WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 11-20-14
Boston Globe: Harvard, MIT profs ran sting operation on investment firms
The Boston Globe reports a team of Harvard and MIT economists, in an audacious experiment, dispatched a squad of undercover operatives across Cambridge and Boston to pose as middle-class investors and ask retail brokers for investment advice. The results were revealing. Just 21 out of 284 brokers contacted by the phony clients recommended investing in index funds, which mirror broader market performance and carry the smallest fees. Nearly half the brokers, meanwhile, steered clients toward actively managed mutual funds. Those funds — which sometimes beat the market but most often don’t — carry higher fees that enrich brokers and fund managers but, critics say, stunt the growth of middle-class nest eggs.
Portland Press Herald: Intimidating Maine voters from the shadows
The Portland Press Herald reports that before Election Day, many Mainers received an ominous postcard in the mail that claimed to show whether their friends and neighbors had voted in past elections, and included a veiled threat that they too could be exposed if they didn’t do their civic duty and vote. The threatening mailers angered some Mainers, but exactly who sent them remains a mystery. It also is a mystery – even to state elections officials – how the group apparently got hold of the state’s confidential voter database, access to which is limited by law.
New York Times: More federal agencies using undercover operations
The New York Times reports the federal government has significantly expanded undercover operations in recent years, with officers from at least 40 agencies posing as business people, welfare recipients, political protesters and even doctors or ministers to ferret out wrongdoing, records and interviews show. Undercover work, inherently invasive and sometimes dangerous, was once largely the domain of the FBI and a few other law enforcement agencies at the federal level. But outside public view, the newspaper reported, changes in policies and tactics over the last decade have resulted in undercover teams run by agencies in virtually every corner of the federal government, according to officials, former agents and documents.
Orange County Register: Toll road fees a “cash cow”?
The Orange County Register reports that under a new all-electronic toll road system in Orange County, paying at toll booths is no longer an option. As a result, some 2.3 million violations were recorded from June to September, data show. And as of two months ago, according to the most recent statistics, the Transportation Corridor Agencies’ four toll roads average more than 18,700 total violations a day. Without cash booths, more drivers are funneled into the violations process, according to information provided to the Register. And the penalty fees associated with still-unpaid trips during the four-month period could bring in as much as $36.95 million as of Oct. 20.
Sun Sentinel: Fort Lauderdale’s homeless: A tortured history
The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel reports there was a time when authorities wanted to round up the city’s homeless and bake them in "paddy wagons;" nowadays they just don't want them fed publicly or outdoors. Fort Lauderdale's current battle with a 90-year-old veteran over feeding the homeless has drawn global scrutiny, placing what some have branded "Fort Haterdale" in a spotlight of infamy. But nearly 35 years ago city officials were proposing far less sensitive ways to deal with the homeless. Back then, city commissioners were dead serious when they suggested hosing them while they slept, dumping them in the swamp and poisoning garbage cans."
Honolulu Advertiser: Free tickets diverted at USS Arizona memorial
The Honolulu Advertiser reports the National Park Service and its fundraising organization diverted a portion of what are supposed to be free tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial to tour companies for a fee, making it harder for "walk-up" visitors to take the national landmark tour.
"What these guys were doing ... was circumventing that whole system and taking from those tickets meant for people to walk in the door -- and selling those directly to tour companies," said John Landrysmith, who was an interpretive park guide for three years at the memorial.
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Minneapolis Star Tribune: ATV thrills drive child injuries and deaths
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports few things equal the fun of four-wheeling for those who love the great outdoors and enjoy a thrilling ride. Ridership nationwide has grown to 35 million, including more than 700,000 riders in Minnesota. But some ATV enthusiasts are gambling with their children’s lives. Instead of buying off-road vehicles specifically designed for young riders, many parents are letting their children drive adult-sized ATVs that can exceed 60 miles per hour and are as difficult to control as a car. Across the country, nearly 1,200 children have been killed and another 350,000 hospitalized in ATV-related accidents over the past decade, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 90 percent of the children who died were riding off-road vehicles built for adults, recent medical studies show.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Budget surpluses aplenty. What’s reasonable?
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports the town of Henrietta's excess surplus has become a poster child for bad budgeting. By the end of last year, the town had $12.7 million of taxpayer dollars on hand for no stated purpose — more than 80 percent of the $15.1 million that the town spent in 2013. No other town in Monroe County has been sitting on such a large sum. But a Democrat and Chronicle look at the surpluses of local governments shows there is a wide range of how much towns and villages set aside and how they use such funds.
Charlotte Observer: Beware IRS imposters caling from rogue center in India
The Charlotte Observer reports IRS impostors who have scammed Charlotte residents out of tens of thousands of dollars are operating out of a rogue call center in India, according to investigators. Stopping the scam – like most that originate in foreign countries – will be challenging and time-consuming. “My name is Steve Martin, and I’m calling regarding an enforcement action executed by the U.S. Treasury. ... Ignoring this will be an intentional second attempt to avoid initial appearance before a magistrate judge, or a grand jury, or a federal criminal offense.” Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James recognized a scam when he got that message from a man with an Indian accent. “They do try and sound legitimate,” James said, “but if you listen to it, it is legal gobbledygook.” Many people have been duped.
Philadelphia Inquirer: PA lags in reducing juvenile detentions
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that after enduring one of the worst juvenile justice scandals in American history, Pennsylvania took steps to shore up its juvenile court system. But the latest available statistics show the state still lags far behind the national average in reducing juvenile detentions, and in some counties the numbers aren’t falling at all. In Philadelphia, nearly as many cases ended with minors placed in facilities in 2012 as in 2004, state figures show. In Delaware county, the number jumped 20 percent, according to the data.
Austin American Statesman: “Broken” agency finalizing $90 million deal
The Austin American Statesman reports the state office charged with investigating Medicaid fraud and waste, criticized this week by state auditors and legislators as dysfunctional and “broken,” is finalizing a $90 million contract with an Austin analytics company that had no experience with Medicaid before its deal with Texas. Federal officials in September greenlighted $67.5 million in matching funds to pay for three years of software licenses and services from that company, 21CT, contract planning documents show. If the state finalizes the deal, it will be the second big payday for 21CT, a federal defense contractor and virtual unknown in the Medicaid fraud business before 2012 when Texas investigators first asked it to make sense of the ocean of data tracking $28.3 billion a year in Medicaid spending.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 11-13-14
Arizona Republic: Outside money played huge role in Arizona elections
The Arizona Republic reports money talked loudly and persuasively in this year's elections. And money that was spent outside of the candidates' control was the loudest of all, playing a decisive role in most of the statewide races as well as in other down-ballot contests. Gov.-elect Doug Ducey was the biggest beneficiary, attracting $8.2 million in outside money that either directly supported him or worked to defeat his opponent, Democrat Fred DuVal. The $12 million in outside money spent on the governor's race alone eclipsed the total spent in any previous Arizona governor's race.
Sacramento Bee: How California’s largest nursing home chains perform.
The Sacramento Bee, in the first of a three-part series, examines the daunting task of choosing long-term care in California where consumers remain largely in the dark about the ownership of many nursing homes – and their track records. While industry officials contend they are intensely regulated by both the state and federal government, no single agency routinely evaluates nursing-home chains to gauge the overall care provided by their facilities. Data are available for individual nursing homes, as federal, state and nonprofit groups keep records that chronicle staffing levels, bedsore rates and use of antipsychotic drugs, among many issues. But in California, the agency charged with overseeing these skilled-nursing facilities, the Department of Public Health, makes no effort to measure quality of care throughout a chain, or determine whether corporate policies and practices are contributing to any patterns.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Wanted: A few more good candidates
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports the state fares well in rankings of civic engagement, earning top marks in areas like voter turnout and community involvement. But in Tuesday’s midterm elections, nearly 400 offices sat vacant, with not a single person signed up to run.
Hundreds of other candidates across the state ran unopposed, according to a computer analysis by the Secretary of State at the Star Tribune’s request. From Albertville to Elko New Market, and all across the state, lagging participation in local politics may be only part of a bigger trend: a growing sense of apathy toward government, especially among younger folks, busier than ever and less likely to put down roots.
Orange County Register: Juvenile arrests plunge by half
The Orange County Register reports Orange County law-enforcement agencies are arresting half as many kids and teenagers than they have for decades, according to an analysis of new state data. The agencies collectively logged 6,900 juvenile arrests last year, marking the latest in a series of major drops since 2010. Over the previous two decades, authorities typically reported more than 14,000 arrests annually. The trend isn’t isolated to Orange County, however. Law-enforcement agencies statewide reported about 97,000 juvenile arrests last year. Just three years earlier, they logged an additional 89,000.
Akron Beacon Journal: For-profit charter schools among worst performers
The Akron Beacon Journal reports Ohio’s charter schools have a national reputation for hiring for-profit companies that produce poor academic results. Only three of 26 states had lower performing charter schools, according to a Stanford University study of states with schools in operation long enough to compare results. After a year in a charter school, Ohio students typically lag behind district school students by weeks in reading and months in math, the study finds. In most states, it’s the opposite. A factor in the difference appears to be the motivation to make money. Tennessee, New York and Rhode Island, which the study reckons have the highest-performing charter school sectors, are among the six states that ban for-profit companies.
Denver Post: Draft audit: Denver airport project costs soaring
The Denver Post reports poor record-keeping, sloppy accounting practices and lack of oversight have led to a projected $237 million increase in the cost of Denver International Airport's hotel and transit center, according to the city auditor. The Denver Post has obtained a draft copy of city Auditor Dennis Gallagher's performance review of DIA's management of the project. The audit, scheduled to be released to City Council members this month, excoriates airport managers for failing to control costs of its showcase project. The auditor projects the final cost at $737 million — $237 million more than the original $500 million budgeted in 2011 — and says it could go higher.
Hartford Courant: Anatomy of a flawed election.
The Hartford Courant reports the last-minute scramble at 4 a.m. to check the last of more than 1,200 absentee voters off the voter registration lists, completed less than an hour before polls were to open, was one in a series of lapses that led to some polling places not having registration lists when voting was scheduled to begin at 6 a.m. As a result of the failure, voters were turned away, a judge ordered the extension of hours at two polling places and the state's chief election official filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission. Interviews with poll workers, city employees, volunteers and state officials, as well as a review of internal emails obtained by The Courant, provide some insight into what went wrong:
Arizona Daily Star: Babies, toddlers risk losing vital therapies
The Arizona Daily Star reports that up to 600 babies and toddlers in rural Pima County and surrounding areas risk losing vital therapies because of the state’s low rates and slow reimbursement to contractors. Easter Seals Blake Foundation, one of two providers of early-intervention services in Southern Arizona, is discontinuing four of its seven contracts — including one serving Pima County’s northwest side — at the end of November. The state owes the Blake Foundation about $500,000, said Linda Lopez, the agency’s director of children’s and family services.
Portland Press Herald: Many Portland rentals have code violations
The Portland Press Herald reports that tenants of some older properties in Portland’s densely packed neighborhoods are living in apartment buildings that have code violations dating back years, according to fire department records. The city has put roughly 300 rental properties on notice that they must develop plans to address outstanding fire code violations, some as old as 2007. Twenty-two of those properties are managed by landlords who are not responding to the city’s notices. But even after the violation letters go out and action plans are drafted, the city’s record-keeping practices make it difficult to know whether the upgrades were made and follow-up inspections conducted in a timely manner.
Austin American Statesman: Wealthy cash in on Austin utility rebates
The Austin American Statesman reports that to meet the ambitious energy and water conservation goals set by Austin’s City Council, city-owned utilities have subsidized home and landscape improvements for years in some of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. The water and electricity utilities have distributed at least $165 million worth of conservation-promoting rebates. An analysis by the American-Statesman found that the ratepayers who draw rebates for new air conditioning units, rooftop solar panels, swimming pool covers and refrigerator upgrades tend to live in ZIP codes with higher median incomes than the rest of the city.
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WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM 11-6-14
AP Exclusive: Ferguson no-fly zone aimed at media
The Associated Press reported the U.S. government agreed to a police request to restrict more than 37 square miles (96 square kilometers) of airspace surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, for 12 days in August for safety, but audio recordings show that local authorities privately acknowledged the purpose was to keep away news helicopters during street protests over the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.
Akron Beacon Journal: Candidates don’t answer charter school questions
The Akron Beacon Journal reports a concerted effort by the News Outlet, a consortium of state university journalism programs and media in Northeast Ohio, to reach state legislators about school funding and school choice was a disappointment. Identifying themselves as a student journalism team working in conjunction with the Akron Beacon Journal, they attempted to contact 79 legislative candidates — incumbents and challengers — in Northeast Ohio and ask a question about charter schools that is now before the Ohio Supreme Court.
The student goal is to develop the Columbus Exchange: Politics in Question, a periodic current-issues survey of all 132 members of the House and Senate for use by all Ohio news organizations. Two-thirds don’t answer. Of 77 candidates with available contact information, 51 did not respond, even after multiple attempts to reach them. An Akron-area legislator refused to participate now and in the future.
Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Outsiders funding U.S. Senate race in Arkansas
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports a review of federal campaign contributions shows more than $2 of every $3 donated directly to the campaigns Arkansas’ U.S. Senate candidates have come from people and interests outside the state. Because direct gifts are only a slice of the overall money fueling the race, the full weight of out-of-state donations almost certainly will climb when all spending is calculated after Tuesday’s vote, experts in Arkansas elections and polics say.
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Sacramento Bee: California lawmakers rack up credit card charges
The Sacramento Bee reports California lawmakers racked up more than $4 million in campaign credit-card charges during the first 18 months of this election cycle. Some ate in five-star restaurants and reported holding meetings in nightclubs and an amusement park. They bought fruit baskets and wine as gifts. They went to Las Vegas, Hawaii and international destinations. A first-ever review of lawmakers’ credit-card spending by The Sacramento Bee found that many lawmakers provided only the barest of descriptions of their expenses on state-required campaign reports – despite a 2008 rule meant to improve disclosure. The lack of detail makes it difficult to determine whether lawmakers are using their campaign accounts to help them win re-election or do their jobs, or whether some have found an easy way to eat out and live a more luxurious lifestyle.
