WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 5-28-15
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Doctor burnout a rising problem
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports physician burnout is on the rise in Minnesota and across the country, as the traditional strains of a medical practice — long hours and draining cases — are compounded by new challenges, such as computerized records and payment reforms that judge doctors by their patients’ health. A series of influential studies by Minnesota researchers suggest that burnout could aggravate the state’s shortage of primary care doctors by driving some into early retirement and undermine the quality of patient care by eroding doctors’ compassion and attention to detail. “There is an epidemic going on with respect to stressed and burned-out physicians,” said Mitchell Best, executive director of Vital WorkLife, a St. Louis Park-based employee assistance program. In a national survey released this month, it found the share of physicians reporting severe stress increased from 38 percent in 2011 to 46 percent last year.
New York Times: Public sector jobs vanish, hitting blacks hard
The New York Times reports that for millions of black families, working for the government has long provided a dependable pathway to the middle class and a measure of security harder to find in the private sector, particularly for those without college degrees. Roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs. During the Great Recession, though, as tax revenues plunged, federal, state and local governments began shedding jobs. Even now, with the economy regaining strength, public sector employment has still not bounced back. The Labor Department counts half a million fewer public sector jobs than before the start of the recession in 2007. Because blacks hold a disproportionate share of the jobs, relative to their share of the population, the cutbacks naturally hit them harder.
Southern Illinoisan: Despite overcrowding, little support to reopen closed prison
The Southern Illinoisan reports that despite overcrowding within Illinois’ sprawling prison system, there appears to be little support for reopening the now-empty, super-maximum security prison in Tamms. The prison, built to house up to 500 of the state's most violent inmates, has sat empty since January 2013 after then-Gov. Pat Quinn ordered the closure of dozens of state facilities as a way to cut the state budget. An adjacent 200-bed minimum security unit work camp was also idled. Freshman state Rep. Terri Bryant, a Murphysboro Republican, has been pushing lawmakers to join her in urging Gov. Bruce Rauner to reopen the facility, at the southern tip of Illinois. The state's prison population hovers near 48,000 inmates. They reside in prisons that were built to house 32,000 inmates.
San Diego Union-Tribune: Nuclear plant shutdown deal concocted in secret
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports all the key parties in the room for the only public hearing on the $4.7 billion settlement agreement for shutdown costs at the failed San Onofre nuclear plant knew that the pact had its origins at a secret meeting in Poland. Nevertheless, when California Public Utilities Commission members went to approve the agreement last November, assigning 70 percent of costs to utility customers, they did so by approving a document that repeatedly asserted there was no collusion baked into the deal. A trove of emails and corporate correspondence released in the past two months, however, shows the extent to which the parties knew about the encounter between top regulators and a Southern California Edison executive during a study trip to Poland in March 2013.
Miami Herald: The perpetual campaign of Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott
The Miami Herald reports Gov. Rick Scott can’t run for governor again, but he’s still collecting six-figure campaign donations from special interests that have a direct stake in legislation he will sign or veto. The money buys TV ads featuring Scott, still looking and sounding like a candidate, walking across a big green cutout of Florida, “where dreams come true.” Scott travels near and far, chasing jobs, and by his side is videographer Nathan Edwards, capturing it all on tape to be played for audiences at upcoming Cabinet meetings. Scott is Florida’s first governor with a videographer on the public payroll to produce campaign-style videos, such as his recent visit to a new Wawa convenience store in Fort Myers. The strategy that helped him win two elections is the essence of his approach to governing: Repeat a simple message over and over, raise lots of money and use TV to talk directly to people in 30-second commercials, avoiding the filter of the news media.
Chicago Tribune: School districts fatten pensions, pay millions in penalties
The Chicago Tribune reports a 2005 pension law was intended to rein in big salary spikes that boost retiree benefits and pension costs statewide, imposing cash penalties on districts that gave raises larger than 6 percent to outgoing educators. But over the last decade, hundreds of school districts paid the so-called penalties and doled out steeper raises anyway, state data show, pushing some administrator salaries higher than $300,000, and, in one case, $400,000.
In a double whammy, local taxpayers had to foot the bill for those salary spikes, as well as the special penalty payments required to cover higher pensions from the raises. Those payments ran as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars in some districts, and the penalty price tag statewide rose to $38 million by 2014 — money that could have been used for student instruction or to cover deficits as schools struggled in a tough economy.
Indianapolis Sunday Star: Are politics to blame in BMV mess?
The Indianapolis Sunday Star reports the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles' chief financial officer, a man who oversees a $110 million budget, lacks one of the most basic qualifications typical of CFOs. Harold Day has no college degree. Day does have something else valued in state government — political connections. He is a longtime GOP ward boss whose wife was an Indianapolis councilwoman. He got his job with a recommendation from former Republican Perry Township Trustee Jack Sandlin. BMV spokesman Josh Gillespie said political patronage played no role in Day's hiring, or in the events that led BMV officials to overcharge Hoosier motorists more than $60 million for driver's licenses and registration fees over the course of several years.
Wichita Eagle: Pressed by activists, agri-business alters care of livestock
The Wichita Eagle reports even the biggest players in the livestock agriculture industry are easing away from some of the more controversial livestock management practices. As animal welfare activists have stigmatized such practices – such as cages for egg-laying hens or the use of antibiotics to speed growth – people, the restaurants they eat at and the companies that supply them are seeking what they call more humane practices. Even as companies such as Wichita-based Cargill Meat Solutions tweak their livestock practices, small producers – such as Prairie Fresh Poultry – trumpet their practices as superior. And it’s not just chickens and eggs. More producers are using unconventional methods to raise pigs, beef cattle and dairy cows, as well as all kinds of crops and even bees. Unconventional livestock production comes in variety of flavors: free-range, pasture-raised, grass-fed, locally grown, organic, genetically modified organism-free, no-added hormones, antibiotic free, chemical free and so on.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Other towns are relying on Portland shelters
The Maine Sunday Telegram reports a growing number of destitute people from other Maine towns are seeking refuge in Portland – the only city in the state to run its own homeless shelter and one of the few to provide low-barrier shelter to anyone in need. Those characteristics may be turning Portland into a dumping ground for homeless people who can’t get shelter or services elsewhere. A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of six years’ worth of shelter data shows that 35 percent of people who have stayed at the shelter since 2009 came from a Maine community other than Portland. During that period, the percentage grew from 32 percent in 2010 to 37 percent last year. What draws the needy to Portland is the subject of intense debate. Welfare critics claim people come to the city for an easy handout, while advocates argue that people simply need a hand up.
Detroit Free Press: Failed county jail still costs taxpayers $1 million a month
The Detroit Free Press reports that two years after construction was halted because of ballooning expenses, the failed Wayne County jail project is still costing taxpayers more than $1 million a month. The county broke ground on what was supposed to be a $300-million state-of-the-art jail in downtown Detroit four years ago. But today the site is still a pile of steel and concrete — fenced and guarded — with construction costs of $151 million. And the tab for taxpayers only grows, with no end in sight. The jail project costs Wayne County an average of $1.2 million every month. That's quite a burden for a county struggling to corral a financial crisis that has prompted speculation about eventual state oversight or bankruptcy, a county that is struggling to correct a $52-million structural deficit and a pension system funded at only 44%.
Buffalo News: Opiate addictions hit infants at high rate
The Buffalo News reports the epidemic of opiate addictions that has cost hundreds of lives is taking another toll, newborn babies. The rate of babies born addicted to opiates in Western New York is the highest in the state. In Erie County alone, as many as 554 babies were born addicted to opiates in a recent three-year period, with the numbers rising in each of those years. For every 10,000 births in Erie County, 189 newborns test positive for drugs in their systems, according to the state Health Department. In Niagara County, the rate of newborn addiction was even higher: 217. And in Chautauqua County, it was 223 per 10,000 births.
The suffering of newborns exposed to opiates while fetuses is a direct result of the opiate epidemic, said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein.
Oregonian: Oregon agrees to privatize part of coastal state park for golf course
The Oregonian reports Oregon’s Bandon State Natural Area wasn't for sale when Mike Keiser first came knocking, but approached with an increasingly appealing offer from the Chicago-based developer, and pressure from Oregon's former governor John Kitzhaber, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has agreed to privatize 280 acres of the state's public coast so Keiser can turn it into a golf course. Such a move is unprecedented in Oregon, where coastal land is so beloved the state Legislature voted in 1967 to keep the shoreline public, and then bought additional acreage all along its 363 miles. The result is a network of more than 80 properties so popular they include seven of Oregon's 10 most-visited parks. Initially, Oregon's parks commissioners were unenthusiastic. But over more than five years of negotiations, Keiser continually sweetened his offer and worked connections to get the governor and his staff involved – an unusual presence in Oregon State Parks land deals.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 5-20-15
AP: Health insurers pass tax along to states
The Associated Press reports there's more than a touch of absurdity in the way an industry fee in President Barack Obama's healthcare law is being passed along to state taxpayers. As Alice in Wonderland might say, a curious tax just got curiouser. The burden to states could mount to $13 billion in less than a decade. The Health Insurance Providers Fee was aimed at insurance companies. The thinking went: Because insurers would gain a windfall of customers, they ought to help pay for the expansion of coverage. Insurers say they have raised prices for individuals and small businesses to cover the new tax. As it turns out, they are raising their prices to state Medicaid programs, too.
Tucson Star: Most local high school grads need remedial help
The Tucson Star reports almost every local high school graduate entering Pima Community College is deficient in reading, writing or math, a Pima study has found. The Star was provided a copy of the report, which the college presented to area school superintendents but never publicly released. Those students are far less likely than their higher-performing peers to earn an associate’s degree, the study says, and they face a higher chance of unemployment and lower wages. PCC’s 2014 analysis found that 87 percent of recent high school graduates coming through the door needed remedial help in one academic area — 82 percent in math, 40 percent in reading and 36 percent in writing.
Contra Costa Times: City managers highly paid regardless of city size
The Contra Costa Times wonders whether readers are you paying through the nose for their city manager -- or getting a relative bargain -- and has published the dollar amounts available in a database of hundreds of thousands of public employees' compensation costs at www.mercurynews.com/salaries. Its examination of managers' pay and benefits, using data collected from 104 cities and towns in the greater Bay Area, indicates that compensation doesn't depend on the factors you might imagine -- such as the population of a city, the size of its workforce, or, seemingly, the challenges of running it. Just about every city manager has convinced their city councils that they're worth more than the governor. Of the 104 cities analyzed, all but five -- Rio Vista, Dixon, Gonzales, Escalon and Sebastopol -- compensated their manager or administrator more than the $213,000 that Gov. Jerry Brown received in cash and benefits to run the Golden State last year.
Denver Post: Domestic violence habitual offender law languishes in Colorado
The Denver Post reports there are 57 people on a list the Longmont Police Department created to keep track of repeat domestic violence offenders in the city. But most of Colorado's habitual domestic violence offenders, haven’t been convicted under a state statute designed to ratchet up the consequences for serial abusers undeterred by misdemeanor charges. The state law passed in 2000 allowed prosecutors to charge people facing their fourth domestic-violence-related misdemeanor as felons, with a mandatory term of imprisonment of up to three years. But the statute is rarely used: There have been just 155 convictions of domestic violence habitual offenders on felony charges in Colorado in the past 15 years, according to a Denver Post review of state court records. Colorado's habitual domestic violence offender law has languished — entirely rejected in some jurisdictions or used only sparingly by prosecutors skeptical of whether it's worth the trouble and wary of its legal vulnerability.
Daytona Beach News-Journal: End is near for drug treatment agency
The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports Windward Behavioral Care's board of directors is probably going to dissolve the agency that has been a life preserver for people drowning in addictions and mental health struggles since the 1970s, a sudden and drastic move that just two months ago was unthinkable. Board members see it as a necessary and merciful euthanasia for a nonprofit that since March has stopped running all three of its treatment facilities, lopped off 77 of its 96 employees and lost $500,000 in expected state government funding after investigations and audits uncovered serious problems. A state government inspection this spring of seven female patient charts alone found 129 problems with everything from missing records of lab tests, diagnostic services and medical history to failure to assign a primary counselor to a client, according to state Department of Children and Families records obtained by the News-Journal.
Chicago Tribune: Food safety inspectors overlook hundreds of day cares
The Chicago Tribune reports city health inspectors failed to visit hundreds of day cares that prepare and serve food to young children last year, an oversight city officials attributed to "human error." State health rules say day cares must be inspected twice a year if they handle potentially hazardous ingredients, which under city rules can mean something as simple as storing and serving milk. But about 300 day cares — more than 40 percent of the city's total — did not get a single inspection in 2014, a Tribune analysis of city records found. A handful went close to two years without an inspection, including Lincoln Park's Park West Cooperative Nursery School. In March, an inspector found that the day care's dishwasher didn't have hot enough water — a serious concern since experts say a lukewarm wash is unlikely to kill disease-causing bacteria. The nursery school had not been inspected since April 2013.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Data show dangerous levels of unvaccinated children
The Maine Sunday Telegram reports dangerously high numbers of unvaccinated children attend classes at dozens of elementary schools across Maine, with immunization opt-out rates reaching levels where an outbreak of infectious diseases could sicken many children, according to public health experts who reviewed statewide data obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram. In the schools most at risk, children who haven’t been immunized account for more than 10 percent of the kindergarten or first-grade students, threatening the “herd immunity” that prevents diseases like measles, mumps, polio and pertussis from spreading. In some schools, more than 20 percent are unvaccinated, according to data compiled for the Telegram by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The reason: Parents refusing vaccines for their children, mostly opting out of required immunizations on philosophical grounds.
