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WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Feb. 15, 2017
Santa Fe New Mexican: County not utilizing 7-year-old ethics board
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports it hardly mattered when Santa Fe County commissioners in January appointed two new members to the county’s ethics board, filling vacancies that had been open for months. The board was established in 2010 in response to a bribery scandal involving a road-paving firm and a former county official that led to criminal convictions. But county attorneys have never asked the board to investigate a complaint about a potential ethics violation by an appointed or elected official or volunteer. Also tasked with recommending changes to the county’s code of conduct, board members had proposed measures to put more teeth into the rules they’re charged with enforcing. The effort proved fruitless. The terms for two more unpaid volunteers on the five-member watchdog body will expire at the end of February. One of those outgoing board members told The New Mexican that the panel stopped holding regular meetings in the spring of 2016.
Sacramento Bee: Hiring spree in California as pension reform looms
The Sacramento Bee reports that on the eve of major pension changes that would crimp retirement benefits for new hires, a handful of California government agencies went on a holiday hiring spree. Their timing was fortuitous. By beginning work in the waning days of 2012, the employees enrolled in the California Public Employees’ Retirement System just in time to gain a generous pension formula adopted during the dot-com boom of 1999 that allowed most public workers to retire at age 55. By contrast, most employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, would have to work until age 67 to gain their full benefits. Across the state, 707 people started work at local governments and state departments that participated in CalPERS during the last week of 2012. Another 64 employees from the city of Coalinga joined CalPERS that week, meaning 771 public workers entered the network just in time to become eligible for the expiring benefits.
Sun Sentinel: High price for eye-catching Fort Lauderdale parking garage
The Sun sentinel reports an eye-catching parking garage planned on the beach comes with an eye-catching price. The five-level structure at the base of the Las Olas Boulevard bridge will cost almost $21 million, or $31,460 per parking space. By comparison, the 2016 Miami-area average is $16,600 a space, according to national parking consultant Carl Walker Inc. The Broward County Courthouse garage came in at around $18,487 a space, and a 1,000-space Rick Case dealership garage in Davie cost about $17,155 a space, said Paul Kissinger, who heads up the EDSA architectural firm team of Fort Lauderdale, which designed the new beach garage.
Kissinger said the city's garage, which will begin construction in March, will be dramatically different from those two. It will be part of a growing urban trend of turning traditionally drab parking places into stunning architectural statements.
Miami Herald: CIA files show psychics used in hostage crisis to spy on Iran
The Miami Herald reports that U.S. intelligence agencies had a squad of military-trained psychics using ESP to watch the dozens of American diplomats taken hostage by revolutionary students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979, according to declassified documents in a newly available CIA database. Whether the psychics provided any useful intelligence was the subject of a debate among intelligence officials as heated as it was secret. In an operation code-named Grill Flame, half a dozen psychics working inside a dimly lit room in an ancient building in Fort Meade, Maryland, on more than 200 occasions tried to peer through the ether to see where the hostages were being held, how closely they were guarded and the state of their health. Officially, the psychics worked for U.S. Army intelligence. But the documents in the CIA database make it clear their efforts were monitored — and supported — by a wide array of government intelligence agencies as well as top commanders at the Pentagon.
Orlando Sentinel: Florida school districts wrestle with teacher shortage
The Orlando Sentinel reports a billboard on the busy street just off campus calls out to students unsure about life after college: “Become a Hero,” it reads. “Teachers Needed.” The giant orange message is one of two put up near the University of Central Florida by the Orange County school district, literal signs of how eager the region’s largest school district is to recruit more teachers. In the past two years, Orange schools added at least 10,000 new students, more than any other district in Florida. The district hired more than 1,800 new teachers for the current school year and expects to need more by summer, as it opens six new schools. It now has nearly 80 teacher vacancies. Orange administrators and their counterparts across the region and the state face a teacher shortage, one that has prompted them to ramp up recruitment strategies ahead of the 2017-18 school year.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Georgia PTA split by race and rivalry
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports the staid reputation of the Georgia PTA is being riven by allegations of strong-arm politics and toxic rivalries that are pushing members away. The board of directors, which is supposed to represent the interests of parents, teachers and children, staged what vanquished former members describe as a hostile takeover with racial overtones. In recent months, a controlling faction of the board voted off several peers, black and white. There are questions about an election where more ballots were counted than there were delegates voting, plus claims that clever alterations to policies and procedures allowed the faction to hijack the organization. It peaked last month when the board removed its president, a white woman who led the PTA to a prominent political victory that earned a national award for advocacy.