Baltimore Sun: Court ruling upends Maryland’s sex offender registry
The Baltimore Sun reports 1,155 sex offenders have been removed from Maryland’s sex offender registry since February, according to data it obtained through a public records request. Almost 400 of them are rapists, including a man who raped a blind teenage girl in a mall parking lot and a man who raped a 67-year-old woman who was walking her dog.
Most have been stripped out because of a decision by Maryland's highest court. That ruling handed a victory to advocates who said the registries were unfairly punitive, but has troubled legislators and upset victims.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Worst teachers are in the poorest schools
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports new teacher evaluation data show that Minneapolis schools with the largest number of low-income students have the highest concentration of poor-performing instructors. Students in the most affluent neighborhoods of the city are far more likely to have the best and most experienced teachers, according to school district records obtained by the Star Tribune. The new information is emerging as Minneapolis schools are facing federal scrutiny for an achievement gap between white and minority students that is among the worst in the nation.
USA Today: License plate data is big business
USA Today reports privately owned license-plate imaging systems are popping up in upstate New York — in parking lots, shopping malls and, soon, on at least a few parts of the New York state Thruway. Most surprisingly, the digital cameras are mounted on cars and trucks driven by a small army of repo men. Shadowing a practice of U.S. law enforcement that some find objectionable, records collected by the repo companies are added to an ever-growing database of license-plate records that is made available to government and commercial buyers. At present that database has 2.3 billion permanent records. On average, the whereabouts of every vehicle in the United States — yours, mine, your mother's — appears in that database nine times.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 10-30-14
Toledo Blade: $1.1 million in loans went to solar execs’ other firms
The Toledo Blade reports two consulting firms headed by the executives of a solar-panel manufacturer collected more than $1.1 million from the company’s taxpayer-funded state loans before the business closed this year. A Blade investigation shows Isofoton North America used part of the more than $15 million it received from the state to make payments that ranged from $1,689 to $301,600 to its executives’ consulting firms from December, 2011, to September, 2012. The taxpayer funding was largely intended to construct Isofoton’s factory in Napoleon, Ohio, and purchase equipment, records show.
Read more at http://www.toledoblade.com/local/2014/10/12/Loans-went-to-solar-execs-other-firms.html#irJzgpcbbiDbGE3i.99
Los Angeles Times: Family members beat odds getting firefighting jobs
The Los Angeles Times reports that Fire Department officials say the hiring of firefighters is based purely on merit, with the best candidates selected through an exacting regimen of testing and interviews. But a Times investigation has found that the process favors one particular type of applicant: sons of L.A. County firefighters. At least 183 sons of current or former firefighters have served on the force since the start of 2012, according to an analysis of payroll, pension, birth, marriage and other records. All told, sons represent nearly 7% of the county's 2,750 firefighters. When brothers, nephews and other relatives are included, at least 370 firefighters — 13% of the department ranks — are related to someone now or previously on the force, The Times found.
Denver Post: Links to babies’ deaths sought
The Denver Post reports from Vernal, Utah, that for some reason, one that is not known and may never be, Beau Murphy and a dozen other infants died in that oil-booming basin last year. Was this spike a fluke? Bad luck? Or were these babies victims of air pollution fed by the nearly 12,000 oil and gas wells in one of the most energy-rich areas in the country? Some scientists whose research focuses on the effect of certain drilling-related chemicals on fetal development believe there could be a link. But just raising that possibility raises the ire of many who live in and around Vernal. Drilling has been an economic driver and part of the fabric of life here since the 1940s. And if all that energy development means the Uintah Basin has a particularly nasty problem with pollution, so be it, many residents say. Don't blame drilling for baby deaths that obituaries indicate were six times higher than the national average last year.
Hartford Courant: Number of reported campus sexual assaults grows
The Hartford Courant reports the number of reported sexual assaults climbed last year on many Connecticut college campuses, an increase that college officials and experts attributed to heightened awareness and expanded educational programs that make it easier for victims to come forward. Of 11 Connecticut colleges and universities, eight reported increases in sexual assaults, with particularly sizable jumps at the University of Connecticut, Trinity College and Wesleyan University. Three colleges reported declines. At UConn, where the number of reported sexual assaults climbed from 13 in 2012 to 25 in 2013, Police Chief Barbara O'Connor said: "I think that statistic is going to be rising across the country as more attention is brought to this particular crime."
Delaware News Journal: “Phantoms” bloat voter rolls in Delaware
The Delaware News Journal reports tens of thousands of former residents and dead voters are bloating voter rolls in Delaware, despite the purging of 72,000 from the registry over the last three years. Around the country, errors in voter lists can lead to lines at the polls on Election Day, as well as vulnerability to fraud, experts say. But cleaning up voter rolls is a never-ending task. How's that happen? Part of the problem is phantom voters: People who have stopped voting, died or moved away, but remain on voting rolls anyway, officials say. Federal rules make it difficult to remove them.
Washington Post: Dozens of affordable housing loans languish in default
The Washington Post reports the District of Columbia government has failed to collect tens of millions of dollars on dozens of delinquent loans, most of them intended to boost the city’s stock of affordable housing, city records show. The typical delinquent loan — among a list of 43 — is more than four years behind on mortgage payments, according to the records. And the number has swelled even as D.C. housing officials did little more than mail warning letters to loan holders. This was true even in cases when organizations and their executives failed to remit a single payment for more than a decade. The documents point to a long-standing yet unacknowledged problem complicating the city’s efforts to address affordable housing. nges.
Idaho Statesman: Idaho’s mental health system in fragments
The Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio have teamed up to investigate the state of mental illness care in Idaho -- and have found it wanting. Many Idahoans get treatment for psychiatric disorders only when or after they are in crisis. Beginning Monday, Oct. 27, a five-part series examines why so many Idaho residents languish until they are a danger to themselves, in jail, homeless or worse. Find out what the state, local governments and businesses are doing to change - or bandage - the system.
New York Times: Law lets IRS seize accounts on suspicion only
The New York Times reports Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Carole Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes when they seized her checking account, some $33,000. In fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time from her business income, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report. Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Cancer drugs approved without proof they extend life
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports researchers have focused for decades on developing new cancer drugs that save lives or improve the quality of life. But when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed Inlyta, a $10,000 a month drug, on the market in 2012, there was no proof that it did either. Inlyta is not an exception to the rule. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today analysis of 54 new cancer drugs found that over the last decade the FDA allowed 74 percent of them on the market without proof that they extended life. Seldom was there proof of improved quality of life, either. Nor has the FDA demanded companies provide such evidence.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM
Washington Post: The biggest backlog in the federal government
The Washington Post reports the Social Security office of judges who hear appeals for disabiity benefits is 990,399 cases behind. That is Washington’s backlog of backlogs — a queue of waiting Americans larger than the populations of six different states. It is bigger even than the infamous backups at Veterans Affairs, where 526,000 people are waiting in line, and the patent office, where 606,000 applications are pending.
Miami Herald: Despite reforms, child deaths still undercounted in Florida
The Miami Herald reports that after it published a series examining the deaths of 477 children — and Florida’s failure to protect some of them from abusive or neglectful parents — the state promised a new era of openness and more rigor in the way it investigates child deaths. But except for abiding by a new state law that required the Department of Children and Families to create a website listing all child fatalities, Florida has continued to undercount the number of children it fails. “Nothing has changed,” said former Broward Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. James Harn, who supervised child abuse investigations before retiring when a new sheriff was elected last year. “Some day, somebody will say ‘let’s just stop the political wrangling.’ Here’s what you’ve got to do: Just tell the truth.”
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article3016499.html#storylink=cpy
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The biggest “ticket traps” in Georgia
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports you can often see Doraville police cruisers lying in wait for speeders. In fact, when it comes to traffic tickets, Doraville is one of the most aggressive police forces in Georgia. The newspaper examined five years of traffic fines paid in every police jurisdiction in the state, more than 500 cities and counties, and has set up a searchable database that shows traffic fine revenue from 2008 through 2012 for each and its income from tickets per capita.
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Indianapolis Star: Indiana lawmakers travel on taxpayer dime
The Indianapolis Star reports its review of lawmakers' out-of-state travel records found that taxpayers have spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars during the past two years to send state lawmakers everywhere from Alaska to Florida. Most of that money was spent on government and legislative conferences — including those of a powerful and controversial conservative policy group. In all, 86 Indiana lawmakers took 188 trips during the past 26 months, costing the public at least $216,506. And that figure doesn't include a $156 per diem for each day of travel intended to cover the cost of food and other incidental expenses. That brings the total to $343,490. In some cases, the trips included swanky hotel rooms and expensive flights to exotic locations.
Louisville Courier-Journal: Analysis: Nike schools land top basketball recruits
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that as University of Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino readies his team for a new season, he's thinking about his future rosters, too, and he is dismayed that shoe companies could affect which players come to his program. Pitino said the Cardinals' recruiting prospect pool shrinks because they're sponsored by adidas instead of Nike. Asked this month if he thinks college coaches are displeased with the system, Pitino said with a laugh, "I'm sure the Nike coaches don't feel that way because they're winning the battle." A Courier-Journal review of college signings shows that Pitino might be right in suggesting it is difficult to break amateur affiliations among the highest-rated basketball prospects, even as those athletes say apparel companies have little or no sway on their decisions.
Boston Globe: Fidelity fought Washington and won over money market funds
The Boston Globe reports on an epic and unusually harsh lobbying battle waged by Fidelity and a handful of allies in the mutual fund industry. Their mission: stop the Obama administration’s move in the aftermath of the financial crisis to rein in a huge and highly profitable part of their business, money market funds. The saga, unresolved until this year, played out in the shadow of higher-profile debates roiling Washington over extreme risks taken by high-flying Wall Street investment banks. Critics say intense opposition by typically staid mutual fund executives, who manage trillions of dollars in assets, offers an equally instructive example of the financial industry’s Washington potency — and its bluntly self-interested priorities.
Newark Star-Ledger: Cars stolen in U.S. disappearing overseas
The Newark Star-Ledger reports the number of cars stolen in this country has been sharply declining over the past decade — in large part due to technology that makes it hard to start most new cars without the key. But records show an increasing number of high-end, hot vehicles are showing up at the nation’s ports, bound for export in a lucrative, international black market trade involving luxury SUVs and other expensive cars worth million of dollars, many taken through carjackings. At the Port of New York and New Jersey, 312 stolen vehicles that were being readied for shipment to places like Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa were recovered last year — more than double the number in 2012, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nationwide, customs officers at U.S. ports discovered 1,554 stolen cars and trucks last year, a 32 percent jump over the previous year.
New York Times: Mental health issues put 34,500 on no-guns list
The New York Time reports a newly created database of New Yorkers deemed too mentally unstable to carry firearms has grown to roughly 34,500 names, a previously undisclosed figure that has raised concerns among some mental health advocates that too many people have been categorized as dangerous. The database, established in the aftermath of the mass shooting in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and maintained by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, is the result of the Safe Act. It is an expansive package of gun control measures pushed through by the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The law, better known for its ban on assault weapons, compels licensed mental health professionals in New York to report to the authorities any patient “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.”
Charlotte Observer: Police investigators secretly track cellphones
The Charlotte Observer reports Charlotte-Mecklenburg police use a secretive surveillance system that collects information from cellphones and wireless devices to locate crime suspects but also gathers data from innocent people. For eight years, the Observer has learned, CMPD has owned portable equipment that mimics a cell tower and allows officers investigating serious crimes to learn the serial numbers, location and other information about nearby phones and laptop computers and tablets that connect to a cellular network. Privacy groups say the surveillance is so intrusive that it violates the Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The technology, they say, is powerful enough to penetrate a home’s walls.
Akron Beacon Journal: Church using volunteer labor after feds said to stop
The Akron Beacon Journal reports, as part of a six-part “Falling from Grace” series, that Ernest Angley says the people who spend long hours toiling at his church, his restaurant and his television station are doing the work of the Lord. Some people who have done that work say it more closely resembles slave labor. A window into Angley’s labor practices opened in early 1999 after a volunteer worker at the Cathedral Buffet was stabbed to death by another volunteer worker. Because the use of volunteers at a for-profit restaurant is prohibited, the U.S. Labor Department investigated. The church agreed that spring to stop the practice. But the practice has resumed.
Austin American-Statesmen: Falsified work could cost milions
The Austin American-Statesman reports state regulators settled a Medicaid fraud case last summer against an Austin dentist for literally pennies on the dollar. Although the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General had initially accused Rachel Trueblood of bilking the government out of $16.2 million in unnecessary procedures and other improper charges, the agency quietly agreed to a one-time payment of only a quarter of 1 percent of that — $39,000. Trueblood admitted no fault. Now there’s an alternative explanation for the low-ball settlement -- one of the agency’s own investigators cooked the books.
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WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 10-16-14
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Data discloses doctor-payment relationships
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports the inventor of a solution that preserves eye tissue for surgery, Bloomington’s Dr. Richard Lindstrom, has given sight to legions of people worldwide and become highly sought after for speeches and consulting deals. He has been handsomely rewarded for his work. Lindstrom received $330,452 in payments just during the last five months of 2013 from companies whose ophthalmology products he prescribes for patients, according to a newly published federal database. The new Open Payments data has injected hard numbers into a national debate over whether large checks can lead doctors to use products from a particular company, or whether companies are simply collaborating with doctors for medical advancement.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: County gives tax breaks for luxury apartments
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that developers of luxury apartments in wealthy neighborhoods have received tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks the past two years from a Fulton County incentive program envisioned for corporate expansions and relocations. The Development Authority of Fulton County, which arranges the tax breaks, doesn’t ask for many jobs in return. Nor does it require revitalizing areas, preserving historic buildings or setting sie apartments with rents that teachers or firefighters can afford -- things some other communities across the nation do in return for such breaks.
