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