Palm Papers

Graduation Date

Fall 12-15-2017

Grading Professor

Andrew Lehren

Subject Concentration


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) came into possession of a secret dataset of property owners of the Palm Islands, the elite high-end artificial islands on the coast of Dubai.

With over 250 neighborhoods on Dubai’s waterfront, a group of journalists around the world has been investigating who these individuals are that can afford the posh and pricey real estate. While most fall into the uber-rich category, some also have corrupt to criminal backgrounds leading to questions such as if the Palm Islands are truly a real-estate paradise, or instead a refuge for the corrupt.

The task for each journalist was to dig up any leads of corruption, money laundering and criminal acts to find just exactly who can afford to be - and how they can afford to be - Palm Island property owners. I was given two different lists: a list of approximately 900 individuals and companies affiliated with the United States; and, a list of approximately 700 individuals and companies affiliated with Canada.

For each name in my two lists, I spent no more than 10 minutes backgrounding each person using: Google, Pipl and Spokeo, the OFAC sanctions list, LexisNexis clip search and LinkedIn. I would also search each person’s affiliated email address and company. Each week I wrote up my findings in story memos.

Once I found prospective money launderers or corrupt individuals, I began reporting out with a more extensive clip search, using the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) to look up court cases and making calls to potential sources.

Among the findings were: a businessman who committed health care fraud and fled to the United Arab Emirates after serving prison time; a CEO of global construction company with U.S. federal - including military - contracts in Afghanistan and Africa who was sued for breach of contract; a bank on the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions list whose executives slipped away -- all of whom own properties on the Palm Islands.

Link to capstone project: (direct link will be available March 2018) and

AUDIO_Rothwell_Nicole_sequence1.mp3 (744 kB)
Edwin Truman, senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics

AUDIO_Rothwell_Nicole_sequence2.mp3 (1714 kB)
Jan deRoos, Ph.D., Professor of Hotel Finance and Real Estate at Cornell University and former board member of Jumeirah Hotels in Dubai



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