WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 10-2-14
Columbus Dispatch: Legitimate campaign spending hard to define
The Columbus Dispatch reports that since the start of 2011, state Sen. Tom Patton has reimbursed himself nearly $170,000 from his campaign fund for expenses that cannot be easily reviewed by the average person. While he has filed detailed paper documentation with the secretary of state’s office, his online reports label those payments only as generic “campaign expenses.” Patton’s activity is a noticeable example because of the amounts and frequency, but a Dispatch analysis of legislative campaign expenditures since January 2011 found plenty of campaign spending that is either unspecified or falls outside traditional campaign activity, such as purchasing ads, buying supplies, paying staff and hosting fundraisers.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Police promise on mental health training unmet
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that after a scared young man, paranoid and hearing voices, was shot and killed by Milwaukee police 10 years ago his heartbroken parents asked why police weren't better trained to know the symptoms of schizophrenia. As a result, police guaranteed that all officers would be well trained. It still has not happened. At least seven persons with effectively documented and extreme mental illness have died after confrontations with Milwaukee police, an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discovered. In at
least three of the cases, the officers who responded had not received the department's specific mental health education, even though they had been especially dispatched to deal with a person in an apparent psychiatric crisis.
Columbus Dispatch: Colleges underreporting crimes
The Columbus Dispatch reports the crime statistics being released by colleges nationwide are so misleading that they give students and parents a false sense of security, enabled by lax oversight of such statistics. The newspaper, along with the Student Press Law Center, reviewed 12 years of crime statistics from nearly 1,800 schools with on-campus housing, finding that at least half of the colleges reported zero sexual assaults and two-thirds report no serious physical assaults in any year. About one in five reported that there has never been a sexual assault, The
Los Angeles Times: City pays millions for police and firefighting injury claims
The Los Angeles Times reports the beneficiaries of an injury-leave program for Los Angeles police and firefighters has cost taxpayers $328 million over the last five years. A Times investigation found total salaries paid to city public safety employees on leave increased more than 30% — to $42 million a year – from 2009 through 2013, the five-year period studied by The Times. The number who took leaves grew 8%, and they were out of work an average of nearly 9 weeks — a 23% increase compared with 2009.
Hartford Courant: Insurance commissioner, other state employees, globe-hopping
The Hartford Courant reports that of the 20 work days in June 2013 the state's commissioner of insurance spent 17 away from his desk — far away. Thomas B. Leonardi's schedule that month included trips to Washington, D.C., Rome, Zurich and Seoul. That month's globe-hopping schedule wasn't unusual. A Courant examination of documents submitted to the Office of State Ethics shows that from June 2011 to August 2014, Leonardi reported 64 trips, more than double the number reported by any other state employee.
Baltimore Sun: City pays $57 million since 2011 over police use of force
The Baltimore Sun reports the city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects. One hidden cost: The perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police. Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.
Arizona Republic: Plans for school funding short on details
The Arizona Republic reports both Doug Ducey and Fred DuVal talk a lot about education as they campaign for governor. But neither has a long-range plan to deal with the funding crisis facing Arizona's K-12 system. Ducey, a Republican, and DuVal, a Democrat, agree more money should be directed to classrooms. But neither candidate has explained how he would address the biggest education-related challenge to face state government in recent history: how to pay for a court-enforced voter mandate to increase school funding at a time when state government is projected to run a deficit as soon as June. The annual inflation adjustments to school funding pencil out to about $317 million for this year, and a similar amount in future years.
News and Observer: Pay of county sheriffs depends on whims of commissioners
The Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer reports that why a sheriff would be paid more in rural Wilson County, with a population of about 82,000, than in Wake, Guilford, Forsyth or Durham – urban counties with 280,000 to nearly 1 million residents – has some sheriffs across the state scratching their heads. The Wilson County example spotlights disparities in a statewide system that leaves a sheriff’s pay up to the county commissioners, who otherwise have little oversight of the sheriff’s office. As a result, there is not always a consistent correlation between pay levels
and the scope of the sheriff’s responsibilities.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 9-25-14
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 282,000 cards in Home Depot breach for sale online
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports it has learned more than 282,000 credit and debit card numbers stolen from Wisconsin stores during the recent Home Depot data breach have been offered for sale on the black market. The company said the data breach had exposed an estimated 56 million payment cards, eclipsing the Target data breach, which involved 40 million cards. The malware that caused the breach has now been eliminated, the company said in a news release. Home Depot has not disclosed which locations were affected, but the Journal Sentinel investigation found credit card numbers were breached at all of the company's 26 Wisconsin locations.
Sacramento Bee: Traffic camera contractor bought meals for county employees
The Sacramento Bee reports Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers accepted free meals worth thousands of dollars from the private company that operates the county’s red-light intersection cameras, then recommended the county choose that company over several competitors for a new red-light contract worth up to $11.8 million. Documents obtained by The Bee under the California Public Records Act show that Redflex Traffic Systems paid for at least 250 meals worth $3,800 over a five-year period for more than a dozen deputies and CHP officers, possibly violating department policies.
Baltimore Sun: Audit says police should revamp misconduct investigations
The Baltimore Sun reports a Baltimore lawyer who is a national expert on police discipline has discovered "many flaws" within the Internal Affairs Division of the Baltimore Police Department, including detectives who lack proper training, work under decades-old processes and are often pulled from their duties for other tasks. Such shortcomings lead to incomplete investigations and hamper the agency's effort to build community trust, Karen Kruger concluded in a 21-page audit obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request. The study was commissioned by Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez for $5,000.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Dysfunction reported at Riverview Psychiatric Center
The Maine Sunday Telegram reports employees at Riverview Psychiatric Center say there is widespread patient abuse and neglect at the 92-bed state-run hospital in Augusta in recent years – issues that point to deep dysfunction that has persisted even after federal officials detailed serious violations affecting patient care. Current and former employees say patients are routinely provoked, denied care and refused food at the whim of lower-level staff members.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Lottery weak on enforcement
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asks what someone who owes a lot of back taxes or child support does when they hit it big on the lottery, but the state is going to take most or all of their winnings. An AJC analysis suggests that hundreds, maybe thousands. of such people are selling winning tickets at a discount to other individuals, who then claim the prizes. That’s not legal, but until very recently the state did very little to stop it. The result: By an extremely conservative estimate, the lottery has paid out $16.3 million since 2003 to people who had no legal right to those winnings.
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Hartford Courant: Charter school group directed work to exec’s husband
The Hartford Courant reports it has learned the Jumoke Academy charter school organization, now facing a state probe into allegations of nepotism, directed more than a million dollars in construction work to the husband of one of its executives. A Courant investigation found Jumoke's payments to HSK Home Improvements included at least $85,000 in state grant money used to renovate a Victorian mansion and convert its second floor into an apartment
later occupied by the charter group's longtime leader, Michael M. Sharpe. The apartment, built in 2012 to Sharpe's specifications, featured a new $12,000 master bathroom with a custom glass shower door.
Orange County Register: Overtime gives salaries big boost at Superior Court
The Orange County Register reports the Orange County Superior Court boosted employee paychecks with more overtime last year than almost the rest of the California court system combined, according to a Register analysis of state payroll data. Although most Superior Courts, including the similar-sized Riverside County court, paid less than $100,000 in overtime last year, the Orange County court spent about $962,000. Only Los Angeles County paid more
overtime than Orange County with $1.6 million. But it also spread that cash across nearly twice as many employees. Los Angeles is a bigger, busier court.
The Bergen Record: Lack of oversight troubles NJ’s drug recovery housing
New Jersey is home to hundreds of drug recovery houses and sober-living facilities. With heroin addiction on the rise, the housing of recovering addicts is a rapidly growing, but largely unregulated, industry. In concept, sober housing is considered a helpful component of recovery: supportive, safe, long-term rental communities that ease an addict’s transition from inpatient treatment back into society. But as many families across the country have learned, not all sober houses are safe or sober. The very independence that makes recovery housing empowering and cost-effective can give way to disorder, abuse and tragedy.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Lake Erie is sick again
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Lake Erie is sick again. Things might have been horrific 45 years ago when Newsweek proclaimed the lake dead, a time when schools of fish didn't so much swim as they floated. But they were never so bad that there was fear Lake Erie's water was in danger of becoming too poisonous to be purified at treatment plants for the millions of people who drink it. Modern farming practices, wetter springs and toxic-algae-spitting invasive mussels have conspired to produce late-summer poisonous blooms that can sprawl across
nearly 2,000 square miles, threatening anew everything from beach-goers to public drinking water supplies.
Miami Herald: Healthcare costs often shrouded in secrecy
The Miami Herald reports on the difficulty of establishing precisely how Miami-Dade County spends more than $400 million a year to pay healthcare claims for nearly 60,000 employees, retirees and dependents in the health plan. That’s because Miami-Dade — like many employers across the country — isn’t allowed to know the prices their own insurance plan administrators negotiate with healthcare providers, even when they’re self-insured, like Miami-Dade County, and the claims are paid with taxpayer dollars. When county officials claim they are doing everything they can to reduce employee healthcare costs, they actually don’t know how and where the public’s money is being spent.
Arizona Republic: Border killings: 46 people killed, no agents disciplined
The Arizona Republic reports that six months after promising greater transparency and accountability when its agents use deadly force, Customs and Border Protection continues to struggle to deliver on both counts. Since 2004, Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers have killed at least 46 people, including at least 15 Americans, while on duty. On Friday, Sept. 12, CBP's acting internal affairs chief, Mark Alan Morgan, in response
to a question from The Arizona Republic, told reporters he was unaware of any agent or officer having been -disciplined or terminated in any of those deaths.
New York Times: After surgery, surprise $117,000 bill from unknown doctor
The New York Times reports that In operating rooms and on hospital wards across the country, physicians and other health providers typically help one another in patient care. But in an increasingly common practice that some medical experts call drive-by doctoring, assistants, consultants and other hospital employees are charging patients or their insurers hefty fees. They may be called in when the need for them is questionable. And patients usually do not
realize they have been involved or are charging until the bill arrives.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 9-11-14
Arizona Daily Star: Fewer Tucson preschoolers getting vaccinated
The Arizona Daily Star reports more parents of local preschoolers are opting their children out of vaccines against infectious diseases like measles, meningitis and whooping cough. The percentage of preschoolers statewide with non-medical vaccine exemptions has quadrupled since 2000, new state data shows. The higher the exemption rate, the more likely a disease can “wiggle its way into a group,” says Dr. Karen Lewis, who is medical director of the state health department’s Arizona Immunization Program.
Fresno Bee: Taxpayers and workers gouged by labor-law dodge
The Fresno Bee reports the largest government infusion of cash into the U.S. economy in generations – the 2009 stimulus – was riddled with a massive labor scheme that harmed workers and cheated unsuspecting American taxpayers. At the time, government regulators watched as money slipped out the door and into the hands of companies that rob state and federal treasuries of billions of dollars each year on stimulus projects and other construction
jobs across the country, a yearlong McClatchy investigation found.
Orange County Register: Auditors critical of OC Parks contracts
The Orange County Register reports internal auditors say they have substantiated allegations at Orange County executives granted no-bid contracts to a friend of a county Parks Department official – dividing the contracts to avoid scrutiny from the Board of Supervisors.From 2009 until 2014, OC Parks officials authorized 13 consecutive consulting contracts totaling $913,095 to BPM Advisors, which is owned by Ahmad Iqbal, who attended grad school with former OC Parks Deputy Director Michael Brajdic.
Washington Post: Aggressive police stop and seize cash from motorists
The Washington Post reports that after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the government called on police to become the eyes and ears of homeland security on America’s highways. Local officers, county deputies and state troopers were encouraged to act more aggressively in searching for suspicious people, drugs and other contraband. The departments of Homeland Security and Justice spent millions on police training. The effort succeeded, but it had an impact that has been largely hidden from public view: the spread of an aggressive brand of policing that has spurred the seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from motorists and others not charged with crimes, a Washington Post investigation found. Thousands of people have been forced to fight legal battles that can last more than a year to get their money back.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: How did ethics official keep her job?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports in three years as Georgia’s top ethics enforcer, Holly LaBerge has presided over an office that has required taxpayers to pay nearly $3 million to settle lawsuits from whistleblowers in her office, many more times what the commission collects in mandatory filing fees from candidates and lobbyists; accumulated a backlog of 200 ethics cases from across the state and all but ceased investigating complaints for almost a year. But
it took a Fulton County judge to call her “dishonest and non-transparent” for the appointed members of the state ethics commission to put her job in real jeopardy.
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Indianapolis Star: Day care providers blamed for abuse still operating
The Indianapolis Star reports that more than 10 months after X-rays of a 6-month-old boy in Sheridan revealed a skull fracture and broken rib, arms, legs and thumb, the day care providers state officials hold responsible for the injuries are still caring for children. Todd and Lauren Lewis, who operate the day care, vehemently deny responsibility for the child's injuries and have filed petitions in Hamilton Superior Court asking a judge to overrule the Indiana Department of Child Services' substantiation of physical abuse. But that's not why the Lewises are allowed to continue operating Lauren's Little Ones, an unlicensed home day care. It's because state law — which prohibits people substantiated with abuse from working in licensed or registered day cares — has no such provision for the state's countless unlicensed day cares.