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Hartford Courant: Police stop black drivers more than whites in Connecticut
The Hartford Courant reports that in the eight months from October 2013 through May 2014, police in Connecticut made more than 45,700 traffic stops of black resident drivers. That’s more than 21 percent of the state's estimated black driving-age population. During the same period, police made about 269,000 traffic stops of white Connecticut drivers — about 12.4 percent of the state's estimated 2.2 million white drivers. Overall, black drivers account for 8 percent of the population and 14 percent of the traffic stops. And statewide, black drivers’ cars were twice as likely to be searched as white drivers’ cars – even though those searches turn up contraband twice as often in white drivers’ cars, according to traffic stop data released recently. The data show what many have long suspected: Police pull over black drivers at a higher rate than white drivers.
Dayton Daily News: $6.5 million in bonuses go to VA employees in Ohio
The Dayton Daily News reports nearly $6.5 million in bonuses went to more than 6,000 employees of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Ohio the same year allegations of lengthy wait times hidden by scheming bureaucrats toppled the agency’s top brass, an I-Team investigation has found. One Dayton VA doctor received bonuses in 2013 and 2014 after the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs paid out $300,000 to settle a malpractice case naming her. The I-Team obtained a database this month of salaries and bonuses paid to VA employees across Ohio after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for records in July.
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New York Times: Football clouds justice at Florida State
The New York Times reports how the towering presence of Florida State football has cast a shadow over justice in Tallahassee. Last year, the deeply flawed handling of a rape allegation against the quarterback Jameis Winston drew attention to institutional failures by law enforcement and Florida State officials. Now, an examination by The New York Times of police and court records, along with interviews with crime witnesses, has found that, far from an aberration, the treatment of the Winston complaint was in keeping with the way the police on numerous occasions have soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players.
From criminal mischief and motor-vehicle theft to domestic violence, arrests have been avoided, investigations have stalled and players have escaped serious consequences.
Washington Post: Asset seizures fuel police spending
The Washington Post reports police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles. The details are contained in thousands of annual reports submitted by local and state agencies to the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize. The Washington Post obtained 43,000 of the reports dating from 2008 through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents offer a sweeping look at how police departments and drug task forces across the country are benefiting from laws that allow them to take cash and property without proving a crime has occurred.
Los Angeles Times: Student information system a technology disaster
The Los Angeles Times reports that with a few taps on a computer keyboard, a student's entire school history from kindergarten to high school graduation was supposed to show up on the screen. The computer software was supposed to help school officials schedule the classes a student needed to earn a diploma or attend college and to allow parents to track their children's grades and attendance. Instead, the Los Angeles Unified School District's student information system, which has cost more than $130 million and made its debut this semester, has become a technological disaster.
Montgomery Advertiser: Fewer inmates in Alabama being released early
The Montgomery Advertiser reports data analyzed by the Council of State Governments Justice Center shows that there is a growing number of inmates who are denied parole in Alabama every year. For inmates, it means fewer releases and longer stays. For prisons, it means a population that continues to grow. Despite downward trends in the number of arrests and sentences to prison, the volume of incarcerated inmates isn't going down. And part of that problem, researchers say, has to do with the parole system. With the prison system at about 190 percent of its designed capacity, state officials are fearful of federal intervention. Earlier this year, the state applied for a grant to fund the
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 10-9-14
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Attorney secretly hired to negotiate with Braves
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee secretly hired an attorney to negotiate with the Braves and arrange the public financing for a new stadium -- a deal Lee has repeatedly denied making over the past two months because only the county attorney can hire outside legal counsel. But an email obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that Lee had a message sent to Seyfarth Shaw attorney Dan MaRae, saying that his firm was the county’s project and bond counsel on the stadium project. Those jobs are worth up to $4 million. The Oct. 8, 2013 email originated from a Cobb Chamber account, effectively keeping it out of the county’s system, which is subject to the Georgia Open Records Act. Negotiations with the Braves started six days later.
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Idaho Statesman: The college tuition trap
The Idaho Statesman reports that for decades, nothing — not the State Board of Education, not the Legislature, not even the Great Recession — has stopped the relentless rise in the cost of an education at Boise State University. Tuition and fees have climbed 348 percent since 1993, a period when the cost of living rose 65 percent. Idaho isn’t alone. Across the country, public colleges have added costs to tuition and fees as expenses have mushroomed and the number of students going to schools has grown. Legislative appropriations have not grown at the same
pace. Tuition and fees accounted for 32 percent of the general education dollars the school received in 2004. By 2013, the latest numbers available, it was 51 percent.
Indianapolis Star: As violence rises, prosecutors bargain away gun charges
The Indianapolis Star reports its review of every gun charge in Marion County from 2009 to June of this year found that prosecutors — Democrat and Republican alike — dismissed 3,059 gun charges, including 1,508 felony counts. Among those dismissals were 371 charges for possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon. The Star's findings include: more than half of felony gun charges were dismissed, usually in plea agreements; possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon — the charge specifically aimed at getting violent criminals off the streets — was dismissed in 41 percent of cases; a change in the state's criminal code that began July 1 reduced the jail time for possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon. Why the charges meant to keep gunslingers off the street are dropped is a complicated question tangled in prosecutorial will, rules of evidence and sentencing practices written into the law.
Louisville Courier-Journal: Wrongful convictions prompt new rules
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that two years after the city of Louisville paid $8.5 million to a man wrongly convicted of homicide, its police department has adopted policies to prevent false confessions and eyewitness misidentification. While the New York-based Innocence Project says the changes are positive, its state policy advocate says they fall short because they "merely suggest, instead of require," the use of best practices to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions. Meanwhile, still unfinished is an investigation ordered by Chief Steve
Conrad in October 2012 of what caused Edwin Chandler's wrongful conviction in 1995 and whether the detective in the case should be charged with perjury and other crimes for allegedly coercing Chandler's confession and lying about it.
Boston Globe: Massachusetts state police involved in many car accidents
The Boston Globe reports that over the past five years, Massachusetts State Police have been involved in more than 1,800 accidents — almost one a day — leaving behind a trail of battered vehicles, expensive lawsuits, and painful injuries to officers and civilians alike. Though many were the fault of other drivers, State Police acknowledge that hundreds were the result of troopers driving too fast, ignoring traffic signals, or violating other safety rules. State records show that about 100 people a year are injured in State Police-involved accidents, and, over the past decade, the department has paid out more than $3 million in settlements from crashes, a total that might have been considerably larger if not for the statutory $100,000 limit on negligence claims against government agencies in Massachusetts. At least four of the crashes in the last decade were fatal.
Newark Star Ledger: What killed Kenwin Garcia?
The Newark Star-Ledger reports nobody really knows why Kenwin Garcia was walking on the highway that July day in 2008 when a State Police trooper stopped him — or why he wound up dead. He spent most of his last conscious breaths face down in the grass along Interstate 287 in Hanover Township, according to police reports and recordings, with his hands and ankles handcuffed and zip-tied behind his back and three state troopers on him after he broke
two patrol car windows. The full story behind Garcia’s death has never been told, the details never publicly disclosed by state authorities or the court system. Now, more than six years later, a NJ Advance Media investigation reveals a series of flaws and inconsistencies in the official accounts of that day, which were then incorporated into a criminal investigation into the troopers’ actions that determined Garcia died of a controversial medical condition.
Anniston Star: Visa program for foreigners spurs investment in Alabama
The Anniston Star reports the federal government has offered wealthy foreigners a fast track to permanent U.S. residency for decades if they'll invest at least $1 million in a venture that creates at least 10 jobs in the U.S. In rural or high-unemployment areas, including much of Alabama, the threshold is only $500,000. Applications for those visas — known as EB-5 visas — have skyrocketed in the past five years, driven almost exclusively by investors from China. Their interest has played a sizable, though often unseen, role in new business enterprises in Alabama. According to a Brookings Institution study, fewer than 500 Chinese nationals sought EB-5 visas in 2007. By 2012, there were 5,000 applications from China. In 2014, the program hit its 10,000-visa limit for the first time.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 10-2-14
Columbus Dispatch: Legitimate campaign spending hard to define
The Columbus Dispatch reports that since the start of 2011, state Sen. Tom Patton has reimbursed himself nearly $170,000 from his campaign fund for expenses that cannot be easily reviewed by the average person. While he has filed detailed paper documentation with the secretary of state’s office, his online reports label those payments only as generic “campaign expenses.” Patton’s activity is a noticeable example because of the amounts and frequency, but a Dispatch analysis of legislative campaign expenditures since January 2011 found plenty of campaign spending that is either unspecified or falls outside traditional campaign activity, such as purchasing ads, buying supplies, paying staff and hosting fundraisers.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Police promise on mental health training unmet
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that after a scared young man, paranoid and hearing voices, was shot and killed by Milwaukee police 10 years ago his heartbroken parents asked why police weren't better trained to know the symptoms of schizophrenia. As a result, police guaranteed that all officers would be well trained. It still has not happened. At least seven persons with effectively documented and extreme mental illness have died after confrontations with Milwaukee police, an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discovered. In at
least three of the cases, the officers who responded had not received the department's specific mental health education, even though they had been especially dispatched to deal with a person in an apparent psychiatric crisis.
Columbus Dispatch: Colleges underreporting crimes
The Columbus Dispatch reports the crime statistics being released by colleges nationwide are so misleading that they give students and parents a false sense of security, enabled by lax oversight of such statistics. The newspaper, along with the Student Press Law Center, reviewed 12 years of crime statistics from nearly 1,800 schools with on-campus housing, finding that at least half of the colleges reported zero sexual assaults and two-thirds report no serious physical assaults in any year. About one in five reported that there has never been a sexual assault, The
Los Angeles Times: City pays millions for police and firefighting injury claims
The Los Angeles Times reports the beneficiaries of an injury-leave program for Los Angeles police and firefighters has cost taxpayers $328 million over the last five years. A Times investigation found total salaries paid to city public safety employees on leave increased more than 30% — to $42 million a year – from 2009 through 2013, the five-year period studied by The Times. The number who took leaves grew 8%, and they were out of work an average of nearly 9 weeks — a 23% increase compared with 2009.
Hartford Courant: Insurance commissioner, other state employees, globe-hopping
The Hartford Courant reports that of the 20 work days in June 2013 the state's commissioner of insurance spent 17 away from his desk — far away. Thomas B. Leonardi's schedule that month included trips to Washington, D.C., Rome, Zurich and Seoul. That month's globe-hopping schedule wasn't unusual. A Courant examination of documents submitted to the Office of State Ethics shows that from June 2011 to August 2014, Leonardi reported 64 trips, more than double the number reported by any other state employee.
Baltimore Sun: City pays $57 million since 2011 over police use of force
The Baltimore Sun reports the city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects. One hidden cost: The perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police. Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.
Arizona Republic: Plans for school funding short on details
The Arizona Republic reports both Doug Ducey and Fred DuVal talk a lot about education as they campaign for governor. But neither has a long-range plan to deal with the funding crisis facing Arizona's K-12 system. Ducey, a Republican, and DuVal, a Democrat, agree more money should be directed to classrooms. But neither candidate has explained how he would address the biggest education-related challenge to face state government in recent history: how to pay for a court-enforced voter mandate to increase school funding at a time when state government is projected to run a deficit as soon as June. The annual inflation adjustments to school funding pencil out to about $317 million for this year, and a similar amount in future years.
News and Observer: Pay of county sheriffs depends on whims of commissioners
The Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer reports that why a sheriff would be paid more in rural Wilson County, with a population of about 82,000, than in Wake, Guilford, Forsyth or Durham – urban counties with 280,000 to nearly 1 million residents – has some sheriffs across the state scratching their heads. The Wilson County example spotlights disparities in a statewide system that leaves a sheriff’s pay up to the county commissioners, who otherwise have little oversight of the sheriff’s office. As a result, there is not always a consistent correlation between pay levels
and the scope of the sheriff’s responsibilities.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 9-25-14
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 282,000 cards in Home Depot breach for sale online
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports it has learned more than 282,000 credit and debit card numbers stolen from Wisconsin stores during the recent Home Depot data breach have been offered for sale on the black market. The company said the data breach had exposed an estimated 56 million payment cards, eclipsing the Target data breach, which involved 40 million cards. The malware that caused the breach has now been eliminated, the company said in a news release. Home Depot has not disclosed which locations were affected, but the Journal Sentinel investigation found credit card numbers were breached at all of the company's 26 Wisconsin locations.
Sacramento Bee: Traffic camera contractor bought meals for county employees
The Sacramento Bee reports Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers accepted free meals worth thousands of dollars from the private company that operates the county’s red-light intersection cameras, then recommended the county choose that company over several competitors for a new red-light contract worth up to $11.8 million. Documents obtained by The Bee under the California Public Records Act show that Redflex Traffic Systems paid for at least 250 meals worth $3,800 over a five-year period for more than a dozen deputies and CHP officers, possibly violating department policies.
Baltimore Sun: Audit says police should revamp misconduct investigations
The Baltimore Sun reports a Baltimore lawyer who is a national expert on police discipline has discovered "many flaws" within the Internal Affairs Division of the Baltimore Police Department, including detectives who lack proper training, work under decades-old processes and are often pulled from their duties for other tasks. Such shortcomings lead to incomplete investigations and hamper the agency's effort to build community trust, Karen Kruger concluded in a 21-page audit obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request. The study was commissioned by Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez for $5,000.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Dysfunction reported at Riverview Psychiatric Center
The Maine Sunday Telegram reports employees at Riverview Psychiatric Center say there is widespread patient abuse and neglect at the 92-bed state-run hospital in Augusta in recent years – issues that point to deep dysfunction that has persisted even after federal officials detailed serious violations affecting patient care. Current and former employees say patients are routinely provoked, denied care and refused food at the whim of lower-level staff members.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Lottery weak on enforcement
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asks what someone who owes a lot of back taxes or child support does when they hit it big on the lottery, but the state is going to take most or all of their winnings. An AJC analysis suggests that hundreds, maybe thousands. of such people are selling winning tickets at a discount to other individuals, who then claim the prizes. That’s not legal, but until very recently the state did very little to stop it. The result: By an extremely conservative estimate, the lottery has paid out $16.3 million since 2003 to people who had no legal right to those winnings.