Baltimore Sun: Baltimore police rarely charged in deaths
The Baltimore Sun reports that before Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby charged six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, just five city officers during the past three decades have faced criminal prosecution for on-duty actions that resulted in death, according to interviews with experts, news reports, government data and court records. One was found guilty; that verdict was overturned on appeal. While officials acknowledge that there is no comprehensive historical data on police-involved deaths, the period since 2006 provides a telling sample. Sixty-seven people died in encounters with officers over that period, according to the Baltimore Police Department, and two officers faced criminal charges in those incidents. That illustrates the high bar Mosby faces as she seeks to turn her charges into convictions. Four officers in the Gray case face charges that range from involuntary manslaughter to second-degree-murder; the two others face lesser charges.
The Record: 3 New Jersey colleges boost prestige with inflated application pool
The Record reports that some of New Jersey’s public colleges and universities are making themselves appear more selective — and more attractive to prospective students — by skirting national standards when reporting data to the federal government and ratings organizations. The Record found Ramapo College and Kean and Rowan universities include both complete and incomplete applications in the numbers they report, bloating the stated applicant pool by hundreds. Inflating the numbers to include students who leave out essential items like test scores or grades allows these schools to appear to be rejecting a substantially higher percentage of students. A lower acceptance rate provides a reputation boost in the prestige-fueled world of college admissions.
Toledo Blade: State representative’s spending trumps others in area
The Toledo Blade reports State Rep. Michael Ashford (D.-Toledo) regularly uses his campaign finance account to pay for meals at fancy area restaurants to meet with constituents, a review of the lawmaker’s campaign finance report shows. Such spending is permitted with campaign finance accounts as long as the spending is to carry out the duties of his office or to campaign for his office. With more than $13,000 in restaurant meals, Mr. Ashford had the most spending on restaurant dining among 21 representatives and senators who served northwest Ohio during 2013 and 2014, according to The Blade’s analysis of campaign finance reports on file with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office. Ranking second after Mr. Ashford’s total was state Sen. Cliff Hite (R., Findlay), with $4,799.
Austin American-Statesman: Fraud case loss may cost Texas taxpayers
The Austin American-Statesman reports Texas regulators entered a courtroom late last year claiming they should be able to keep more than $300,000 confiscated from a Corpus Christi dentist they claimed defrauded the state through a Medicaid billing scheme. But a panel of judges has ruled that prosecutors not only can’t keep the money — they blew the case so badly it could end up costing taxpayers an additional $400,000. In a judicial scolding that attorneys and law experts said was unlike anything they’d seen, a panel of Texas judges ruled this month that the Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General’s Medicaid fraud case against Cheryl Rhoden was so weak that, as punishment, the state agency must pay every dollar Rhoden spent defending herself over the past two years — about $380,000.
Read more (online subscribers only): http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/states-decisive-legal-loss-could-cost-taxpayers-hu/nmHw6/
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 5-13-15
AP: Sea rise threatens Florida coast, but no statewide plan
America's oldest city, St. Augustine, is slowly drowning. Its centuries-old Spanish fortress and other national landmarks sit feet from the encroaching Atlantic, whose waters already flood the city's narrow, brick-paved streets about 10 times a year — a problem worsening as sea levels rise for a city that has long relied on tourism. St. Augustine is one of many chronically flooded communities along Florida's 1,200-mile coastline, and officials in these diverse places share a common concern: They're afraid their buildings and economies will be further inundated by rising seas in just a couple of decades. But the state has yet to offer a clear plan or coordination to address what local officials across Florida's coast see as a slow-moving emergency. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is skeptical of man-made climate change and has put aside the task of preparing for sea level rise, an Associated Press review of thousands of emails and documents pertaining to the state's preparations for rising seas found.
AP: Gov. Christie billed state $85K on VIP boxes; GOP reimbursed it
The Associated Press reports New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent $85,000 in public money to entertain in luxury boxes at sports venues between 2010 and early 2012, when state Republicans started to pay for the expenses and reimbursed the state for those already incurred. The money came from an account, worth $95,000 a year, that Christie can use to pay for official entertainment or other expenses associated with his job. The details of spending from that account were obtained by The Associated Press via the state's open records law. The documents obtained by the AP do not list at which events, including those at the sports venues, the governor was entertaining and who was present.
San Antonio Express- News: Some universities use private firms to raise money
The San Antonio Express-News reports Texas universities are relying heavily on private marketing firms to raise tens of millions of dollars from corporate sponsors for their athletic programs. But in some cases, the sponsorship agreements aren't available to the public — and not even school officials are privy to the details. The newspaper reports Learfield Sports is a company based in Plano that handles every aspect of the sponsorship process for nearly 100 schools across the United States — including Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at San Antonio. When the Express-News asked major universities for copies of their sponsorship contracts, school officials at A&M and UTSA replied that Learfield keeps the only copies and won't release them.
Arizona Republic: Arizona Lawmakers enjoy prime health-care benefits
The Arizona Republic reports the Arizona Legislature takes a hard line when it comes to spending taxpayer money on health care. During its recent session, it passed measures seeking to limit lifetime Medicaid eligibility and to prohibit Arizona from establishing a state-based marketplace where residents could buy health insurance subsidized by the federal government. Some lawmakers have signed onto a lawsuit seeking to overturn Arizona's Medicaid expansion. But those cost-conscious measures don't apply to the lawmakers' own government-subsidized health care. Arizona lawmakers serve the public in a part-time role, but the vast majority of these elected officials take year-round health-insurance plans that are among the most generous state-funded benefits in the nation.
Hartford Courant: Blacks, Hispanics more likely to be ticketed after traffic stops
Hartford Courant reports the most comprehensive survey ever conducted of police stops in Connecticut continues to show that black and Hispanic motorists who commit moving violations are more likely to be ticketed than are white drivers pulled over for the same offense. A Courant analysis of data collected as part of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project shows that for the most common moving violations — speeding, traffic-light violations and stop-sign violations — black and Hispanic offenders statewide are 11 to 41 percent more likely to end up with a ticket than are white offenders stopped for the same offense. Among more than 150,000 speeders, for example, 51 percent of white motorists stopped by police received a ticket, compared with 63 percent of black drivers and 66 percent of Hispanic drivers. For drivers caught running a stop sign, 29 percent of white drivers were given a ticket for the offense, compared with 34 percent for blacks and 41 percent for Hispanics.
Chicago Tribune: Police sobriety checks target black, Latino neighborhoods
A Chicago Tribune investigation found that in Chicago, 84 percent of the roadside sobriety checks were scheduled in areas populated mostly by minorities while roadways in areas with more DUI-related crashes that are predominantly white are checked less often, or not at all. Federal guidelines suggest, however, that when choosing where to set up checkpoints, agencies should use objective criteria, such as a high incidence of alcohol-related crashes.
Of Chicago's 22 police districts, nine are majority-black, five white, four Latino and four have no racial majority. From February 2010 through June 2014, the most recent period with complete data available, Chicago police scheduled 152 roadside sobriety checks. Of those, 127 were in black or Latino police districts. Only six roadside checks were in the majority-white police districts.
New York Times: Manicurists are routinely underpaid, exploited and abused
The New York Times reports that manicures, once an indulgence reserved for special occasions, have become a grooming staple for American women across the economic spectrum. There are now more than 17,000 nail salons in the United States, according to census data. The number of salons in New York City alone has more than tripled over a decade and a half to nearly 2,000 in 2012. But largely overlooked is the rampant exploitation of those who toil in the industry. The New York Times interviewed more than 150 nail salon workers and owners, in four languages, and found that a vast majority of workers are paid below minimum wage; sometimes they are not even paid. Workers endure all manner of humiliation, including having their tips docked as punishment for minor transgressions, constant video monitoring by owners, even physical abuse. Employers are rarely punished for labor and other violations.
Columbus Dispatch: Consumers face difficulties filing complaints against utilities
The Columbus Dispatch reports if you are an Ohio consumer filing a complaint against a utility company, get ready for a long battle, and be prepared to lose. This is the advice of Daniel George of Hardin County, one of the 869 people or groups who made formal complaints with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio since 2005. He filed last year after a power surge did thousands of dollars worth of damage to his home appliances. “Not a red cent was given to me,” he said. The PUCO has ruled in favor of consumers just four times in that 10-year period, which is 6 percent of cases that ended in a decision on the merits, and less than 1 percent of all cases, according to a Dispatch review. The most common outcome is a settlement, which happened in 535 cases.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Philadelphia’s campaign finance reforms working
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the third mayoral race in a row, Philadelphia's attempt at campaign-finance reform seems to have done much of what it was intended to do: dampen big money's power to buy the city's next chief executive. Yes, the 2015 Democratic mayoral campaign is awash in millions of dollars being put up by labor unions and Main Line financial traders - $9 million in all, according to spending reports filed Friday. But that type of outside spending is there, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, and is beyond any local control. Consider only Philadelphia's own hard-fought rules, instituted first in 2003 and tinkered with off and on since. The latest campaign-finance reports, filed Friday, show they have evened the playing field among direct donors to the candidates and have not necessarily so hampered fund-raising that candidates can't pay for a campaign.
Read more: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/mayor/20150510_Phila__s_finance_reform_working.html#ZIQBwmvFp8asCoKR.99
Houston Chronicle: In recycling, economics trump good intentions
The Houston Chronicle reports that when Waste Management bought the recycling facility in southwest Houston in 2010 and converted it to handle single-bin recycling, commodity prices were high, the city was on board and Houstonians were eager to recycle. As the company introduced single-bin recycling, residents became ever more vigilant about keeping bottles, cans and newspapers out of local landfills. But they also started throwing in nonrecyclables, which gum up machines and drive up costs. It's a national problem that Waste Management, based in Houston and one of the largest trash and recycling companies in the country, and its competitors have been grappling with the past few years. Recently, it's gotten worse. Back when commodity prices were peaking in 2011, companies could absorb higher costs of weeding out trash. But prices have dived since, and Waste Management is finding it can cost more to sort and process material than what it can get for selling it.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 5-6-15
Denver Post: Surging gang violence in northeast Denver
The Denver Post reports makeshift memorials to men gunned down are constant reminders these days of the gang war enveloping northeast Denver. Gunfire echoing in the night has become just another one of the neighborhood's expected sounds, like barking dogs and wailing sirens. One man who lives in the Cole area says when he hears shots, he goes inside and ducks. A woman in northeast Park Hill said she has thrown herself to the floor. Since November, when rapper Kevie Durham was fatally shot at a bar near Sports Authority Field at Mile High, gang violence in Denver has left 15 dead — three times more than in the six months before — as a war plays out between rival factions of the Bloods, Sureños and Crips.
Washington Post: The terrible price of aging in prison
The Washington Post reports tens of thousands of inmates convicted in the “war on drugs” of the 1980s and 1990s remain behind bars thanks to harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, which continue to have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation’s prison system. Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013. The aging of the prison population is driving health-care costs being borne by American taxpayers. The Bureau of Prisons saw health-care expenses for inmates increase 55 percent from 2006 to 2013, when it spent more than $1 billion.
Miami Herald: Where’s Gov. Rick Scott amid budget crisis?
The Miami Herald reports that as the 2015 legislative session stumbled to a close last week, Gov. Rick Scott’s agenda lay in shambles, another victim of the Capitol’s worst political breakdown in decades. Fellow Republicans who control the Legislature failed to pass a state budget, so Scott’s call for more money for schools remains unfulfilled. He did not get $673 million in tax cuts he wanted, a freeze on graduate school tuition, repeal of the sales tax on college textbooks or a permanent end to the sales tax on manufacturing equipment. Scott’s goals weren’t grandiose. But every one became a casualty of the dysfunctional Capitol and what lawmakers describe as a disengaged style that has alienated Scott from many in his own party. At a time when legislative leaders desperately needed intervention to break a budget deadlock, Scott was far from the action — attending political fund-raisers, casting for jobs in California and dedicating a new amusement park ride in Orlando.
Chicago Tribune: Lead paint poisons poor Chicagoans
A Chicago Tribune investigation has found alarming levels of brain-damaging lead are poisoning more than a fifth of the children tested from some of the poorest parts of Chicago, even as the hazard has been largely eliminated in more prosperous neighborhoods. The toxic legacy of lead — added to paint and gasoline for nearly a century — once threatened kids throughout the nation's third largest city. As Chicago's overall rate of lead poisoning steadily dropped during the past two decades, the disparities between rich and poor grew wider. Some census tracts, smaller geographic areas within neighborhoods, haven't seen a case of lead poisoning in years. But children ages 5 and younger continue to be harmed at rates up to six times the city average in corners of predominantly African-American neighborhoods ravaged by extreme poverty, chronic violence and struggling schools, according to a Tribune analysis of city records.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Doctors’ financial interests, potential conflicts, now public
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports thousands of financial relationships between doctors and health care companies are coming to light through a new federal database that enables the public to see if a physician is profiting by using a certain product. Federal regulators have long been critical of these kinds of arrangements, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he co-authored the bill to create the database partly so the public could scrutinize them. The new Open Payments data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) cover many types of financial relationships besides investments, such as consulting deals, free travel for conferences and straight gifts. The disclosure program was created as part of the Affordable Care Act to shed light on hidden financial relationships in medicine — a topic of national urgency as health care consumes a growing share of government, business and household budgets.
New York Times: Chair says Federal Election Commission is paralysed
The New York Times reports the leader of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating the way political money is raised and spent, says she has largely given up hope of reining in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending. “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman, said in an interview. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.” Her unusually frank assessment reflects a worsening stalemate among the agency’s six commissioners. They are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission, which was created 40 years ago in response to the political corruption of Watergate. Some commissioners are barely on speaking terms, cross-aisle negotiations are infrequent, and with no consensus on which rules to enforce, the caseload against violators has plummeted.