Des Moines Register: Iowa’s pipeline safety record spotty
The Des Moines Register reports that as a Texas energy company seeks approval for its plan to build a 1,100-mile pipeline carrying North Dakota crude oil across 17 Iowa counties, documents show the state's pipeline safety record has been less than spotless. While the state has avoided large-scale disasters, records show Iowa has had 100 pipeline spills since 2004, with a majority of the accidents involving anhydrous ammonia and propane. Other products involved in Iowa pipeline accidents over the past decade have included natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel and
butane, according to state and federal records reviewed by The Des Moines Register.
Detroit Free Press: Landville taking radioactive waste has history of violations
The Detroit Free Press reports that despite assurances that a Belleville landfill and its partner facility in Van Buren Township that accept radioactive fracking waste are safe, they have been cited for at least 15 violations in the last decade and fined more than $471,000, a Free Press review of state and federal records shows.
Austin American-Statesman: VA’s brain research fails to launch
The Austin American-Statesman reports that on the morning of July 1, 2008, Department of Veterans Affairs officials gathered to unveil a state-of-the-art brain scanner they predicted would help revolutionize the understanding of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. Six years later, the $3.6 million machine sits unused in an out-of-the way corner at the Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple. Not a single study based on the machine’s scans has been published. Not a single veteran has received improved treatment
because of advances ushered in by the scanner. The machine has sat dormant for the past three years, plagued by a series of delays caused by mismanagement, mechanical failures and bureaucratic roadblocks.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 9-4-14
Montgomery Advertiser: What does it take to get fired by the VA?
The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser recounts these problems among VA patients: A female patient reports that an employee sexually abused her. An employee takes a veteran in a drug-addiction program to a crack house. An investigation shows that after gaining the trust of a patient with dementia, an employee takes thousands of dollars from her account. All these incidents occurred at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System. None of these incidents resulted in firings. CAVHCS staff with access to the employee directory and a list of employees who have retired, transferred or otherwise left have said all three individuals are still employed. The Montgomery Advertiser reports on these incidents have many wondering why those employees still have jobs. VA Southeast Network and CAVHCS leaders have declined to provide the Montgomery Advertiser with the employment statuses or disciplinary actions taken against the employees VA police investigations found to be guilty of crimes, ethical violations or both. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs outlines the processes for disciplinary action against all VA employees. There is also a federal ethics code that VA employees are required to follow. According to those guidelines, penalties for these employees should have been substantial.
Indianapolis Star: Bonuses rise dramatically at Indianapolis VA
The Indianapolis Star, through a federal public records request, found skyrocketing bonus awards at the Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis, including payouts totaling more than $36,000 over three years for the hospital's director. The increasing payouts come at a time when VA facilities across the country are being investigated for manipulating patient wait-time data — one of the factors used in determining many bonuses. Roudebush was one of 112 VA facilities flagged for further review in June based on concerns about rigged wait-time data. The VA's office of inspector general declined to say whether the Indianapolis hospital remains under investigation. In all, more than $1.43 million in bonuses were awarded to about 1,200 employees at Roudebush last year — an increase of more than 80 percent since 2011, according to information obtained through the paper’s federal public records request.
Los Angeles Times: Are film tax credits cost effective?
The Los Angeles Times report that the state of California – tired of seeing Hollywood take its business elsewhere – is moving to triple tax subsidies for film and TV productions, boosting incentives to $330 million annually and making the state competitive with New York, Georgia and other states that are courting the entertainment industry with ever-richer incentives. The action is widely seen as necessary to stop thousands of jobs from leaving Southern California, where most studios and production companies are based and would prefer to work if costs are roughly equivalent. Yet it comes amid growing national debate about the value of film tax breaks and whether they create new jobs, or merely shift work from one place to another. Some fear California's move may, in fact, escalate a bidding war among states eager to claim a share of
the world's most glamorous industry. While these tax credits have been highly effective at luring production out of California, their long-term economic benefits have been questioned by several independent studies.
Sacramento Bee: Water use varies greatly across California
The Sacramento Bee reports that if you drive across city limits in virtually any part of California, you will also cross another kind of frontier, one gaining more attention during the worst drought in a generation: The borders between cities also define different ideas about water. One city may have gutters coursing with wasted water, while its neighbor lives by the highest
conservation standards. The differences can be glaring, according to a Bee review of data submitted by water agencies, and they highlight some of the challenges in achieving broad conservation goals during the ongoing drought. In a hypothetical tour of the state, according to the data, the well-informed traveler would encounter disparities.
Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal: Police among highest-paid city workers
The Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal reports that Mayor Dennis Williams might be the most powerful official in Wilmington's government, but he doesn't bring home the biggest paycheck. The 14 highest-paid city workers in 2013 were cops, including two who retired during the year and took other city jobs. Williams received $112,900, ranking 15th. Those cops are making that kind of money because the city has been spending more on overtime for officers in recent years. The overtime has boosted total annual pay above $100,000 in recent years for dozens of captains, lieutenants, sergeants and corporals in the police force, according to city payroll records analyzed by The News Journal. In 2013, other non-police officials who took home more than $100,000 included the mayor's then-chief of staff, John R. Matlusky ($108,800), City Solicitor Michael P. Migliore ($104,800), elected city Treasurer Henry W. Supinski ($110,600) and City Council Chief of Staff Romain L. Alexander ($101,900). ... But the bulk of the big earners are in the city's police force, with 71 percent of the city's overtime paid to the department in 2013, records show.
Washington Post: Unregulated day care in Virginia
The Washington Post reports that on the edge of Roanoke, Virginia, at the dead end of a blacktop road, Teresa Atwood’s small home doubled as a bustling day-care business. On Sept. 23, 2010, the house was crowded with infants and toddlers. Some were watching cartoons in the living room. Others, including 1-year-old Andy Ngo, were supposed to be sleeping in a bedroom. But Andy was restless and screaming. So Atwood, 44, swaddled him in a blanket, which pinned his arms against his body, and put him on a queen-size mattress. In a dark and cramped room, out of sight of his caregivers, Andy flipped onto his stomach. When Atwood checked on him 45 minutes later, he was facedown under a pillow, his body limp. Atwood began CPR, but she was frantic and her training was out-of-date. Her husband searched for a cellphone to call 911 and tried to take over, but he was completely untrained. “Help me do this ’cause she, she’s panicking,” he told a dispatcher. Andy’s accidental asphyxiation occurred within Virginia’s unregulated child-care industry, where several thousand people who run home day cares operate in an environment without rules or standards.
Idaho Statesman: Wilderness Act shows its age
Idaho’s largest newspapers, including the Statesman and the Lewiston Tribune, teamed up to produce a series of stories on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. In one story, the papers reported that Grant Elliott and Jon Binninger work in tandem, pulling and pushing a saw to remove a downed tree from a lonely trail in Idaho's 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot
Wilderness. The scarcely visible tread is overgrown with vegetation for long stretches and littered with wind-fallen trees as it dissects the scar of a 3-year-old wildfire. Its condition is emblematic of many of the 32,000 miles of trails that dive into the heart of the nation's 758 wilderness areas. Tight federal budgets have led to a $314 million backlog of maintenance on
the pathways that crisscross the nation's forests and grasslands. The problem is exaggerated in wilderness areas that are remote by nature and have rules that prohibit the use of chainsaws and other tools.
Des Moines Register: Driving teachers have records
At least 10 people with a multitude of driving infractions and criminal convictions in the past decade — some with records of drunken driving — are teaching Iowa's teenagers how to drive, a Des Moines Register investigation found. Among the state's 443 driver's ed instructors licensed to teach or provide on-road driver's education, three have drunken driving
convictions, two have assault convictions and four have 12 or more other convictions, mostly driving citations, within the past decade. Despite their legal hiccups, few face professional consequences. State law became more forgiving to driver's ed instructors in 2010, granting leniency toward those who are at least partially at fault in accidents. State law also considers a person who has three or more moving violations over a one-year period a habitual violator. That designation could cause a license suspension, which disqualifies the person from providing on-road driver instruction. ...State officials confirmed that all of the drivers identified by the Register with convictions still hold instructor licenses allowing them to provide classroom or on-road driver training to students.
Star Tribune: The boy they couldn’t save
The Star Tribune in Minneapolis looked into state and county child protection records. They cite the case of 3-year-old Eric Dean, who had bruises all over his face. A scab formed above his lip. His ear bled from a red welt. Before his stepmother, Amanda Peltier, left him at his new day care, she bent down to meet his blue eyes and told the boy to say he fell down. Day-care provider Colleen Myslicki watched in disbelief. After studying the strange puncture wounds on Eric’s face and ear, she realized they were bite marks. Later that day, she asked him what happened. Eric’s reply: “Mommy did it.” As required by state law, Myslicki reported to Pope County child protection that she believed Eric was being abused. She didn’t know it then, but hers was the 12th report to alert social workers in the west-central Minnesota county to suspected maltreatment of the boy. ... Those records show that by the time Eric died at age 4 in February 2013, 15 reports had been filed on his behalf. The county’s child-protection agency investigated only one, after the boy’s arm was broken in 2011, and found no maltreatment. According to records, only one report was shared with police, despite state law directing that law enforcement should be notified of all suspected abuse reports. ... Fifty-four Minnesota children have died of maltreatment since 2005, despite child-protection agencies getting reports that the kids were at risk or their parents and caretakers were dangerous, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state and county child protection records.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 8-28-2014
Associated Press: Expert calls for nuke plant closure
The Associated Press reports that a senior federal nuclear expert is urging regulators to shut down California's last operating nuclear plant until they can determine whether the facility's twin reactors can withstand powerful shaking from any one of several nearby earthquake faults. Michael Peck, who for five years was Diablo Canyon's lead on-site inspector, says in a 42-page, confidential report that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not applying the safety rules it set out for the plant's operation. The document, which was obtained and verified by the AP, does not say the plant itself is unsafe. Instead, according to Peck's analysis, no one knows whether the facility's key equipment can withstand strong shaking from those faults — the potential for which was realized decades after the facility was built. Continuing to run the reactors, Peck
writes, "challenges the presumption of nuclear safety." Peck's July 2013 filing is part of an agency review in which employees can appeal a supervisor's or agency ruling — a process that normally takes 60 to 120 days, but can be extended. The NRC, however, has not yet ruled.
Montgomery Advertiser: VA employee misused patient’s funds
The Montgomery Advertiser reports that a central Alabama Veterans Health Care System employee who police said misused, accepted and assumed control of a Tuskegee VA nursing home patient’s personal funds is still employed more than a year later. According to a VA police investigation obtained by the Montgomery Advertiser, nearly $6,000 of the veteran’s money was withdrawn during a 15-month period and is still unaccounted for after a Tuskegee VA employee convinced a patient to trust her with conducting the patient’s financial activities. The patient, a 49-year-old female veteran with dementia, is a resident in the nursing home at the Tuskegee campus. The employee was assigned to be the patient’s “guardian angel,” which is part of a VA treatment program.
Arizona Republic: Arizona veteran suicides a tragic cost of broken VA system
An Arizona Republic journalist asked David Klein, a Department of Veterans Affairs suicide-prevention coordinator for seven years, whether he was able to meet the needs of Arizona veterans. Charts and spreadsheets were piled in front of him on a table at the Phoenix VA's mental-health clinic, filled with data on suicides. Klein paused before answering in a hushed
voice: "Ummm, no. I wish I would have had a lot more people." During the 2013 budget year, 226 Arizona veterans took their own lives, according to state records. More than 2,000 vets from metro Phoenix dialed the VA's central crisis line; 61 were "rescued" after they threatened to kill themselves. It was the second-highest number nationwide. Amid the national outcry over VA health care — a controversy that first exploded in Phoenix — failures in the mental-health treatment system have been heavily criticized. According to VA calculations, 22 U.S. veterans kill themselves each day, using guns, blades, drugs and other means.
Arizona Daily Star: Police militarization debated in Arizona
Police militarization became an issue of national debate as Americans watched heavily armored police crack down on protesters after the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Now, the Arizona Daily Star finds, some local law enforcement officials are reconsidering their own tactics and interactions with the public. “Militarization of the police has been pushed more and more to the forefront. Is there a warrior-guardian type mindset that we need to be cautious of?” said Chris Nanos, chief deputy of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. “You would be remiss if you didn’t look at those events and say, ‘Could that be us?’ And then do what you can to learn from it and not be in that position.” The Department of Defense’s 1033 program and other federal programs have helped supply local police with assault rifles, armored vehicles, night-vision goggles and other military equipment since the 1990s. Pima County law-enforcement agencies have received $5.8 million worth of military gear through the program since 2006, according to Defense Department records obtained and shared publicly by the New York Times.
Des Moines Register: Wary about weapons
The Des Moines Register says that weapons of war are becoming the tools of civilian law enforcement in Iowa and nationwide. Iowa police departments have armed themselves with grenade launchers, armored vehicles, automatic rifles and other equipment — 2,022 items in all since 2006, worth an estimated $7.5 million, according to a Des Moines Register review of federal records. The equipment came through a U.S. Department of Defense program known as 1033, which dates to the early 1990s and has distributed surplus gear ranging from weapons to laptops. Local police agencies have acquired the stockpile for virtually free. National debate on the so-called militarization of civilian police has intensified since law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to protests, riots and looting with equipment critics say isn't meant for community policing and aggravates already intense situations. The unrest was sparked by the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, 18, by a white police officer who confronted him after a report of a robbery. Some federal lawmakers, including Iowa's two senators, are calling for Congress to review the 1033 program.