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Hartford Courant: Charter school group directed work to exec’s husband
The Hartford Courant reports it has learned the Jumoke Academy charter school organization, now facing a state probe into allegations of nepotism, directed more than a million dollars in construction work to the husband of one of its executives. A Courant investigation found Jumoke's payments to HSK Home Improvements included at least $85,000 in state grant money used to renovate a Victorian mansion and convert its second floor into an apartment
later occupied by the charter group's longtime leader, Michael M. Sharpe. The apartment, built in 2012 to Sharpe's specifications, featured a new $12,000 master bathroom with a custom glass shower door.
Orange County Register: Overtime gives salaries big boost at Superior Court
The Orange County Register reports the Orange County Superior Court boosted employee paychecks with more overtime last year than almost the rest of the California court system combined, according to a Register analysis of state payroll data. Although most Superior Courts, including the similar-sized Riverside County court, paid less than $100,000 in overtime last year, the Orange County court spent about $962,000. Only Los Angeles County paid more
overtime than Orange County with $1.6 million. But it also spread that cash across nearly twice as many employees. Los Angeles is a bigger, busier court.
The Bergen Record: Lack of oversight troubles NJ’s drug recovery housing
New Jersey is home to hundreds of drug recovery houses and sober-living facilities. With heroin addiction on the rise, the housing of recovering addicts is a rapidly growing, but largely unregulated, industry. In concept, sober housing is considered a helpful component of recovery: supportive, safe, long-term rental communities that ease an addict’s transition from inpatient treatment back into society. But as many families across the country have learned, not all sober houses are safe or sober. The very independence that makes recovery housing empowering and cost-effective can give way to disorder, abuse and tragedy.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Lake Erie is sick again
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Lake Erie is sick again. Things might have been horrific 45 years ago when Newsweek proclaimed the lake dead, a time when schools of fish didn't so much swim as they floated. But they were never so bad that there was fear Lake Erie's water was in danger of becoming too poisonous to be purified at treatment plants for the millions of people who drink it. Modern farming practices, wetter springs and toxic-algae-spitting invasive mussels have conspired to produce late-summer poisonous blooms that can sprawl across
nearly 2,000 square miles, threatening anew everything from beach-goers to public drinking water supplies.
Miami Herald: Healthcare costs often shrouded in secrecy
The Miami Herald reports on the difficulty of establishing precisely how Miami-Dade County spends more than $400 million a year to pay healthcare claims for nearly 60,000 employees, retirees and dependents in the health plan. That’s because Miami-Dade — like many employers across the country — isn’t allowed to know the prices their own insurance plan administrators negotiate with healthcare providers, even when they’re self-insured, like Miami-Dade County, and the claims are paid with taxpayer dollars. When county officials claim they are doing everything they can to reduce employee healthcare costs, they actually don’t know how and where the public’s money is being spent.
Arizona Republic: Border killings: 46 people killed, no agents disciplined
The Arizona Republic reports that six months after promising greater transparency and accountability when its agents use deadly force, Customs and Border Protection continues to struggle to deliver on both counts. Since 2004, Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers have killed at least 46 people, including at least 15 Americans, while on duty. On Friday, Sept. 12, CBP's acting internal affairs chief, Mark Alan Morgan, in response
to a question from The Arizona Republic, told reporters he was unaware of any agent or officer having been -disciplined or terminated in any of those deaths.
New York Times: After surgery, surprise $117,000 bill from unknown doctor
The New York Times reports that In operating rooms and on hospital wards across the country, physicians and other health providers typically help one another in patient care. But in an increasingly common practice that some medical experts call drive-by doctoring, assistants, consultants and other hospital employees are charging patients or their insurers hefty fees. They may be called in when the need for them is questionable. And patients usually do not
realize they have been involved or are charging until the bill arrives.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 9-11-14
Arizona Daily Star: Fewer Tucson preschoolers getting vaccinated
The Arizona Daily Star reports more parents of local preschoolers are opting their children out of vaccines against infectious diseases like measles, meningitis and whooping cough. The percentage of preschoolers statewide with non-medical vaccine exemptions has quadrupled since 2000, new state data shows. The higher the exemption rate, the more likely a disease can “wiggle its way into a group,” says Dr. Karen Lewis, who is medical director of the state health department’s Arizona Immunization Program.
Fresno Bee: Taxpayers and workers gouged by labor-law dodge
The Fresno Bee reports the largest government infusion of cash into the U.S. economy in generations – the 2009 stimulus – was riddled with a massive labor scheme that harmed workers and cheated unsuspecting American taxpayers. At the time, government regulators watched as money slipped out the door and into the hands of companies that rob state and federal treasuries of billions of dollars each year on stimulus projects and other construction
jobs across the country, a yearlong McClatchy investigation found.
Orange County Register: Auditors critical of OC Parks contracts
The Orange County Register reports internal auditors say they have substantiated allegations at Orange County executives granted no-bid contracts to a friend of a county Parks Department official – dividing the contracts to avoid scrutiny from the Board of Supervisors.From 2009 until 2014, OC Parks officials authorized 13 consecutive consulting contracts totaling $913,095 to BPM Advisors, which is owned by Ahmad Iqbal, who attended grad school with former OC Parks Deputy Director Michael Brajdic.
Washington Post: Aggressive police stop and seize cash from motorists
The Washington Post reports that after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the government called on police to become the eyes and ears of homeland security on America’s highways. Local officers, county deputies and state troopers were encouraged to act more aggressively in searching for suspicious people, drugs and other contraband. The departments of Homeland Security and Justice spent millions on police training. The effort succeeded, but it had an impact that has been largely hidden from public view: the spread of an aggressive brand of policing that has spurred the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes, a Washington Post investigation found. Thousands of people have been forced to fight legal battles that can last more than a year to get their money back.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: How did ethics official keep her job?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports in three years as Georgia’s top ethics enforcer, Holly LaBerge has presided over an office that has required taxpayers to pay nearly $3 million to settle lawsuits from whistleblowers in her office, many more times what the commission collects in mandatory filing fees from candidates and lobbyists; accumulated a backlog of 200 ethics cases from across the state and all but ceased investigating complaints for almost a year. But
it took a Fulton County judge to call her “dishonest and non-transparent” for the appointed members of the state ethics commission to put her job in real jeopardy.
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Indianapolis Star: Day care providers blamed for abuse still operating
The Indianapolis Star reports that more than 10 months after X-rays of a 6-month-old boy in Sheridan revealed a skull fracture and broken rib, arms, legs and thumb, the day care providers state officials hold responsible for the injuries are still caring for children. Todd and Lauren Lewis, who operate the day care, vehemently deny responsibility for the child's injuries and have filed petitions in Hamilton Superior Court asking a judge to overrule the Indiana Department of Child Services' substantiation of physical abuse. But that's not why the Lewises are allowed to continue operating Lauren's Little Ones, an unlicensed home day care. It's because state law — which prohibits people substantiated with abuse from working in licensed or registered day cares — has no such provision for the state's countless unlicensed day cares.
Des Moines Register: Iowa’s pipeline safety record spotty
The Des Moines Register reports that as a Texas energy company seeks approval for its plan to build a 1,100-mile pipeline carrying North Dakota crude oil across 17 Iowa counties, documents show the state's pipeline safety record has been less than spotless. While the state has avoided large-scale disasters, records show Iowa has had 100 pipeline spills since 2004, with a majority of the accidents involving anhydrous ammonia and propane. Other products involved in Iowa pipeline accidents over the past decade have included natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel and
butane, according to state and federal records reviewed by The Des Moines Register.
Detroit Free Press: Landville taking radioactive waste has history of violations
The Detroit Free Press reports that despite assurances that a Belleville landfill and its partner facility in Van Buren Township that accept radioactive fracking waste are safe, they have been cited for at least 15 violations in the last decade and fined more than $471,000, a Free Press review of state and federal records shows.
Austin American-Statesman: VA’s brain research fails to launch
The Austin American-Statesman reports that on the morning of July 1, 2008, Department of Veterans Affairs officials gathered to unveil a state-of-the-art brain scanner they predicted would help revolutionize the understanding of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. Six years later, the $3.6 million machine sits unused in an out-of-the way corner at the Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple. Not a single study based on the machine’s scans has been published. Not a single veteran has received improved treatment
because of advances ushered in by the scanner. The machine has sat dormant for the past three years, plagued by a series of delays caused by mismanagement, mechanical failures and bureaucratic roadblocks.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 9-4-14
Montgomery Advertiser: What does it take to get fired by the VA?
The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser recounts these problems among VA patients: A female patient reports that an employee sexually abused her. An employee takes a veteran in a drug-addiction program to a crack house. An investigation shows that after gaining the trust of a patient with dementia, an employee takes thousands of dollars from her account. All these incidents occurred at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System. None of these incidents resulted in firings. CAVHCS staff with access to the employee directory and a list of employees who have retired, transferred or otherwise left have said all three individuals are still employed. The Montgomery Advertiser reports on these incidents have many wondering why those employees still have jobs. VA Southeast Network and CAVHCS leaders have declined to provide the Montgomery Advertiser with the employment statuses or disciplinary actions taken against the employees VA police investigations found to be guilty of crimes, ethical violations or both. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs outlines the processes for disciplinary action against all VA employees. There is also a federal ethics code that VA employees are required to follow. According to those guidelines, penalties for these employees should have been substantial.
Indianapolis Star: Bonuses rise dramatically at Indianapolis VA
The Indianapolis Star, through a federal public records request, found skyrocketing bonus awards at the Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis, including payouts totaling more than $36,000 over three years for the hospital's director. The increasing payouts come at a time when VA facilities across the country are being investigated for manipulating patient wait-time data — one of the factors used in determining many bonuses. Roudebush was one of 112 VA facilities flagged for further review in June based on concerns about rigged wait-time data. The VA's office of inspector general declined to say whether the Indianapolis hospital remains under investigation. In all, more than $1.43 million in bonuses were awarded to about 1,200 employees at Roudebush last year — an increase of more than 80 percent since 2011, according to information obtained through the paper’s federal public records request.
Los Angeles Times: Are film tax credits cost effective?
The Los Angeles Times report that the state of California – tired of seeing Hollywood take its business elsewhere – is moving to triple tax subsidies for film and TV productions, boosting incentives to $330 million annually and making the state competitive with New York, Georgia and other states that are courting the entertainment industry with ever-richer incentives. The action is widely seen as necessary to stop thousands of jobs from leaving Southern California, where most studios and production companies are based and would prefer to work if costs are roughly equivalent. Yet it comes amid growing national debate about the value of film tax breaks and whether they create new jobs, or merely shift work from one place to another. Some fear California's move may, in fact, escalate a bidding war among states eager to claim a share of
the world's most glamorous industry. While these tax credits have been highly effective at luring production out of California, their long-term economic benefits have been questioned by several independent studies.
Sacramento Bee: Water use varies greatly across California
The Sacramento Bee reports that if you drive across city limits in virtually any part of California, you will also cross another kind of frontier, one gaining more attention during the worst drought in a generation: The borders between cities also define different ideas about water. One city may have gutters coursing with wasted water, while its neighbor lives by the highest
conservation standards. The differences can be glaring, according to a Bee review of data submitted by water agencies, and they highlight some of the challenges in achieving broad conservation goals during the ongoing drought. In a hypothetical tour of the state, according to the data, the well-informed traveler would encounter disparities.
Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal: Police among highest-paid city workers
The Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal reports that Mayor Dennis Williams might be the most powerful official in Wilmington's government, but he doesn't bring home the biggest paycheck. The 14 highest-paid city workers in 2013 were cops, including two who retired during the year and took other city jobs. Williams received $112,900, ranking 15th. Those cops are making that kind of money because the city has been spending more on overtime for officers in recent years. The overtime has boosted total annual pay above $100,000 in recent years for dozens of captains, lieutenants, sergeants and corporals in the police force, according to city payroll records analyzed by The News Journal. In 2013, other non-police officials who took home more than $100,000 included the mayor's then-chief of staff, John R. Matlusky ($108,800), City Solicitor Michael P. Migliore ($104,800), elected city Treasurer Henry W. Supinski ($110,600) and City Council Chief of Staff Romain L. Alexander ($101,900). ... But the bulk of the big earners are in the city's police force, with 71 percent of the city's overtime paid to the department in 2013, records show.
Washington Post: Unregulated day care in Virginia
The Washington Post reports that on the edge of Roanoke, Virginia, at the dead end of a blacktop road, Teresa Atwood’s small home doubled as a bustling day-care business. On Sept. 23, 2010, the house was crowded with infants and toddlers. Some were watching cartoons in the living room. Others, including 1-year-old Andy Ngo, were supposed to be sleeping in a bedroom. But Andy was restless and screaming. So Atwood, 44, swaddled him in a blanket, which pinned his arms against his body, and put him on a queen-size mattress. In a dark and cramped room, out of sight of his caregivers, Andy flipped onto his stomach. When Atwood checked on him 45 minutes later, he was facedown under a pillow, his body limp. Atwood began CPR, but she was frantic and her training was out-of-date. Her husband searched for a cellphone to call 911 and tried to take over, but he was completely untrained. “Help me do this ’cause she, she’s panicking,” he told a dispatcher. Andy’s accidental asphyxiation occurred within Virginia’s unregulated child-care industry, where several thousand people who run home day cares operate in an environment without rules or standards.
