregulated and very expensive for the renters because of high interest rates. It's also risky for the borrowers, because unlike conventional lending, they don't get title to the property until the loan is paid off. One of Shoval's deals, which Hoang's story examined, resulted in a lawsuit settled in favor of the buyer.

Shoval's involvement as a hedge fund manager in Pennsylvania and New York also raised eyebrows here as people began checking the Internet on Shoval's background. A lawyer in New York put out feelers to investors, hoping to drum up interest in a lawsuit. That raised further questions here about his business practices.

His investment on North First Street, home of a former Lariat Drive In, was supposed to turn a lot that had become "a 30-person drug camp," he said, into a business opportunity for entrepreneurs. But of the nine construction trailers he installed and renovated at what he calls Plaza Yakima, only three today have businesses. Squatters have occupied some of those left vacant, police say.

After learning what she could about Shoval's background, Hoang invited him to an interview to discuss his past, present and future. Shoval shared with her his perspective on how he has helped Yakima, and how he feels he's been wronged by his opponents.

The purpose of Hoang's story wasn't to judge whether Shoval has been right or wrong, but to provide information to readers so that they can draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, what we have found is the more that people learned about Shoval, the less they trusted him to represent them.

Shoval cited his poor polling numbers when he suspended his campaign, an explanation that raised as many questions as it answered, especially given the unease by critics about how he conducts business. There had to be reasons why someone with his prominence, his tax-measure victory and his fundraising lead was lagging so much in he polling.

Hoang's story sought to answer those questions and allowed him to tell his side of the story. His campaign may be over -- or at least suspended -- but his relevance to civic and business affairs in Yakima is not. His story remains an important one to tell, and one to follow if subsequent developments warrant.

-- Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.


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Source: Yakima Herald-Republic (WA)

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