Los Angeles Times: Cause of New Mexico nuclear waste accident remains a mystery
The Los Angeles Times says that a 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste, buried in a salt shaft 2,150 feet under the New Mexico desert, violently erupted late on Feb. 14 and spewed mounds of radioactive white foam. The flowing mass, looking like whipped cream but laced with plutonium, went airborne, traveled up a ventilation duct to the surface and delivered low-level radiation doses to 21 workers. The accident contaminated the nation's only dump for nuclear weapons waste — previously a focus of pride for the Energy Department — and gave the nation's elite ranks of nuclear chemists a mystery they still cannot unravel. ... A preliminary Energy Department investigation found more than 30 safety lapses at the plant, including technical
shortcomings and failures in the overall approach to safety. ... There is no official estimate of the cost of the accident, but outside experts and a Times analysis indicate it could approach $1 billion, based on the dump site’s annual budget; the need to decontaminate the facility; upgrades to safety that officials already have identified; and delays over the next decade in the
nuclear weapons cleanup program.
Modesto (California) Bee: Man files disability claims over and over again
The Modesto (California) Bee reports that each year since 2001, except when incarcerated, Robert McCarthy has left his Arizona home for short trips to California. That’s where the money is when you want to sue for disability discrimination. McCarthy is a 59-year-old pedophile who stole his dead brother’s identity to illegally obtain food stamps and disability payouts, and to keep the alimony flowing from his ex-wife. He also posed as his brother in suing 57 California businesses before he was caught and sent to prison for fraud and sex crimes. As he has done in numerous other California communities before and since, McCarthy rolled through Modesto, Ceres and Turlock on a four-day trip in May 2013, spending $500 on hotel rooms, alcohol, an ashtray and other items. Six months later, he sued 13 of the places he’d visited, saying they did not accommodate him and his wheelchair.
New Haven Register: Arrest rare in Connecticut police deadly force cases
The New Haven Register reports that while protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are demanding that a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager be prosecuted, in Connecticut since 2001, there has only been one case out of 38 completed investigations of police use of deadly force in which an officer faced prosecution. A Hartford police officer was acquitted in
that case. Michael Dearington, state’s attorney for the judicial district of New Haven, has served in his current role since 1987. In 27 years, he’s never elected to prosecute an officer who was found to have used deadly force in the line of duty in his district. The paper looked at more than 300 pages of case records since 2001, available from the state Division of Criminal Justice’s website, in studying the issue.
Sun Sentinel: Charter school applicants have troubled histories
Florida’s Sun Sentinel reports that at least seven groups of applicants with ties to failed or floundering charter schools are seeking second chances and public money to open 18 more. Odds are, most will prevail, the paper said. School districts say that they can't deny applicants solely because of past problems running charter schools. State laws tell them to evaluate what
they see on paper — academic plans, budget proposals, student services — not previous school collapses or controversial professional histories. District officials are currently reviewing applications for next year.
Tampa Bay Times: Records show governor’s office put up barriers to public records
The Tampa Bay (Florida) Times reports that Florida Gov. Rick Scott launched Project Sunburst two years ago to give the public easy access to his emails and those of his staff and promised it would become an "unprecedented, transparent window into how state government works." He also created a website to show state employee salaries and held more news conferences flaunting his open government record than any governor in recent history. But, in practice, the Scott administration has erected barriers to public records, marginalized the use of Sunburst and interpreted the state's Sunshine laws in a way that open government advocates say has set back the clock on Florida's open records tradition. "They don't turn over anything unless they get caught,'' said Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer whose two-year legal battle over a property dispute with the state produced thousands of documents raising questions about many of the administration's practices. ... But thousands of records obtained by Andrews and the Times/Herald indicate that the governor's staff may have violated that policy when dealing with communication about politically sensitive information, or when lobbyists and well-positioned Republicans want to communicate with the governor's top advisers.
South Bend (Indiana) Tribune: Ticketing students in South Bend schools
The South Bend (Indiana) Tribune reports that a local police officer ticketed Brandon Worsham in his school last September, saying the teen engaged in fighting and disorderly conduct. He was just a month into his freshman year at Washington High School. “He tends to fight a lot,” his mom, Carla Higley-Bahr, acknowledged. “He has a quick temper.” But neither Brandon nor his mom recall receiving or even being notified of the ticket, written by a resource officer who is assigned to the school. The citation carries fines and court costs of about $140, plus the potential to remain on Brandon’s record indefinitely if he ignores it. A check of a state database turns up Brandon’s citation, though his first name is misspelled. It says he failed to appear for his court date. And a request to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles to suspend his driving privileges was submitted by the court. ... Brandon’s ticket was one of 278 issued in South Bend schools from August 2010 through June 2014, in a longstanding practice by resource officers. ... A Tribune review of all of the tickets issued during the past four school years found errors and inconsistencies:
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: New York campuses struggle with sex assault cases
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in New York says that when the University of Rochester begins its new school year next week, a 21-year-old senior will be attending a different school — unhappy with how the college handled her sexual abuse case. The student was sexually assaulted in April 2013 at a fraternity party on the UR campus. In accord with longstanding
policy, the Democrat and Chronicle is not identifying a victim of sexual assault. While a UR disciplinary proceeding resulted in the suspension of the UR student accused of the assault, the woman was frustrated by what she felt was an unfriendly grievance process and harsh questioning by UR officials. "I had no idea what I was doing. The school did not make anything
clear about the process of reporting," the student said. That's the kind of frustration local colleges need to prevent if they are to gain the full confidence of students — who depend upon such proceedings to provide justice — and encourage other students to step forward with their complaints. A Democrat and Chronicle examination of how local colleges handle allegations of
sexual misconduct found that accountability to the public is often lacking.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 8-21-14
Toledo Blade: Ohio EPA warned Toledo of ‘imminent vulnerability’
The Toledo Blade found through a public records request that less than two months before a historic algae-induced water crisis left 500,000 metro Toledo residents scrambling for bottled water, Ohio’s top environmental regulator warned Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins that the city’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant was “vulnerable to potential failures that could
severely impact the city’s ability to provide adequate quantities of safe water to its citizens.” “I cannot underscore boldly enough the precarious condition of Toledo’s drinking water system and the imminent vulnerability to failure,” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig W. Butler wrote in a June 9 letter to Mr. Collins. The Blade obtained a copy through a public records request along with a stack of other documents and copies of emails that show the agency had severe reservations about the plant for months leading up to the crisis.
New York Times: Pervasive Medicare Fraud proves hard to stop
The New York Times says that an ordinary looking office building in a suburb of Baltimore gives no hint of the high-tech detective work going on inside. A $100 million system churns through complicated medical claims, searching for suspicious patterns and posting the findings on a giant screen. Hundreds of miles away in a strip mall north of Miami, more than 60 people — prosecutors, F.B.I. agents, health care investigators, paralegals and even a forensic nurse —
sort through documents and telephone logs looking for evidence of fraudulent Medicare billing. A warehouse in the back holds fruits of their efforts: wheelchairs, boxes of knee braces and other medical devices that investigators say amount to props for false claims. The Obama administration’s declared war on health care fraud, costing some $600 million a year, has a remarkable new look in places like Baltimore and Miami. But even with the fancy computers and expert teams, the government is not close to defeating the fraudsters. And the effort designed to combat the fraud may be in large part to blame. ... Fraud and systematic overcharging are estimated at roughly $60 billion, or 10 percent, of Medicare’s costs every year, but the administration recovered only about $4.3 billion last year.
Washington Post: A Medicare scam that kept rolling
The Washington Post reports that the tool of the crime was the motorized wheelchair. The wheelchair scam was designed to exploit blind spots in Medicare, which often pays insurance claims without checking them first. Criminals disguised themselves as medical-supply companies. They ginned up bogus bills, saying they’d provided expensive wheelchairs to
Medicare patients — who, in reality, didn’t need wheelchairs at all. Then the scammers asked Medicare to pay them back, so they could pocket the huge markup that the government paid on each chair. A lot of the time, Medicare was fooled. The government paid. Since 1999, Medicare has spent $8.2 billion to procure power wheelchairs and “scooters” for 2.7 million people. Today, the government cannot even guess at how much of that money was paid out to scammers. Now, the golden age of the wheelchair scam is probably over. But, while it lasted, the scam illuminated a critical failure point in the federal bureaucracy: Medicare’s weak defenses against fraud. The government knew how the wheelchair scheme worked in 1998. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that officials finally did enough to significantly curb the practice.
Los Angeles Times: Jails with revolving doors
The Los Angeles Times reports that Jesus Ysasaga had been arrested multiple times and ordered by the court to keep away from his ex-girlfriend. Two parole boards sentenced him to nearly a year in jail for stalking, drunkenness and battery. But the Fresno County jail would not keep him. Four times in the summer of 2012, authorities let Ysasaga go, refusing two times to even book him. The jail had no room. Ysasaga's attorney, Jerry Lowe, said the parade of convicted offenders being turned away from the jail was common. "It became quite a joke," he said. Across California, more than 13,500 inmates are being released early each month to relieve crowding in local jails — a 34% increase over the last three years. A Times investigation shows a significant shift in who is being let out of jail, how early and where.
Orlando Sentinel: College rape convictions in Florida total zero
No one gets convicted of campus rape at Florida's public universities, an analysis of records has found. In 2012 and 2013, 55 rapes were reported to campus police departments, show records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel. Arrests were made only in five. Three were dismissed, and two remain open at Florida Gulf Coast University. The analysis also found that
at the University of Central Florida, 16 rape cases were reported in those two years. Four of them led to arrests. None led to rape convictions. The Sentinel also was able to obtain police reports on rapes reported to UCF police from 2005 to 2011. There were 28 cases in those years. Nine led to arrests, but there were no rape convictions. Three state-university campuses, Florida Atlantic, New College and University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, had no rapes reported in 2012 or 2013, but police there did handle some in 2011. None of those six rapes led to convictions, either. Four of every five campus-rape cases reviewed by the Sentinel involved what could be called "date rapes." In three of every four cases, the alleged victims reportedly were highly intoxicated. Police, prosecutors, rape victims' advocates and social scientists all
agree that the numbers show the difficulty of pursuing campus-rape allegations.
Indianapolis Star: Officials defend exceptions to ethics rules
The Indianapolis Star investigated the use of waivers granted to state ethics rules. It reported, for example, that eight months had passed after Paul Dubenetzky retired from his state job as head of Indiana’s air-quality permit program to work for a consulting firm representing some of the region’s largest polluters. And he knew he had a problem. The state’s ethics laws require that former state employees take at least a year off before working as a lobbyist or going to work for companies they once regulated. His former peers at IDEM knew the rules and they were unnerved by his new job. Dubenetzky acknowledged as much in a letter he wrote in May 2007 to his former boss, IDEM Commissioner Thomas Easterly — a letter written on his new firm’s stationery: “Several current IDEM employees have expressed discomfort when discussing issues with me because they feel that they may be participating in activities that do not comply with the legal requirements regarding ethics and conflicts of interest.” But Dubenetzky’s concern quickly went away, thanks to an exception in Indiana that allows public employees to circumvent the state’s cooling-off period. That exception: Ask your former boss, in this case Easterly, to grant you a waiver. In Indiana, the waiver is binding and does not require the approval of the state’s ethics commission. ... An Indianapolis Star investigation reveals that waivers have been issued 102 times since 2005.
Boston Globe: State sends robocalls on excess unemployment benefits
The Boston Globe reports that an automated message sounds like one of those dreaded spam calls: “You are required to pay this debt,” the voice says. “Failure to repay your overpayment may affect your ability to collect future unemployment insurance benefits as well as impact your state and/or federal income tax refunds.” But it’s no scam. State officials, using automated phone messages or “robocalls” that began in July, are targeting 63,000 people, about 1,000 per day, who they say received undeserved unemployment benefits as far back as 1985. The average amount of the debts the state is seeking to reclaim is about $2,500 a person, but some cases involve amounts as little as $100, according to internal emails obtained by the Globe. Ignoring the calls, no matter the amount owed, carries serious consequences; a person could ultimately lose the ability to collect unemployment benefits in the future or have their future tax refunds garnished.
Detroit Free Press: Do police need military weapons?
Michigan police departments have armed themselves with grenade launchers, armored vehicles, automatic rifles and other equipment — 128,000 items in all, worth an estimated $43 million — under a federal program that allows police to obtain surplus gear free from the U.S. military. A Detroit Free Press review of items transferred from the military since 2006 shows Michigan law enforcement agencies have received 17 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles or MRAPs, built to counter roadside bombs; 1,795 M16 rifles, the U.S. military’s combat weapon of choice; 696 M14 rifles; 530 bayonet and scabbards; 165 utility trucks; 32 12-gauge, riot-type shotguns; nine grenade launchers; and three observation helicopters. Federal officials won’t say which agencies got equipment, but the Free Press inquiry shows it went not just to large counties with high crime, but some of the state’s smallest counties and towns. ... Police say they need military-grade weapons to counter heavily armed drug dealers, mass shooters and terrorists. Armored vehicles can be used against barricaded gunmen, to evacuate citizens in emergencies or to quell riots, while high-powered, automatic rifles keep police from being outgunned by bad guys. But the growing militarization of local police is raising alarms across the country.