Idaho Statesman: Wilderness Act shows its age
Idaho’s largest newspapers, including the Statesman and the Lewiston Tribune, teamed up to produce a series of stories on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. In one story, the papers reported that Grant Elliott and Jon Binninger work in tandem, pulling and pushing a saw to remove a downed tree from a lonely trail in Idaho's 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot
Wilderness. The scarcely visible tread is overgrown with vegetation for long stretches and littered with wind-fallen trees as it dissects the scar of a 3-year-old wildfire. Its condition is emblematic of many of the 32,000 miles of trails that dive into the heart of the nation's 758 wilderness areas. Tight federal budgets have led to a $314 million backlog of maintenance on
the pathways that crisscross the nation's forests and grasslands. The problem is exaggerated in wilderness areas that are remote by nature and have rules that prohibit the use of chainsaws and other tools.
Des Moines Register: Driving teachers have records
At least 10 people with a multitude of driving infractions and criminal convictions in the past decade — some with records of drunken driving — are teaching Iowa's teenagers how to drive, a Des Moines Register investigation found. Among the state's 443 driver's ed instructors licensed to teach or provide on-road driver's education, three have drunken driving
convictions, two have assault convictions and four have 12 or more other convictions, mostly driving citations, within the past decade. Despite their legal hiccups, few face professional consequences. State law became more forgiving to driver's ed instructors in 2010, granting leniency toward those who are at least partially at fault in accidents. State law also considers a person who has three or more moving violations over a one-year period a habitual violator. That designation could cause a license suspension, which disqualifies the person from providing on-road driver instruction. ...State officials confirmed that all of the drivers identified by the Register with convictions still hold instructor licenses allowing them to provide classroom or on-road driver training to students.
Star Tribune: The boy they couldn’t save
The Star Tribune in Minneapolis looked into state and county child protection records. They cite the case of 3-year-old Eric Dean, who had bruises all over his face. A scab formed above his lip. His ear bled from a red welt. Before his stepmother, Amanda Peltier, left him at his new day care, she bent down to meet his blue eyes and told the boy to say he fell down. Day-care provider Colleen Myslicki watched in disbelief. After studying the strange puncture wounds on Eric’s face and ear, she realized they were bite marks. Later that day, she asked him what happened. Eric’s reply: “Mommy did it.” As required by state law, Myslicki reported to Pope County child protection that she believed Eric was being abused. She didn’t know it then, but hers was the 12th report to alert social workers in the west-central Minnesota county to suspected maltreatment of the boy. ... Those records show that by the time Eric died at age 4 in February 2013, 15 reports had been filed on his behalf. The county’s child-protection agency investigated only one, after the boy’s arm was broken in 2011, and found no maltreatment. According to records, only one report was shared with police, despite state law directing that law enforcement should be notified of all suspected abuse reports. ... Fifty-four Minnesota children have died of maltreatment since 2005, despite child-protection agencies getting reports that the kids were at risk or their parents and caretakers were dangerous, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state and county child protection records.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 8-28-2014
Associated Press: Expert calls for nuke plant closure
The Associated Press reports that a senior federal nuclear expert is urging regulators to shut down California's last operating nuclear plant until they can determine whether the facility's twin reactors can withstand powerful shaking from any one of several nearby earthquake faults. Michael Peck, who for five years was Diablo Canyon's lead on-site inspector, says in a 42-page, confidential report that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not applying the safety rules it set out for the plant's operation. The document, which was obtained and verified by the AP, does not say the plant itself is unsafe. Instead, according to Peck's analysis, no one knows whether the facility's key equipment can withstand strong shaking from those faults — the potential for which was realized decades after the facility was built. Continuing to run the reactors, Peck
writes, "challenges the presumption of nuclear safety." Peck's July 2013 filing is part of an agency review in which employees can appeal a supervisor's or agency ruling — a process that normally takes 60 to 120 days, but can be extended. The NRC, however, has not yet ruled.
Montgomery Advertiser: VA employee misused patient’s funds
The Montgomery Advertiser reports that a central Alabama Veterans Health Care System employee who police said misused, accepted and assumed control of a Tuskegee VA nursing home patient’s personal funds is still employed more than a year later. According to a VA police investigation obtained by the Montgomery Advertiser, nearly $6,000 of the veteran’s money was withdrawn during a 15-month period and is still unaccounted for after a Tuskegee VA employee convinced a patient to trust her with conducting the patient’s financial activities. The patient, a 49-year-old female veteran with dementia, is a resident in the nursing home at the Tuskegee campus. The employee was assigned to be the patient’s “guardian angel,” which is part of a VA treatment program.
Arizona Republic: Arizona veteran suicides a tragic cost of broken VA system
An Arizona Republic journalist asked David Klein, a Department of Veterans Affairs suicide-prevention coordinator for seven years, whether he was able to meet the needs of Arizona veterans. Charts and spreadsheets were piled in front of him on a table at the Phoenix VA's mental-health clinic, filled with data on suicides. Klein paused before answering in a hushed
voice: "Ummm, no. I wish I would have had a lot more people." During the 2013 budget year, 226 Arizona veterans took their own lives, according to state records. More than 2,000 vets from metro Phoenix dialed the VA's central crisis line; 61 were "rescued" after they threatened to kill themselves. It was the second-highest number nationwide. Amid the national outcry over VA health care — a controversy that first exploded in Phoenix — failures in the mental-health treatment system have been heavily criticized. According to VA calculations, 22 U.S. veterans kill themselves each day, using guns, blades, drugs and other means.
Arizona Daily Star: Police militarization debated in Arizona
Police militarization became an issue of national debate as Americans watched heavily armored police crack down on protesters after the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Now, the Arizona Daily Star finds, some local law enforcement officials are reconsidering their own tactics and interactions with the public. “Militarization of the police has been pushed more and more to the forefront. Is there a warrior-guardian type mindset that we need to be cautious of?” said Chris Nanos, chief deputy of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. “You would be remiss if you didn’t look at those events and say, ‘Could that be us?’ And then do what you can to learn from it and not be in that position.” The Department of Defense’s 1033 program and other federal programs have helped supply local police with assault rifles, armored vehicles, night-vision goggles and other military equipment since the 1990s. Pima County law-enforcement agencies have received $5.8 million worth of military gear through the program since 2006, according to Defense Department records obtained and shared publicly by the New York Times.
Des Moines Register: Wary about weapons
The Des Moines Register says that weapons of war are becoming the tools of civilian law enforcement in Iowa and nationwide. Iowa police departments have armed themselves with grenade launchers, armored vehicles, automatic rifles and other equipment — 2,022 items in all since 2006, worth an estimated $7.5 million, according to a Des Moines Register review of federal records. The equipment came through a U.S. Department of Defense program known as 1033, which dates to the early 1990s and has distributed surplus gear ranging from weapons to laptops. Local police agencies have acquired the stockpile for virtually free. National debate on the so-called militarization of civilian police has intensified since law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to protests, riots and looting with equipment critics say isn't meant for community policing and aggravates already intense situations. The unrest was sparked by the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, 18, by a white police officer who confronted him after a report of a robbery. Some federal lawmakers, including Iowa's two senators, are calling for Congress to review the 1033 program.
Los Angeles Times: Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery
The Los Angeles Times says that a 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste, buried in a salt shaft 2,150 feet under the New Mexico desert, violently erupted late on Feb. 14 and spewed mounds of radioactive white foam. The flowing mass, looking like whipped cream but laced with plutonium, went airborne, traveled up a ventilation duct to the surface and delivered low-level radiation doses to 21 workers. The accident contaminated the nation's only dump for nuclear weapons waste — previously a focus of pride for the Energy Department — and gave the nation's elite ranks of nuclear chemists a mystery they still cannot unravel. ... A preliminary Energy Department investigation found more than 30 safety lapses at the plant, including technical
shortcomings and failures in the overall approach to safety. ... There is no official estimate of the cost of the accident, but outside experts and a Times analysis indicate it could approach $1 billion, based on the dump site’s annual budget; the need to decontaminate the facility; upgrades to safety that officials already have identified; and delays over the next decade in the
nuclear weapons cleanup program.
Modesto (California) Bee: Man files disability claims over and over again
The Modesto (California) Bee reports that each year since 2001, except when incarcerated, Robert McCarthy has left his Arizona home for short trips to California. That’s where the money is when you want to sue for disability discrimination. McCarthy is a 59-year-old pedophile who stole his dead brother’s identity to illegally obtain food stamps and disability payouts, and to keep the alimony flowing from his ex-wife. He also posed as his brother in suing 57 California businesses before he was caught and sent to prison for fraud and sex crimes. As he has done in numerous other California communities before and since, McCarthy rolled through Modesto, Ceres and Turlock on a four-day trip in May 2013, spending $500 on hotel rooms, alcohol, an ashtray and other items. Six months later, he sued 13 of the places he’d visited, saying they did not accommodate him and his wheelchair.
New Haven Register: Arrest rare in Connecticut police deadly force cases
The New Haven Register reports that while protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are demanding that a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager be prosecuted, in Connecticut since 2001, there has only been one case out of 38 completed investigations of police use of deadly force in which an officer faced prosecution. A Hartford police officer was acquitted in
that case. Michael Dearington, state’s attorney for the judicial district of New Haven, has served in his current role since 1987. In 27 years, he’s never elected to prosecute an officer who was found to have used deadly force in the line of duty in his district. The paper looked at more than 300 pages of case records since 2001, available from the state Division of Criminal Justice’s website, in studying the issue.
Sun Sentinel: Charter school applicants have troubled histories
Florida’s Sun Sentinel reports that at least seven groups of applicants with ties to failed or floundering charter schools are seeking second chances and public money to open 18 more. Odds are, most will prevail, the paper said. School districts say that they can't deny applicants solely because of past problems running charter schools. State laws tell them to evaluate what
they see on paper — academic plans, budget proposals, student services — not previous school collapses or controversial professional histories. District officials are currently reviewing applications for next year.
Tampa Bay Times: Records show governor’s office put up barriers to public records
The Tampa Bay (Florida) Times reports that Florida Gov. Rick Scott launched Project Sunburst two years ago to give the public easy access to his emails and those of his staff and promised it would become an "unprecedented, transparent window into how state government works." He also created a website to show state employee salaries and held more news conferences flaunting his open government record than any governor in recent history. But, in practice, the Scott administration has erected barriers to public records, marginalized the use of Sunburst and interpreted the state's Sunshine laws in a way that open government advocates say has set back the clock on Florida's open records tradition. "They don't turn over anything unless they get caught,'' said Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer whose two-year legal battle over a property dispute with the state produced thousands of documents raising questions about many of the administration's practices. ... But thousands of records obtained by Andrews and the Times/Herald indicate that the governor's staff may have violated that policy when dealing with communication about politically sensitive information, or when lobbyists and well-positioned Republicans want to communicate with the governor's top advisers.
South Bend (Indiana) Tribune: Ticketing students in South Bend schools
The South Bend (Indiana) Tribune reports that a local police officer ticketed Brandon Worsham in his school last September, saying the teen engaged in fighting and disorderly conduct. He was just a month into his freshman year at Washington High School. “He tends to fight a lot,” his mom, Carla Higley-Bahr, acknowledged. “He has a quick temper.” But neither Brandon nor his mom recall receiving or even being notified of the ticket, written by a resource officer who is assigned to the school. The citation carries fines and court costs of about $140, plus the potential to remain on Brandon’s record indefinitely if he ignores it. A check of a state database turns up Brandon’s citation, though his first name is misspelled. It says he failed to appear for his court date. And a request to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles to suspend his driving privileges was submitted by the court. ... Brandon’s ticket was one of 278 issued in South Bend schools from August 2010 through June 2014, in a longstanding practice by resource officers. ... A Tribune review of all of the tickets issued during the past four school years found errors and inconsistencies:
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: New York campuses struggle with sex assault cases
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in New York says that when the University of Rochester begins its new school year next week, a 21-year-old senior will be attending a different school — unhappy with how the college handled her sexual abuse case. The student was sexually assaulted in April 2013 at a fraternity party on the UR campus. In accord with longstanding
policy, the Democrat and Chronicle is not identifying a victim of sexual assault. While a UR disciplinary proceeding resulted in the suspension of the UR student accused of the assault, the woman was frustrated by what she felt was an unfriendly grievance process and harsh questioning by UR officials. "I had no idea what I was doing. The school did not make anything
clear about the process of reporting," the student said. That's the kind of frustration local colleges need to prevent if they are to gain the full confidence of students — who depend upon such proceedings to provide justice — and encourage other students to step forward with their complaints. A Democrat and Chronicle examination of how local colleges handle allegations of
sexual misconduct found that accountability to the public is often lacking.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 8-21-14
Toledo Blade: Ohio EPA warned Toledo of ‘imminent vulnerability’
The Toledo Blade found through a public records request that less than two months before a historic algae-induced water crisis left 500,000 metro Toledo residents scrambling for bottled water, Ohio’s top environmental regulator warned Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins that the city’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant was “vulnerable to potential failures that could
severely impact the city’s ability to provide adequate quantities of safe water to its citizens.” “I cannot underscore boldly enough the precarious condition of Toledo’s drinking water system and the imminent vulnerability to failure,” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig W. Butler wrote in a June 9 letter to Mr. Collins. The Blade obtained a copy through a public records request along with a stack of other documents and copies of emails that show the agency had severe reservations about the plant for months leading up to the crisis.