Chicago Tribune: Juries may punish officers, but penalties often negotiable
The Chicago Tribune reports its analysis of court records has found that in case after case the state law that requires police officers to pay punitive damages in civil lawsuits is routinely undercut by negotiations absolving them of the penalties. Of the nearly $1.1 million in punitive damages awarded in police misconduct verdicts the city has paid to resolve since 2009, the Tribune found that Chicago police officers were ultimately responsible for nearly $285,000, an analysis of court records shows. To legal experts, that only undermines the law's intent, which is not only to punish individual officers but also to deter their peers from engaging in similar misconduct. To officers, the fact that some of the awards do stand shows that they can be exposed financially. The fear of having to pay, they say, can have a crippling effect on their willingness to do police work.
Des Moines Register: Iowa’s rising child homicides raising concern
The Des Moines Register reports that a rising number of Iowa children have been victims of homicide the past three years — from abuse, shootings and unsupervised accidents. At least 20 Iowa children died last year, including 11 from suspected abuse, a Reader's Watchdog probe of cases statewide found. The children included Natalie Finn, the West Des Moines 16-year-old who was tortured and starved to death in October. But they also included six children who drowned, four who were fatally shot, one who died when his father crashed and another who was left in a sweltering vehicle. The review of 2016 deaths, culled from media reports across the state, underscores what Iowa's Child Death Review Team noticed after completing research on child deaths from 2013 and 2014. "It's safe to say homicide deaths are on the increase," said John Kraemer, coordinator of the volunteer team, which operates out of the State Medical Examiner's Office.
Baltimore Sun: Carjacking becoming a “youth sport” as numbers climb
The Baltimore Sun reports carjackings in Baltimore have more than tripled since 2013, and the number has continued to climb in the first weeks of 2017, at a rate that has far outpaced other auto thefts. Some other U.S. cities are also seeing increases. Law enforcement officers and analysts see several reasons for the spike. Police in Baltimore note that the overwhelming majority of suspects are young men or juveniles, emboldened by the relative ease of the crime, and a belief that if they're caught, the courts will not treat them harshly. Some see the increase as an unintended consequence of better antitheft security. Electronic key fobs and codes, required to start newer-model cars, have made them more difficult to steal — unless the driver is present. And it's easier to resell a car that has been driven away with its keys than one that's been hotwired, its windows smashed and its steering column busted.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Lawmakers benefit from a push to limit lawsuits
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports Missouri state Sen. Gary Romine, sponsor of a bill that seeks to make it harder to sue businesses for racial discrimination, says the measure will improve “Missouri’s legal climate.” It also could improve Romine’s personal legal climate, making it less likely that his “rent-to-own” furniture business will face any more racial discrimination lawsuits like the one it has been embroiled in for almost two years. Romine, R-Farmington, isn’t the only lawmaker in Jefferson City who is trying to change the law to protect businesses from lawsuits in ways that could theoretically protect his own bottom line as well. Another Republican senator, who is a veterinarian, is sponsoring legislation to put new limits on malpractice suits against veterinarians. And the Senate’s top Republican is trying to change a state consumer-protection law that is currently being used to sue one of his biggest campaign contributors.
New York Times: Federal civil servants shaken by Trump transition
The New York Times reports Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the White House has spread anxiety, frustration, fear and resistance among many of the two million nonpolitical civil servants who say they work for the public, not a particular president. At the Environmental Protection Agency, a group of scientists strategized this past week about how to slow-walk President Trump’s environmental orders without being fired. At the Treasury Department, civil servants are quietly gathering information about whistle-blower protections as they polish their résumés. At the United States Digital Service — the youthful cadre of employees who left jobs at Google, Facebook or Microsoft to join the Obama administration — workers are debating how to stop Mr. Trump should he want to use the databases they made more efficient to target specific immigrant groups.
Cleveland Plain Dealer: Rental inspections could displace poor families
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that if an ethical or moral standard were applied to inspecting Cleveland's low-income rental homes for safety, Mayor Frank Jackson says about three quarters of them would be "closed up." Jackson made the comment last week when discussing the city's long awaited and soon-to-be implemented plan to start citywide inspections of rental units in response to its ongoing lead poisoning crisis. That crisis was revealed in 2015 by The Plain Dealer's Toxic Neglect series, which brought to light serious failings in how the city responded to cases of childhood lead poisoning. The dilemma, as Jackson explained it: if the city too quickly or too aggressively inspects rental properties for health hazards and safety violations such as peeling paint, mold and broken toilets, families may be put out of their homes and landlords unable to rent their properties.