Charlotte Observer: More than 520 deaths in U.S. auto racing
The Charlotte Observer reports that two of every three deaths in U.S. auto racing over the past three years occurred at short tracks, which have been slow to embrace changes that are saving lives in racing’s major leagues, The Charlotte Observer finds. The most recent tragedy happened last weekend in New York when auto racing star Tony Stewart hit and killed 20-
year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was standing on the track and pointing toward Stewart’s car coming toward him while the race was under caution. The two had just tangled in a turn seconds earlier, sending Ward’s car into a wall. Ward became one of more than 520 people across America who have died in auto racing in the past 25 years, an Observer study shows. His death prompted NASCAR to adopt a new rule Friday prohibiting its drivers from leaving their cars and walking onto the track to confront other drivers after accidents. That’s the way most safety changes happen in auto racing, spurred by tragedy. ... Of at least 523 racing deaths since 1990, 53 percent have been at short tracks. That has climbed in the past three years to about 70 percent. Short tracks are also where most U.S. racing takes place.
Seattle Times: Steve Ballmer backed elite school team
The Seattle Times reports that by the time Steve Ballmer’s oldest son reached his junior year at Lakeside School, the basketball program was in disarray. The Lions finished the 2008 season with just two wins, losing every game within a Seattle league that was otherwise producing NBA talent. One loss was by a margin of 66 points. An elite private school with an endowment of $190 million, Lakeside was better known for its academics, chess team and being the place where Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen began their alliance as students in the late 1960s. Ballmer, however, was a basketball zealot who had been angling to own an NBA franchise, a goal finalized just last week with his $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers. Before he had a pro team to call his own — and with all three of his kids involved
with basketball at Lakeside — Ballmer focused his attention on the high-school team. Ballmer and his allies at Lakeside attracted basketball talent to the wealthy school and aided them with a series of questionable tactics that included a new basketball-focused nonprofit, cash for a coach, an unusual admissions process and weak enforcement of academic standards.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 8-14-2014
Anniston (Alabama) Star: Public documents often hard to get in Alabama
The Anniston (Alabama) Star reports that Stephen Jackson programs computers for a living, but even he sometimes has trouble making sense of the Alabama Legislature’s online records. “Honestly, I was lost,” said Jackson, creator of the website OpenBama, which strives to bring government data to the public in a readable form. “It wasn’t that the information wasn’t there, it was knowing how to get to it.” Jackson isn’t the first person to run into frustration with the status of public records access in Alabama. While the state’s open records law – which gives people “the right to inspect or take a copy of any public record” – seems to hold promise for anyone seeking public records, experts say compliance with the law is haphazard at best. In the next few months, as part of an ongoing series, The Anniston Star will take a closer look at the
obstacles to public records access in Alabama _ obstacles that pop up in matters as mundane as car accident reports and as momentous as lethal injection.
Arizona Republic: Navajo ‘ghost mines’ are Cold War’s deadly legacy
An Arizona Republic investigation looks into the uranium mines that dot Navajo lands. It reports that in 1957, Charley Colorado climbed down a uranium mine shaft near his ancestral sheepherding grounds and began hammering at a rock that would power the atomic bomb and help America stare down the Soviets. Now, Colorado, 87, spends much of his time wedged between a medical oxygen tank and a twin bed, parked in an easy chair before a wood stove at his family's home on the high desert west of Gray Mountain, near Cameron. He has frequent blackouts and trouble breathing. ... Decades after America's Cold War uranium binge, the Colorado Plateau remains scarred, poisoning and frightening a people who still live with the radioactive residue of 521 abandoned mines scattered across their reservation's 17.2 million acres, which is larger than West Virginia. The U.S. promises a thorough cleanup, but at current funding levels, it could take generations to complete.
Los Angeles Times: Los Angeles police misclassify crimes
The Los Angeles Times reports that once police had Nathan Hunter in handcuffs, they tended to his wife. She was covered in blood. She told the officers Hunter flew into a rage that night in February 2013 because she hadn't bought him a Valentine's Day gift. He beat and choked her before stabbing her in the face with a screwdriver and throwing her down a flight of stairs at their apartment in South Los Angeles, according to police and court records. Hunter, 55, was convicted of felony spousal abuse and sentenced to six years in prison. Under FBI rules followed by police departments across the country, the beating should have been counted as an aggravated assault because Hunter used a weapon and caused serious injuries. That's not what happened. The Los Angeles Police Department classified it as a simple assault – a minor
offense not included in the city's official tally of serious crimes. It was no isolated case. The LAPD misclassified nearly 1,200 violent crimes during a one-year span ending in September 2013, including hundreds of stabbings, beatings and robberies, a Times investigation found. The incidents were recorded as minor offenses and as a result did not appear in the LAPD's published statistics on serious crime that officials and the public use to judge the department's performance.
Sacramento Bee: Odds of oil rail fire rising locally
The Sacramento Bee reports that in the middle of the night a year ago, a runaway train laden with crude oil derailed in a Canadian town, igniting a firestorm that killed 47 people, some of them asleep in bed, vaporized buildings for blocks, and awakened rail cities like Sacramento across the continent to a new fear: The paper asks, “Could that happen here?” Although trains have long ferried hazardous materials, including crude oil and other potentially lethal products such as chlorine and ammonia, the amount of flammable crude oil now shipped by rail is unprecedented, and growing fast. A string of recent derailments and explosions, some requiring evacuations, have prompted federal transportation officials to call for new safety measures, including stronger tanker cars and slower speeds for trains carrying a particularly volatile form
of crude oil from the suddenly booming Bakken fields of North Dakota. Bakken crude trains have been rolling through Canada and the Eastern United States for several years. In California, the crude oil by rail trend is just starting. Oil companies here are planning to receive up to 23 percent of their oil via rail shipments by 2016. Two years ago, only one-third of 1 percent of oil arrived at California refineries on trains. As rail traffic has increased, the number of crude oil
spills involving railroads in California has risen as well. California registered four rail-related crude spills or leaks between 2010 and 2012, according to the state database on hazardous-materials spills. The number jumped last year to 17. Twenty-six have been reported in the first half of this year. The state saw 139 freight train derailments last year, up from 62 in 2010.
Delaware News Journal: Delaware police request military surplus
The Delaware News Journal says that a virtual flood of free surplus U.S. military gear has flowed into Delaware police departments in recent years. In tiny Delmar alone, the haul has ranged from tarps and treadmills to trailers and cargo trucks – all told, surplus military gear that originally cost the government $1.59 million. That doesn’t include any tactical equipment, such as rifles, that the department may have received since 2011 because the details on such gear are not public, officials say. Statewide, the Defense Department has sent a total of $9.86 million worth of tactical and non-tactical equipment Delaware’s way since late 2009. The equipment is provided via DoD’s Law Enforcement Support Office program, which allows for the transfer of excess property to lawmen in the U.S. and its territories. The LESO program provided The News Journal with lists of every transferred item, and its original cost to the Pentagon. The non-tactical items were listed by agency. ...Which ones received the tactical gear remains, in large part, a mystery. LESO wouldn’t provide those details. Police officials interviewed acknowledged the tactical items they’d been sent.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Georgia career colleges get scant oversight
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that as enrollment has mushroomed at for-profit colleges in recent years, they have come under increased criticism. Among the concerns are default rates on federally insured student loans; dropout and graduation rates; recruiting tactics; and the truthfulness of claims about job-placement success. Dozens of state attorneys
general are examining the proprietary schools, and several federal agencies also have launched investigations. But in the past five years, the Georgia agency responsible for regulating the schools has not issued a subpoena or referred a single case to the attorney general for investigation. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters discovered an agency that has allowed for-profit schools to operate with impunity in Georgia.
Wichita (Kansas) Eagle: Child neglect easy to miss, affects development
The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle looked into child-in-need-of-care petitions. It found, for example, that a 12-year-old Wichita girl told social workers she and her siblings hadn’t taken a bath or brushed their teeth in a month. She made the comments as she and her siblings got cleaned up at the Wichita Children’s Home. They had been living without electricity or water, court
documents say, because their parents hadn’t paid the utility bills. Prosecutors filed a child-in-need-of-care petition on behalf of the four children July 30 after police removed them from their home during a welfare check three days before. Neglect happens every day in homes across the Wichita area. In state fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, physical and medical neglect of a child made up about 18 percent of all child-in-need-of-care cases assigned for investigation by the Kansas Department for Children and Families. Since February, The Eagle has been regularly reviewing child-in-need-of-care petitions and is following several cases through the system, including this one.
Portland (Maine) Press Herald: More Maine families skipping vaccines
The Portland (Maine) Press Herald says that Mainers increasingly question the safety of vaccines, and the state now has one of the highest rates of unvaccinated children in the United States. The number of children entering Maine’s kindergarten classrooms without all of the required shots has jumped by about half in the past decade, to about 600 statewide, because parents philosophically object to vaccines. Parents and health officials speculate that the trend is driven by a large body of anti-vaccine literature claiming the shots are unsafe, Mainers’ sense of independence, and parents’ desire to do what’s best for their children. But public health advocates worry that diseases common decades ago that were nearly eradicated could return. Yarmouth Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician who is teaming with MaineHealth to research why some Mainers are choosing to forgo vaccines, predicts an outbreak of measles or pertussis will erupt in Maine. The state experienced its highest number of pertussis, or whooping cough, cases in decades in 2012, and pertussis numbers in 2013 remained high compared to recent decades. ... Maine’s opt-out rate for children entering kindergarten _ 3.9 percent _ is the ninth highest in the country, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While less than 4 percent may not sound high, vaccines are most effective when nearly everyone is immunized. When even 5 percent to 10 percent of the population opts out, what is known as “herd immunity” can be compromised, according to the CDC.
Baltimore Sun: Investigation looks into police pursuit that ended in three deaths
The Baltimore Sun reports that Andrew Baker Jr. and Angel Chiwengo were holding hands and listening to soft music on the radio as he drove her home from the Pikesville Doubletree Hilton where they worked. As they headed east on Northern Parkway and passed through the York Road intersection, a Honda Accord fleeing police blasted through a red light – at more than 100 mph – and smashed into his Jeep. Chiwengo, 46, and the two people inside the Accord died. Somehow, Baker, 54, survived. But with the anniversary of the Sept. 23, 2013, crash approaching, he bears deep physical and emotional scars: He walks with a cane, and has nightmares and flashbacks. Even worse, he says, is the feeling that he somehow let Angel down. Now previously undisclosed details about the crash are raising new questions whether police violated departmental policy by engaging in a high-speed chase. Those details, from an investigative report obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request to prosecutors, shed more light on the role of the unmarked police car that was pursuing the Accord.
Boston Globe: For victims of domestic violence, each day carries danger
The Boston Globe looks at the possible impact of new domestic violence prevention legislation. It points out that the ways to hurt are infinite. When you live with an abuser, everything is a weapon. In their hands, innocent objects like ice-cube trays and checkerboards and apples and pillows become ways to inflict suffering, to demand submission. “I got hit with a branch
when I was pregnant,” said Tuti, sitting with three other survivors at a shelter in Dorchester on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon. They counted the ways their former boyfriends failed to love them. “He punched me in the head,” Tuti continued. “He spit on me. He kept hitting me with a bottle of water.” “He picked up a video game, anything near me,” said Trinity. “He hit me in the head with a bag of Pampers.” It is all there in the police reports, set out in mundane, relentless detail. Globe data visualization reporter Gabriel Florit analyzed more than four years of reports on domestic violence between intimate partners in Boston, up to April 2014. That is when the police department changed the way it reports these incidents, providing less detail on this world of cruelty and terror. Soon, the police reports will be made less accessible statewide, under new domestic violence prevention legislation that shields them from public view unless a case goes to court.
Charlotte Observer: Motorola’s no-bid grip on Charlotte radio contracts
The Charlotte Observer reports that Motorola has thrived virtually without competition as emergency radio company for Charlotte, North Carolina, scoring more than $60 million in no-bid contracts over the past decade. The latest contract, approved by the Charlotte City Council last October, will cost the region’s taxpayers up to $32 million for system maintenance and upgrades through mid-2020. It’s the largest noncompetitive contract the city has awarded in more than
three years. The government bidding process is designed largely to save tax dollars. The idea: Competition usually prods companies to lower their prices. But only one of the more than 20 contracts awarded to Motorola over the past decade involved competitive bidding. “The taxpayers of our region are getting burned,” said Steve Koman, a former emergency
communications consultant who assisted the city from late 2011 to early this year. Koman contends the city failed to exercise due diligence by awarding the recent Motorola contract without soliciting competition _ and without asking independent experts whether it was the most cost-effective option. By May, he’d grown so concerned that he notified the FBI. Another sign of Motorola’s supremacy: The company supplied all of the roughly 5,000 radios bought by city and county agencies over the past decade. City officials insist they’ve acted in the best interests of taxpayers and public safety agencies. They say shifting to a new company would be expensive and potentially risky, and that the city has received discounts by signing the recent multi-year contract with Motorola. ... What has happened in the Charlotte region is by no means unique. A recent investigation by McClatchy, the company that owns the Observer, detailed an array of tactics used by Motorola to elbow out competitors and continue its decades-long dominance.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Medical mediation often fruitless
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that when Dennis Browning’s wife suffered a fatal heart attack in her hospital room one day after undergoing back surgery, he began a futile search for answers. Several lawyers turned down his case, citing a system of state laws and court rulings that have combined to erect roadblocks at the doors of Wisconsin courthouses.