New York Times: Pervasive Medicare Fraud proves hard to stop
The New York Times says that an ordinary looking office building in a suburb of Baltimore gives no hint of the high-tech detective work going on inside. A $100 million system churns through complicated medical claims, searching for suspicious patterns and posting the findings on a giant screen. Hundreds of miles away in a strip mall north of Miami, more than 60 people — prosecutors, F.B.I. agents, health care investigators, paralegals and even a forensic nurse —
sort through documents and telephone logs looking for evidence of fraudulent Medicare billing. A warehouse in the back holds fruits of their efforts: wheelchairs, boxes of knee braces and other medical devices that investigators say amount to props for false claims. The Obama administration’s declared war on health care fraud, costing some $600 million a year, has a remarkable new look in places like Baltimore and Miami. But even with the fancy computers and expert teams, the government is not close to defeating the fraudsters. And the effort designed to combat the fraud may be in large part to blame. ... Fraud and systematic overcharging are estimated at roughly $60 billion, or 10 percent, of Medicare’s costs every year, but the administration recovered only about $4.3 billion last year.
Washington Post: A Medicare scam that kept rolling
The Washington Post reports that the tool of the crime was the motorized wheelchair. The wheelchair scam was designed to exploit blind spots in Medicare, which often pays insurance claims without checking them first. Criminals disguised themselves as medical-supply companies. They ginned up bogus bills, saying they’d provided expensive wheelchairs to
Medicare patients — who, in reality, didn’t need wheelchairs at all. Then the scammers asked Medicare to pay them back, so they could pocket the huge markup that the government paid on each chair. A lot of the time, Medicare was fooled. The government paid. Since 1999, Medicare has spent $8.2 billion to procure power wheelchairs and “scooters” for 2.7 million people. Today, the government cannot even guess at how much of that money was paid out to scammers. Now, the golden age of the wheelchair scam is probably over. But, while it lasted, the scam illuminated a critical failure point in the federal bureaucracy: Medicare’s weak defenses against fraud. The government knew how the wheelchair scheme worked in 1998. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that officials finally did enough to significantly curb the practice.
Los Angeles Times: Jails with revolving doors
The Los Angeles Times reports that Jesus Ysasaga had been arrested multiple times and ordered by the court to keep away from his ex-girlfriend. Two parole boards sentenced him to nearly a year in jail for stalking, drunkenness and battery. But the Fresno County jail would not keep him. Four times in the summer of 2012, authorities let Ysasaga go, refusing two times to even book him. The jail had no room. Ysasaga's attorney, Jerry Lowe, said the parade of convicted offenders being turned away from the jail was common. "It became quite a joke," he said. Across California, more than 13,500 inmates are being released early each month to relieve crowding in local jails — a 34% increase over the last three years. A Times investigation shows a significant shift in who is being let out of jail, how early and where.
Orlando Sentinel: College rape convictions in Florida total zero
No one gets convicted of campus rape at Florida's public universities, an analysis of records has found. In 2012 and 2013, 55 rapes were reported to campus police departments, show records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel. Arrests were made only in five. Three were dismissed, and two remain open at Florida Gulf Coast University. The analysis also found that
at the University of Central Florida, 16 rape cases were reported in those two years. Four of them led to arrests. None led to rape convictions. The Sentinel also was able to obtain police reports on rapes reported to UCF police from 2005 to 2011. There were 28 cases in those years. Nine led to arrests, but there were no rape convictions. Three state-university campuses, Florida Atlantic, New College and University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, had no rapes reported in 2012 or 2013, but police there did handle some in 2011. None of those six rapes led to convictions, either. Four of every five campus-rape cases reviewed by the Sentinel involved what could be called "date rapes." In three of every four cases, the alleged victims reportedly were highly intoxicated. Police, prosecutors, rape victims' advocates and social scientists all
agree that the numbers show the difficulty of pursuing campus-rape allegations.
Indianapolis Star: Officials defend exceptions to ethics rules
The Indianapolis Star investigated the use of waivers granted to state ethics rules. It reported, for example, that eight months had passed after Paul Dubenetzky retired from his state job as head of Indiana’s air-quality permit program to work for a consulting firm representing some of the region’s largest polluters. And he knew he had a problem. The state’s ethics laws require that former state employees take at least a year off before working as a lobbyist or going to work for companies they once regulated. His former peers at IDEM knew the rules and they were unnerved by his new job. Dubenetzky acknowledged as much in a letter he wrote in May 2007 to his former boss, IDEM Commissioner Thomas Easterly — a letter written on his new firm’s stationery: “Several current IDEM employees have expressed discomfort when discussing issues with me because they feel that they may be participating in activities that do not comply with the legal requirements regarding ethics and conflicts of interest.” But Dubenetzky’s concern quickly went away, thanks to an exception in Indiana that allows public employees to circumvent the state’s cooling-off period. That exception: Ask your former boss, in this case Easterly, to grant you a waiver. In Indiana, the waiver is binding and does not require the approval of the state’s ethics commission. ... An Indianapolis Star investigation reveals that waivers have been issued 102 times since 2005.
Boston Globe: State sends robocalls on excess unemployment benefits
The Boston Globe reports that an automated message sounds like one of those dreaded spam calls: “You are required to pay this debt,” the voice says. “Failure to repay your overpayment may affect your ability to collect future unemployment insurance benefits as well as impact your state and/or federal income tax refunds.” But it’s no scam. State officials, using automated phone messages or “robocalls” that began in July, are targeting 63,000 people, about 1,000 per day, who they say received undeserved unemployment benefits as far back as 1985. The average amount of the debts the state is seeking to reclaim is about $2,500 a person, but some cases involve amounts as little as $100, according to internal emails obtained by the Globe. Ignoring the calls, no matter the amount owed, carries serious consequences; a person could ultimately lose the ability to collect unemployment benefits in the future or have their future tax refunds garnished.
Detroit Free Press: Do police need military weapons?
Michigan police departments have armed themselves with grenade launchers, armored vehicles, automatic rifles and other equipment — 128,000 items in all, worth an estimated $43 million — under a federal program that allows police to obtain surplus gear free from the U.S. military. A Detroit Free Press review of items transferred from the military since 2006 shows Michigan law enforcement agencies have received 17 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles or MRAPs, built to counter roadside bombs; 1,795 M16 rifles, the U.S. military’s combat weapon of choice; 696 M14 rifles; 530 bayonet and scabbards; 165 utility trucks; 32 12-gauge, riot-type shotguns; nine grenade launchers; and three observation helicopters. Federal officials won’t say which agencies got equipment, but the Free Press inquiry shows it went not just to large counties with high crime, but some of the state’s smallest counties and towns. ... Police say they need military-grade weapons to counter heavily armed drug dealers, mass shooters and terrorists. Armored vehicles can be used against barricaded gunmen, to evacuate citizens in emergencies or to quell riots, while high-powered, automatic rifles keep police from being outgunned by bad guys. But the growing militarization of local police is raising alarms across the country.
Charlotte Observer: More than 520 deaths in U.S. auto racing
The Charlotte Observer reports that two of every three deaths in U.S. auto racing over the past three years occurred at short tracks, which have been slow to embrace changes that are saving lives in racing’s major leagues, The Charlotte Observer finds. The most recent tragedy happened last weekend in New York when auto racing star Tony Stewart hit and killed 20-
year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was standing on the track and pointing toward Stewart’s car coming toward him while the race was under caution. The two had just tangled in a turn seconds earlier, sending Ward’s car into a wall. Ward became one of more than 520 people across America who have died in auto racing in the past 25 years, an Observer study shows. His death prompted NASCAR to adopt a new rule Friday prohibiting its drivers from leaving their cars and walking onto the track to confront other drivers after accidents. That’s the way most safety changes happen in auto racing, spurred by tragedy. ... Of at least 523 racing deaths since 1990, 53 percent have been at short tracks. That has climbed in the past three years to about 70 percent. Short tracks are also where most U.S. racing takes place.
Seattle Times: Steve Ballmer backed elite school team
The Seattle Times reports that by the time Steve Ballmer’s oldest son reached his junior year at Lakeside School, the basketball program was in disarray. The Lions finished the 2008 season with just two wins, losing every game within a Seattle league that was otherwise producing NBA talent. One loss was by a margin of 66 points. An elite private school with an endowment of $190 million, Lakeside was better known for its academics, chess team and being the place where Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen began their alliance as students in the late 1960s. Ballmer, however, was a basketball zealot who had been angling to own an NBA franchise, a goal finalized just last week with his $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers. Before he had a pro team to call his own — and with all three of his kids involved
with basketball at Lakeside — Ballmer focused his attention on the high-school team. Ballmer and his allies at Lakeside attracted basketball talent to the wealthy school and aided them with a series of questionable tactics that included a new basketball-focused nonprofit, cash for a coach, an unusual admissions process and weak enforcement of academic standards.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 8-14-2014
Anniston (Alabama) Star: Public documents often hard to get in Alabama
The Anniston (Alabama) Star reports that Stephen Jackson programs computers for a living, but even he sometimes has trouble making sense of the Alabama Legislature’s online records. “Honestly, I was lost,” said Jackson, creator of the website OpenBama, which strives to bring government data to the public in a readable form. “It wasn’t that the information wasn’t there, it was knowing how to get to it.” Jackson isn’t the first person to run into frustration with the status of public records access in Alabama. While the state’s open records law – which gives people “the right to inspect or take a copy of any public record” – seems to hold promise for anyone seeking public records, experts say compliance with the law is haphazard at best. In the next few months, as part of an ongoing series, The Anniston Star will take a closer look at the
obstacles to public records access in Alabama _ obstacles that pop up in matters as mundane as car accident reports and as momentous as lethal injection.
Arizona Republic: Navajo ‘ghost mines’ are Cold War’s deadly legacy
An Arizona Republic investigation looks into the uranium mines that dot Navajo lands. It reports that in 1957, Charley Colorado climbed down a uranium mine shaft near his ancestral sheepherding grounds and began hammering at a rock that would power the atomic bomb and help America stare down the Soviets. Now, Colorado, 87, spends much of his time wedged between a medical oxygen tank and a twin bed, parked in an easy chair before a wood stove at his family's home on the high desert west of Gray Mountain, near Cameron. He has frequent blackouts and trouble breathing. ... Decades after America's Cold War uranium binge, the Colorado Plateau remains scarred, poisoning and frightening a people who still live with the radioactive residue of 521 abandoned mines scattered across their reservation's 17.2 million acres, which is larger than West Virginia. The U.S. promises a thorough cleanup, but at current funding levels, it could take generations to complete.
Los Angeles Times: Los Angeles police misclassify crimes
The Los Angeles Times reports that once police had Nathan Hunter in handcuffs, they tended to his wife. She was covered in blood. She told the officers Hunter flew into a rage that night in February 2013 because she hadn't bought him a Valentine's Day gift. He beat and choked her before stabbing her in the face with a screwdriver and throwing her down a flight of stairs at their apartment in South Los Angeles, according to police and court records. Hunter, 55, was convicted of felony spousal abuse and sentenced to six years in prison. Under FBI rules followed by police departments across the country, the beating should have been counted as an aggravated assault because Hunter used a weapon and caused serious injuries. That's not what happened. The Los Angeles Police Department classified it as a simple assault – a minor
offense not included in the city's official tally of serious crimes. It was no isolated case. The LAPD misclassified nearly 1,200 violent crimes during a one-year span ending in September 2013, including hundreds of stabbings, beatings and robberies, a Times investigation found. The incidents were recorded as minor offenses and as a result did not appear in the LAPD's published statistics on serious crime that officials and the public use to judge the department's performance.
Sacramento Bee: Odds of oil rail fire rising locally
The Sacramento Bee reports that in the middle of the night a year ago, a runaway train laden with crude oil derailed in a Canadian town, igniting a firestorm that killed 47 people, some of them asleep in bed, vaporized buildings for blocks, and awakened rail cities like Sacramento across the continent to a new fear: The paper asks, “Could that happen here?” Although trains have long ferried hazardous materials, including crude oil and other potentially lethal products such as chlorine and ammonia, the amount of flammable crude oil now shipped by rail is unprecedented, and growing fast. A string of recent derailments and explosions, some requiring evacuations, have prompted federal transportation officials to call for new safety measures, including stronger tanker cars and slower speeds for trains carrying a particularly volatile form
of crude oil from the suddenly booming Bakken fields of North Dakota. Bakken crude trains have been rolling through Canada and the Eastern United States for several years. In California, the crude oil by rail trend is just starting. Oil companies here are planning to receive up to 23 percent of their oil via rail shipments by 2016. Two years ago, only one-third of 1 percent of oil arrived at California refineries on trains. As rail traffic has increased, the number of crude oil
spills involving railroads in California has risen as well. California registered four rail-related crude spills or leaks between 2010 and 2012, according to the state database on hazardous-materials spills. The number jumped last year to 17. Twenty-six have been reported in the first half of this year. The state saw 139 freight train derailments last year, up from 62 in 2010.
Delaware News Journal: Delaware police request military surplus
The Delaware News Journal says that a virtual flood of free surplus U.S. military gear has flowed into Delaware police departments in recent years. In tiny Delmar alone, the haul has ranged from tarps and treadmills to trailers and cargo trucks – all told, surplus military gear that originally cost the government $1.59 million. That doesn’t include any tactical equipment, such as rifles, that the department may have received since 2011 because the details on such gear are not public, officials say. Statewide, the Defense Department has sent a total of $9.86 million worth of tactical and non-tactical equipment Delaware’s way since late 2009. The equipment is provided via DoD’s Law Enforcement Support Office program, which allows for the transfer of excess property to lawmen in the U.S. and its territories. The LESO program provided The News Journal with lists of every transferred item, and its original cost to the Pentagon. The non-tactical items were listed by agency. ...Which ones received the tactical gear remains, in large part, a mystery. LESO wouldn’t provide those details. Police officials interviewed acknowledged the tactical items they’d been sent.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Georgia career colleges get scant oversight
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that as enrollment has mushroomed at for-profit colleges in recent years, they have come under increased criticism. Among the concerns are default rates on federally insured student loans; dropout and graduation rates; recruiting tactics; and the truthfulness of claims about job-placement success. Dozens of state attorneys
general are examining the proprietary schools, and several federal agencies also have launched investigations. But in the past five years, the Georgia agency responsible for regulating the schools has not issued a subpoena or referred a single case to the attorney general for investigation. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters discovered an agency that has allowed for-profit schools to operate with impunity in Georgia.