Oregonian: Nine myths about Oregon’s pension fund
The Oregonian reports the growing deficit in the public pension fund is a massive overhang on Oregon's budget and its future. Government employers - and ultimately taxpayers - will see their required contributions soar over the next six years, sucking some $12 billion out of public coffers to mostly pay for legacy costs tied to older members and retirees. That's about double what the bill would be at current rates. At least that's the scenario if the pension fund's investments perform as expected. If they don't, the deficit and contributions could get even bigger. As lawmakers meet this session to determine what can be done to reduce the Public Employee Retirement System's funding deficit, there is misunderstanding and misinformation about the topic and options for dealing with it. Here are some of the common myths around PERS, as well as some areas of debate.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Public schools fight to win back charter school students
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports Quakertown Community spends about $2 million each year on students who choose to attend charters rather than their public schools. As tuition payments to charters bite ever deeper into the budgets of virtually every district in the region, some are beginning aggressive campaigns to win kids back. Their strategies range from direct-mail marketing, to boisterous “back-to-school” rallies with bouncy castles, to pricey new programs such as all-day kindergarten. The drive to woo students away from charters, or persuade them not to enroll in the first place, is high-stakes. At the start of the 2015-16 school year in New Jersey, an estimated 42,000 attended charters. In Pennsylvania, there were nearly 135,000, or 65,000 more than in 2007-08. Much of that 97 percent increase occurred in the Philadelphia region.
Austin American-Statesman: FAA missed chance to ground balloon pilot
The Austin American-Statesman reports Alfred “Skip” Nichols, the chief pilot and owner of the Heart of Texas Balloon Rides, shouldn’t have been flying on the morning of July 30, 2016, when he crashed and died along with 15 passengers. Two years earlier, the Federal Aviation Administration had learned of his lengthy criminal record of alcohol-related driving offenses. Nichols had violated FAA rules by not voluntarily disclosing any of the five incidents, any one of which could have led to the loss of his license. But, in a move that aviation attorneys and experts say is highly unusual, the FAA investigators chose to take no action. Instead of suspending or revoking his pilot’s license, they sent him a warning letter.
Houston Chronicle: Oppositions solidifies against concrete batch plants
The Houston Chronicle reports that for the past year noise from the Integrity Ready Mix plant has plagued residents of Lindale Farms, a neighborhood north of Houston where beauty shops and garages are wedged between rows of homes. Operations like these - called concrete batch plants - play a vital role in Houston by producing the ready-mix concrete used for new buildings and roads. They are given license, by the state, to operate around-the-clock and, by the city, to locate in residential areas. But the plants can be a nuisance for people who live next to them, and they tend to cluster in working-class, minority neighborhoods like Lindale Farms. In south Houston, for example, 18 concrete batch plants sit within a 4-mile radius. A Houston Chronicle analysis shows that Harris County has 188 concrete batch plants, more than any county in Texas and twice the number in Dallas County. Industry officials predict that number will increase over the coming decade as Houston grows.
Seattle Times: The O.R. factory: High volume, big dollars, rising tension
The Seattle Times reports Swedish-Cherry Hill, one of Seattle’s esteemed medical institutions, has seen its neuroscience unit become a hub for the treatment of debilitating conditions of the brain and spine. Ruptured aneurysms. Brain tumors. Mangled spines. The unit’s star surgeons attract patients from all over the Pacific Northwest. But there’s another story behind that sterling reputation. In recent years, a chorus of staff members has warned about issues of patient safety, of concerning practices, of a culture that has gone astray. Patients may never notice the turmoil going on behind the scenes or the issues that have raised so much concern unless things go wrong. In some cases, things have.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Feb. 8, 2017
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Man not guilty on gun charges still sent to prison
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports a jury found Damien Payne not guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm and of carrying a concealed weapon, but he was still sent to prison for more than three years. That’s because Payne, who got out of prison in 2010, was being supervised by the Department of Corrections at the time. As a result, he was subject to a little-known department rule that says it doesn’t matter if ex-offenders on probation or parole are acquitted — they can be sent back to prison based on the same allegations. Payne, 35, said he didn’t know his girlfriend’s gun was in the glove compartment of his car when he was pulled over in July. The jury believed him. His probation and parole agent didn’t.