So Browning turned last fall to the state Medical Mediation Panels. The little-known agency, an arm of the state Supreme Court, was created in 1986 to provide "an informal, inexpensive and expedient means for resolving (medical malpractice) disputes without litigation." It replaced a more burdensome and expensive mediation system, which involved hearings that could last weeks and included expert testimony. "I went in with the idea I would be able to get clear, direct answers," said Browning, 54, a Platteville resident and Walmart greeter. It didn't happen. It almost never does. Of the 302 claims filed with the agency in 2012 and 2013, more than 60 percent end up listed as "expired," meaning they died because of procedural or scheduling problems. Only 67 – or 22 percent – actually went to a hearing, and only two of those were resolved at their hearings, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of panel records.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 8-7-14
Anniston (Alabama) Star: Though tightly regulated, nursing homes still have issues
At an Anniston, Alabama, nursing home, administrators fired a worker accused of verbally abusing a resident, but only after state inspectors intervened. In Oxford, nursing home staff failed to tell a resident's family members when an employee reported that one resident sexually abused another. And at more than one Calhoun County nursing home, residents’ unexplained bruises sometimes didn’t get reported to state officials or family members as possible signs of abuse. An Anniston Star review of state nursing home inspection records, some of them going back as far as 10 years, showed that despite close watching by state officials, nursing homes have sometimes struggled to handle reports or indications of resident abuse properly. And Calhoun County's nursing homes aren't alone. Officials of the Alabama Nursing Home
Association say they've been in talks with state officials this summer, seeking guidance on what violations nursing homes should report and when.
Arizona Daily Star: Few tickets despite ban on texting while driving
The Arizona Daily Star reports that in the midst of city traffic a car swerves into your lane, and the driver suddenly jerks the wheels to correct. The driver’s head bobs up and down, hands clearly not on the steering wheel. Texting and driving. Inside city limits, that driver is breaking the law. But Tucson police officers have only issued 50 tickets for the violation in two years, a review of citations shows. An officer can stop a driver suspected of using a phone to text, email or instant-message while driving. But the law, which took effect in April 2012, has proven difficult to enforce. Tucson Police Officer Shawn Ramsey said he sees people texting and driving all the time, but he doesn’t stop a driver just for having a cellphone in hand because it’s too hard to prove someone was messaging or emailing at that moment. ... The low number of citations shows the city’s texting ban isn’t doing much to influence people’s driving habits, said TPD Sgt. Eric Hickman.
Sacramento Bee: California Democrats accept more campaign cash from tobacco industry
An analysis by the Sacramento Bee shows that Democrats in the California capitol have become increasingly willing in recent years to take money from cigarette companies, a source of campaign funding that was once so controversial it remains shunned by their state party organization. Donations from the nation’s two major cigarette companies to Democratic candidates for the legislature and other California offices more than quadrupled over the last five years, a Sacramento Bee analysis of campaign finance data shows. In 2009, Altria and R.J. Reynolds gave $43,300 to Democrats, 14.7 percent of the money they put into the campaign accounts of California politicians. Last year, they contributed $196,100 to Democrats, 46.6 percent of the money the industry gave to all state candidates. The shift came as the Legislature, dominated by Democrats, quietly rejected several bills aimed at reducing smoking and the illnesses that come with it.
Denver Post: Denver pays millions to settle abuse claims against police and sheriff
A Denver Post analysis finds that nearly $13 million of the $16.7 million paid out by the city of Denver to settle legal claims in the past decade involved the police and sheriff departments. Fifty-eight percent of that total payout was for cases where excessive force or civil rights violations were at issue. Denver has had five years of below-average claims payouts, with no million-dollar settlements. That's about to change shortly. The City Council will consider approval of $3.25 million to settle a federal lawsuit pressed by former jail inmate Jamal Hunter, who in 2011 was tortured by other inmates and, he says, choked by a jail deputy in another incident. ... In a brewing scandal for Denver city government, inmates have been lining up with complaints stemming from other incidents in which deputies allegedly used improper force, sometimes in view of security cameras.
Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal: The real cost of ethanol to environment, consumers
The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, reports that across the farmlands of America, there are acres upon acres of corn. Corn planted over roads that used to subdivide cropland. Corn planted on ground once considered too wet for cultivation. Corn planted on ground typically too dry to produce dependable yields but are profitable today because of innovations in drought-tolerant seeds developed by companies such as DuPont Pioneer. There's now corn planted on 1.3 million acres that until recently was reserved for conservation – an area larger than all of Delaware. Last year, American farmers planted 95 million acres of corn, 10 million acres more than in 2008. ... As envisioned by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act – championed and signed into law by President George W. Bush and embraced by candidate and now President Barack Obama – ethanol was supposed to lower gas prices for consumers, reduce America's dependence on foreign oil and improve the environment by helping reduce levels of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – in the atmosphere. ... But the growth of ethanol, an alcohol-based additive that makes up 10-percent of each gallon of gas, has had unintended consequences:
-We pay more for foods like bread, snacks and chicken.
-Our vehicles get fewer miles per gallon of gasoline now that ethanol is included, and we're paying more for that fuel – about 13 cents per gallon because of the lost efficiency.
-Boat engines and lawn care equipment go kaput from engines that weren't designed for fuels that include alcohol.
-Corn planted in marginal habitats threatens one of the most altered ecosystems in the world – the temperate grasslands of the Great Plains, which naturally absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Kansas City Star: County gives many violent criminals probation
The Kansas City Star reports that LaShanda Bynum’s grief still comes in waves, even years after Djuan Hatten ambushed and killed her son. Hatten never should have been on the street that night. A year earlier, he’d shot a stranger simply for asking directions. That assault could have sent Hatten to prison for 10 years. Instead, he remained free on three years of probation.“If the system had him do the time he was supposed to do for the person he shot before, he would not have been out to commit that crime against my son,” Bynum said. Hatten has lots of company in Jackson County. More than 1,200 times since 2009, Jackson County judges have put violent criminals on probation instead of locking them away with long prison sentences, a Kansas City Star analysis of state data found. Compared with its neighboring Missouri courts, Jackson County grants probation more frequently to armed robbers, unprovoked shooters and men who have beaten up girlfriends or endangered children. It doesn’t stop there. Even killers sometimes receive probation in Jackson County.
Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent: Taxpayers often left to pay publicly financed business loans
The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wisconsin, says that publicly financed business loans are a high-stakes game, providing an economic boost in some cases while saddling taxpayers with six-figure losses in others. Banks consider loan write-off rates above 2 percent unacceptable, but local economic development funds examined by the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team wrote off about 7 percent of loans active in the last decade – with losses totaling $4.4 million. The loans often help employers create jobs, but they also can force taxpayers to prop up businesses that fail to meet obligations. ... Across 42 counties, cities and villages in central and eastern Wisconsin, public officials oversaw nearly 1,000 loans totaling $187 million in the last decade, of which 109 were delinquent or written off as of March, according to data obtained by Gannett Wisconsin Media through public records requests. That means about 90 percent of loans have fueled business start-ups and expansions that created or retained jobs and met loan obligations.
New York Times: Evidence solves rape cases years later
The New York Times tells the story of Meaghan Ybos in Memphis, Tennessee, who was 16 and had just arrived home from school when a man in a ski mask held a knife to her throat and raped her. The man said he would kill her if she called the police, but she did so anyway. That led to barrages of skeptical questions, Ms. Ybos said, and the excruciating collection of
evidence from her body, gathered into what is commonly known as a rape kit. ... Like hundreds of thousands of other rape kits across the country containing evidence gathered from victims, that of Ms. Ybos lay untested for years on a storeroom shelf. The reasons for the backlog, experts say, include constraints on finances and testing facilities, along with a slow recognition among investigators that even when the offender is known, DNA testing might reveal a pattern of serial rapes. And too often, women’s advocates say, the kits went untested because of an uncaring and haphazard response to sexual assault charges.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 7-30-2014
Los Angeles Times: Calculating water usage is tough task
The Los Angeles Times reports that when state regulators tried to tally water use across California recently, they didn't exactly get a flood of cooperation. Of the 440 water agencies in the state, only 276 provided water consumption data. And officials in San Diego made a point of formally refusing the request, saying the state's method for measuring water use in California's second-largest city was "misleading and technically inappropriate." The State Water Resources Control Board released the result of its survey earlier this month, showing an 8% increase in water use in Southern California in May while most of the rest of the state was using less water. ... But a closer look at the numbers shows the picture is more complex. The survey reflected partial and incomplete data, and state officials admit that it was not a full accounting of how much water regions are using across the state.
Washington Post: At Colorado’s borders, a dividing line over marijuana
The Washington Post looked at “drug traffic” on the Colorado border. It found an old man with a snow-white beard bounded into the double-wide trailer that houses the only pot shop in eastern Colorado. He wore bib overalls over a white T-shirt, and a huge grin. He was a farmer from Nebraska, and he was 78 years old. “How much can I get for $100?” he asked. Ray —
no last name, he said nervously — bought a couple of grams, went across the street to show his wife what he’d scored, and scurried back to the sales counter. “Forget something?” asked the clerk, a schoolteacher who is spending the summer selling marijuana. “More weed!” Ray squealed with glee. He’s been smoking since he was 12, “and I will till the day I die,” he said, and now Ray was about to get back in his truck and drive his first legal purchase 322 miles east, back to his Nebraska farm. The trip would make him a criminal, because although recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado this year, it most assuredly is not on the other side of the state line.
Miami Herald: State Republicans won’t talk about trips to ranch
The Miami Herald reports that in February 2013, Florida Gov. Rick Scott stepped aboard a Texas-bound plane to take part in a secret ritual for Florida’s power elite. As other politicians had done before and would do after, Scott was departing for historic King Ranch, one of North America’s premier hunting grounds. The trips, records indicate, were financed all or in part with contributions from Florida’s sugar industry, right down to the hunting licenses. Scott won’t answer questions about his trip. After weeks of requests from the Herald/Times, his campaign staff released a one-paragraph statement recently saying he had gone to King Ranch “in support of his political fundraising efforts.” Also keeping mum: state House leaders who have accepted similar trips in the past three years, ever since U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at the ranch and built a hunting lodge amid its rolling hills.
Des Moines Register: Worth County deputies deployed Tasers at least 15 times
The Des Moines Register reports that Worth County deputies fired two Tasers at least 15 separate times to subdue a man who was lying on his back and either couldn't or wouldn't roll over as instructed, according to videos and other records released by the state to settle a lawsuit filed by the newspaper. Michael Zubrod, 39, of Northwood can be heard moaning
throughout parts of the 31⁄2 minutes of footage, and records show that minutes later, he became unresponsive with no heartbeat. Deputies had responded to the home that night after Zubrod was accused of beating his girlfriend, Rhonda Schukei, with a hammer. The newly released records – including two videos, more than 100 audio recordings of communications with emergency dispatch and multiple documents – show and describe a highly violent scene on
Sept. 22 that ended in Zubrod's death. The records were released last week in a settlement with the state after the Register sued for access to the reports.
Baltimore Sun: Maryland hospitals aren’t reporting all errors
The Baltimore Sun reports that Nadege Neim won a $1.4 million verdict last year after suing her Ellicott City obstetrician for removing a healthy ovary and fallopian tube from her right side when she went into the hospital for surgery to have a cyst excised from her left. A few years earlier, an unnamed man in his 50s sought treatment for pneumonia at a Maryland hospital and ended up losing both legs. No one properly assessed him, and scans that might have found the blood vessel blockage were delayed for nearly two days in a "cascade of poor decisions," state regulators said in an investigative report obtained by The Baltimore Sun. Such preventable medical errors kill more than 400,000 Americans each year and seriously harm at least 10 times that number, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Patient Safety. But it's impossible to know the full scope of the problem in Maryland. While hospitals are supposed to report serious medical errors to state regulators, the mostly confidential system still doesn't capture all of those happening in the Maryland facilities, patient safety experts and regulators acknowledge. Confusion over reporting rules and fear of legal or financial repercussions can thwart disclosure, they say. ... Only Minnesota, New York and five other states have passed
laws requiring that hospitals publicly report mistakes.
Boston Globe: Finance rule often flouted
The Boston Globe looked into campaign financing. It noted that Richard Tisei, who lost his 2010 bid for lieutenant governor, later approached an old friend, reclusive GOP strategist Arthur J. Finkelstein, to help map the way forward. Finkelstein, who owns a sprawling property on the Ipswich River, is a storied figure in conservative circles. He has advised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, worked for President Nixon, and polled for President Reagan. Now, he would do a poll for Tisei – a June 2011 survey testing Tisei’s standing in the Sixth Congressional District, home to Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat bogged down in a family gambling scandal. The poll was not unusual. The payment for it, and for Finkelstein’s advice, was. When Tisei cut four checks to the political consultant between June and October 2011 for a total of $20,540, he did not pay out of a federal campaign account. Instead, he tapped a state account he’d built over 26 years as a Beacon Hill lawmaker and candidate for lieutenant governor. The payments appear to violate federal law, which bars the use of state campaign funds in US House and Senate races. ... Spending records show several other Massachusetts officials have spent thousands of dollars out of their state accounts on staff and consultants in the run-up to their formal declarations, creating what looks like a series of shadow campaigns outside the reach of federal regulators. The lawmakers flatly deny the existence of those campaigns.
