WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF RECENT IMPACT JOURNALISM 12-5-2013
Anchorage Daily News: Targeting Barrow bootleg
The Anchorage Daily News says that in a small house in the middle of the oil-rich whaling town of Barrow, Alaska, there lives a former bootlegger and drug dealer. He stopped selling illegal booze sometime last summer, yet hopeful buyers still knock at the door all night looking for a jug. "I could have sold 10 bottles last night. People kept coming by," the man said on a recent Saturday. A woman playing "Call of Duty" nodded in agreement as zombies exploded on a widescreen TV. The bootlegger, speaking on condition of anonymity, leaned against a coffee table and made a mental calculation: A case of Budweiser, a bottle of Rich & Rare Canadian whiskey and a box of Franzia wine each sell for $100 here. For $500 you could order your weight in alcohol and triple your money by selling it to friends and neighbors. Outside the man's door, a ceaseless wind cleared the streets. It's quiet now, but the black market liquor trade in this northernmost U.S. city is about to get very, very busy, he said. Beginning this week, more than $30 million in cash deposits and checks will flood this North Slope community of 4,300. Demand for illegal booze, and drugs, runs high all-year-round in Barrow. The nearest liquor store is 300 miles away. … But bootleggers and drug dealers prepare for this week in particular, when many Barrow residents will receive an average of $10,000 in dividends as shareholders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. The storm of cash presents a test for the 40-officer North Slope Borough Police Department, which has quietly spent the past two years ramping up its anti-bootlegging efforts in one of the most remote corners of Alaska.
Read more: http://www.adn.com/2013/11/30/3206475/with-30-million-about-to-hit-the.html#storylink=cpy
Chicago Tribune: 95 percent of Illinois tollway drivers are speeding
According to data analyzed by The Chicago Tribune, there’s truth to what area drivers may have long suspected: Hardly anyone obeys the speed limit on the Tollway. Just one driver in 20 follows the law in 55 mph zones, while most tend to cruise at least 11 mph over the limit, according to the studies. In some stretches around metro Chicago, one in seven motorists speed at least 20 mph over the limit, according to the data. As Illinois gets ready to allow speed limits to rise to 70 mph, the research stirs debate about just what the speed limit should be on the Tollway. Some say it would be safer to let most drivers go as fast as they’re comfortable with, while others fear high limits would foster more dangerous crashes. The findings also raise questions about how human psychology plays a role in determining how fast motorists choose to drive.
Read more: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-11-30/news/ct-speed-psychology-promo-20131201_1_70-mph-speed-limits-tollway
Houston Chronicle: Synthetic pot opens new drug war front
The Houston Chronicle looked at the rise in use of synthetic drugs in the city. It found that more than 1 million packets of a dangerous, unpredictable new breed of drug were seized in the Houston area by the DEA in the past two years, yet criminal charges are rare for those who make, sell or use them. The packets, sold as potpourri or incense, are among the more popular brands of so-called synthetic marijuana taking center stage in a new front in the war on drugs.On a recent afternoon, glossy packets of strawberry-flavored "Kush" lay side by side in a lighted glass display case, just past the bongs and pipes, at a Houston-area shop. The mixture inside looks like dried, finely crushed green leaves. It is smoked like pot but packs a far different punch - and is fueling the never-ending search for ways to get high. "This is a new frontier for drugs and drug traffickers," said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "I want to shout it from the roof tops: This is nasty stuff." Despite pressure from law enforcement, users still don't have to go to underground dealers to score. Instead, they just visit smoke shops and convenience stores that sell the products. Houston has a key role in the popularity of the drugs. It is not only a large marketplace for them, but they are covertly made here and shipped to other regions, according to court documents.
Read more: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/investigations/article/Houston-gains-key-role-in-synthetic-marijuana-5024607.php#/0
Los Angeles Times: Misconduct didn’t stop sheriff hires
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department hired dozens of officers even though background investigators found they had committed serious misconduct on or off duty. The department made the hires in 2010 after taking over patrols of parks and government buildings from a little-known L.A. County police force. Officers from that agency were given first shot at new jobs with the Sheriff's Department. Investigators gave them lie detector tests and delved into their employment records and personal lives. The Times reviewed the officers' internal hiring files, which also contained recorded interviews of the applicants by sheriff's investigators. Ultimately, about 280 county officers were given jobs, including applicants who had accidentally fired their weapons, had sex at work and solicited prostitutes, the records show.