Wichita (Kansas) Eagle: Child neglect easy to miss, affects development
The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle looked into child-in-need-of-care petitions. It found, for example, that a 12-year-old Wichita girl told social workers she and her siblings hadn’t taken a bath or brushed their teeth in a month. She made the comments as she and her siblings got cleaned up at the Wichita Children’s Home. They had been living without electricity or water, court
documents say, because their parents hadn’t paid the utility bills. Prosecutors filed a child-in-need-of-care petition on behalf of the four children July 30 after police removed them from their home during a welfare check three days before. Neglect happens every day in homes across the Wichita area. In state fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, physical and medical neglect of a child made up about 18 percent of all child-in-need-of-care cases assigned for investigation by the Kansas Department for Children and Families. Since February, The Eagle has been regularly reviewing child-in-need-of-care petitions and is following several cases through the system, including this one.
Portland (Maine) Press Herald: More Maine families skipping vaccines
The Portland (Maine) Press Herald says that Mainers increasingly question the safety of vaccines, and the state now has one of the highest rates of unvaccinated children in the United States. The number of children entering Maine’s kindergarten classrooms without all of the required shots has jumped by about half in the past decade, to about 600 statewide, because parents philosophically object to vaccines. Parents and health officials speculate that the trend is driven by a large body of anti-vaccine literature claiming the shots are unsafe, Mainers’ sense of independence, and parents’ desire to do what’s best for their children. But public health advocates worry that diseases common decades ago that were nearly eradicated could return. Yarmouth Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician who is teaming with MaineHealth to research why some Mainers are choosing to forgo vaccines, predicts an outbreak of measles or pertussis will erupt in Maine. The state experienced its highest number of pertussis, or whooping cough, cases in decades in 2012, and pertussis numbers in 2013 remained high compared to recent decades. ... Maine’s opt-out rate for children entering kindergarten _ 3.9 percent _ is the ninth highest in the country, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While less than 4 percent may not sound high, vaccines are most effective when nearly everyone is immunized. When even 5 percent to 10 percent of the population opts out, what is known as “herd immunity” can be compromised, according to the CDC.
Baltimore Sun: Investigation looks into police pursuit that ended in three deaths
The Baltimore Sun reports that Andrew Baker Jr. and Angel Chiwengo were holding hands and listening to soft music on the radio as he drove her home from the Pikesville Doubletree Hilton where they worked. As they headed east on Northern Parkway and passed through the York Road intersection, a Honda Accord fleeing police blasted through a red light – at more than 100 mph – and smashed into his Jeep. Chiwengo, 46, and the two people inside the Accord died. Somehow, Baker, 54, survived. But with the anniversary of the Sept. 23, 2013, crash approaching, he bears deep physical and emotional scars: He walks with a cane, and has nightmares and flashbacks. Even worse, he says, is the feeling that he somehow let Angel down. Now previously undisclosed details about the crash are raising new questions whether police violated departmental policy by engaging in a high-speed chase. Those details, from an investigative report obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request to prosecutors, shed more light on the role of the unmarked police car that was pursuing the Accord.
Boston Globe: For victims of domestic violence, each day carries danger
The Boston Globe looks at the possible impact of new domestic violence prevention legislation. It points out that the ways to hurt are infinite. When you live with an abuser, everything is a weapon. In their hands, innocent objects like ice-cube trays and checkerboards and apples and pillows become ways to inflict suffering, to demand submission. “I got hit with a branch
when I was pregnant,” said Tuti, sitting with three other survivors at a shelter in Dorchester on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon. They counted the ways their former boyfriends failed to love them. “He punched me in the head,” Tuti continued. “He spit on me. He kept hitting me with a bottle of water.” “He picked up a video game, anything near me,” said Trinity. “He hit me in the head with a bag of Pampers.” It is all there in the police reports, set out in mundane, relentless detail. Globe data visualization reporter Gabriel Florit analyzed more than four years of reports on domestic violence between intimate partners in Boston, up to April 2014. That is when the police department changed the way it reports these incidents, providing less detail on this world of cruelty and terror. Soon, the police reports will be made less accessible statewide, under new domestic violence prevention legislation that shields them from public view unless a case goes to court.
Charlotte Observer: Motorola’s no-bid grip on Charlotte radio contracts
The Charlotte Observer reports that Motorola has thrived virtually without competition as emergency radio company for Charlotte, North Carolina, scoring more than $60 million in no-bid contracts over the past decade. The latest contract, approved by the Charlotte City Council last October, will cost the region’s taxpayers up to $32 million for system maintenance and upgrades through mid-2020. It’s the largest noncompetitive contract the city has awarded in more than
three years. The government bidding process is designed largely to save tax dollars. The idea: Competition usually prods companies to lower their prices. But only one of the more than 20 contracts awarded to Motorola over the past decade involved competitive bidding. “The taxpayers of our region are getting burned,” said Steve Koman, a former emergency
communications consultant who assisted the city from late 2011 to early this year. Koman contends the city failed to exercise due diligence by awarding the recent Motorola contract without soliciting competition _ and without asking independent experts whether it was the most cost-effective option. By May, he’d grown so concerned that he notified the FBI. Another sign of Motorola’s supremacy: The company supplied all of the roughly 5,000 radios bought by city and county agencies over the past decade. City officials insist they’ve acted in the best interests of taxpayers and public safety agencies. They say shifting to a new company would be expensive and potentially risky, and that the city has received discounts by signing the recent multi-year contract with Motorola. ... What has happened in the Charlotte region is by no means unique. A recent investigation by McClatchy, the company that owns the Observer, detailed an array of tactics used by Motorola to elbow out competitors and continue its decades-long dominance.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Medical mediation often fruitless
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that when Dennis Browning’s wife suffered a fatal heart attack in her hospital room one day after undergoing back surgery, he began a futile search for answers. Several lawyers turned down his case, citing a system of state laws and court rulings that have combined to erect roadblocks at the doors of Wisconsin courthouses.
So Browning turned last fall to the state Medical Mediation Panels. The little-known agency, an arm of the state Supreme Court, was created in 1986 to provide "an informal, inexpensive and expedient means for resolving (medical malpractice) disputes without litigation." It replaced a more burdensome and expensive mediation system, which involved hearings that could last weeks and included expert testimony. "I went in with the idea I would be able to get clear, direct answers," said Browning, 54, a Platteville resident and Walmart greeter. It didn't happen. It almost never does. Of the 302 claims filed with the agency in 2012 and 2013, more than 60 percent end up listed as "expired," meaning they died because of procedural or scheduling problems. Only 67 – or 22 percent – actually went to a hearing, and only two of those were resolved at their hearings, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of panel records.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 8-7-14
Anniston (Alabama) Star: Though tightly regulated, nursing homes still have issues
At an Anniston, Alabama, nursing home, administrators fired a worker accused of verbally abusing a resident, but only after state inspectors intervened. In Oxford, nursing home staff failed to tell a resident's family members when an employee reported that one resident sexually abused another. And at more than one Calhoun County nursing home, residents’ unexplained bruises sometimes didn’t get reported to state officials or family members as possible signs of abuse. An Anniston Star review of state nursing home inspection records, some of them going back as far as 10 years, showed that despite close watching by state officials, nursing homes have sometimes struggled to handle reports or indications of resident abuse properly. And Calhoun County's nursing homes aren't alone. Officials of the Alabama Nursing Home
Association say they've been in talks with state officials this summer, seeking guidance on what violations nursing homes should report and when.
Arizona Daily Star: Few tickets despite ban on texting while driving
The Arizona Daily Star reports that in the midst of city traffic a car swerves into your lane, and the driver suddenly jerks the wheels to correct. The driver’s head bobs up and down, hands clearly not on the steering wheel. Texting and driving. Inside city limits, that driver is breaking the law. But Tucson police officers have only issued 50 tickets for the violation in two years, a review of citations shows. An officer can stop a driver suspected of using a phone to text, email or instant-message while driving. But the law, which took effect in April 2012, has proven difficult to enforce. Tucson Police Officer Shawn Ramsey said he sees people texting and driving all the time, but he doesn’t stop a driver just for having a cellphone in hand because it’s too hard to prove someone was messaging or emailing at that moment. ... The low number of citations shows the city’s texting ban isn’t doing much to influence people’s driving habits, said TPD Sgt. Eric Hickman.
Sacramento Bee: California Democrats accept more campaign cash from tobacco industry
An analysis by the Sacramento Bee shows that Democrats in the California capitol have become increasingly willing in recent years to take money from cigarette companies, a source of campaign funding that was once so controversial it remains shunned by their state party organization. Donations from the nation’s two major cigarette companies to Democratic candidates for the legislature and other California offices more than quadrupled over the last five years, a Sacramento Bee analysis of campaign finance data shows. In 2009, Altria and R.J. Reynolds gave $43,300 to Democrats, 14.7 percent of the money they put into the campaign accounts of California politicians. Last year, they contributed $196,100 to Democrats, 46.6 percent of the money the industry gave to all state candidates. The shift came as the Legislature, dominated by Democrats, quietly rejected several bills aimed at reducing smoking and the illnesses that come with it.
Denver Post: Denver pays millions to settle abuse claims against police and sheriff
A Denver Post analysis finds that nearly $13 million of the $16.7 million paid out by the city of Denver to settle legal claims in the past decade involved the police and sheriff departments. Fifty-eight percent of that total payout was for cases where excessive force or civil rights violations were at issue. Denver has had five years of below-average claims payouts, with no million-dollar settlements. That's about to change shortly. The City Council will consider approval of $3.25 million to settle a federal lawsuit pressed by former jail inmate Jamal Hunter, who in 2011 was tortured by other inmates and, he says, choked by a jail deputy in another incident. ... In a brewing scandal for Denver city government, inmates have been lining up with complaints stemming from other incidents in which deputies allegedly used improper force, sometimes in view of security cameras.
Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal: The real cost of ethanol to environment, consumers
The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, reports that across the farmlands of America, there are acres upon acres of corn. Corn planted over roads that used to subdivide cropland. Corn planted on ground once considered too wet for cultivation. Corn planted on ground typically too dry to produce dependable yields but are profitable today because of innovations in drought-tolerant seeds developed by companies such as DuPont Pioneer. There's now corn planted on 1.3 million acres that until recently was reserved for conservation – an area larger than all of Delaware. Last year, American farmers planted 95 million acres of corn, 10 million acres more than in 2008. ... As envisioned by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act – championed and signed into law by President George W. Bush and embraced by candidate and now President Barack Obama – ethanol was supposed to lower gas prices for consumers, reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and improve the environment by helping reduce levels of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – in the atmosphere. ... But the growth of ethanol, an alcohol-based additive that makes up 10-percent of each gallon of gas, has had unintended consequences:
-We pay more for foods like bread, snacks and chicken.
-Our vehicles get fewer miles per gallon of gasoline now that ethanol is included, and we're paying more for that fuel – about 13 cents per gallon because of the lost efficiency.
-Boat engines and lawn care equipment go kaput from engines that weren't designed for fuels that include alcohol.
-Corn planted in marginal habitats threatens one of the most altered ecosystems in the world – the temperate grasslands of the Great Plains, which naturally absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Kansas City Star: County gives many violent criminals probation
The Kansas City Star reports that LaShanda Bynum’s grief still comes in waves, even years after Djuan Hatten ambushed and killed her son. Hatten never should have been on the street that night. A year earlier, he’d shot a stranger simply for asking directions. That assault could have sent Hatten to prison for 10 years. Instead, he remained free on three years of probation.“If the system had him do the time he was supposed to do for the person he shot before, he would not have been out to commit that crime against my son,” Bynum said. Hatten has lots of company in Jackson County. More than 1,200 times since 2009, Jackson County judges have put violent criminals on probation instead of locking them away with long prison sentences, a Kansas City Star analysis of state data found. Compared with its neighboring Missouri courts, Jackson County grants probation more frequently to armed robbers, unprovoked shooters and men who have beaten up girlfriends or endangered children. It doesn’t stop there. Even killers sometimes receive probation in Jackson County.
Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent: Taxpayers often left to pay publicly financed business loans
The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wisconsin, says that publicly financed business loans are a high-stakes game, providing an economic boost in some cases while saddling taxpayers with six-figure losses in others. Banks consider loan write-off rates above 2 percent unacceptable, but local economic development funds examined by the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team wrote off about 7 percent of loans active in the last decade – with losses totaling $4.4 million. The loans often help employers create jobs, but they also can force taxpayers to prop up businesses that fail to meet obligations. ... Across 42 counties, cities and villages in central and eastern Wisconsin, public officials oversaw nearly 1,000 loans totaling $187 million in the last decade, of which 109 were delinquent or written off as of March, according to data obtained by Gannett Wisconsin Media through public records requests. That means about 90 percent of loans have fueled business start-ups and expansions that created or retained jobs and met loan obligations.
New York Times: Evidence solves rape cases years later
The New York Times tells the story of Meaghan Ybos in Memphis, Tennessee, who was 16 and had just arrived home from school when a man in a ski mask held a knife to her throat and raped her. The man said he would kill her if she called the police, but she did so anyway. That led to barrages of skeptical questions, Ms. Ybos said, and the excruciating collection of
evidence from her body, gathered into what is commonly known as a rape kit. ... Like hundreds of thousands of other rape kits across the country containing evidence gathered from victims, that of Ms. Ybos lay untested for years on a storeroom shelf. The reasons for the backlog, experts say, include constraints on finances and testing facilities, along with a slow recognition among investigators that even when the offender is known, DNA testing might reveal a pattern of serial rapes. And too often, women’s advocates say, the kits went untested because of an uncaring and haphazard response to sexual assault charges.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 7-30-2014
Los Angeles Times: Calculating water usage is tough task
The Los Angeles Times reports that when state regulators tried to tally water use across California recently, they didn't exactly get a flood of cooperation. Of the 440 water agencies in the state, only 276 provided water consumption data. And officials in San Diego made a point of formally refusing the request, saying the state's method for measuring water use in California's second-largest city was "misleading and technically inappropriate." The State Water Resources Control Board released the result of its survey earlier this month, showing an 8% increase in water use in Southern California in May while most of the rest of the state was using less water. ... But a closer look at the numbers shows the picture is more complex. The survey reflected partial and incomplete data, and state officials admit that it was not a full accounting of how much water regions are using across the state.