Kansas City Star: University’s misleading march to the top
After decades of struggling to boost its profile beyond that of a commuter college, the University of Missouri-Kansas City finally could call itself a global leader, The Kansas City Star reports. “UMKC ranked No. 1 in the World,” a 2011 university news release said. An academic study had ranked UMKC’s business school ahead of Harvard, Stanford and other top colleges in innovation management research – the study of how entrepreneurs turn good ideas into big bucks and jobs. “Oh my, have we made a big score,” Chancellor Leo Morton told a crowd at the formal announcement. But a Kansas City Star investigation raises questions about that score and other rankings achieved by UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management. The Star found a pattern of exaggerations and misstatements that polished the school’s reputation as it
sought to boost enrollment and open donors’ checkbooks.
Bergen County Record: Deadbeat dads
The Bergen County (New Jersey) Record reports that Kevin Macfie owes more than $60,000 in child support, and he's spent most of the past three years at the Bergen County Jail as authorities have tried to get him to pay up. His 871 nights and weekends behind bars have cost taxpayers more than $87,000. During that time, he's paid less than $15,000 in child support, much of it garnisheed from unemployment benefits, which have long since run out. Homeless, jobless and struggling with alcoholism, there's little sign he will ever pay what he owes. Macfie has had plenty of company in jail. Last year, more than 1,800 men and women were incarcerated or sentenced to home confinement with ankle bracelets in Bergen and Passaic counties for failing to pay child support. They and thousands of others statewide cycle in and
out of a court system whose mission is to get money from people who claim they just don't have any. ... Across the state, authorities currently have 33,000 active arrest warrants for parents behind on their payments. Some parents are regularly picked up and jailed for weeks or months at a stretch, as they try the patience of judges as well as ex-spouses with their stories of woe. In Bergen County, the jail has a special 65-bed bunkhouse for fathers behind on payments.
Newark Star Ledger: Dying for help
In an investigation of heroin addiction programs, The Newark Star Ledger says that when Barbara finally decided to get clean, she was little more than a skeleton. Nearly a year ago, the New Brunswick mother of two weighed 95 pounds, her body ravaged by a heroin addiction that led her through a life of homelessness and prostitution and left her in a coma after an overdose. Today, there is light in her eyes when she talks about her life. She has been sober nearly a year. She’s back at a healthy weight and has reconnected with her children, who are 10 and 11. There’s hope for a future, one she said wouldn’t exist without the treatment she sought and received. A lot of time there are three-week waits for a bed. A person can die in that time. Sometimes you only have that window of opportunity, and it's small. "If it weren’t for Integrity House, I’d be dead," she said, while sitting in the substance abuse facility’s Newark offices. "Before I came here, I thought I’d end up in a gutter somewhere. I’m blessed. I see things totally different now." Barbara is lucky. She has one of a few thousand licensed short-or long-term inpatient substance abuse treatment beds in New Jersey. Put another way, she won the addicts’ lottery — scoring a chance to get clean in a state-licensed residential facility. In New Jersey, it’s a dream that’s never been further out of reach. A Star-Ledger analysis of state and local data reveals a troubling relationship between the number of people being treated, the number of people heroin is killing and the number of people unable to find the help they immediately need.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Police amassing millions of license plate reader records
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle says that in a crime-fighting tactic that sets civil libertarians' teeth on edge, police in Monroe County and other urban counties across New York state are collecting and archiving tens of millions of records that track vehicle movement. The records are stored in a series of loosely connected secure computer servers, accessible directly or indirectly by police from one end of New York to the other and by federal Homeland Security officials. Each of the records, which are gathered by license plate cameras mounted on police cars or at fixed locations, includes a photograph and the time and place that a particular vehicle was imaged. Strung together, the records can paint a picture of where a person has traveled — whether to the scene of a crime, a doctor's office or to church. The system can instantly alert patrol officers of a "hit" on a stolen car or, more often, a vehicle whose registration has lapsed and is ripe for ticketing. Stored records also can be accessed later as part of criminal investigations. Records used for those purposes, though, constitute only a small fraction of all the data being saved. The vast majority of the vehicles tracked in the license-plate data were
driven not by scofflaws or criminals but by innocent citizens who happen to be photographed driving to work or while running errands. And least nine of New York's most populous counties — Monroe, Erie, Onondaga, Albany, Broome, Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau — are now engaged in long-term storage of these records.
Dallas Morning News: Suits keep public in dark on safety
The Dallas Morning News finds that secrets wrapped up in lawsuits over the 2013 explosion of the fertilizer plant in West could keep valuable health and safety information hidden from the public forever. Because a judge has approved confidentiality agreements requested by attorneys, even people who live in West may never find out much more about what happened. The agreements allow both sides to label as confidential virtually all information uncovered as the lawyers prepare for trial. “I’ve read hundreds of these. I read them all the time,” said Richard Zitrin, a law professor who has testified before the U.S. Senate about secrecy in the courts. “These are some of the most outrageous examples I have ever seen. It is completely unlimited.” Confidentiality agreements are common. But keeping secrets in lawsuits can have dangerous
consequences for public health and safety.
Seattle Times: Oil trains crowding Northwest grain shippers
A surge in oil trains hauling North Dakota’s energy bonanza is interfering with grain shipments to Pacific Northwest ports, prompting fears of a chronic crisis in which railcars carrying fossil fuels crowd out other products and disrupt exports, the Seattle Times reports. Washington wheat farmers have been luckier than their Upper Midwest cousins because most can ship their wheat by barge down the Columbia River. But those farther from the river, who typically rely on railroads, are increasingly paying truckers to move their wheat to a barge port. Farmers and others worry that costs and delays will get worse as more trains carrying oil — and perhaps coal — clog the region’s rail lines. “We’re concerned by the cost and availability of freight,” said Pearson Burke, marketing manager of AgVentures NW, a joint venture between two grain cooperatives in Odessa, Lincoln County. At the Port of Seattle, Dale Frazier, owner of Seattle Bulk Rail Station, a company that loads grain from trains into containers, says that in February, March and April his “business suffered tremendously” due to many late trains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that last winter, some ships departed before the grain they were waiting for could be loaded. Train trips from the Midwest’s grain belt to the Pacific
Northwest took 22 days, nearly twice as long as usual.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 7-17-2014
AP: Jails struggle to deal with mentally ill
The Associated Press has found jailers in many cities and towns grappling with a rise in mentally ill inmates. It says, for example, that the numbers, posted daily on the Cook County, Illinois, sheriff's website, would be alarming at an urgent care clinic, let alone a jail: On a Wednesday, 36 percent of all new arrivals report having a mental illness. On a Friday, it's 54
percent. But inside the razor wire framing the 96-acre compound, the faces and voices of the newly arrested confirm its accidental role as Chicago's treatment center of last resort for people with serious mental illnesses. It's a job thrust on many of the nation's 3,300 local jails, and like them, it is awash in a tide of bookings and releases that make it particularly unsuited for the task. ... The Cook County Jail, with more than 10,600 inmates, is one of the country's largest single-site jails. But it is not unique. From big cities to rural counties, jails have seen a rise in the number of inmates with serious mental illnesses, most of them arrested for non-violent crimes.
AP: US given heads up about newspaper data destruction
The Obama administration knew in advance that the British government would oversee destruction of a newspaper's hard drives containing leaked National Security Agency documents last year, newly declassified documents show. The White House had said it would be nearly unimaginable for the U.S. government to do the same to an American news organization. The Guardian newspaper, responding to threats from the British government in July 2013, destroyed the data roughly a month after it and other media outlets first published details from the top secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. After news of the Guardian incident broke the following month, White House spokesman
Josh Earnest said it would be "very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate." He had been asked whether the U.S. would ever order the destruction of a U.S. media company's computer data. The NSA emails, obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that senior intelligence officials were notified of Britain's intent to retrieve the Snowden documents and that one senior U.S. official appeared to praise the effort.
New York Times: Chinese hackers pursue key data on U.S. workers
The New York Times reports that Chinese hackers in March broke into the computer networks of the United States government agency that houses the personal information of all federal employees, according to senior American officials. They appeared to be targeting the files on tens of thousands of employees who have applied for top-secret security clearances. The hackers gained access to some of the databases of the Office of Personnel Management before the federal authorities detected the threat and blocked them from the network, according to the officials. It is not yet clear how far the hackers penetrated the agency’s systems, in which applicants for security clearances list their foreign contacts, previous jobs and personal information like past drug use. In response to questions about the matter, a senior Department of Homeland Security official confirmed that the attack had occurred but said that “at this time,” neither the personnel agency nor Homeland Security had “identified any loss of personally identifiable information.” The official said an emergency response team was assigned “to assess and mitigate any risks identified.”
Los Angeles Times: VA disability claims rise sharply with U.S. encouragement
The Los Angeles Times reports that as Malvin Espinosa prepared to retire from the Army in 2011, a Veterans Affairs counselor urged him to apply for disability pay. List all your medical problems, the counselor said. Espinosa, a mechanic at Ft. Lee in Virginia, had never considered himself disabled. But he did have ringing in his ears, sleep problems and aching joints. He also had bad memories of unloading a dead soldier from a helicopter in Afghanistan. "Put it all down," he recalled the counselor saying. Espinosa did, and as a result, he is getting a monthly disability check of $1,792, tax free, most likely for the rest of his life. The VA deems him 80% disabled due to sleep apnea, mild post-traumatic stress disorder, tinnitus and migraines. The 41-year-old father of three collects a military pension along with disability pay — and as
a civilian has returned to the base, working full-time training mechanics. His total income of slightly more than $70,000 a year is about 20% higher than his active-duty pay. Similar stories are playing out across the VA. With the government encouraging veterans to apply, enrollment in the system climbed from 2.3 million to 3.7 million over the last 12 years. The growth comes even as the deaths of older former service members have sharply reduced the veteran population. Annual disability payments have more than doubled to $49 billion — nearly as much as the VA spends on medical care.
Baltimore Sun: Warning signs unnoticed at Maryland group home
When Maryland's government hires a company to provide around-the-clock nursing care to severely disabled foster children — arguably the state's most vulnerable residents — it requires the contractor to have its business affairs in order. But an investigation by The Baltimore Sun finds that LifeLine, which attracted media attention after the recent death of a 10-year-old resident, had many signs that it was struggling financially to staff its Laurel apartments with an appropriate number of nurses. One recent indication was a sign posted on some of LifeLine's units in the Laurel-area community of Russett Green on May 12. "Payroll Alert," read the sign. "Please be advised that the scheduled payday of May 15th will be paid May 24, 2014. Thank you for your continued patience and understanding." It was signed "Theresa Martin, CEO." Theresa Martin is the sister-in-law of LifeLine founder Randall Martin Jr., who is serving a 50-year prison sentence for first-degree arson. Ted Dallas, secretary of Maryland's Department of Human Resources, said his agency would look at some other findings that newspaper investigation of LifeLine turned up. Among them: bankruptcy records indicating that LifeLine had made payments to a real estate company owned by Martin and to a nursing staffing company connected to the family.
Lexington Herald-Leader: Rich schools, poor schools
The Lexington Herald-Leader finds that there is an economic divide among schools in Fayette County, Kentucky — and one of the most glaring examples is fundraising by parents and students. The amount of money raised for trips, athletics and extra academic supplies varies widely — from Rosa Parks Elementary, which anticipates $445,700 in revenues in 2014-2015, to Harrison Elementary, which is forecasting revenues of $21,335. In the tentative budgets for school activity funds, which were approved by the Fayette County School Board last month, "you can see dramatic increases between schools based on the ability of parents to do fundraising," said Superintendent Tom Shelton. "We've become a society of the haves and have-nots, and that's not good for anybody." School officials say the activity funds highlight the economic divide in Fayette County schools, some of which have concentrations of wealthy students or poor students. That divide is under increased scrutiny as the district prepares to redraw attendance zones in a process that could balance out some of those differences.
Des Moines Register: Broken emergency response system endangers Iowans
A study of emergency services by the Des Moines Register finds that Worth County on Iowa's northern border is home to 7,600 residents — but no ambulances covering its 400 square miles. In northwest Iowa, the town of Oyens recently closed its ambulance service due to a shortage of volunteers, a problem also being felt elsewhere across the state. And in Cedar County, the director of one ambulance service says EMS is at a "critical stage" in his region, with some services going out of business and others struggling with staff shortages. A Des Moines Register analysis of data from the Iowa Bureau of EMS shows nine counties in the state have fewer than 40 active-duty EMTs, and many are part-time volunteers. EMS professionals attribute the shortage to several factors: People have less time to volunteer, training requirements and costs have increased significantly in recent years, and there's less financial and structural support for EMS at both the state and federal level.