American-Statesman: Why teachers accused of improprieties aren’t charged
The American Statesman reports that hundreds of Texas primary and secondary teachers lost or surrendered their teaching licenses since 2010 after being investigated for improper relationships with a student. More than half were never criminally charged. In all of those cases, information about the alleged misconduct isn’t easily accessible from the Texas Education Agency and in many instances is kept secret by school districts, allowing those teachers to move on to other teaching jobs or jobs involving contact with children. The American-Statesman reviewed the cases of 686 teachers who surrendered their teaching licenses or whose teaching licenses were revoked by the Texas Education Agency between 2010 and 2016, after the TEA launched investigations for possible improper teacher-student relationships.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Parking authority brass padded salaries
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that three months after Vincent Fenerty Jr. lost his $223,000-a-year job as executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, he pocketed a $227,000 check for nearly 2,000 hours of vacation time, paid leave, and comp time. But Fenerty, forced out of the agency in September amid sexual-harassment complaints, isn’t the only PPA boss who stashed away comp time. Records show that more than a dozen senior PPA staffers at the longtime patronage haven accumulated significant amounts of comp time – in some cases hundreds of hours – while earning six-figure salaries to run agency departments or oversee its finances. Last month, the PPA responded to a Right-to-Know request filed by the Inquirer and Daily News by claiming the agency “does not have records of comp time” and how it was used by Fenerty or “any other” senior staffers. When pressed, PPA officials reversed course and produced a list showing that, in fact, most senior staffers have a running balance of comp time, some of it going back years.
Toledo Blade: Overtime puts sheriff’s deputy at top of payroll
The Toledo Blade reports Eric Grace, a sheriff’s office employee who works at the Lucas County jail, racked up nearly $79,000 in overtime on top of his $49,000 salary in 2016. His total paycheck last year was more than $132,000. The 280 eight-hour overtime shifts worked by Deputy Grace were the most logged by any of the sheriff office’s nearly 500 unionized employees. Sheriff’s office overtime, especially that paid to jail correction officers, is under scrutiny as county officials are looking to reduce spending to offset a projected $10-million revenue loss in state funds next year. Cost-cutting efforts are occurring at the same time that county commissioners are sharing their vision on the model of a future jail to the union representing correction officers. That plan would require using about half the present work force.
Overall compensation for jail employees has edged up 19 percent since 2013, when Sheriff John Tharp was elected.
Washington Post: Documents show Trump still benefitting from his business
The Washington Post reports that before taking office, President Trump promised to place his assets in a trust designed to erect a wall between him and the businesses that made him wealthy. But newly released documents show that Trump himself is the sole beneficiary of the trust and that it is legally controlled by his oldest son and a longtime employee. The documents, obtained through a public records request by the investigative news service ProPublica and first reported by the New York Times, also show that Trump retains the legal power to revoke the trust at any time. The documents were filed to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in Washington to alert the board that oversees liquor licenses at Trump’s D.C. hotel of the change in the business. The documents show that Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, were placed in legal control of the trust on Jan. 19, one day before Trump took office.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Why does city pay $84,000 a year for vacant land?
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that for nearly eight years, the city of Chesterfield has made an annual expenditure of roughly $84,000 that even some of the city’s highest-ranking officials can’t explain. “There was never a discussion, to my knowledge, about how this property would be used,” said Chesterfield City Administrator Mike Geisel. The property is a 1.4-acre vacant gravel lot that sits next to old train tracks. Chesterfield has leased the former brickyard since 2009. The city must keep making the $6,500-a-month rent payments until the 10-year lease ends in March 2019. The agreement also obligates the city to pay the property taxes, which were $7,458 last year. In all, Chesterfield taxpayers will spend roughly $850,000 and receive no discernible benefit.
Courier-Journal: Beef prices stay high but cattle farmers take hit
The Courier-Journal reports that beef, one of the most valuable farm crops from the bluegrass state, used to generate $1 billion in sales annually. Now Kentucky cattle farmers are barely breaking even or losing money for the 1 million young cows, steer or calves sold each year to fatten in feedlots out west. While cattle farmers lose about half of their income, supermarket beef prices have barely budged, edging downward about 10 percent, according to CattleFax, a beef industry analyst firm. The bottom line? Just because the price of a calf sold to a feedlot for fattening and slaughter has tumbled doesn't mean the consumer can find a bargain filet at the supermarket. Beef cost an average $6 per pound in 2015. That historic high slipped to only $5.74 in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like the oil industry, the food industry is highly segmented by middlemen and driven by huge corporate players and volatile trading markets.