Washington Post: At Colorado’s borders, a dividing line over marijuana
The Washington Post looked at “drug traffic” on the Colorado border. It found an old man with a snow-white beard bounded into the double-wide trailer that houses the only pot shop in eastern Colorado. He wore bib overalls over a white T-shirt, and a huge grin. He was a farmer from Nebraska, and he was 78 years old. “How much can I get for $100?” he asked. Ray —
no last name, he said nervously — bought a couple of grams, went across the street to show his wife what he’d scored, and scurried back to the sales counter. “Forget something?” asked the clerk, a schoolteacher who is spending the summer selling marijuana. “More weed!” Ray squealed with glee. He’s been smoking since he was 12, “and I will till the day I die,” he said, and now Ray was about to get back in his truck and drive his first legal purchase 322 miles east, back to his Nebraska farm. The trip would make him a criminal, because although recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado this year, it most assuredly is not on the other side of the state line.
Miami Herald: State Republicans won’t talk about trips to ranch
The Miami Herald reports that in February 2013, Florida Gov. Rick Scott stepped aboard a Texas-bound plane to take part in a secret ritual for Florida’s power elite. As other politicians had done before and would do after, Scott was departing for historic King Ranch, one of North America’s premier hunting grounds. The trips, records indicate, were financed all or in part with contributions from Florida’s sugar industry, right down to the hunting licenses. Scott won’t answer questions about his trip. After weeks of requests from the Herald/Times, his campaign staff released a one-paragraph statement recently saying he had gone to King Ranch “in support of his political fundraising efforts.” Also keeping mum: state House leaders who have accepted similar trips in the past three years, ever since U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the ranch and built a hunting lodge amid its rolling hills.
Des Moines Register: Worth County deputies deployed Tasers at least 15 times
The Des Moines Register reports that Worth County deputies fired two Tasers at least 15 separate times to subdue a man who was lying on his back and either couldn't or wouldn't roll over as instructed, according to videos and other records released by the state to settle a lawsuit filed by the newspaper. Michael Zubrod, 39, of Northwood can be heard moaning
throughout parts of the 31⁄2 minutes of footage, and records show that minutes later, he became unresponsive with no heartbeat. Deputies had responded to the home that night after Zubrod was accused of beating his girlfriend, Rhonda Schukei, with a hammer. The newly released records – including two videos, more than 100 audio recordings of communications with emergency dispatch and multiple documents – show and describe a highly violent scene on
Sept. 22 that ended in Zubrod's death. The records were released last week in a settlement with the state after the Register sued for access to the reports.
Baltimore Sun: Maryland hospitals aren’t reporting all errors
The Baltimore Sun reports that Nadege Neim won a $1.4 million verdict last year after suing her Ellicott City obstetrician for removing a healthy ovary and fallopian tube from her right side when she went into the hospital for surgery to have a cyst excised from her left. A few years earlier, an unnamed man in his 50s sought treatment for pneumonia at a Maryland hospital and ended up losing both legs. No one properly assessed him, and scans that might have found the blood vessel blockage were delayed for nearly two days in a "cascade of poor decisions," state regulators said in an investigative report obtained by The Baltimore Sun. Such preventable medical errors kill more than 400,000 Americans each year and seriously harm at least 10 times that number, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Patient Safety. But it's impossible to know the full scope of the problem in Maryland. While hospitals are supposed to report serious medical errors to state regulators, the mostly confidential system still doesn't capture all of those happening in the Maryland facilities, patient safety experts and regulators acknowledge. Confusion over reporting rules and fear of legal or financial repercussions can thwart disclosure, they say. ... Only Minnesota, New York and five other states have passed
laws requiring that hospitals publicly report mistakes.
Boston Globe: Finance rule often flouted
The Boston Globe looked into campaign financing. It noted that Richard Tisei, who lost his 2010 bid for lieutenant governor, later approached an old friend, reclusive GOP strategist Arthur J. Finkelstein, to help map the way forward. Finkelstein, who owns a sprawling property on the Ipswich River, is a storied figure in conservative circles. He has advised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, worked for President Nixon, and polled for President Reagan. Now, he would do a poll for Tisei – a June 2011 survey testing Tisei’s standing in the Sixth Congressional District, home to Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat bogged down in a family gambling scandal. The poll was not unusual. The payment for it, and for Finkelstein’s advice, was. When Tisei cut four checks to the political consultant between June and October 2011 for a total of $20,540, he did not pay out of a federal campaign account. Instead, he tapped a state account he’d built over 26 years as a Beacon Hill lawmaker and candidate for lieutenant governor. The payments appear to violate federal law, which bars the use of state campaign funds in US House and Senate races. ... Spending records show several other Massachusetts officials have spent thousands of dollars out of their state accounts on staff and consultants in the run-up to their formal declarations, creating what looks like a series of shadow campaigns outside the reach of federal regulators. The lawmakers flatly deny the existence of those campaigns.
Kansas City Star: University’s misleading march to the top
After decades of struggling to boost its profile beyond that of a commuter college, the University of Missouri-Kansas City finally could call itself a global leader, The Kansas City Star reports. “UMKC ranked No. 1 in the World,” a 2011 university news release said. An academic study had ranked UMKC’s business school ahead of Harvard, Stanford and other top colleges in innovation management research – the study of how entrepreneurs turn good ideas into big bucks and jobs. “Oh my, have we made a big score,” Chancellor Leo Morton told a crowd at the formal announcement. But a Kansas City Star investigation raises questions about that score and other rankings achieved by UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management. The Star found a pattern of exaggerations and misstatements that polished the school’s reputation as it
sought to boost enrollment and open donors’ checkbooks.
Bergen County Record: Deadbeat dads
The Bergen County (New Jersey) Record reports that Kevin Macfie owes more than $60,000 in child support, and he's spent most of the past three years at the Bergen County Jail as authorities have tried to get him to pay up. His 871 nights and weekends behind bars have cost taxpayers more than $87,000. During that time, he's paid less than $15,000 in child support, much of it garnisheed from unemployment benefits, which have long since run out. Homeless, jobless and struggling with alcoholism, there's little sign he will ever pay what he owes. Macfie has had plenty of company in jail. Last year, more than 1,800 men and women were incarcerated or sentenced to home confinement with ankle bracelets in Bergen and Passaic counties for failing to pay child support. They and thousands of others statewide cycle in and
out of a court system whose mission is to get money from people who claim they just don't have any. ... Across the state, authorities currently have 33,000 active arrest warrants for parents behind on their payments. Some parents are regularly picked up and jailed for weeks or months at a stretch, as they try the patience of judges as well as ex-spouses with their stories of woe. In Bergen County, the jail has a special 65-bed bunkhouse for fathers behind on payments.
Newark Star Ledger: Dying for help
In an investigation of heroin addiction programs, The Newark Star Ledger says that when Barbara finally decided to get clean, she was little more than a skeleton. Nearly a year ago, the New Brunswick mother of two weighed 95 pounds, her body ravaged by a heroin addiction that led her through a life of homelessness and prostitution and left her in a coma after an overdose. Today, there is light in her eyes when she talks about her life. She has been sober nearly a year. She’s back at a healthy weight and has reconnected with her children, who are 10 and 11. There’s hope for a future, one she said wouldn’t exist without the treatment she sought and received. A lot of time there are three-week waits for a bed. A person can die in that time. Sometimes you only have that window of opportunity, and it's small. "If it weren’t for Integrity House, I’d be dead," she said, while sitting in the substance abuse facility’s Newark offices. "Before I came here, I thought I’d end up in a gutter somewhere. I’m blessed. I see things totally different now." Barbara is lucky. She has one of a few thousand licensed short-or long-term inpatient substance abuse treatment beds in New Jersey. Put another way, she won the addicts’ lottery — scoring a chance to get clean in a state-licensed residential facility. In New Jersey, it’s a dream that’s never been further out of reach. A Star-Ledger analysis of state and local data reveals a troubling relationship between the number of people being treated, the number of people heroin is killing and the number of people unable to find the help they immediately need.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Police amassing millions of license plate reader records
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle says that in a crime-fighting tactic that sets civil libertarians' teeth on edge, police in Monroe County and other urban counties across New York state are collecting and archiving tens of millions of records that track vehicle movement. The records are stored in a series of loosely connected secure computer servers, accessible directly or indirectly by police from one end of New York to the other and by federal Homeland Security officials. Each of the records, which are gathered by license plate cameras mounted on police cars or at fixed locations, includes a photograph and the time and place that a particular vehicle was imaged. Strung together, the records can paint a picture of where a person has traveled — whether to the scene of a crime, a doctor's office or to church. The system can instantly alert patrol officers of a "hit" on a stolen car or, more often, a vehicle whose registration has lapsed and is ripe for ticketing. Stored records also can be accessed later as part of criminal investigations. Records used for those purposes, though, constitute only a small fraction of all the data being saved. The vast majority of the vehicles tracked in the license-plate data were
driven not by scofflaws or criminals but by innocent citizens who happen to be photographed driving to work or while running errands. And least nine of New York's most populous counties — Monroe, Erie, Onondaga, Albany, Broome, Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau — are now engaged in long-term storage of these records.
Dallas Morning News: Suits keep public in dark on safety
The Dallas Morning News finds that secrets wrapped up in lawsuits over the 2013 explosion of the fertilizer plant in West could keep valuable health and safety information hidden from the public forever. Because a judge has approved confidentiality agreements requested by attorneys, even people who live in West may never find out much more about what happened. The agreements allow both sides to label as confidential virtually all information uncovered as the lawyers prepare for trial. “I’ve read hundreds of these. I read them all the time,” said Richard Zitrin, a law professor who has testified before the U.S. Senate about secrecy in the courts. “These are some of the most outrageous examples I have ever seen. It is completely unlimited.” Confidentiality agreements are common. But keeping secrets in lawsuits can have dangerous
consequences for public health and safety.
Seattle Times: Oil trains crowding Northwest grain shippers
A surge in oil trains hauling North Dakota’s energy bonanza is interfering with grain shipments to Pacific Northwest ports, prompting fears of a chronic crisis in which railcars carrying fossil fuels crowd out other products and disrupt exports, the Seattle Times reports. Washington wheat farmers have been luckier than their Upper Midwest cousins because most can ship their wheat by barge down the Columbia River. But those farther from the river, who typically rely on railroads, are increasingly paying truckers to move their wheat to a barge port. Farmers and others worry that costs and delays will get worse as more trains carrying oil — and perhaps coal — clog the region’s rail lines. “We’re concerned by the cost and availability of freight,” said Pearson Burke, marketing manager of AgVentures NW, a joint venture between two grain cooperatives in Odessa, Lincoln County. At the Port of Seattle, Dale Frazier, owner of Seattle Bulk Rail Station, a company that loads grain from trains into containers, says that in February, March and April his “business suffered tremendously” due to many late trains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that last winter, some ships departed before the grain they were waiting for could be loaded. Train trips from the Midwest’s grain belt to the Pacific
Northwest took 22 days, nearly twice as long as usual.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 7-17-2014
AP: Jails struggle to deal with mentally ill
The Associated Press has found jailers in many cities and towns grappling with a rise in mentally ill inmates. It says, for example, that the numbers, posted daily on the Cook County, Illinois, sheriff's website, would be alarming at an urgent care clinic, let alone a jail: On a Wednesday, 36 percent of all new arrivals report having a mental illness. On a Friday, it's 54
percent. But inside the razor wire framing the 96-acre compound, the faces and voices of the newly arrested confirm its accidental role as Chicago's treatment center of last resort for people with serious mental illnesses. It's a job thrust on many of the nation's 3,300 local jails, and like them, it is awash in a tide of bookings and releases that make it particularly unsuited for the task. ... The Cook County Jail, with more than 10,600 inmates, is one of the country's largest single-site jails. But it is not unique. From big cities to rural counties, jails have seen a rise in the number of inmates with serious mental illnesses, most of them arrested for non-violent crimes.
AP: US given heads up about newspaper data destruction
The Obama administration knew in advance that the British government would oversee destruction of a newspaper's hard drives containing leaked National Security Agency documents last year, newly declassified documents show. The White House had said it would be nearly unimaginable for the U.S. government to do the same to an American news organization. The Guardian newspaper, responding to threats from the British government in July 2013, destroyed the data roughly a month after it and other media outlets first published details from the top secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. After news of the Guardian incident broke the following month, White House spokesman
Josh Earnest said it would be "very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate." He had been asked whether the U.S. would ever order the destruction of a U.S. media company's computer data. The NSA emails, obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that senior intelligence officials were notified of Britain's intent to retrieve the Snowden documents and that one senior U.S. official appeared to praise the effort.
New York Times: Chinese hackers pursue key data on U.S. workers
The New York Times reports that Chinese hackers in March broke into the computer networks of the United States government agency that houses the personal information of all federal employees, according to senior American officials. They appeared to be targeting the files on tens of thousands of employees who have applied for top-secret security clearances. The hackers gained access to some of the databases of the Office of Personnel Management before the federal authorities detected the threat and blocked them from the network, according to the officials. It is not yet clear how far the hackers penetrated the agency’s systems, in which applicants for security clearances list their foreign contacts, previous jobs and personal information like past drug use. In response to questions about the matter, a senior Department of Homeland Security official confirmed that the attack had occurred but said that “at this time,” neither the personnel agency nor Homeland Security had “identified any loss of personally identifiable information.” The official said an emergency response team was assigned “to assess and mitigate any risks identified.”