Read more: http://graphics.latimes.com/behind-the-badge/
The Virginian-Pilot: Service members fight Pentagon for money
The Virginian-Pilot looked at military pay records, government reports and other documents to find out the difficulties returning service members were having and found plenty. The paper says, for example, that U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe in late 2011. Not insurgents in Iraq, or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department. Aiken, then 30, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso after two tours of combat duty. His war-related afflictions included traumatic brain injury, severe post-traumatic stress disorder, abnormal eye movements due to nerve damage, chronic pain and a hip injury. But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay. It had started that October, when he received $2,337.56 instead of his normal monthly take-home of about $3,300. He quickly raised the issue with staff. It only got worse. For all of December, his pay came to $117.99. … The money the military took from Aiken resulted from accounting and other errors, and it should have been his to keep. The Pentagon agency involved is the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, or DFAS. This agency, with headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind., has roughly 12,000 employees and, after cuts under federal sequestration, a $1.36 billion budget. It is responsible for accurately paying America's 2.7 million active-duty and reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. It often fails at that task. Reviews of individuals' military pay records, government reports and other documents, along with interviews with dozens of current and former soldiers and other military personnel, confirm Aiken's case is hardly isolated. And as Aiken and many other soldiers have found, once mistakes are detected, getting them corrected - or explained - can test even the most persistent soldiers.
Read more: http://hamptonroads.com/2013/11/military-payroll-system-plagued-errors-obsolete-gear
Portland (Me.) Press Herald: Mideast unrest powers influx of newcomers
The Portland (Me.) Press Herald says that unrest in the Middle East is prompting more families to immigrate to Maine. Among the immigrants is Ali Farid, an Iraqi, who was 18 when he signed up to be a combat interpreter for the U.S. military. He helped the military get critical information and supported its efforts to win the hearts and minds of locals. He found himself crammed into a Humvee while soldiers waged gun battles and cleared roadways of bombs. But when U.S. troops withdrew, it became unsafe for Farid to stay in Iraq. "People over there tend to ask questions. It’s not difficult to figure out you worked with the U.S. Army,” Farid said in an interview over Turkish coffee and Iraqi pastries at his Westbrook apartment. "(Insurgents) follow you. They know where you live. The next day – you’re gone.” Farid, now 25, is one of the increasing number of refugees – Iraqis in particular – who are finding refuge in Maine. More refugees have resettled in Maine in the last year than at any time over the past decade. The spike comes at a time when housing and jobs are hard to find, especially in Portland, where the vast majority are resettled.
Read more: http://www.pressherald.com/news/Mideast_unrest_powers_influx_of_newcomers.html?searchterm=mideast+unrest+newcomers
San Antonio Express-News: GI sex-assault victims fact battle for disability benefits
According to the San Antonio Express-News, months have passed since sexual-assault victim Virginia Messick left the Air Force and sought disability compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder. She says she cannot work and wants the Veterans Affairs Department to grant her a 100 percent disability rating for PTSD due to military sexual trauma or MST. She's likely to have a long wait. "When I talked with my claims advocate, I asked her why it's taking so long because it's coming up on a year and I haven't even gotten a ratings appointment yet,” said Messick, who was assaulted by an Air Force instructor at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. "And she said, 'Unfortunately, with MST right now, it can take up to 18 months to even get a ratings appointment.'” After leaving the military, sexual-assault victims can receive medical care through Veterans Affairs without proving their cases. However, they must meet a tougher standard to qualify for the disability checks that can be a lifeline for veterans who struggle to support themselves. Lawmakers and advocates say that, because troops and veterans often hide sexual assaults, the VA standard for these victims isn't fair. Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), along with the ACLU and Yale Law School's Veterans Legal Services Clinic, found VA disability claims for PTSD due to sexual trauma were granted at a much lower rate from 2008-2012 than for post-traumatic stress due to other causes, such as being in a combat zone. Disability approvals for sexual-trauma cases lagged behind approvals for other PTSD cases by between 17 and 30 percentage points every year, according to VA records, which the organizations obtained in a lawsuit after the VA refused to release the records through a Freedom of Information request.