Dallas Morning News: Agencies have little to show after sending $1 billion
The Dallas Morning News reports counties, including Grayson and Smith, set up regional mobility authorities to use bonds to build transportation projects and pay them off with tolls. The theory is that the tolls stay home, boosting area economies. A regional mobility authority is a locally based transportation agency that can’t levy taxes and isn’t run by elected officials.
But nearly 15 years after the Texas Legislature changed state law so the agencies could be created, most of the nine RMAs have struggled to live up to their ambitions while burning through at least $1 billion in tax dollars, an investigation by The Dallas Morning News has found. The RMAs have spent at least $220 million on overhead costs, and not all RMAs have been audited, according to The News’ analysis.
Richmond Times-Dispatch: Cigarette trafficking thrives in Richmond area
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that of every five cigarettes sold in Virginia, at least one is illegally trafficked for resale in another state — more than 10 million cartons a year worth hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. Recent criminal charges, cigarette sales figures and the Facebook postings of some defendants offer a glimpse into the lucrative, evolving racket that has a strong presence in the Richmond area, where many traffickers conduct business. Sales compilations obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch suggest that five of Virginia’s 10 largest cigarette buyers are in the Richmond area. Two claim addresses in self-storage facilities (one lists a unit number as its “suite”); two have wrong or outdated addresses; and the fifth purports to be in a South Richmond apartment. Together they bought more than 322,000 cartons — worth $15 million to $17 million — of cigarettes in Virginia in the 13 weeks that ended Feb. 28, according to the reported figures that were made available to The Times-Dispatch from a government source and that do not include all sales in the state.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 4-29-15
Boston Globe: Old educational battle lines drawn anew in Kansas
The Boston Globe reports the scene at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kan., might hearten those who once fought for equal education in America. The school is almost evenly divided into thirds of whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans, and students said they take pride in the ease with which they mix. But amid the melting pot that is Highland Park, trouble has come once again to Topeka, once again focusing on equality, once again shining a harsh light on the state’s governing class. This time, the fight is not about the color of students’ skin but about the quantity of money schools receive from the state, pitting poorer Kansans against the rest and roiling politics far beyond state lines.
Sunday News Journal: Dramatic rise seen in Delaware pardons
The Sunday News Journal reports Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has signed 1,569 pardons during his six-plus years in office, more than any other Delaware governor. The vast majority were awarded to people with minor offenses, although some went to criminals with serious felonies. Markell and state officials say pardons are an important tool to ensure people with criminal records aren't stigmatized forever and help deserving people secure jobs and move on with their lives after incarceration. However, an analysis by The News Journal shows the state doesn't track the progress of those who have received pardons. The information is public record, but the governor's office and Board of Pardons has no system to follow whether a person who receives a pardon commits another crime.In fact, no state officials could answer questions about how many of the 1,569 re-offended.
Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Extent of rail’s influence a mystery
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports hundreds — possibly thousands — of subcontractors are profiting from work on Oahu's rail transit project and many donate significant campaign dollars to leaders championing the project, but rail officials aren't required to track most of those firms or how much they're spending. A Honolulu Star-Advertiser analysis of the rail project's 145 known subcontractors, using a list compiled mostly through voluntary reporting, found that employees or principals from that group donated nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the past five years to Mayor Kirk Caldwell, arguably rail's strongest and most outspoken political advocate.
Read more (Online subscribers only) :
Sun Sentinel: 27,232 killed at “no kill” shelter
The Sun Sentinel reports that since officials voted to have Broward County become a “no kill” community that rarely resorts to euthanasia, 27,232 dogs and cats have met their deaths at the county shelter. The April 2012 County Commission vote encouraged cat and dog lovers, but it was only “aspirational,” county officials said. Since then, records show, more than half -- 52 percent -- of the dogs and the cats at the shelter have been put down. Meanwhile, clinic that would offer mass spay-and-neuter services to reduce Broward’s unwanted animal population is still just in the discussion stages. Cats face the toughest odds at the shelter, with more than half of them -- 55 percent-- dying there over the past year. Almost a third of shelter dogs -- 31 percent -- met that fate.
Read more (Online subscribers only):
Miami Herald: Politicians turn Florida into for-profit-college paradise
The Miami Herald reports that for-profit colleges across the United States have been the target of dozens of government lawsuits and investigations aimed at curbing abuses. The typical complaint is that students — generally “adult learners” — get manipulated by schools that market aggressively and offer the illusory promise of a well-paying new career. The newspaper reports that while other states have attempted to rein in the schools, Florida lawmakers have given the colleges their enthusiastic support. As a result, for-profit colleges have grabbed nearly 18 percent of the Florida market — about 300,000 students — compared to 12 percent nationwide.The Miami Herald took a year-long look at the industry’s Florida foothold. Among the investigation’s findings was that as other states adopted laws cracking down on colleges and their excesses, Florida legislators passed at least 15 laws that fueled the schools’ growth — while pulling in more than $1 million in campaign contributions from those same institutions.
Read more: http://pubsys.miamiherald.com/static/media/projects/2015/higher-ed-hustle/students.html#storylink=cpy
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Tainted drinking water is costing taxpayers millions
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports exceedingly high nitrate levels have turned up in one of Randall’s two municipal wells, and all 637 people in the north-central Minnesota community have received boldface notices that infants are at risk of a potentially fatal blood condition. Randall’s water emergency is the latest sign of an environmental problem in Minnesota. Nitrogen fertilizer is leaching into groundwater from farm fields, contaminating wells and costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year. Sixteen communities have violated the state health limit for nitrates, and half have installed expensive nitrate-removal systems at a cost per household of $3,300 or more. Communities are spending even more money to keep local nitrate levels in check.
Kansas City Star: Ignoring the terror within: U.S. extremist movements
The Kansas City Star reports that 20 years ago, after the shocking wake-up call of the Oklahoma City bombing, authorities began cracking down on a subculture of extremist groups, many arming themselves in preparation for a showdown with what they saw as an oppressive federal government. The numbers of such groups sharply declined. But today, at a time when much of law enforcement’s focus has shifted from domestic to foreign terrorism, a network of extremism is again spreading throughout the land. “We’re just a penny dropping away from one or more McVeighs,” said J.J. MacNab, an author who for two decades has been tracking anti-government extremists, referring to the Oklahoma City bomber.
And this time, extremists are harder to track.
Austin American-Statesman: Flawed numbers mask scope of drug abuse
The Austin American-Statesman reports fatalities from prescription drug abuse are widely undercounted in Texas and in many other states, obscuring the scope of one of the nation’s leading causes of preventable death. Overdose deaths from all drugs have skyrocketed nationwide, outpacing even motor vehicle accident fatalities. Prescription drug overdoses exceed cocaine and heroin deaths combined and are the main reason death rates have risen among white women between the ages 18 and 54. Those fatalities have become five times more common than in 1999, according to a recent Urban Institute report.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Texas cities join forces to protect military bases
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports Fort Worth and other Texas cities with military bases are intensifying efforts to secure millions of dollars in state funding to shore up the installations as a pre-emptive strike against another round of closures or cutbacks. Naval Air Station Fort Worth, which opened on the west side in 1994 after the closure of Carswell Air Force Base, is the third-largest employer in North Central Texas and contributes more than $9 billion to the state economy, according to the state comptroller’s office. Although another round of closures hasn’t been scheduled, state and local officials fear that one is on the way — possibly by 2017 — after years of deep military cuts precipitated largely by the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. The federal government, through Base Realignment and Closure, has shuttered more than 350 installations in five rounds from 1989 to 2005.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 4-22-15
Arizona Republic: Apartment complexes that pay university get ‘good neighbors’ label
On Aug. 3, 2011, Arizona State University wrote to Tempe that it had "serious concerns" about student behavior at the Vue, an off-campus housing complex whose owners were seeking to build another high-rise apartment for students, according to the Arizona Republic. Since the Vue opened in 2009, it had been the site of multiple alcohol-related arrests, noise complaints, a raucous pool fight and eggs tossed at police from a seventh-floor balcony. Yet at the same time ASU sent the letter, the university was accepting thousands of dollars from the Vue so the complex could participate in the school's Be A Good Neighbor Program. Off-campus rental properties listed as Good Neighbors receive exclusive access twice a year at campus housing fairs, a spot on the university's website and direct-mail advertising sent by ASU to students. The more the complexes pay, the more marketing benefits they receive.
Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/longform/news/arizona/investigations/2015/04/19/arizona-state-housing-good-neighbor/25849209/
Los Angeles Times: Veil of secrecy shields hospitals
The Los Angeles Times reports that a cardiac surgeon had unknowingly spread a staph infection from the rash on his hand to the hearts of at least five patients by the time Los Angeles County health investigators learned of the outbreak. The doctor had operated on more than 60 others in recent months, and county officials feared those patients could be struck with the same dangerous infection. Investigators didn't ultimately tie any deaths to the 2012 outbreak, but four patients needed additional surgery because of the infection. The only public mention of the case came a year later in a little-noticed appendix to the health department's 350-page annual report. It referred only to "Hospital A." Even now, the name of the hospital remains secret. … Los Angeles County health officials investigate and confirm an infection outbreak inside one of the county's hospitals once or twice a month. The public rarely finds out which hospital is involved, how many patients were stricken or whether any died.
Read more: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hospital-outbreaks-secrecy-20150419-story.html#page=1
Denver Post: Informant tips not always what they seem
The Denver Post says police thought the tip they were getting was as good as they come. A confidential informant told police that a probation officer was selling heroin and meth out of a tiny courthouse in southern Colorado. The woman said she had bought drugs from the officer three times. Trinidad detectives arrested Danika Gonzales, a seven-year employee of the probation department, and charged her with four felony drug counts.
Gonzales, then 38, lost her job. The informant pocketed $3,085 from her work with detectives.
The tip, it turned out, was too good to be true. Information from that informant and another created the basis of 40 drug cases that later proved to be little more than lies. Gonzales, who was once the informant's probation officer, saw her charges dropped, as did other defendants. But the informant was not charged for lying to police, and the detectives faced no sanctions for failing to verify her information. ...A Denver Post review of Denver Police Department data on confidential informants found that only about 40 percent of those used in fiscal 2014 had proven themselves reliable in previous cases.
Read more: http://www.denverpost.com/informants/ci_27937446/special-report-police-reliance-informants-colorado-brings-risks
Miami Herald: 850,000 Floridians stuck in health care limbo
The Miami Herald reports that on days when she feels good, Isabel Betancourt may skip the regimen of injections and pills that stop her immune system from destroying the cartilage and bone in her joints. Rationing her medication makes a one-month supply last two months or longer. With prescriptions that can cost more than $5,000 a month without insurance, she has learned to get by. “You find loopholes,’’ said Betancourt, 31, diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease with no cure, when she was in eighth grade. Betancourt, now a part-time Florida International University employee and full-time student, is one of about 850,000 Floridians and nearly 5 million Americans caught in the gap, a no-man’s-land carved out by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/health-care/article18717474.html#storylink=cpy
Courier-Journal: Obamacare gets mixed reviews in Appalachia
The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, finds that Obamacare flooded into these remote Appalachian hills last year like the War on Poverty had a half-century earlier — another government program promising to save some of America's most vulnerable citizens. And since then, it has given many of the poor and sick a key to long-neglected health care. But it's also brought skepticism and fear, with some business owners arguing it's stunting growth in a region that can't afford another economic blow.
One year after USA Today and The Courier-Journal examined the Affordable Care Act's arrival in Floyd County, Kentucky, health reform has taken root in ways both surprising and expected, good and bad.
Read more: http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2015/04/16/obamacare-gets-mixed-reviews-appalachia/25905859/
Portland (Maine) Press Herald: Payday at the mill
Sometime this year, the state of Maine will cut two checks worth a total of $2.8 million and mail them to out-of-state investors, according to the Portland Press Herald in Portland, Maine. Next year, it will send two more checks, worth $3.2 million, to the same recipients. It will repeat that process for the next three years until roughly $16 million of taxpayer money has been withdrawn from Maine’s General Fund. This payout of taxpayer dollars through 2019 will make whole a commitment the state made in December 2012 to encourage what was – on paper – touted as a $40 million investment in the resurgence of the Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket.
But the resurgence failed. A year after the investment was received, the mill’s owner, private equity firm Cate Street Capital of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, shuttered the mill and laid off more than 200 people. Great Northern filed for bankruptcy a few months later with more than $20 million in unpaid bills owed to local businesses, leaving many to wonder what happened to that $40 million investment that was supposed to save the mill. The reality is most of that $40 million was a mirage.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Youth exodus spells trouble ahead for labor force
The Minneapolis Star Tribune says that Casey Sperzel is Minnesotan through and through. She grew up in Maple Grove, went to college at the University of Minnesota, and lived in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. But when the 27-year-old met with a job recruiter last year, she was set on the Pacific Northwest. “I don’t think I’ll be back,” said Sperzel, now with a Seattle ad agency.
States are scrambling for young professionals like Sperzel to help offset the wave of baby boomer retirements. Minnesota is falling behind in that competition. The state has lost residents every year since 2002, with young adults most eager to leave. About 9,300 18- to 24-year-olds move out annually, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. That — combined with a declining birthrate and an aging population — has demographers and civic leaders sounding alarms.
New York Times: Sale of U.S. arms fuels the wars of Arab states
The New York Times reports that to wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood. As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.
Charlotte Observer: Death highlights danger in quarries
The Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that Chris Melton, a production supervisor at a sand mine in Jefferson, South Carolina, made a fatal mistake last summer: He used a torch to heat a part on a broken pump. Moments later, the pump exploded, sending shards of metal into the 41-year-old’s leg. He bled to death within minutes, according to an investigation by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Melton’s death about 50 miles southeast of Charlotte illustrates a trend that has alarmed federal regulators: a rise in fatal accidents in quarries and other non-coal mines that produce stone, sand, gravel and other minerals. Last year, 28 miners in this segment died, the most since 2007 when there were 33, leading officials to step up education and enforcement efforts.