Columbus Dispatch: Rural hospitals losing money due to rising costs, falling reimbursements
The Columbus Dispatch looked at rural hospitals in Ohio. It found that four years ago, maternity units closed at hospitals in Washington Court House and Logan. More recently, hospitals in Chillicothe and Zanesville have had ratings downgraded for their bond debt as their financial outlooks dimmed. In Gallipolis, hospital workers have been told layoffs are possible this year. For years, stress fractures induced by the U.S. health-care system’s unsustainably high costs have crept throughout Ohio. But more than anywhere else in the state, those strains have been laid bare in rural counties, where hospitals typically rank among the top employers but these days, often teeter on the brink of unprofitability. At many of the state’s rural hospitals, black ink on balance sheets has given way to red. A snapshot in January by iVantage Health Analytics found that hospitals in Ohio’s metro counties were running slightly in the black — revenue exceeded expenses by 0.8 percent on average — while those in non-metro counties had narrow losses of 0.92 percent. ... Hospitals know that they must make do with less-generous government reimbursements in the future, but rural hospitals face unique headwinds, said Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the National Rural Health Association, which advocates for rural hospitals.
Idaho Statesman: Spectacle of Grand Canyon at risk
At the rim of the Grand Canyon in the state of Arizona, busloads of Chinese tourists jostled on a recent day with 20-something backpackers and an Amish family that had rambunctious boys in suspenders and straw hats, all eager for a prime viewing spot. They gazed out on a dizzying sight of receding canyons and sheer rock walls, with the Colorado River cutting through the canyon floor a mile down. Generations of park managers have tried to preserve that natural view, but officials told The Idaho Statesman that a proposed development would greatly diminish the scene. Looking eastward from the popular South Rim, visitors soon might see a hive of construction as workers build restaurants, hotels and shops on a distant mesa on the Navajo Indian reservation. The developers also plan a gondola ride from those attractions to whisk tourists to the canyon floor, where they would stroll along an elevated walkway to a restaurant at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. That project and a second, unrelated development proposed for just south of the canyon have set off alarms at the National Park Service, which sees them as the most serious threat the park has faced in its 95-year history.
Washington Post: District of Columbia homeless shelter beset by problems
The District of Columbia General emergency shelter is supposed to be a cleaner place to stay than an alley, but records show that a young girl woke up with so many insect bites on her legs and her bottom that she had to be taken to the hospital, The Washington Post reports. It is supposed to be safer than a crime-ridden street corner, but a log shows that shelter officials were told that two teens pinned a 9-year-old to the floor of a bathroom and one urinated in the boy’s mouth. It is supposed to be better than life on the streets, but one resident filed a complaint saying a shelter worker lured her to his apartment with an offer of $20. She said he began unfastening his pants and asked her: “What are you going to do for the money?” The city’s largest shelter for families has been in the spotlight since March, when a janitor there took an 8-year-old resident off shelter grounds. The girl remains missing and is presumed dead. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has said he has seen no evidence that the city failed in that high-profile case, but a Washington Post investigation of the facility in Southeast that is home to nearly 800 of the District’s most vulnerable residents has found that the missing girl’s case was part of a pattern of serious problems.
New York Times: How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint
The New York Times, in an in-depth story about how colleges handle rape, looked into the case of an 18 year old, a freshman. She had been on campus for just two weeks when one Saturday night last September her friends grew worried because she had been drinking and suddenly disappeared. Around midnight, the missing girl texted a friend, saying she was frightened by a student she had met that evening. “Idk what to do,” she wrote. “I’m scared.” When she did not answer a call, the friend began searching for her. In the early-morning hours on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York, the friend said, he found her — bent over a pool table as a football player appeared to be sexually assaulting her from behind in a darkened dance hall with six or seven people watching and laughing. Some had their cellphones out, apparently taking pictures, he said. Later, records show, a sexual-assault nurse offered this preliminary assessment: blunt force trauma within the last 24 hours indicating “intercourse with either multiple partners, multiple times or that the intercourse was very forceful.” The student said she could not recall the pool table encounter, but did remember
being raped earlier in a fraternity-house bedroom. The football player at the pool table had also been at the fraternity house — in both places with his pants down — but denied raping her, saying he was too tired after a football game to get an erection. Two other players, also accused of sexually assaulting the woman, denied the charge as well. Even so, tests later found sperm or semen in her vagina, in her rectum and on her underwear. It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus. A New York Times examination of the case, based in part on hundreds of pages of disciplinary proceedings — usually confidential under federal privacy laws — offers a rare look inside one school’s adjudication of a rape complaint amid a roiling national debate over how best to stop sexual assaults on campuses.
Appleton Post Crescent: Teen sex assault cases highlight dangers of apps
The Appleton (Wisconsin) Post Crescent says that when 51-year-old Darryl Sheldon was arrested in April for exchanging nude photos with a 12-year-old girl through her iPod Touch, he told police it was just the tip of the iceberg. Sheldon, a resident of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, said that not only had he planned to take the girl's virginity in a Grand Chute hotel room, he was communicating with about 20 other underage girls through smartphone apps like Kik Messenger, Tango and Whisper, according to court records. "It's a very dangerous situation," said Andrew Nett, a sexual abuse prevention specialist at Reach Counseling Services, based in Neenah. "These guys are very good at grooming, and they study information on websites, Instagram — any stuff where they can read a lot of background information on you without even
starting a conversation." People are four times more likely to be sexually abused as teenagers than at any other time in their lives, Nett said. He speaks to students in the Fox Valley about sexual assault and Internet safety — topics that are becoming more intertwined as teens find new ways to avoid parental supervision and police with the ebb and flow of the latest apps.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Secretive system keeps parole-eligible inmates behind bars
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looked into the parole system in Wisconsin. It found, for example, that by all accounts, Anthony K. Brown is no longer a danger to society. Officials at Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Dane County, trust Brown so much they allow him to leave the lockup unsupervised almost every day to work on a state-owned farm. He gets there, Brown says, in a Department of Corrections van driven by a fellow inmate. In 2010, the Wisconsin Parole Commission decided Brown — one of three men convicted in a 1987 armed robbery that resulted in the victim's death — was rehabilitated and should be allowed to hold down a job in the community in preparation for his release. During the robbery, Brown, then 17, shot the victim once in the back, wounding him as he tried to run away. One
of his co-defendants then fired five shots into the victim's head, killing him. The man who fired the fatal shots was paroled years ago. But Brown, 43, is still in custody. He is among about 400 minimum security inmates who are eligible for parole but remain in prison. The taxpayer cost to keep them there is more than $15 million a year — part of a skyrocketing corrections budget that now surpasses that of the University of Wisconsin System. ... A secretive system that robs the parole board of its power is to blame. State law gives the parole board the authority to release prisoners it deems rehabilitated if their crimes were committed before truth in sentencing took effect at the end of 1999. But in practice, a little-known administrative rule at the Department of Corrections, written 20 years earlier, transfers that authority to prison employees.
Hartford Courant: Banned donors skirt law
The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant looked at campaign finance reports. It found, for example, that Massachusetts developer John Fish wrote a $10,000 check to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee last year, only to have it returned because his business, Suffolk Construction, is on a list of companies whose executives are barred from giving money to state campaigns. So days after that donation was returned, Fish wrote a second $10,000 check to the very same Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee, but directed the money to the committee's federal fund. That check was accepted, and Suffolk Construction – whose employees had made $10 in donations to state politicians in the previous decade – became the latest firm to use the federal account to navigate around state laws banning employees of some
companies from giving to candidates for state office. The practice has become a common one as companies doing business with the state have skirted a state law designed to avert a pay-for-play culture by pouring money into the Democrats' federal campaign fundraising account. A Courant analysis of the committee's campaign finance reports reveals that from the start of 2013, top executives of companies on the banned state list have donated at least $174,925 to
the federal account. Including non-executives of those companies, who are permitted to donate, the figure is nearly $380,000.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 7-10-2014
Columbus Dispatch: Whetstone stands out in scandal subpoenas
The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch looked into a deepening scandal involving educators changing student records. It reports that two guidance counselors at Whetstone High School sat down at their computers at roughly the same time, just before 10 a.m., on June 6, 2011. School was out for summer. They made students’ grades better. One counselor bumped 16 grades up, mostly from failing to passing, some even to a C. The other counselor bumped up eight grades from F to D. It took minutes. Among Columbus City Schools’ far-reaching data scandal, Whetstone is on its own. Last week, state investigators subpoenaed the records of eight current or former Whetstone employees, including those two counselors. No other school has as many people under investigation. Several sources told The Dispatch that Whetstone’s data changes were sophisticated and targeted: Educators there used a spreadsheet to weigh the effect certain students had on the school’s report card and altered data accordingly throughout the year. Other schools changed more student records but perhaps weren’t as organized or savvy. The Whetstone employees whose records were subpoenaed include the former principal, three assistant principals, three guidance counselors and a secretary. They all made changes, according to a Dispatch analysis of district computer logs. Some improved kids’ grades, others withdrew students who hadn’t actually left, and some did both.
Washington Post: Caught up in the NSA net
A four-month investigation by The Washington Post has found that ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike, far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from U.S. digital networks. Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided in full to The Post, were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else. Many of them were Americans. Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, email addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Interest groups let Congress travel free
Members of Congress may be back in their district this weekend for Fourth of July parades and picnics, but their travels don't always bring them home to Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says an analysis of travel records shows that since 2008, the eight current Wisconsin members of the U.S. House and their aides have taken at least 125 privately funded trips at a cost of more than $400,000. Some are relatively cheap jumps to Maryland or Virginia to speak at conferences. Others are all-expenses-paid trips to Asia or Africa for House members and their spouses or children that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. The Journal Sentinel analysis focused on House members because of news last week that the House Ethics Committee had — temporarily — moved to eliminate one of the reporting requirements for such travel.
Arizona Daily Star: Rising Arizona temperatures make for hostile environment
The Arizona Daily Star looked at weather forecasts and found that thousands more Arizonans will likely die. Farmers’ crop yields will drop. Electricity bills will rise sharply, along with the use of air conditioning. These forecasts for Arizona by the end of the 21st century come from a new report that for the first time tries to project specific impacts of a hotter climate in each U.S. state.“Risky Business,” a national report prepared for a group of blue-ribbon business leaders, is targeted at the business community. With two former Treasury secretaries, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Secretary of State George Shultz leading the study effort, the report seeks to show that climate change will have severe economic costs. Arizona’s impacts are expected to be among the most severe among the 50 states, the report says.
Los Angeles Times: Large drop seen in youth deportations
The Los Angeles Times says that President Obama and his aides have repeatedly sought to dispel the rumors driving thousands of children and teens from Central America to cross the U.S. border each month with the expectation they will be given a “permiso” and allowed to stay. But under the Obama administration, those reports have proved increasingly true. The number of immigrants under 18 who were deported or turned away at ports of entry fell from 8,143 in 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, to 1,669 last year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data released under a Freedom of Information Act request. Similarly, about 600 minors were ordered deported each year from non-border states a decade ago. Ninety-five were deported last year, records show, even as a flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America — five times more than two years earlier — began pouring across the Southwest border.
Modesto (California) Bee: State keeps water well logs secret
The Modesto (California) Bee says that inside a government warehouse along a noisy freeway in West Sacramento is a set of metal shelves holding more than 100 carefully labeled cardboard boxes. Inside those boxes are tens of thousands of state records that could help scientists and water policy specialists better understand and protect California groundwater. But while all other Western states make such records – known as well completion reports, or well logs, for short – open to the public, California does not. Here, access to the documents is restricted. While some government agencies and researchers can view them, many scientists and the public at large cannot, a barrier many say reins in knowledge about groundwater supplies as the state struggles with one of the worst droughts in recorded history. ... In all other Western states, such records are accessible to whomever wants to see them – from university professors to civil engineers, real estate agents to the media. But in California, well logs are barred from public inspection by a 63-year-old law written to keep data gathered by well-drilling companies from falling into the hands of competitors.
Denver Post: Airport officials fly business class on international trips
The Denver Post found that as Denver International Airport's budget chief, Patrick Heck, flew to Singapore in a $10,159 business-class seat to "network with finance executives around the world." John Ackerman, the airport's commercial manager, paid $9,159 for a business-class ticket to Geneva as a speaker invited "to present DIA successes with concessions." By comparison, United Airlines offers economy-class round-trip flights this month from Denver to Geneva for as little as $1,518 and to Singapore starting at $1,815. Heck, Ackerman, airport manager Kim Day and two other top DIA officials traveled internationally 50 times in 2012 and 2013. They rarely occupied economy seats on those trips. Under a policy that Day approved, airport employees qualify for business-class seats when a flight exceeds five hours or total
flight time exceeds eight hours. ... Beth Machann, the city controller, said she did not know DIA employees regularly buy business- class tickets when traveling abroad. ... Total DIA travel expenses grew by one-third from 2011 to 2013, to $854,919. Machann described travel expenses for other city departments as stable in the last two years.