Read more: http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/military/article/GI-sex-assault-victims-face-battle-for-disability-5024382.php#/0
Charlotte Observer: Department can’t justify contracts
The Charlotte Observer says that in most major departments in North Carolina’s government, officials must explain in writing when they want to hire an individual with a contract for services. But at the Department of Health and Human Services, where Secretary Aldona Wos has awarded at least seven such deals, those rules are not being followed in most cases. Wos, an appointee of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, has awarded a number of high-dollar contracts, including one worth $312,000 a year to former State Auditor Les Merritt and another worth $310,000 to a vice president from the company owned by Wos’ husband. But in both of those cases, and in at least four others, the department says it can’t locate any memos written to justify the contracts. Department policy requires a justification memo for sole-source and personal-services contracts. Under state law, the documents would be public records."No justification memorandum was located by agency personnel,” DHHS attorney Kevin Howell wrote in response to a public records request. Howell was asked several times if anyone at the department had completed the justification memos. He repeatedly gave the same reply: "No justification memorandum was located by agency personnel.” Howell said the department’s policy did not apply to the secretary. "The intent of the justification memorandum is for the divisions within DHHS to justify the need for personal services contracts to the Office of the Secretary,” Howell wrote. "Since these personal service contracts were for the Office of the Secretary, no such justification was needed.” Howell failed to respond when asked to provide the policy or regulation that exempted the secretary from complying with her departmental contracting policy. The agency’s purchasing manual does not provide an exception for the Office of the Secretary. Wos declined to be interviewed.
Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2013/12/01/4509184/scant-justification-for-flurry.html#.UpzWqMSsjTo#storylink=cpy
Appleton (Wis.) Post-Crescent: Some schools leave out the details
The Appleton (Wis.) Post-Crescent reports that a sample of a dozen school districts from central through eastern Wisconsin showed half didn’t meet a Department of Public Instruction recommendation for reporting detailed information about the number of students who are secluded or restrained. Under a state law passed in 2012, school districts must track how often students are removed from their classrooms or physically restrained, report each case to parents within one business day and give a report to school boards every year. Those reports were delivered to school boards for the first time this fall. Gannett Wisconsin Media’s Investigative Team used the state’s Public Records Law to obtain and analyze the reports on seclusion and physical restraint of students at a dozen schools within its coverage area.Six of the districts provided detailed information broken down by school building and explained how staff members responded when a student could have harmed him or herself or others. The other six districts didn’t provide information by school building — contrary to the DPI recommendation.
Read more: http://www.postcrescent.com/article/20131130/APC0198/311300208/Some-schools-leave-out-details-reports-seclusion-restraint-students
Newark Star-Ledger: Criminals get out of jail on a payment plan
The Newark Star-Ledger finds that accused thieves, drug dealers, gun-toting criminals, even suspected killers are being freed from New Jersey lockups before trial, thanks to the growing popularity of the criminal justice system’s version of the installment plan. Their get-out-of-jail-almost-free cards are being bankrolled by a new breed of bail bondsmen, willing to take big risks on individuals who’ve proved over and over that they’re high risks, a Star-Ledger review of court documents shows, along with interviews with law enforcement officials, judges and victims of the new bail schemes. Some are being set free on $75-a-week payment plans, an offer too good to pass up for criminal defendants who otherwise would be spending the months leading up to trial locked away in a spartan county jail. "$0 down payment," reads the sign in the window of Aaron Bail Bonds, beckoning inmates housed across the street at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack. A company next door promises "Instant O% approval," and another, ASAP Bail Bonds, offers the "Best Deals on the Strip." It’s all shorthand for the shadow deals criminal defendants are negotiating with bail bondsmen — a practice that, though not illegal, has attracted the attention of the state Commission of Investigation. The commission has opened a "broad-based" probe into the bail bond industry that will include a closer look at these deals, a law enforcement source said.