Columbus Dispatch: Prisons hold more of the mentally ill than psychiatric hospitals
The Columbus Dispatch reports that the largest provider of mental-health services in Ohio is easy to find: Look no farther than the nearest state prison. More than 10,500 people in Ohio prisons, more than 1 in 5, have a diagnosed mental illness. And 1 in 12 has a serious and persistent condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. There are 10 times as many mentally ill inmates as there are patients in Ohio’s six psychiatric hospitals. The numbers are higher for females: 41 percent of 2,510 inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville are on the mental-health caseload.
Providence Journal: One gun’s deadly path
The Providence Journal finds that a single gun was involved in the deaths of four people and critical injuries to a fifth in Rhode Island. During a span of at least five months in 2012, this 9mm Glock 17, with an attached red laser, was in the hands of teenage boys and young men who passed it around and used it to wreak havoc throughout Providence. Forensic tests at the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory confirmed links to the various crimes. … The Glock was one of 130 firearms that Providence police seized in crimes in 2012 — a high number, but not the most the police have seized in a year. It was purchased legally in December 2006 by a 57-year-old veteran living in Warwick. When police eventually traced the gun back to him, he told them it was taken from his house in 2007 or 2008 and he never reported it stolen.
The gun ended up on the street. It's not known how many people used the gun before it was seized. What made this particular gun so dangerous was that it was a “community gun,” shared by a loose group of people. As the police arrested one suspected shooter after another, the gun remained accessible to others.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM 4-16-15
AP: Philly airport had 25 perimeter breaches over 11 years
The Associated Press reports the security fences and gates that protect Philadelphia International Airport were breached 25 times from January 2004 through January 2015, according to an investigation conducted by the news cooperative. Few of the breaches have been publicly reported before, with one notable exception: a 2012 incident in which a man sped down a runway at 100 mph, grounding dozens of planes and forcing other to circle.
Philadelphia's breaches were among at least 268 that AP found at 31 major U.S. airports. Incidents ranged from fence jumpers taking shortcuts and intoxicated drivers crashing through barriers to mentally ill intruders looking to hop flights. None was terrorism-related.
AP: Baltimore police often surveil cellphones amid US secrecy
The Associated Press reports the Baltimore Police Department has an agreement with the U.S. government to withhold certain information about secretive cellphone surveillance technology from the public and even the courts, according to a confidential agreement obtained by The Associated Press. On Wednesday, April 7, the department disclosed it has used the technology thousands of times since 2007. The agreement between the police department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation also encourages the authorities and local prosecutors to sometimes dismiss cases instead of divulging details about the equipment. That arrangement, which was agreed to several years ago, has led police to believe that they can withhold evidence in criminal trials or ignore subpoenas in cases in which the devices are used.
Kansas City Star: Kansas to require no permit or training to carry concealed guns
The Kansas City Star reports that as of July 1 no training will be required for someone choosing to holster a hidden gun or shove one into a purse or backpack. After that date, concealed-gun permits will be strictly voluntary in Kansas. And no resident of the state wanting to carry a concealed weapon in Kansas will be subject to a state criminal background check so that law enforcement could determine whether they are even eligible to possess a firearm. (Although federal laws will still apply, requiring background checks for some gun purchases but not all.) Some see that as a dangerous mistake that could lead to lost lives, either due to trigger-happy vigilantes or cops who find themselves shooting law-abiding citizens who accidentally point a gun at them. But supporters of the changes think such concerns are unfounded.
Modesto Bee: More primary care doctors needed in Stanislaus county
The Modesto Bee reports a shortage of primary care physicians created a painful symptom when Emanuel Medical Center said last week it will close its family practice clinics in Turlock and Patterson next month. Citing a national shortage of primary care doctors, Emanuel said it was unable to replace physicians who have left, and the last remaining doctor is leaving to work in the Bay Area. Clinic doors need to open, not close, for tens of thousands of Stanislaus County residents who have joined the Medi-Cal program through the Affordable Care Act. As of December, the county had 160,400 residents in the federal and state health program for single adults, families and children, an increase of almost 64,000 since the federal law raised the income eligibility in October 2013.
Read more: http://www.modbee.com/news/local/article18301076.html
Washington Post: Thousands dead at hands of police, few prosecuted
The Washington Post reports that among the thousands of fatal shootings at the hands of police since 2005, only 54 officers have been charged according to an analysis by the newspaper and and researchers at Bowling Green State University. This analysis, based on a wide range of public records and interviews with law enforcement, judicial and other legal experts, sought to identify for the first time every officer who faced charges for such shootings since 2005. These represent a small fraction of the thousands of fatal police shootings that have occurred across the country in that time. In an overwhelming majority of the cases where an officer was charged, the person killed was unarmed. But it usually took more than that. When prosecutors pressed charges, The Post analysis found, there were typically other factors that made the case exceptional, including: a victim shot in the back, a video recording of the incident, incriminating testimony from other officers or allegations of a coverup.
Boston Globe: Courts computer system -- $75 million, 19 years, still not done
The Boston Globe reports Google, Facebook, and YouTube hadn’t been founded when the Legislature originally approved $75 million in bond money to build a new computer system for the state’s courts in 1996. AOL was the country’s dominant online service provider. And William Weld was governor. But what was supposed to be a five-year project has now lasted nearly 19 years — three years longer than it took to submerge Boston’s Central Artery and complete other related highway work. And the computer system still is not finished, making it the longest- running major state information technology project in memory. The new system, called MassCourts, is intended to link more than 100 courthouses across the Commonwealth, for the first time allowing court officials to look up information about cases anywhere in the state.
Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel: Some county taxi drivers have criminal records
The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel wonders whether you would you climb into a taxicab with a convicted kidnapper, hand your credit card to someone who'd been charged with identity theft or let your child ride with a felon convicted of sexual battery? It reports if you've taken a ride in a Broward taxi, limo, sedan or shuttle, all of the above have been made more likely by the county. Among the drivers-for-hire in Broward are those whose criminal or driving histories are so bad, the county said they shouldn't be entrusted with others' lives and money, a Sun Sentinel review of public records found. Their charges includes driving 126 miles an hour, driving under the influence of alcohol, manslaughter and domestic violence.Though Broward County rejected their applications for chauffeur registrations, those decisions were overturned by the county's rotating, three-member civilian appeal panels.
Honolulu Star Advertiser: Senatore takes heat on potential conflict of interest
The Honolulu Star Advertiser reports Senate Health Committee chairman and physician Josh Green has amassed more campaign contributions than any other member of the Hawaii Legislature, tapping into a rich pipeline of donated cash from doctors and others in the health care industry. Now critics, including AARP Hawaii and the Hawaii Psychological Association, are crying foul — alleging that campaign cash and Green's position as a physician practicing at a Hawaii island hospital present unacceptable conflicts of interest for the lawmaker. Those organizations lobbied hard for bills they contend would improve care for elderly residents and the mentally ill, only to watch helplessly as Green killed both measures when they arrived at his Senate Health Committee.
Read more (online subscribers only):
Louisville Courier-Journal: New plan for old pipe: Carry fracked natural gas liquids
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports Kentuckians across the commonwealth are voicing concerns this spring as Kinder Morgan's Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.becomes the second pipeline company in two years to make a play to move valuable natural gas liquids from fracking zones in Ohio and Pennsylvania across Kentucky to the nation's petrochemical hub in Louisiana and Texas. The company plans to use pipes buried seven decades ago. While natural gas used in homes is methane, natural gas liquids are separated at the well site and can include a variety of hazardous hydrocarbons, including ethane, propane and butane. The newspaper reports that by at least one measure the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. has the worst safety record for its type of business, according to self-reported filings of significant incidents with a regulatory agency.
Sacramento Bee: Suburban Roseville emerges as leader in water conservation
The Sacramento Bee reports Roseville, a city of 125,000, has topped the region in residential water conservation. In February, it ranked in California’s top 12 percent of communities using the lowest amount of water per capita, averaging just 56 gallons per person per day, according to state figures self-reported by water districts. Roseville is not an intuitive water-conservation champion. It’s farther inland than almost any other city on the state’s gold-star list, and so subject to high temperatures and long, dry summers. And its an affluent suburb in a region where suburban living traditionally has celebrated large lots planted with expanses of green grass. But Roseville, like Davis and a few other local water conservation leaders, did not stumble into frugal water use. The city was laid out in a way that makes conservation easier. It invested relatively early in incentives for household conservation that continue to pay off. And it has aggressively tried to persuade residents to cut water use.
Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article18303734.html#storylink=cpy
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Texting tickets soar in New York
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that if you're texting behind the wheel in New York state, your chances of getting a ticket appear to be on the rise. The number of texting-while-driving tickets increased 35 percent between 2013 and 2014 as fines and enforcement in New York have toughened. The increase was particularly pronounced in New York City, where texting tickets surged 50 percent over the two years; for the rest of the state, the increase was 15 percent. Overall, police dished out more than 75,000 tickets for texting last year, up from nearly 56,000 in 2013. The figures come as New York has adopted some of the toughest texting laws in the nation. Drivers caught either talking on their cellphones or texting face five points on their licenses and a maximum fine of $200 for the first offense.
Chicago Tribune: Suburbs, schools lost millions in alleged investment fraud.
The Chicago Tribune reports the College of DuPage is among 13 suburbs and government agencies that lost more than $1 million each in taxpayer funds as a result of alleged fraud in a municipal investment fund. The Illinois Metropolitan Investment Fund, which invests public money on behalf of municipalities, pension funds and local government boards, has refused to disclose a list of its clients since revealing in October it had lost more than $50 million after investing in allegedly fraudulent loans now at the center of a federal criminal investigation. The Tribune's analysis identifies for the first time 238 public entities throughout the Chicago area that participate in municipal fund, called IMET for short. Of those, 207 lost money, ranging from less than $1 to $2.2 million. The list of investors burned by the alleged fraud include more than 100 municipalities, 27 police and fire pension funds, 18 school districts, 15 libraries, 15 park districts, three community colleges and one airport.
Tennessean: Senator gets testy over has state health insurance
The Tennessean reports state Senator Todd Gardenhire might as well have called all Tennesseans "a**holes" last week when he leveled the vulgar term at a man in the hallway of the state Capitol. The man had questioned Gardenhire about how the lawmaker could justify taking taxpayer-funded state health insurance himself yet vote against Insure Tennessee, which would provide health insurance for hundreds of thousands of working-poor Tennesseans. That disdain seems indicative about how most Tennessee legislators feel about residents in our state. The verbal sparring happened on March 31 after the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, serves on, killed the Insure Tennessee resolution without debate. Insure Tennessee, the Tennessean reported, has the support of more than 70 percent of the citizens in the state.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 4-8-15
AP: More Than 300 Slave Fishermen Now Safe
The Associated Press reported that the same trawlers that had enslaved countless migrant fishermen for years carried more than 300 of them to freedom Saturday, following a dramatic rescue from a remote Indonesian island that many men believed would likely be their final resting place. After 17 hours overnight at sea, the men, mostly from Myanmar, took their first steps of freedom. They filed off the boats and walked to the site of their new temporary home where they were finally safe. The Burmese men were among hundreds of migrant workers revealed in an Associated Press investigation to have been lured or tricked into leaving their countries to go to Thailand, where they were put on boats and brought to Indonesia. From there, they were forced to catch seafood that was shipped back to Thailand and exported to consumers around the world, including the United States. In response to the AP's findings, an Indonesian delegation visited the island village of Benjina on Friday and offered immediate evacuation after finding brutal conditions, down to an "enforcer" paid to beat men up.
Dallas Morning News: Soldiers, wounded and sick, complain of poor treatment
The Dallas Morning News reports the complaints roll in from soldiers across the country unhappy with their treatment. These complaints come from wounded, injured or ill soldiers who are supposed to find caring and healing at the U.S. Army’s Warrior Transition Units, or WTUs, but instead are experiencing mistreatment and harassment by superiors. Many of the soldiers are getting treatment for physical or psychological wounds suffered in combat. Since 2010, across the country, WTU soldiers have lodged more than 1,100 complaints about the way their chain of command treated them at more than two dozen WTUs, according to an ongoing investigation by The Dallas Morning News and its broadcast partner, KXAS-TV (NBC5). Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, had the most complaints, with 163 reports in the five-year time frame; Fort Hood, in Killeen, was second with 142.
Charlotte Observer: Disclosure differs for charter schools run by for-profit firms
The Charlotte Observer reports public school districts must account for every dollar they spend. Charter schools operated by for-profit companies often do not have to. Charters can keep salaries of supervisors, academic consultants, back-office staff – sometimes even school administrators – secret and still abide by North Carolina’s public records law despite being funded by tax dollars. These positions are often considered employees of the management company instead of the school, and therefore not subject to disclosure. These companies also are not required to disclose how much profit they’re making while running schools with public money. The discrepancy has frustrated traditional public school district advocates in North Carolina who consider this a double standard. In other states, that lack of transparency has contributed to abuse.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: State-subsidized ski resort leaves trail of red ink
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports the Giants Ridge resort rises almost 2,000 feet above Superior National Forest, offering visitors panoramic views of the millions of dollars spent by the state of Minnesota to transform a local ski hill into a year-round resort. But the downhill ski runs, trails and golf courses carved out of the woods and granite of the Mesabi Range have not helped Giants Ridge turn a profit. During the 30 years it’s been owned by a state economic development agency created to diversify northeast Minnesota’s economy, Giants Ridge has never made money. In the past decade alone, those losses have totaled almost $40 million. Continued losses and a weak real estate market have forced Giants Ridge’s owner, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), to shelve plans for a vacation village. In just a few weeks, though, the agency will break ground on a new $12 million event center and ski chalet.