Miami Herald: New 9/11 records offer tantalizing puzzle pieces
The Miami Herald says that on Halloween night in 2001, the horrors of 9/11 were still fresh on the minds of Americans. At a time when everyone was on edge, the sight of a man disposing documents in a dumpster behind a Bradenton storage facility aroused suspicion. Summoned to the scene, Manatee County sheriff’s deputies confronted the man, who had a Tunisian passport. According to FBI records, authorities searched the dumpster and found “a self-printed manual
on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight-to-fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice [Florida] and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.” The Flight Training Center is where 9/11 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, took flying lessons. This intriguing tale and at least one other are contained in a batch of partially redacted documents released this past week as part of ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation by the online news site BrowardBulldog.org. The suit, filed in 2012, seeks the FBI’s files from a once-secret investigation into a family of Sarasota Saudis who left the country abruptly about
two weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, leaving behind clothing, jewelry and cars.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Racial gaps remain in gifted programs
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says that Georgia spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on special educational services for a small but elite percentage of students deemed “gifted.” And those students are disproportionately white and Asian. Despite aggressive efforts to erase the gap between the races, white students in Georgia are roughly three times more likely than their black counterparts to be enrolled in gifted programs — and roughly two-and-a-half times more likely to be in those classrooms than minority students, including Hispanics and Asians. That’s according to an analysis of recent state education data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Idaho Statesman: Idaho millennials are worse off than earlier generations
The Idaho Statesman looked at the Census data on millennials and found that many are struggling financially and socially. Take Ashley Hammond, who is in her mid-20s. She graduated from Boise State University two years ago. Unlike a lot of people her age, she doesn't have student loan debt. Hammond is a social worker for the state, a job she considers herself "very fortunate" to have. She has a toddler with her partner of eight years, Zac Nickel. They're expecting a baby in November. They are buying a house together and would be married, if not for a financial puzzle that didn't exist when previous generations were her age. Angie Baker, a Boise human resources professional who also works for the state, is in a similar position when it comes to financial stress. She's 32 and earned a biology degree from the College of Idaho. She grew up with a stay-at-home mom, and she remembers "being comfortable," even though her family didn't have a lot of money. She wasn't prepared for what happened when she gave birth to her son, Cole. "The cost of raising a child kind of blindsided
us," she said. "We (will) spend more for preschool than a mortgage payment, and I think that is a big difference between our generation and our parents' generation." A Statesman analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data collected from Idahoans ages 18 to 33 during four decades shows that the life of a millennial in Idaho is distinctly different from Generation X, baby boomers and those who came of age around World War II and the Korean War.
Boston Globe: City’s residency rules routinely flouted
A Boston Globe analysis of payroll and property records found that 13 of the 22 top leaders in Boston’s Police Department live outside the city in apparent violation of the city’s residency requirement, a law frequently ignored and weakly enforced. Among them: the Police Department’s second in command, Superintendent in Chief William G. Gross, who lives in Milton, according to payroll records. But he’s hardly alone. Managers in the city’s technology division and the Inspectional Services Department, high-ranking school administrators, and the head of the school police, Eric J. Weston, also live beyond Boston’s border. So does Matthew A. Cahill, executive director of the Finance Commission, a city watchdog agency. The Globe identified at least 50 municipal employees living in the suburbs in apparent violation of the residency requirement.
Arizona Republic: Alarm bells about VA failed to spur change
The Arizona Republic reports that since 2005, federal investigators have issued at least 21 reports detailing problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system. The list of people who received the reports reads like a political who's who: three Cabinet secretaries, a dozen prominent senators, a Democratic and a Republican presidential nominee, and Arizona's entire congressional delegation. Yet little changed. During that period, the -Senate and House Veterans' Affairs committees held dozens of hearings on mismanagement and long patient wait times. In virtually every hearing, VA officials promised that changes were on the way. Yet little changed. Veterans say they -complained directly to their representatives in Congress. Patients died. Whistle-blowers came forward. Still, little changed. "The reason vets' care has suffered for so long is Congress has failed to hold the VA accountable," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a physician, wrote in a critical report released last week that detailed a wide range of VA failures. "Despite years of warnings from government investigators about efforts to cook the books, it took the unnecessary deaths of veterans denied care from Atlanta to Phoenix to prompt Congress to take action."
GI Bill funds flow to for-profit colleges that fail California aid standards
The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that over the last five years, more than $600 million in college assistance for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has been spent on California schools so substandard that they have failed to qualify for state financial aid. As a result, the GI Bill – designed to help veterans live the American dream – is supporting for-profit companies that spend lavishly on marketing but can leave veterans with worthless degrees and few job prospects, The Center for Investigative Reporting found. ... Financial records analyzed by CIR show that California is the national epicenter of this problem, with nearly 2 out of every 3 GI Bill dollars going to for-profit colleges. The University of Phoenix in San Diego outdistances its peers. Since 2009, the campus has received $95 million in GI Bill funds. That's more than any brick-and-mortar campus in America, more than the entire 10-campus University of California system and all UC extension programs combined.
Sacramento Bee: Complaints of nepotism dog California Senate
The Sacramento Bee says that an anonymous letter sent to multiple California state senators last month ended with a sharp question: “Why is it that the Senate is not listing open positions, for other staff to apply for?” Concerns about personnel practices and allegations of nepotism are swirling in the Capitol as an investigation proceeds into claims that friends and family of key administrators get special access to taxpayer-funded jobs. The issue surfaced publicly last month when The Sacramento Bee reported that court records showed one of the Senate’s in-house law-enforcement officers had cocaine and marijuana in his system the night he was involved in a fatal off-duty shooting outside his Greenhaven-area home. The officer is the son of the Senate’s longtime head of human resources. Gerardo Lopez worked for the Senate for 15 years despite brushes with the law that include a citation for petty theft and charges of drunken driving. Lopez was fired over the drug-use revelations, but he is not the only one with family ties to key Senate administrators. The two people with the most power to address personnel matters have long had friends and family on the payroll: Dina Hidalgo, who as head of human resources for the Senate plays a major role in hiring; and her supervisor, Greg Schmidt, who as the Senate’s top administrator oversees a staff of roughly 150 people who handle personnel, accounting and other duties. Analysis of payroll data and other documents obtained through public records requests, as well as interviews with current and former legislative staff, found multiple Senate staff members with personal ties to Hidalgo and Schmidt.
Orange County Register: Police fail to report deadly shootings
California’s system for tracking deadly police shootings is plagued by confusion and inadequate oversight, further clouding public knowledge of an officer’s greatest power, according to the Orange County Register. At least one in every five fatal shootings across Southern California isn’t counted in official statewide and national homicide reports, a Register investigation has found. Police shoot and kill more often than the numbers reflect. The newspaper identified widespread reporting flaws by comparing state data and district attorney records from hundreds of shootings between 2007 and 2011, the latest year available. At least 67 fatal shootings weren’t disclosed as required by state law. The unreported shootings involved 31 law enforcement agencies, most of which were unaware the cases hadn’t been counted in official reports until contacted by the Register. Most acknowledged error and promised an internal review of reporting practices.
New Haven Register: Seized funds used for trips
The New Haven Register reports that Connecticut police use money forfeited by convicted criminals such as drug dealers to buy new police dogs, undercover vehicles, technology, fitness equipment – and to pay for travel to events around the country. About $1,400 of retiring state police Col. Danny Stebbins’ expenses on trips to conferences in Virginia, California, South Carolina, and Louisiana were paid for with asset forfeiture funds. These included a trip to New Orleans that became controversial when Stebbins discussed details of the Sandy Hook shootings at a March 2013 conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police while police had yet to share many of those details with officials in Connecticut. Overall, state police spent about $39,000 on travel.
Palm Beach Post: Pedestrians account for most deaths on Palm Beach County rails
The Palm Beach Post, looking into deaths on rail tracks, says that Leonor Cuervo died when she was hit by a train a few hundred feet from her Boca Raton home. But the fact that the Colombia native was crossing the Florida East Coast Railway tracks in the first place is something the company could have prevented, asserts her daughter, Andrea. No fence or signs stopped her as she followed a makeshift footpath across the tracks to get from a bus stop to her home. Of 61 deaths on all train tracks in Palm Beach County since 2008, 47 were pedestrians, a Palm Beach Post analysis of medical examiner reports shows. A quarter of the state’s reported pedestrian rail deaths in 2011, 2012 and 2013 were in Palm Beach County.
While far more people cross the tracks at busy intersections in cars, more than half of the deaths occurred along stretches of railroad between crossings.
Chicago Tribune: Rail yard pollution threat to neighborhoods
The Chicago Tribune says that new research from federal scientists has found that levels of diesel soot in residential areas near the BNSF Intermodal Facility frequently spike higher than the national average for urban areas. The study, the first of its kind in Chicago, sheds light on health hazards posed by freight yards that are concentrated in some of the area's poorest
communities. ... The Cicero yard is among more than a dozen facilities in Chicago and the suburbs where giant cranes move steel containers between trains and trucks. Nearly 340,000 people, including 38,000 children younger than 7, live within a half-mile of one of the intermodal terminals, according to a Tribune analysis of census data. More than 80 percent are Latino or African-American. Diesel exhaust from the equipment contributes to the Chicago area's chronic problem with soot pollution, which can trigger asthma attacks, cause heart damage and take years off lives. Federal officials say they have little power to do anything about it. ... Researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chose to study the Cicero freight yard because they determined there were no major highways or other big sources of pollution nearby to muddle the test results. About 418,000 containers were transferred at the facility in 2012, making it a mid-sized intermodal terminal by Chicago standards. The EPA study, released publicly after months of Tribune requests, adds to other recent research that details how intermodal yards create hot spots of soot extending well beyond the clusters of locomotives,
trucks and other diesel-powered equipment.
Baltimore Sun: Teacher evaluation system is latest education battleground
The Baltimore Sun reports that after years of holding schools accountable for student test scores, the idea of using those scores to evaluate teachers and determine their pay has become the latest battleground in education across the nation. This past school year, Maryland's 60,000 teachers were evaluated for the first time according to a formula that required half of their final rating to be based on how much their students learned. Policymakers and proponents of the new evaluation systems hope that eventually they can be used to get rid of poorly performing teachers and reward the best with higher pay. But teachers unions contend that further emphasis on test scores narrows the focus of learning and that effectiveness in the classroom is more complex than a score. ... The results of the state's pilot evaluation program that took into account test scores varied widely, according to data obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request. None of the teachers in Baltimore County, for instance, were found to be ineffective, compared with 7.2 percent in Anne Arundel County.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Taxicab drivers skirting the law
The Minneapolis Star Tribune says the city of Minneapolis vowing to crack down on taxi drivers who troll for the best passengers, in some cases refusing fares to people who want to go on a short ride, pay with a credit card or who are black. Records obtained by the Star Tribune show that the city has received nearly 200 complaints since 2012 against cabdrivers who appear to have violated city ordinances, which bar them from refusing most fares. Two Star Tribune reporters who recently tried to hail cabs at bar-closing time in downtown were turned down a combined 17 times for wanting to go short distances or pay with a credit card. They also witnessed two cabs drive away after learning that their passengers would be black women.The city has promised action.
New York Times: In military care, a pattern of errors but not scrutiny
The New York Times reports that Jessica Zeppa, five months pregnant, the wife of a soldier, showed up four times at Reynolds Army Community Hospital here in pain, weak, barely able to swallow and fighting a fever. The last time, she declared that she was not leaving until she could get warm. Without reviewing her file, nurses sent her home anyway, with an appointment to see an oral surgeon to extract her wisdom teeth. Mrs. Zeppa returned the next day, in an ambulance. She was airlifted to a civilian hospital, where despite relentless efforts to save her and her baby, she suffered a miscarriage and died on Oct. 22, 2010, of complications from severe sepsis, a bodywide infection. Medical experts hired by her family said later that because she was young and otherwise healthy, she most likely would have survived had the medical staff at Reynolds properly diagnosed and treated her. ... Since 2001, the Defense Department has required military hospitals to conduct safety investigations when patients unexpectedly die or suffer severe injury. The object is to expose and fix systemic errors, often in the most routine procedures, that can have disastrous consequences for the quality of care. Yet there
is no evidence of such an inquiry into Mrs. Zeppa’s death. The Zeppa case is emblematic of persistent lapses in protecting patients that emerged from an examination by The New York Times of the nation’s military hospitals, the hub of a sprawling medical network — entirely separate from the scandal-plagued veterans system — that cares for the 1.6 million active-duty
service members and their families.
The Oregonian: Liquefied Natural Disaster?
The Oregonian says that the worst-case scenario would be truly cataclysmic. A full rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, unleashing a mega-thrust earthquake and tsunami comparable to the magnitude 9.1 temblor that devastated the coast of Japan in 2011. The region's top seismic experts say such a quake could violently shake the entire Pacific Northwest for more than five minutes, liquefying soil, tossing massive structures off their foundations and sinking entire sections of Oregon's coastal landmass by several meters. The damage would be most severe in areas closest to the rupture, such as Coos Bay, where the dangerous portion of the fault line passes eight miles off the coast. A subsequent tsunami could magnify the damage, transforming the entire estuary into a giant mixing bowl of devastation. That's exactly why many Coos Bay residents oppose the Jordan Cove Energy Project, a natural gas export terminal proposed on a sand spit north of town. ... The Oregonian put together an overview based on interviews with Jordan Cove officials, industry experts, regulators and scientists, and a review of the company's hazard assessments filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Medical malpractice meltdown
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says that three years after her mother died, Sarah Schuh received a shocking call: It wasn't the car accident that had killed her mom, the caller said. She died because of "mess-ups" in the emergency room. The caller: Zulfiqar Ali, the emergency room doctor who had treated Schuh's mother on the day she crashed her Honda CR-V into a marshy area near the Sheboygan River. In almost any other state, that kind of disclosure would have likely paved the way for a medical malpractice lawsuit. Not in Wisconsin. State laws and court rulings have combined to erect roadblocks at the doors of Wisconsin courthouses, placing strict limits on who can sue for medical malpractice, how much money they can collect and where the money will come from.