Read more: http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2013/12/nj_defendants_being_set_free_on_bail_payment_plans_without_judges_prosecutors_knowing.html
SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK 11-21-2013
AP: New heart and
stroke guidelines draw flak
The Associated Press reported that heart experts who wrote
new guidelines for preventing heart attacks and strokes are defending a formula
that some doctors say overestimates risk for certain groups. Doctors who
drafted the new advice for the American Heart Association and the American
College of Cardiology say that any flaws in the formula are small and should
not delay the implementation of the guidelines, which expand how many people
should consider taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs like Lipitor and Zocor
or their generic forms. The guidelines, announced last week, are a sea change
in heart care. Instead of having people aim for a specific cholesterol number
as has been done for decades, the new advice relies on a formula using factors
such as age and high blood pressure to estimate a patient's risk. Under the new
advice, one-third of U.S. adults ages 40 to 75 would meet the threshold to
consider taking a statin. Under the current guidelines, statins are recommended
for only about 15 percent of this group. The Heart Association held a news
briefing at its annual conference in Dallas after a New York Times story
featured criticism by several prominent cardiologists. Dr. Paul Ridker and Dr.
Nancy Cook of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston describe in an opinion
piece in the British journal Lancet how they tried the formula on patients in
three large, observational clinical trials and found it was way off for the
number of heart attacks and strokes those patients actually had. "The
predicted risk is roughly twice as high as the observed risk," Ridker
Constitution: Despite limits, lobbying still in full swing
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Georgia
lawmakers set the first-ever limits on individual gifts given by lobbyists to
public officials this spring, but they preserved the tradition of large,
general-invitation banquets and parties. Two of the largest lobbying interests
in the state — Georgia Power and the University of Georgia — showed their
gratitude in October, spending a combined $35,000 for events for lawmakers.
That’s more than all the rest of the reported lobbyist spending for the month
combined. "We did have a really good turnout,” UGA lobbyist Tricia Chastain
said about Legislative Appreciation Day. "It’s not just the members of the
Legislature that come. We have all our deans of our 16 colleges and schools
invited (and some) alums. We have a big crowd.” Reported lobbyist spending in October
clocked in at $65,345, compared to just $30,355 for the same month last year.
It is only the second month this year that spending increased year over year.
UGA led the increase, spending $18,743 on Oct. 12 to attract lawmakers to the
appreciation event. That day the Bulldogs lost a crucial SEC contest to
Missouri 41-26, but legislators couldn’t complain about the food. The
university spent $14,223 on the banquet. The money came from the university’s
foundation and not from taxpayers, Chastain said. House Bill 142, the ethics
reform passed earlier this year, puts a $75 cap on individual gifts to public
officials. But the bill has a number of loopholes, including allowances for
large annual events as long as invitations go out to entire groups of lawmakers.
Read more (online subscribers only):
Statesman: VA malpractice tab hits $845 million over 10 years
The Austin American-Statesman reports the U.S. Department of
Veterans Affairs paid out roughly $845 million in malpractice cases during the
past 10 years — a period that has seen the agency face scrutiny for giving
bonuses to medical professionals who provided or oversaw substandard care. An
investigation by reporters from Cox Media Group, parent company of the
American-Statesman, found that taxpayers have paid 4,426 veterans and their
family members who brought malpractice claims against the VA medical system
since 2003. The payouts reached a high point in 2012 at $98.3 million in
awards. "It’s very apparent because of
the spike in payouts that have been happening over a number of years that
they’re woefully falling behind on a curve that they never should be behind in
the first place,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House
Committee on Veterans Affairs. The claims included a 20-year Marine Corps
veteran who went in for a tooth extraction and is now paralyzed and unable to
Read more (Online subscribers only)
New York Times: U.S.
investigates currency trades by major banks
The New York Times reports traders at some of the world’s
biggest banks exchanged a series of instant messages that earned them the
nickname "the cartel” and, much like companies that rigged the price of
vitamins and animal feed, the traders were competitors that hatched alliances
for their own profits, federal investigators suspect. If those suspicions are
correct, the group of traders shared a mission to alter the price of foreign
currencies, the largest and yet least regulated market in the financial world.
And ultimately, they flooded the market with trades that potentially raised the
cost of currency for clients but aided the banks’ own investments. Now the
instant messages, along with similar activity among other traders, are at the
center of an international investigation into banks like Barclays,
the Royal Bank of Scotland and Citigroup,
according to recent public disclosures by the banks and interviews with
investigators who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The investigators
secured the cooperation of at least one trader, a development that has not been
Although the investigation is at an early stage, authorities
are already signaling the likelihood of a legal crackdown. "The manipulation
we’ve seen so far may just be the tip of the iceberg,” the United States
Attorney General, Eric
H. Holder Jr., said in a rare interview discussing an active investigation.
"We’ve recognized that this is potentially an extremely consequential
investigation.” The banks all declined to comment. No one has been accused of
wrongdoing, and any improper actions probably would have involved only a corner
of the overall market.