Indonesian government says to move enslaved fishermen
The Indonesian government says it is moving foreign fishermen from an isolated island where slavery in the fishing industry was exposed by an Associated Press investigation, out of concern for their safety. The director general of Indonesia's Marine Resources and Fisheries Surveillance initially told a group of about 20 Burmese men he would move them from Benjina village to neighboring Tual island for their safety following interviews with officials on Friday. However, as news spread that men were getting to leave the island, dozens of others started filing in from all over and sitting on the floor. When the official, Asep Burhundun, was asked if others hiding in the jungle could come as well, he said, "They can all come. We don't want to leave a single person behind." Fishermen who are Thai nationals will remain on the island. Most of the boat captains are from Thailand.
Baltimore Sun: City council members often miss committee meetings
The Baltimore Sun reports on what some say is a big problem for Baltimore: poor attendance by City Council members at committee meetings where bills are debated, amended and sometimes killed. Such meetings are the only time council members can listen to public testimony about specific legislative proposals on topics ranging from police body cameras to public financing for the Harbor Point development. A Baltimore Sun review of nearly 700 City Council committee votes — every bill for which a record was kept at City Hall since the start of the current term, Dec. 8, 2011 — shows that most members often miss those votes. On average, council members miss about a quarter of their committee votes. Three members — Robert Curran, Warren Branch and Helen Holton — missed 50 percent or more. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector missed 40 percent of committee votes. Welch missed 32 percent of his committee votes — more than 100 votes.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Maine to put restaurant cleanliness data online
The Maine Sunday Telegram reports an investigation it conducted in 2013 has led health safety officials in Maine to join other states that already provide Internet access to inspection records. Restaurant patrons across the state may soon be able to look up an establishment’s health inspection reports before going out to dinner, the result of a new database being purchased by the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Once the information is posted, Maine would join the vast majority of states that already provide some online access to inspection records. The Telegram investigation found that lawmakers reduced the frequency of restaurant inspections in 2011, at the same time consumer complaints were increasing. Lawmakers did not know about the trend in complaints because of the lack of state data at the time that made it difficult to discern trends and inform training and education efforts.
Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel: Racist cops can still get hired
The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel reports that blatant racism may have cost four Fort Lauderdale police officers their jobs, but the cashiered cops could still wear a badge again in Florida if another department wants to hire them. That's because the agency that certifies police officers in the state, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, doesn't officially recognize racism as a reason to strip an officer of his or her license. Now some critics are wondering why such unprofessional antics as sex on duty or romancing a parolee is enough to decertify an officer — but repeated use of the N-word or slurs disparaging women, Hispanics and gays is not. "That's a big concern," said Kevin Borwick, chair of the Fort Lauderdale Citizens Police Review Board. "If the behavior is egregious enough to prompt an immediate termination, it should be enough to cause decertification."
Denver Post: After insanity defense, many Colorado killers walk free
The Denver Post reports it found that three-fifths of 41 killers determined "not guilty by reason of insanity" over the past 25 years in Colorado have been moved from the mental hospital into halfway houses and homes across the state, sometimes as soon as three years after their commitments. An insanity acquittal in Colorado, as in other states across the country, means that killers are not responsible for their acts and therefore are not punished. They are held indefinitely until they no longer suffer an abnormal mental condition that is likely to cause them to be dangerous to themselves or others. Unlike in the prison system, the time patients spend at the state hospital has little to do with the crimes they commit. In some cases, those accused of relatively minor crimes spend more years locked up at the hospital than those who commit multiple murders.
Sacramento Bee: Sky-high specialty drug costs stir anger
The Sacramento Bee reports new drugs for hepatitis C patients introduced in the past two years offer a cure that’s miraculous when compared with former treatments for the potentially fatal virus. Instead of taking a long course of drugs with miserable side effects, patients can be cured in a matter of weeks. The drugs could change the lives of millions of people – at a price. One of the drugs, Sovaldi, cost $1,000 a pill when it went on the market in the United States in late 2013. Another drug called Harvoni, made by the same manufacturer, had a list price of $1,125 per pill when it debuted last fall. The cost of these new hepatitis drugs has inflamed debate about whether pharmaceutical companies are charging outlandish amounts to treat life-threatening diseases and has prompted legislative efforts this year to rein in drug costs.
Los Angeles Times: California’s wealthy lagging in water conservation
The Los Angeles Times reports that as California gears up for the first mandatory water restrictions in its history, a long-standing class divide about water use is becoming increasingly apparent. Beverly Hills and other affluent cities use far more water per capita than less-wealthy communities, prompting some to cast them as villains in California’s water conservation effort. Residents in communities such as La Canada Flintridge, Newport Beach, Malibu and Palos Verdes all used more than 150 gallons of water per capita per day in January. By contrast, Santa Ana used just 38 gallons and communities in Southeast L.A. County used less than 45.Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.
New York Times: Pro-Israeli tilt seen bearing cash for Republicans
The New York Times reports that as the proposed agreement over Iran’s nuclear program is debated in coming weeks, President Barack Obama will make his case to a Congress controlled by Republicans who are more fervently pro-Israel than ever, partly a result of ideology, but also a product of a surge in donations and campaign spending on their behalf by a small group of wealthy donors. One of the surprisingly high-profile critics is Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who burst to prominence with a letter signed by 46 Republican colleagues to leaders of Iran warning against a deal. Cotton, echoing criticism by Israeli leaders, swiftly denounced the framework reached on Thursday as “a list of dangerous U.S. concessions that will put Iran on the path to nuclear weapons” — words, his colleagues say, that expressed his deep concern about Iran’s threat to Israel’s security. But it is also true that Cotton and other Republicans benefited from millions in campaign spending in 2014 by several pro-Israel Republican billionaires and other influential American donors who helped them topple Democratic opponents.
Austin American-Statesman: No-bid state contract mess derails data project
The Austin (Texas) American-Statesman reports that after its investigation into a lucrative no-bid state contract with Austin tech company 21CT, four state health officials resigned, a pending $90 million deal was canceled and state and federal probes were launched. Now, as criminal investigators and legislators continue to scrutinize millions of dollars in no-bid technology deals, the state’s top health agency is dealing with collateral damage from the fiasco: the collapse of a database project that has been in the works for eight years and cost the state $12 million in consulting fees. Still, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission says it is pushing ahead with the project that officials believe will transform the way it deals with data.
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WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 4-1-15
AP: Seafood caught by slaves in Indonesia for sale in major U.S. supermarkets
The Associated Press reported a year-long investigation reveals seafood caught by slaves forced to fish on a tiny island in Indonesia is ending up at major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores across the United States. The AP talked to over 40 current and former slaves in the Indonesian island village of Benjina, where hundreds of men, mostly from Myanmar (Burma), one of the world’s poorest countries, are being held captive, forced to fish the surrounding waters. Meanwhile, the slaves interviewed by AP said they had no clue where the fish they caught was taken. The only thing they know is that it's so valuable they were forbidden to eat it. They said the captains on their fishing boats forced them to work 24-hour shifts, with no days off. On top of this they were beaten and whipped with toxic stingray tails if they tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing, as they hauled in heavy nets with squid, shrimp, snapper, grouper and other fish.
Austin American-Statesman: Lobbying rules often unheeded, unenforced
The Austin (Texas) American-Statesman reports loopholes and the failure of any public agency to enforce Austin’s four-decade-old lobbyist disclosure law has created a path for development interests, community advocates and other influential residents to lobby city officials without publicly disclosing who they are working for, according to interviews and a review of city records. A long-overlooked section of the city code is murky on the definition of who must register as a city lobbyist, which has resulted in the code being all but dismissed by some who advocate at City Hall.
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Arizona Daily Star: Jobs long gone, workers still return to their factory
The Arizona Daily Star reports that although no one pays them a salary anymore, former employees come every day to sit at the entrance to the now-silent inkjet cartridge remanufacturing plant in Nogales, Mexico, where they used to work hoping someone will show up to buy the remaining gallons of ink or maybe some stray office furniture. The factory’s former workers are trying to sell anything and everything in order to help them get the more than $1 million in severance pay — including lost wages — they say they were shorted after Denver-based Legacy Imaging abruptly closed its doors one weekend in February 2013 and left more than 100 people without jobs. The building is dark, its lights off in an attempt to save every last peso for the workers. They flip the switch only when a paying customer wants to go inside and see the merchandise. It is illegal in Mexico to close a plant without providing severance and compensation pay to employees. But in reality, consequences are few.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Growing God’s Kingdom pre-school gets public funds
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports a for-profit preschool owned by state Rep. Justin Harris and his wife receives about 90 percent of its annual funding from the government, according to audits on file with the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Harris' Growing God's Kingdom preschool in West Fork was the impetus for a DHS rule in 2012 to make sure state funds weren't being used by preschools to teach religion, which would be an apparent violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But religion still permeates the handbook at Growing God's Kingdom. Under "Statement of Faith," the current handbook says: "GGK teaches children the word of God. GGK believes that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all components that make up our one God. The only way to Heaven is to accept Jesus as their personal savior."
Des Moines Register: Iowa Forfeiture: A ‘system of legal thievery?”
The Des Moines Register reports its investigation into the use of state and federal civil forfeiture laws in Iowa reveals that thousands of people have surrendered their cash or property since 2009. The system is stacked against property owners while raising millions of dollars annually for law enforcement agencies across the state, something critics contend encourages policing for profit over promoting public safety. The bulk of forfeitures reviewed by the Register resulted from traffic stops, often for minor violations and involving vehicles with out-of-state plates. But cash or property also was seized after police were called or sent to homes or businesses. In a few cases, police seized cash carried by johns caught up in prostitution stings.
Newark Star Ledger: Immigrants filling void as residents flee New Jersey
The Newark Star Ledger reports New Jersey residents are fleeing the state in droves, but the loss is primarily being offset by a continued influx of immigrants from other countries, without which the state's population would be declining precipitously. Between 2013 and 2014, New Jersey lost at least 55,000 residents who left for other states, the continuation of a trend that's been going on for decades as people flee the state to retire, to seek a lower-cost of living and jobs in places that have been quicker to recover from the recession. But in the same span, more than 51,000 people have moved to the Garden State from other countries, at the same time reshaping the state's population and stabilizing its slow growth. It's the same thing that has spurred the state's massive growth in the early part of the 20th century, but today, it's preventing an exodus.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: In foster system, kids go from bad to worse
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports Minnesota’s foster care system is falling short of state and federal standards meant to ensure that abused children are placed into stable and permanent homes, according to its review of state records. Those records reveal that too many abused foster children in Minnesota are returned to their parents too quickly, suffer more maltreatment and end up back in foster care. Thousands of children have been further traumatized by being shuttled among numerous foster homes as they wait, sometimes in vain, for adoption, state records show. As the number of foster children has grown to more than 11,000, fewer families are signing on as foster parents, records show. That problem could intensify, as a child protection task force formed by Gov. Mark Dayton has recommended numerous reforms that will likely see more children removed from abusive homes.
Baltimore Sun: City agency director’s law firm has contract with state
The Baltimore Sun reports the director of the city’s floundering CitiStat agency has been operating a private legal practice that works for state government under a contract that could be worth nearly $1 million, according to public records. Aides to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who appointed Mark H. Grimes as CitiStat director in January 2014, have said the Cabinet official was winding down his outside legal work as he overhauls the data-driven agency that aims to make government more efficient and hold employees accountable. But a Baltimore Sun investigation has found that Grimes' private practice that he runs with his wife has charged the state thousands of hours on hundreds of cases since it landed a contract with the Maryland Department of Human Resources in August 2013 — five months before he started the $124,000-a-year CitiStat job.
Arizona Republic: Veterinarians operate with impunity at county shelter
The Arizona Republic reports hundreds of dogs and cats at the Maricopa County animal shelter experience traumatic and sometimes fatal complications after routine surgeries such as spaying and neutering. The county has performed more than 100,000 surgeries since 2008, shelter data shows. Private veterinarians have raised questions about treatment and accountability at the shelter. Animal-rescue volunteers said they became so concerned about the frequency of botched surgeries and deaths that they confronted the shelter's director last year. Their concerns are underscored by a string of animal deaths and injuries they have seen at the county shelters in the past two years. Those include two dogs whose intestines spilled out after being spayed; a dog left untreated for several days with a bullet in its head; and a dog that required emergency surgery after a county veterinarian amputated its leg.
Dallas Morning News: Border security leaves Texas “a tad bit less safe”
The Dallas Morning News reports a sustained effort to enhance security along the Texas-Mexico line has diminished the state police’s resources elsewhere, resulting in measurable declines in tickets written, arrests made and investigations started in areas beyond the border. Lawmakers and the Department of Public Safety have acknowledged this side effect of the “border surge” launched in June. They’ve stressed the strain on the rest of the state as the department has argued for funding to beef up its manpower. But a Dallas Morning News review of state police data, comparing state police activity in the months of the border surge with the same time period the year before, shows a sweeping negative impact outside of the border region.
Chicago Tribune: College gives foundation member $630,000 in no-bid projects
The Chicago Tribune reports that the College of DuPage, without receiving a single competitive bid, has paid a member of its foundation board more than $630,000 to design and install signs for the school over the past four years — with much of the work made possible through a contract that references her experience as an architect. That's where it gets tricky.
Foundation board member Carla Burkhart is not an architect. Her company, Herricane Graphics, does not provide architectural services. A Tribune analysis of records from Burkhart's work at the school since 2011 raises questions about how Illinois' largest community college awards contracts, especially to vendors who serve on the board of the College of DuPage Foundation, the school's private fundraising arm. Ten of the foundation's 22 board members work for companies with financial ties to the college, according to documents obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 3-25-15
AP: Low-income families turn to tax refund advances
The Associated Press reported cash-strapped Americans anxious for tax refunds are increasingly turning to payment advances, prepaid cards or other costly services when getting tax preparation help, according to new federal data raising concerns among regulators about whether consumers are fully informed about the fees. Regulators are looking to increase oversight of preparers amid the rise in "refund anticipation checks," a type of cash advance especially popular among low-income families who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, the government's $65 billion cash benefit program. The advances are being marketed as a way to get fast refunds or defer payment of tax preparation costs.
Denver Post: More parents taking out college loans for children
The Denver Post reports that with more than 40 million Americans in debt for student loans, experts advise parents against taking on the debt for a college education themselves. While many students continue to carry the bulk of the debt, more parents are turning to Parent PLUS loans, which are federal loans that parents can use to help pay dependent students' expenses. Some 16 percent of bachelor's degree recipients graduated with Parent PLUS loans last year, and Parent PLUS loans have doubled during the last decade. ]The gap between the maximum amount of federal loans students can take out each year and the rising cost of tuition at public universities has continued to grow, said Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at New America. "What's happened is that parents are taking out loans who didn't used to have to," she said. There's also a failure of both private and federal grants to keep up with the cost of higher education, Kantrowitz said.
Washington Post: Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis questioned
The Washington Post, in an investigation with journalists at Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, reports it has carried out the first systematic examination of dispositions in Shaken Baby cases since doctors started disputing the science behind the syndrome. The diagnosis gave a generation of doctors a way to account for unexplained head injuries in babies and prosecutors a stronger case for criminal intent when police had no witnesses, no confessions and only circumstantial evidence. It has also led to more than a decade of fierce debate: Testing has been unable to show whether violent shaking can produce the bleeding and swelling long attributed to the diagnosis, and doctors have found that accidents and diseases can trigger identical conditions in babies. Reporters used court records and newspaper reports to track down murder or abuse cases involving shaking that have been filed or dismissed since 2001.
Arizona Star: Gasoline tax: Corporate welfare or necessary evil?
The Arizona Star reports that at the Arizona Legislature, where tax cuts are a staple of every session, a little-noted levy on gasoline has lived a charmed life. The penny-a-gallon tax was adopted 25 years ago to help owners of leaking underground gasoline tanks clean up polluted soil and water, a circumstance for which they are also required to carry insurance. But it has suffered from mismanagement and lax oversight and created a disincentive for tank owners to insure against leaks, an Arizona Republic analysis shows. And critics say it has created a sense of entitlement among the businesses that benefit from it. Although lawmakers shut down the State Assurance Fund five years ago, the tax that supports it still survives.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Immigration: U.S. has released 705 from detention
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports federal authorities have released 705 people from immigration detention centers across the country — including 13 in Georgia — since November, when President Barack Obama announced sweeping efforts to protect millions of immigrants from deportation, according to records obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act. It’s unknown how many of them were released as a result of Obama’s executive actions on immigration because the government is keeping a tally. But the records give a glimpse of how the government carried out its new enforcement priorities before a federal judge in Texas placed the president’s far-reaching plans on hold last month.
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Baltimore Sun: Bus improvement plan faces uncertain future
The Baltimore Sun reports the Maryland Transit Administration's signature effort to improve its troubled Baltimore-area bus system — already delayed for nearly a year — faces an uncertain future because of new skepticism from the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan. The plan was delayed for months because of the 2014 elections, according to internal MTA documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request. Those documents also show a discussion within the agency about stretching the goal of a five-year timeline for improvements to as much as 18 years. Newly appointed Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who oversees the agency, said he had not yet reviewed the proposed timelines but considers anything that stretches the project beyond Hogan's potential second term unrealistic and out of touch with the changing nature of urban transit.
Boston Globe: After building boom, UMass $3 billion in debt
The Boston Globe reports the University of Massachusetts has enjoyed an unprecedented building boom over the past decade, with new classrooms and dorms and long-delayed infrastructure improvements across its five campuses. But all that spending has also left UMass with $3 billion of debt. While the university’s financial health remains sound overall, it has nearly maxed out its ability to borrow, and its debt is far outpacing revenues. Financial documents also show that the university is so highly leveraged that as it continues to borrow, it is pushing big payments farther into the future to be able to afford current ones. UMass, with revenue totaling around $2.9 billion, this year owes $203 million in debt and interest, up from $137 million five years ago. In 2020, the annual debt service payment will be $222 million, the university projects. The borrowing comes as part of a capital plan that extends through fiscal year 2019.
Columbus Dispatch: Less strict gun rules start in Ohio
The Columbus Dispatch reports a new state law now allows hunters to use suppressors on guns; permit Ohioans to buy rifles, shotguns and ammunition from any state; and implement a more-rigorous background check for concealed-carry permits. It also reduces the training required to get one of those permits from 12 hours to eight, including some of it online for the first time; changes the definition of an “automatic” weapon; and makes concealed-carry permits issued from other states valid in Ohio, even without a reciprocity agreement. What the former House Bill 234 does not include is a controversial “stand your ground” provision, which was debated but removed before the legislation was voted on. It would have changed current wording in state law, which says an individual must first back away instead of using violent force in a self-defense situation.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Nine rookies inspect 600 buildings in a week
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports a group of inexperienced and uncertified inspectors for the Department of Licenses and Inspections conducted around 600 inspections of unsafe buildings in a single week last month. The newspaper said it has learned that each of the nine newly hired inspectors then recorded their work in L&I's database under the name of another man, an experienced inspector with the agency. L&I officials say the inspections were part of a training exercise for the rookies. The inspections, from Feb. 9 through 13, were performed the same week City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report criticizing L&I for not inspecting unsafe buildings - those that are badly damaged or deteriorated - in a timely manner. Many of the roughly 100 buildings on which the 600 inspections were performed had not been inspected in two to three years, L&I records show.
Austin American-Statesman: Work for the city? Smoke? Pay up
City of Austin, Texas, employees who smoke are now paying extra for health insurance after the city quietly instituted a new policy meant in part to encourage those workers to kick the habit.
Employees who admitted using any of a range of products — cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, snuff, pipes, snus (a smokeless tobacco), hookahs and electronic cigarettes — began paying a surcharge of $12.50 per two-week pay period at the start of 2015. Nonsmoking employees pay no insurance premium or $5 per pay period, depending on what kind of plan they pick.
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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Medical malpractice claims decline in Wisconsin
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the number of medical malpractice claims fell to a record low in Wisconsin last year as the state-managed insurance fund for the doctors grew to more than $1.2 billion. Newly released records show only 84 medical malpractice suits were filed in Wisconsin last year — down from 140 the previous year — according to new statistics compiled by the Director of State Courts. For comparison, there were 294 actions filed in 1999. "Ninety-nine percent of lawyers ... just don't want to take medical malpractice cases," said Michael End, a veteran Milwaukee medical malpractice attorney. "The cases are very expensive, very time consuming and so many are lost that ought to be won." The state Medical Mediation Panels received 118 complaints last year — the lowest number in the agency's history — down from 161 the previous year, agency administrator Randy Sproule said.
Chicago Tribune: Lobbyist sues for big pension for one day of substitute teaching
The Chicago Tribune reports a union lobbyist who qualified for a teacher pension windfall by subbing at a school for one day is now suing a state retirement board because his benefits were scaled back once his sweet deal was exposed. Retired Illinois Federation of Teachers lobbyist David Piccioli, 65, is arguing that lawmakers violated the state constitutional provision that says a pension cannot be "diminished or impaired" once it is set. Piccioli is already collecting $31,485 from the Teachers Retirement System. If he wins his case, his teacher pension could increase by more than $36,000, the Tribune estimated — more than doubling what he gets now. Piccioli also gets a second state pension worth just over $30,000 that covers time he served as a legislative aide. Both pensions are based on an average of his six-figure salaries as a union lobbyist.
Atlanta Journal Constitution: Chicken processing poses threat to Lake Lanier
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports documents reveal that one of Georgia's largest chicken processors has for years exceeded pollution standards for stormwater runoff into Lake Lanier -- one of metro Atlanta's major sources of drinking water. The violations have resulted in few consequences from state regulators, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Georgia has just two inspectors overseeing industrial stormwater pollution permits at around 3,000 sites, the newspaper reported Sunday. Stormwater runoff can contain bacteria found in chicken feces, and that Georgia's methods of regulating the industry raise serious health and safety questions, the newspaper reported. The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group that has also found high pollution levels coming from two chicken processors in the area, has complained for years that the state is too lax.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 3-18-15
AP: Big costs to see public documents hinder access
The Associated Press reported the public's right to see government records is coming at an ever-increasing price as authorities set fees and hourly charges that often prevent information from flowing. Though some states have taken steps to limit the fees, many have not. Whether roadblocks are created by authorities to discourage those seeking information, or simply a byproduct of bureaucracy and tighter budgets, greater costs to fulfill freedom of information requests ultimately can interfere with the public's right to know. Such costs are a growing threat to expanding openness at all levels of government.
AP: Say what? Social Security data says 6.5m in U.S. reach age 112
The Associated Press reports Americans are getting older, but not this old: Social Security records show that 6.5 million people in the U.S. have reached the ripe old age of 112. In reality, only few could possibly be alive. As of last fall, there were only 42 people known to be that old in the entire world. But Social Security does not have death records for millions of these people, with the oldest born in 1869, according to a report by the agency's inspector general. Only 13 of the people are still getting Social Security benefits, the report said. But for others, their Social Security numbers are still active, so a number could be used to report wages, open bank accounts, obtain credit cards or claim fraudulent tax refunds. The agency said it is working to improve the accuracy of its death records. But it would be costly and time-consuming to update 6.5 million files that were generated decades ago, when the agency used paper records, said Sean Brune, a senior adviser to the agency's deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management.
Arizona Daily Star: Money-laundering rules hinder Southern Arizona industries
The Arizona Daily Star reports federal regulations meant to stop drug-cartel money laundering are threatening Southern Arizona’s produce industry — and leaving many cross-border importers unable to find banks willing to do business with them. In the past two years, Bank of America and Banamex USA, a Citigroup subsidiary, left town, while Chase shuttered one of its two branches here. The banks have also closed thousands of accounts along the border, leaving many companies scrambling. The closures are affecting businesses of all kinds, but the produce industry is being hit the hardest due to its business model, which involves frequent money transfers between the United States and Mexico that set off red flags meant to identify criminal activity.
Los Angeles Times: GI Bill loophole is windfall for helicopter flight schools
The Los Angeles Times reports for some flight schools that train helicopter pilots, the GI Bill that took effect in 2009 was a windfall the government never intended. Helicopter schools had been struggling financially, and the bill excluded them from direct funding. But after finding a loophole in the law that allows them to train military veterans completely at government expense, with no cap on what they can charge, the schools rapidly expanded. They now collect tens of millions a year in taxpayer dollars. For two years of training to become a pilot, the government often pays more than $250,000, over twice the amount non-veterans pay at many schools, The Times has found from interviews, government documents, price lists and flight school contracts. At one flight company — Utah-based Upper Limit Aviation — records show 12 veterans whose training had cost the government more than $500,000 each.
Washington Post: Gun industry helps surge on college shooting teams
The Washington Post reports university pistol and rifle teams have benefited from the largesse of gun industry money and become so popular that they often turn students away. Teams are thriving at a diverse range of schools: MIT, Yale, Harvard, the University of Maryland, George Mason University, and even smaller schools such as Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and Connors State College in Oklahoma. Some students find their perceptions about guns changing. And that’s precisely what the gun industry hoped it would hear after spending the past few years pouring millions of dollars into collegiate shooting, targeting young adults just as they try out new activities and personal identities. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a powerful firearms lobbying group, has awarded more than $1 million in grants since 2009 to start about 80 programs.
Denver Post: Veterans in Denver see cuts in caregiver funds
The Denver Post reports the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Denver has generated more appeals than any other VA hospital for denials of financial assistance to those caring for injured soldiers in their homes. The program, intended to help spouses and other relatives provide care to war veterans seriously hurt since 2001, has been growing rapidly nationwide. Yet the Denver hospital and its satellite offices in cities including military-heavy Colorado Springs have reduced the numbers of approved caregivers since May. Revocations — when the VA notifies caregivers that they no longer qualify for assistance — are occurring at a higher rate in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Colorado, than in all but one of 21 regions in the nation. As of last month, caregivers to 221 veterans in the region had been revoked since the program started in 2010, with 491 still getting assistance.
USA TODAY: New players join newspapers in using FOIA requests
USA Today and McClatchy Newspapers report that newspapers were once the dominant force in dislodging documents and other records from reluctant federal government agencies, but a new crop of media players, advocacy groups and corporate interests now drive the release of information. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 was first envisioned as a tool for traditional media to seek documents, data and information they deemed important to the public's interest. It also was meant to allow ordinary Americans to seek information from the federal government about themselves. Nearly a half-century later, news organizations continue to pepper federal agencies with written and electronic requests for records and other information under FOIA, a review of agency logs shows, though they are cash-strapped and less likely to press their claims in court. Meanwhile, over the past decade there's been a surge of requests from bloggers, advocacy groups, corporate lawyers, researchers and even foreign nationals tapping the promise of open records.
Baltimore Sun: Patriot Act in the shadow of Edward Snowden
The Baltimore Sun reports a decade after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress was deeply divided over the sweeping surveillance powers it had granted the government in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. So when it came time to reauthorize the legislation, lawmakers kept the intelligence community on what they imagined was a short leash: a four-year extension. That was in 2011 — long before anyone in Congress knew the name Edward J. Snowden. Now the law's sunset date — June 1 — is fast approaching, and Snowden's revelations about the government's dragnet approach to gathering telephone data have created some hard terrain between lawmakers and a reauthorization of the Patriot Act.