Switching perks to salary boosts pensions
The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer reports how Gordon Burns paid
close attention three years ago as state lawmakers considered legislation to
lift a cap on the salaries of community college presidents. Burns, the longtime
president of Wilkes Community College, was nearing retirement and, with a
salary and longevity pay of $208,000, had bumped up against that salary cap.
But he was also receiving roughly $80,000 in local money for housing, an
annuity and travel each year that could not be factored in to boost his
pension. The bill passed with little opposition. Shortly after, the Wilkes
board of trustees converted Burns’ additional pay – along with what they spent
on two insurance policies, his cellphone and his Rotary Club dues – into
salary. Those changes, plus an annual longevity payment, boosted Burns’
compensation to just more than $300,000, a 44 percent increase. If Burns, 66,
retires next year as he planned, his annual pension would be just under
$200,000, about $52,000 higher as a result of the pay conversion. Pensions are
calculated on the average of an employees’ highest four consecutive years of
salary. Community college pay records show that at least three other presidents
who have either retired or are nearing the end of their careers got a similar
deal from their boards, providing them a way to boost their annual pensions by
$19,000 or more. Trustees converted housing allowances, annuities and car
allowances paid from county or college foundation funds to salaries when the
cap went away.
Ohio’s $1.2 million propped up failing charter
The Columbus Dispatch reported that after resigning this
year as superintendent of a financially troubled Internet charter school amid
allegations of nepotism, James McCord had a new plan, and it again involved a
charter school employing him and his family. This summer, McCord opened eight
Olympus charter schools, including four in Columbus. They would be managed by a
for-profit corporation formed by McCord called Education Innovations
International, or EII, which would get most of the state money each month, own
all the schools’ property and employ all the workers. His wife, brother, children
and an in-law all had jobs with the company, former employees said. And again,
it all collapsed. The school’s sponsor suspended it last month. Olympus’
sponsor was a Cincinnati orphanage, St. Aloysius, which also sponsors 45 other
charter schools. But St. Aloysius has little to do with overseeing them.
Instead, the orphanage contracts out the oversight to a Pickerington company,
Charter School Specialists.
That company also worked for McCord as his schools’
treasurer. In other words, McCord hired the same firm that acted as his
watchdog. Charter School Specialists was required to report to itself by email
each month on the operation’s finances. In a way, McCord’s venture was no
different from many start-up companies that don’t make it, except for one thing:
Ohio taxpayers helped fund this business failure. The state paid Olympus
schools about $1.2 million, most of it for students it couldn’t confirm
received schooling, the state Department of Education said.
Newark Star Ledger:
New Jersey lags in using less lethal Tasers
The Newark Star Ledger reports Dante Cespedes was in the
living room of his cramped Belleville apartment when police officers arrived in
July to resolve an argument with his wife that turned violent. Police say the
40-year-old chef lunged at them with a pair of knives. He was shot 24 times,
and died at the scene. Abdul Kamal was standing outside his estranged wife’s
Irvington home last week after a domestic dispute, shouting at police with a
hand stuffed in his pocket, prosecutors said. He threatened the officers and
claimed to have a weapon, police said. Officers shot him 10 times, killing him.
Prosecutors later determined Kamal was unarmed, and his family says he was
intoxicated and struggled with mental-health issues.
The recent deaths have caused some to ask why most police
officers in New Jersey don’t carry stun guns, even as the devices have become
common in police departments elsewhere in the country. For years, New Jersey
has lagged in adopting the use of the devices, also known as Tasers because of
the popular manufacturer, becoming the last state in the nation to authorize
their use in 2009.Advocates say the devices are a necessary policing tool and
provide a less lethal choice for officers, especially when dealing with an
individual who may be mentally impaired. Police leaders in New Jersey say they
would love to add stun guns to their arsenals, but the devices come with a
$2,500 price tag, and many departments, already struggling to hire after years
of municipal belt-tightening, can’t foot that bill.