Star Tribune: Tiny houses offer affordable, cozy housing for homeless
The Star Tribune reports Gene Cox, once homeless, now has a house in Madison, Wisconsin. A tiny one, but all 98 square feet are his. Cox and his three neighbors, who had once huddled in trucks and tents, recently moved into a row of brightly colored tiny houses that they helped build. With the help of a crowdfunding campaign, the nonprofit Occupy Madison founded this “village,” as they call it, turning the microhousing trend into an inexpensive way to shelter people struggling with homelessness. The houses, equipped with super-efficient electric heaters, cost just $4,000 apiece. The village has inspired international curiosity and could become a template for similar projects. Activists, nonprofits and students from hundreds of cities — including Rochester, Duluth and St. Cloud — have emailed, called and visited. One guy recently stopped by from Australia. Google is interested.
New York Times: CIA cash ended up in coffers of Al Qaeda
The New York Times reports in the spring of 2010, Afghan officials struck a deal to free an Afghan diplomat held hostage by al-Qaida. But the price was steep — $5 million — and senior security officials were scrambling to come up with the money. They used some CIA money in a secret fund at the presidential palace. The C.I.A.’s contribution to Qaeda’s bottom line was just another in a long list of examples of how the United States, largely because of poor oversight and loose financial controls, has sometimes inadvertently financed the very militants it is fighting. While refusing to pay ransoms for Americans kidnapped by Al Qaeda, the Taliban or, more recently, the Islamic State, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the last decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which has been siphoned off to enemy fighters.
Austin American–Statesman: Texas wrongly hid settlements
The Austin American–Statesman reports the state of Texas has been improperly concealing public information about thousands of legal settlements and court judgments worth millions of dollars, an American-Statesman review of government legal records shows. But in response to a series of open records requests filed by the newspaper, most state agencies agreed to re-examine their policies to make such information more easily available to the public. Some conceded the payments have been mislabeled as secret. While the Department of Criminal Justice contended state law prohibited it from revealing some of the information, records show it appears to have obscured more than that statute would allow. Some conceded the payments have been mislabeled as secret. While the Department of Criminal justice contended state law prohibited it from revealing some of the information, records show it appears to have obscured more than that statute would allow.
Read more (online subscribers only): http://www.statesman.com/news/news/state-regional/state-incorrectly-obscures-millions-of-dollars-in-/nkW67/
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 3-12-15
Columbus Dispatch: Questions raised about death penalty in Ohio
The Columbus Dispatch reports Ohio has removed 20 inmates from Death Row since 2003 because investigations or evidence raised questions about their guilt, they were found to be mentally disabled or governors granted them clemency. Another five men, who were removed from Death Row in the 1970s when Ohio abolished the death penalty for a short period, have been exonerated and released during the past 12 years. There were another 28 men spared from execution during the same period whose cases involved constitutional violations and procedural issues. In the wake of such cases and other questions about the death penalty, key Ohio lawmakers say that while there’s no movement to eliminate capital punishment from Ohio’s criminal-justice books, some have proposed changes in the law.
Miami Herald: Florida officials ban term “climate change”
The Miami Herald reports Florida is the region most susceptible to the effects of global warming in this country with sea-level rise alone threatening 30 percent of the state’s beaches over the next 85 years. But you would not know that by talking to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency on the front lines of studying and planning for these changes. DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department with about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.
Los Angeles Times: Health benefit promises by school districts hard to keep
The Los Angeles Times reports California school districts once viewed lifetime healthcare coverage for employees as a cheap alternative to pay raises. That decision is coming back to haunt school leaders, and districts are scrambling to limit the lucrative benefit promised decades ago. The price tag for retiree healthcare obligations has reached about $20 billion statewide — an amount systems are not prepared to absorb. Many districts failed to set aside money to pay for those increasingly expensive benefits for thousands of employees. Now, the financial burden threatens to drag down credit ratings and crowd out other budget priorities.
Sacramento Bee: Sick sea lion pups wash up in record numbers along coast
The Sacramento Bee reports that an extraordinary rescue effort is underway along the length of the California coastline. In January and February alone, 1,450 malnourished or dying sea lion pups have washed up on shore – compared with just 68 in the same period last year. Marine biologists and climate scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the culprit is a mass of warm coastal water that’s imperiling breeding and nursing colonies of California sea lions. The so-called “unusual mortality event” – following a much smaller bubble of sea lion strandings and deaths in 2013 – has triggered questions about the overall health and volatility of the California ocean environment.
Washington Post: Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar
The Washington Post reports the nation’s top utility executives gathered at a Colorado resort three years ago to hear warnings about a grave new threat to operators of America’s electric grid: not superstorms or cyberattacks, but rooftop solar panels. If demand for residential solar continued to soar, traditional utilities could soon face serious problems, from “declining retail sales” and a “loss of customers” to “potential obsolescence,” according to a presentation prepared for the group. “Industry must prepare an action plan to address the challenges,” it said. Three years later, the industry and its fossil-fuel supporters are waging a determined campaign to stop a home-solar insurgency that is rattling the boardrooms of the country’s government-regulated electric monopolies.
Idaho Statesman: Parents increasingly gun-shy over vaccines for children
The Idaho Statesman reports many Idaho kindergartners are going to school without the recommended vaccines because Idaho gives parents the right to decide whether to vaccinate their children. Idaho is tied with Vermont for second-highest rate of kindergarten students with nonmedical exemptions: About 6.1 percent enrolled in kindergarten had such exemptions in the last school year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the rate in Idaho is growing, up half a percentage point from the 2012-2013 school year. The Treasure Valley overall has a higher rate of students with complete vaccinations than do other pockets of the state. But many schools in Idaho have double-digit exemption rates. Idaho's charter schools, generally, have a high rate of exemptions. The CDC says that to achieve "herd immunity" against contagious diseases, at least 75 percent to greater than 95 percent of people in a community should be vaccinated.
Read more: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2015/03/08/3684157/why-are-parents-gun-shy-over-shots.html#storylink=cpy
Baltimore Sun: Baltimore agency slow to hold officials accountable
The Baltimore Sun reports Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake continues to brag in speeches and documents about CitiStat, the data-driven agency that has helped guide policy in Baltimore for the past 15 years. Her budget praises CitiStat's power to cut government costs — and address problems such as domestic violence and armed felons — by tracking results and holding officials accountable "not yearly, quarterly, or monthly, but week to week."
Statistics about the agency's performance tell a different story. In 2014, the agency lost data analysis staff, failed to publish any department reports and canceled a third of the meetings that were the backbone of a process still being replicated in other U.S. cities. Some groups have not held data reviews for four months. Meanwhile, the CitiStat budget has doubled from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2014, to $1 million. And CitiStat has ceased its weekly monitoring of many thorny issues.
Democrat & Chronicle: New York governor’s email policy draws criticism
The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reports New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration is defending its policy to automatically delete state agency employees' emails after 90 days despite continued criticism from lawmakers, open-government advocates and legal experts.
Under the state policy, agency employees have 90 days to flag emails to be saved or else they are automatically purged. It's been in place since 2013, but had been unevenly enforced until the last of the state's agencies were moved to a new email system last month. The policy has drawn questions from a broad array of critics, who have raised concerns about whether the automatic-deletion policy could inadvertently lead to the destruction of state records meant to be kept — whether it's for a lawsuit, an open-records request or archiving state records.
The Tennessean: Handgun permits rise as lawmakers try to ease laws.
The Tennessean reports roughly one out of 32 Tennesseans had a valid handgun permit in 2008 and now it's nearly one out of 13. As the number of valid gun permits in Tennessee prepares to exceed half a million — 300,000 of which are new since 2008 — Tennessee lawmakers continue to push to ease restrictions on where and when Tennesseans can pack heat. Gun-rights advocates say there's no reason to fear more people legally carrying guns, and there's no correlation between more guns and less safety. But opponents say that's simply not true, arguing any weakening of gun laws only increases the chances of violence and tragic accidents. In the next few days, the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security will almost certainly announce there are more than 500,0000 valid handgun permits in the state. The number of permits increased in every county since 2008 — in some cases by more than 200 percent. And that doesn't account for any permits for people visiting the state, as Tennessee recognizes handgun permits issued by any other state.
Austin American Statesman: Texas IT contractors make millions without oversight
The Austin American Statesman reports an investigation finds that the use of information technology contractors by the state of Texas faces little or no oversight, even as companies have reeled in $580 million since the start of fiscal 2010. Tens of millions of dollar have been paid to at least 3,000 contract workers working for 210 companies, all without bidding requirements or public scrutiny. The newspaper says the bare and often closed office of NF Consulting Services may not look like much, but with about $53 million in taxpayer money paid to the company in five years, it is the No. 1 earner in a growing and largely unchecked cottage industry: selling technology contract workers to Texas government
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WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 3-5-15
AP: Body-camera maker has financial ties to police chiefs
The Associated Press reported Taser International, the stun-gun maker emerging as a leading supplier of body cameras for police, has cultivated financial ties to police chiefs whose departments have bought the recording devices, raising a host of conflict-of-interest questions. A review of records and interviews by The Associated Press show Taser is covering airfare and hotel stays for police chiefs who speak at promotional conferences. It is also hiring recently retired chiefs as consultants, sometimes just months after their cities signed contracts with Taser. Over the past 18 months, Taser has reached consulting agreements with two such chiefs weeks after they retired, and it is in talks with a third who also backed the purchase of its products, the AP has learned. Taser is planning to send two of them to speak at luxury hotels in Australia and the United Arab Emirates in March at events where they will address other law enforcement officers considering body cameras.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Watchdog report: Jail suicides
The Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle reports Ramon Vazquez, who used a sheet to hang himself from the bars of his cell at the Monroe County Jail on April 3, 2012, was the first inmate to die by suicide at the jail since 2005. He was not the last — four more prisoners killed themselves at the South Plymouth Avenue facility between 2012 and last year. What led to the spike after a seven-year stretch without a single suicide? The Monroe County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, said each death was unfortunate, but isolated, and not a sign of any underlying problem with the care or supervision of inmates. Jail officials instead pointed to their efforts to manage widespread mental illness in a large population of prisoners, many of whom are held at the facility for just a matter of days. But a pair of lawsuits argue that the jail, its overseers and its former health care contractor did too little to protect at least two prisoners who showed clear signs that they were mentally ill and at risk of harming themselves.
Arizona Republic: As the river runs dry: The Southwest’s water crisis
The Arizona Republic reports the vast and highly urbanized Southwest, built on the promise of a bountiful Colorado River propped up by monumental dams, is up against its limits. Already tapped beyond its supply, the river is now threatened by a warming climate that shrinks its alpine source. To support fast-growing urban populations in a time of dwindling supply, the Southwest is due for rapid and revolutionary changes. A region that uses two-thirds of its water outdoors, and mostly for agriculture, will have to find ways of sharing and boosting efficiency — a shift that many experts believe will mean city dwellers paying to upgrade rural irrigation systems. Cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, which have reduced their per-person water usage through better landscaping and appliances, will have to do better. They lag behind Los Angeles, whose growing population, by necessity, uses no more water than it did 40 years ago.
Austin American Statesman: Student loan debt weighs on economy
The Austin American Statesman reports that amid rising college education costs, the country is seeing a surge in student loan debt and in those borrowers’ delinquency rates. The combination, lawmakers and policy experts say, has led to a new kind of debt crisis, and one that could become a long-term threat to the U.S. economy. The U.S. student loan debt market, which grew 7.1 percent to a record $1.2 trillion last year, is now the second-largest form of consumer debt behind housing, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It’s nearing the size of the $1.3 trillion subprime home mortgage market that helped spark the last recession. The impacts have been wide-ranging: Record numbers of students are returning home as they delay a laundry list of economic and personal decisions from buying homes to getting married. Many say they are also reconsidering their career prospects.
Tennessean: Arsenic in water from coal ash center of TVA dispute
John Kammeyer, the engineer in charge of coal combustion products for the Tennessee Valley Authority, compares the environmental pollutants in a coal ash pond to the minerals in a bottle of vitamins. Photocopied and enlarged, the list of supplements is the first evidence he presents to show that concerns are overblown about the Gallatin Fossil Plant contaminating the source of drinking water for almost 1 million people. Arsenic is not a vitamin supplement, but it is produced by coal-fired power plants and found in the resulting waste. Coal ash is that byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity. It contains mercury, arsenic and other pollutants harmful to people and the environment when found in high concentrations. Kammeyer says the amount of arsenic discharged at Gallatin is too small to matter, that the ponds storing coal ash waste aren't leaking and that they withstood the 2010 flood without any problems. But TVA memos, other government records and independent tests contradict his statements.
Dayton Daily News: How clean is your favorite restaurant?
The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News reports restaurants in Montgomery County had a 5.3 percent increase in critical health violations in 2014, and inspections of food establishments found close to 6,400 total violations of Ohio food code. Those are the finding of a Dayton Daily News investigation of 5,980 inspections of 2,670 food establishments logged by Public Health Dayton and Montgomery County. Critical violations are designated by the Ohio Department of Health as code infractions that have the most potential to spread food-borne illness and are the most potentially dangerous to customers’ health.
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Charlotte Observer: UNC grad school pushed to take players
The Charlotte Observer reports that Michael Waddell had a low grade point average, no entrance exam score and was months past the deadline when an athletic official sought to have the football player admitted to University of North Carolina’s graduate school in fall 2003. John Blanchard, then a senior associate athletic director, made the request, which was granted, after classes began, on Sept. 5, just as Waddell was about to be declared ineligible to play against Syracuse the following day, according to records obtained by The News & Observer. Waddell is one of several athletes UNC athletics officials sought to keep eligible to play by getting them into graduate school, according to Cheryl Thomas, the graduate school’s admissions director from 2002 to 2010.
Portland Press Herald: Small town danger in Maine: Not enough firefighters
The Portland (Maine) Press Herald reports only four firefighters on the China Village Fire Department are trained to enter a burning building. The department needs at least six to launch an interior attack to put out a fire. When Fire Chief Tim Theriault looks at his roster of 22 volunteers, he sees only four under the age of 50; he had 15 or more volunteers under age 50 a decade ago. Some on the roster now are in poor health. Others, between jobs and family, have no time for the additional training they need. And many of the volunteers, while willing, aren’t able. It’s a challenge facing small fire departments across Maine: They can’t slow the steady decline in residents who volunteer to fight fires, and they can’t afford full-time staff. At the same time, a decline in state revenue sharing and fewer 9/11-inspired grants have tightened municipal budgets, while the demand for fire and rescue services is increasing.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Georgia governor’s key staff gets big raises
Gov. Nathan Deal’s victory in November has resulted in a windfall for top aides and senior officials, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. Most of the governor’s aides saw their six-figure salaries raised 10 percent, and the governor’s longtime chief of staff is making nearly as much as the governor himself. Others tapped by Deal to move into new jobs received salaries that are tens of thousands of dollars more than their old ones, the AJC found. And dozens of Georgia’s top appointed officials also received hefty pay raises this fiscal year. The pay hikes come as Deal is offering state agencies just 1 percent to provide raises to lower-level staffers. School districts are also being given extra money that systems can use, if they like, to boost teacher pay. But few if any are expected to get anywhere near a 10 percent hike.
Washington Post: More and more private police carry guns and make arrests
The Washington Post reports citizens in Virginia can gain police powers using a little-known provision of state law that allows private citizens to petition the courts for the authority to carry a gun, display a badge and make arrests. The number of “special conservators of the peace” — or SCOPs, as they are known — has doubled in Virginia over the past decade to roughly 750, according to state records. The growth is mirrored nationally in the ranks of private police, who increasingly patrol corporate campuses, neighborhoods and museums as the demand for private security has increased and police services have been cut in some places. The trend has raised concerns in Virginia and elsewhere, because these armed officers often receive a small fraction of the training and oversight of their municipal counterparts. Arrests of private police officers and incidents involving SCOPs overstepping their authority have also raised concerns.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM
AP: States seek alternatives for highway, bridge funding
The Associated Press reports a 200-mile span of Interstate 70 between suburban St. Louis and Kansas City, touted as one of the first interstate highways, stands as a prime example of the challenges facing the nation's roads. Built in the 1950s and '60s with a 20-year-life expectancy, the four-lane highway is crumbling beneath its surface and clogged with traffic as it carries more than 30,000 vehicles a day on many of its rural stretches, requiring more frequent repaving. The cost to rebuild and widen it is estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion — as much as five times the projected yearly construction and maintenance budget of Missouri's transportation department. And there is no easy way to pay for it.
Read more: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/states-seek-alternatives-highway-bridge-funding-29125276
Columbus Dispatch: Ohio’s oil-and-gas industry, court ruling linked?
The Columbus Dispatch reports an Ohio Supreme Court justice lamented last week that “the oil and gas industry has gotten its way” in a decision that says local governments can’t regulate drilling. “What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive.” The dissenting opinion of Justice William M. O’Neill in a fracking case was not without factual basis: Ohio’s oil-and-gas industry poured about $1.4 million into the campaign coffers of legislators and other state officials in 2013-14 — including about $8,000 for the justice who wrote the pro-industry ruling and $7,200 for another who concurred — a Dispatch computer analysis shows. Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for Common Cause-Ohio and a longtime advocate for greater campaign-finance transparency, said she was taken aback by the direct linkage of public policy and campaign cash. “Ohio’s oil-and-gas industry is no different from any other industry or business in supporting legislators who understand the issues and who want to pursue sound public policy,” said Shawn Bennett, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association.
Read more: http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2015/02/22/industry-donations-ruling-tied.html
Spokesman-Review: Most city workers earning above median income
The Spokesman-Review in Washington reports a communications supervisor in the Spokane Police Department last year took home almost $50,000 in overtime pay, the most the city paid in 2014. The overtime pay didn’t quite double her base salary, but it did raise her total wage to about $130,000, putting her among the top earners at City Hall. Her pay, however, was dwarfed by two fire battalion chiefs who retired last year – as well as about 90 other city workers. Both men were paid more than $100,000 in “other” pay, such as vacation and sick time payouts. That drove their total pay to about $275,000 for the year and made them the highest-paid employees at City Hall last year – by a long shot. Compared to the average Spokane worker, nearly everyone at City Hall makes good money. Nearly 90 percent of people paid by the city last year made more than $42,092, the median household income in Spokane, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Read more: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2015/feb/15/most-spokane-city-workers-earning-more-than/
Belleville News-Democrat: Some 70 percent of sex crimes not prosecuted
The Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat reports thousands of women, teenage girls and children in a 32-county area of Southern Illinois have told police they were sexually violated by someone they trusted: a friend, an ex-boyfriend or a family member. However, authorities did not prosecute seven out of 10 of these sex crime suspects from 2005-13, even though victims were able to identify their attackers 95 percent of the time, according to a Belleville News-Democrat investigation. While national attention has focused on rape on college campuses and in the military, a review of more than 1,000 police reports and 15,000 pages of court records showed that failure to bring sex crime suspects to court was widespread throughout Southern Illinois during the nine-year period ending in 2013, the latest figures available.
Read more: http://www.bnd.com/static/media/VOT/index.html#storylink=cpy
Los Angeles Times: County fire officials shared test questions used in hiring
The Los Angeles Times reports an audit probing allegations of cheating in the Los Angeles County Fire Department's hiring process found that high-ranking officials improperly shared job interview questions and answers that were supposed to be confidential. The audit was launched in response to a Times investigation last year which found that an unusually high number of family members of firefighters were hired by the department and that insiders had access to the interview questions and answers. The county review determined that 17 sworn department officials, including one battalion chief and 10 captains, had obtained the testing materials and sent them to others, including to non-county email accounts.
Read more: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-fire-cheating-20150222-story.html
Sacramento Bee: Vanishing water, fewer jobs, but still hope in Central Valley
The Sacramento (California) Bee reports America’s largest agriculture economy is changing because of a lack of water. Amid a prolonged drought and an anticipated third straight year of cutbacks in federal water supplies, the one assured constant is stress. Farmers who can afford them are sinking wells, extracting groundwater that works for groves of almonds and pistachios. But the groundwater is generally too salty for crops of vegetables and grains that have made the Central Valley the nation’s food basket. And questions persist over how long the groundwater supplies will last – and whether growers will get enough of the reservoir water they crave. In California’s $40 billion agricultural sector, farmers face hard choices on what to plant and how much. They weigh crop losses and the costs of acquiring new ground or surface water supplies against cutting labor or selling off their farms.
Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article10902353.html#storylink=cpy
Denver Post: Banned from 16th Street: Court orders dozens to stay away
The Denver Post reports Lucas Alejos, a homeless 21-year-old, has spent the past two years getting high, selling weed to buy crystal meth, shoplifting, stealing and illegally weaving down the 16th Street Mall on his skateboard. At night, he sleeps "anywhere," sometimes curling up in the vestibule outside a Taco Bell or a bank downtown. This is why he was banned from the mall. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people have been banned from the mall, the most densely populated street in all of Colorado and Denver's No. 1 tourist attraction. The policy — little-known outside law enforcement and the courthouse — raises questions about the balance between public safety and civil rights, and the effectiveness of banning drug addicts, shoplifters and general troublemakers from one area of the city. Authorities do not track area restrictions or study their effectiveness, so it's unclear whether they curb crime or move it elsewhere.
Read more: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_27575680/banned-from-16th-street-dozens-ordered-by-court
New Haven Register: State budget far short of need for severely disabled
The New Haven Register reports hundreds of families in Connecticut are caught between caring for loved ones with severe disabilities and a state Department of Developmental Services budget that doesn’t approach the need. According to Walt Glomb of Vernon, the father of a child with disabilities and a business consultant, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget staff estimated day services would cost $233.7 million in fiscal 2016 but the proposed budget is $11.2 million short at $222.5 million. Similarly, residential services are estimated to cost $485.2 million, compared with the proposed $480.9 million recommended for this year. “Some of us are scratching our heads when they talk about increases,” Glomb said. The other big problem, however, is a waiting list for residential services that officially numbers 667, including only emergency and so-called Priority 1 clients, and is actually closer to 2,000 when less disabled people are included, according to advocates.
Read more: http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20150221/for-connecticut-families-of-severely-disabled-state-budget-far-short-of-need
Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel: Condo board stuck in turmoil
The Ft. Lauderdale (Florida) Sun Sentinel reports state regulators ordered a Hallandale Beach condo president to resign immediately after learning he was a convicted felon. Robert Picerno refused. When a state investigator told Picerno to reinstate two owners improperly kicked off the De Soto Park Condominium board, he said no. When regulators demanded association records, he declined. And when they served him with a subpoena, he ignored it. Picerno's defiance eventually cost residents of the seven-building, 549-unit complex in the Three Islands neighborhood a total of more than $16,000 in fines. Now state regulators are looking into owners' allegations that Picerno misspent $177,000 in condo money while Hallandale Beach Police investigate possible embezzlement, grand theft and fraud, a detective told the newspaper.
Read more: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-condo-money-probe-20150219-story.html#page=1
Indianapolis Star: Sometimes, police seize cars, homes -- with no charges filed
The Indianapolis Star reports asset forfeiture laws crafted to fight organized crime, such as drug cartels and money laundering groups, sometimes snare people facing minor drug possession charges, or no charges at all, an Indianapolis Star review has found. To get back their homes, cars and savings, people are forced to engage in lengthy legal battles. One Fort Wayne man whose truck was improperly forfeited after a drug investigation in 2008 fought all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court — and won — a victory that took nearly three years to achieve. Law enforcement officials say misuses of the law are rare, and the seizures are an important tool. But Attorney General Eric Holder, defense attorneys and legal experts are beginning to question the fairness of a program that allows officers to seize property first, and file charges later. In January, Holder said local agencies would no longer be able to use federal law to seize the assets of people not yet convicted of crimes.
Read more: http://www.indystar.com/story/news/crime/2015/02/22/cases-police-seize-cars-homes-charges-filed/23802807/
Louisville Courier-Journal: Girl Scout cookie makers fear firings over OT
The Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal reports employees at a Louisville factory that churns out millions of Girl Scout cookies each year say they're forced to work six and seven days a week and face firing if they refuse mandatory weekend shifts and overtime. Some of them, who've worked for decades at what was once known as Mother's Cookies in Shively, say they've reached the breaking point but fear losing hard-won wages and pension benefits if they quit or press for better treatment. The complaints have surfaced not merely because the workers had to step up production of Thin Mints, Samoas and Trefoils now en route to customers in Louisville and across the country. But the plant has boosted its output of other cookies in the past year. The bakery was acquired from Keebler in March 2001 by Michigan-based cereal giant Kellogg Co., which says through a spokeswoman that employees must work overtime to avoid "a production shutdown."
Read more: http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2015/02/20/louisville-cookie-workers-girl-scout-plant-describe-long-work-weeks-forced-overtime/23749881/
Kansas City Star: Questions surround economists who assess Missouri legislation
The Kansas City Star reports that when Missouri lawmakers evaluate legislation, they rely on a nonpartisan staff to tell them how much money any particular bill could cost state government. In many cases, those legislative researchers rely on the expertise of economics professors at the University of Missouri’s Economic & Policy Analysis Research Center, or EPARC. On bills altering the state’s income tax code — including the high-profile tax cut battles that have raged over the last few years in Missouri — EPARC helps determine the legislation’s price tag. But the center’s role in that process is beginning to raise eyebrows.
Many of the economists working for EPARC, including its director, have financial ties to organizations with strong ideological leanings — most notably a group founded by conservative megadonor Rex Sinquefield.That has led some who have historically opposed Sinquefield’s tax-slashing political agenda to wonder whether the information that ends up in the hands of legislators is as objective as it’s advertised.
Read more: http://www.kansascity.com/news/government-politics/article10890725.html
New York Times: Many watch but brutality at Rikers Island persists
The New York Times reports that on Sept. 2, four correction officers pulled Jose Guadalupe, an inmate classified in medical records as seriously mentally ill, into his solitary-confinement cell at Rikers Island and beat him unconscious. A little over two months later, three guards wrestled another inmate, Tracy Johnson, to the floor, pepper-sprayed him in the face and broke a bone in his eye socket. Then, on Dec. 9, yet another group of officers beat Ambiorix Celedonio, an inmate with an I.Q. of 65, so badly that, as surveillance footage later showed, he had bruises and scratches on his face and blood coming from his mouth. The brutal confrontations were among 62 cases identified by The New York Times in which inmates were seriously injured by correction officers between last August and January, a period when city and federal officials had become increasingly focused on reining in violence at Rikers.
Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/nyregion/even-as-many-eyes-watch-brutality-at-rikers-island-persists.html?_r=0
Charlotte Observer: North Carolina hospitals curb suits against patients
The Charlotte Observer reports North Carolina hospitals have sharply curtailed their use of a controversial practice – filing lawsuits against patients who don’t pay their bills. An analysis by The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh found that lawsuits by the state’s hospitals dropped by more than 45 percent from 2010 through 2014 – from about 6,000 to 3,200. At Carolinas HealthCare System, the state’s largest hospital system, the drop has been even sharper. The Charlotte-based hospital system filed about 1,400 lawsuits against patients last year – roughly half the number it filed in 2010. One hospital, Iredell Memorial in Statesville, has stopped filing lawsuits against patients. In 2013, it was one of the state’s most litigious hospitals, filing about 270 bill-collection lawsuits. Last year, it filed none.
Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2015/02/21/5529663/nc-hospitals-curb-suits-against.html#.VOu7N3be__5