Des Moines Register: Sex abusers escape prison time in Iowa
The Des Moines Register reports that since 2007, 17 Iowans working in professions that required them to report suspected child abuse were themselves convicted of sex crimes against children that should have sent them to prison. Instead, they received suspended prison sentences or had their conviction removed from their record in violation of state law. Last year, the Register first reported on seven of the 17 cases involving educators convicted of sex crimes, part of a five-year review that ended in 2016. The Register's latest investigation examined more than 7,800 defendants charged with sex crimes since 2007, finding 75 who were specifically identified as counselors, therapists or school employees. The examination found 10 additional defendants who were convicted of sex crimes with juveniles but received suspended sentences or deferred judgments, even though that's prohibited by Iowa law.
Miami Herald: Is Florida moving too slow to save the Everglades?
The Miami Herald reports that when you’re zooming over the vast Everglades in a helicopter, it’s easy to see how much work is being done to revive the wilted watershed. But at ground level, the view is far different, with sides squared off in bitter fight over just how much remains to be done, and at what pace. For the second year in a row, a proposed $2.4 billion reservoir included in original plans and envisioned somewhere in the sugar fields that now dominate the landscape south of the lake is taking center stage. State Senate President Joe Negron, his Treasure Coast constituents repeatedly hammered by dirty water from Lake Okeechobee, and environmentalists want to speed up its construction by years. Gov. Rick Scott and farmers, however, see the reservoir as a job-killing land grab and say efforts should focus north of the lake, where water storage projects are already underway. The National Academies of Sciences also issued a dismal assessment earlier this year, citing problems that have dogged the $16.4 billion state-federal restoration project almost since its inception in 2000: bureaucratic creep and chronic underfunding.
Sun Sentinel: Airport gun procedures unchanged at Fort Lauderdale
The Sun Sentinel reports month after five tourists were shot and killed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, the procedures for handling guns have not changed and tougher regulations appear unlikely. Broward County, which owns the airport, can't stop people from flying with checked guns or ammunition; legislators in the past have been reluctant to restrict guns; police don't know who's flying in with weapons; and only airlines can control how people pick up those firearms. The best the county can do is ask the sheriff to assign more deputies to the airport, officials said. Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief said she's frustrated that the Jan. 6 shooting hasn't led to a firm proposal for change. "I'm tired of talking. I feel very frustrated about the talking and grandstanding," Sharief said. "Five people lost their lives very senselessly. We need to find a way to prevent that from happening ever again in the United States."
San Diego Union-Tribune: Nuclear plant power players still fighting
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that it’s been five years since the San Onofre nuclear plant closed amid billowing steam and leaking radiation. A $680 million steam generator replacement that was supposed to add 40 years of life to the aging plant instead brought its premature demise. Now the twin reactors on the north San Diego County coast generate drama and political intrigue instead of electricity to serve millions of Southern Californians. The failures that led to the premature closing of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station prompted a swarm of investigations, lawsuits and legislation that continues to unfold from here to Sacramento. Much of the scrutiny has centered on the relationship between majority owner Southern California Edison in Rosemead and state regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco.
Modesto Bee: Modesto braces for spike in pension costs
The Modesto Bee reports Modesto has done the math to gauge the impact of a recent decision that will require it and thousands of other public sector agencies across California to pay more for employee and retiree pensions. The numbers are not pretty. Modesto could be paying as much as $13.5 million more to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System in several years. As a point of reference, the city expects to pay CalPERS $23.3 million in its current budget year. The public sector agencies will pay more because the CalPERS board voted in December to lower its discount rate from 7.5 percent to 7 percent. The rate is what CalPERS expects to earn on its investments. Lower investment earnings mean larger contributions from the roughly 3,000 agencies that belong to CalPERS. Public employees also contribute to the pension system, and newer employees will see their contributions rise.
Santa Fe New Mexican: Courts feel crunch amid economic scarcity
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that every year, legislators descend on the Roundhouse clutching fistfuls of tough-on-crime bills aimed at keeping New Mexicans safe, and, cynics might say, helping themselves to get re-elected. Right behind them come officials from the state judiciary and related agencies, hats in hand, begging for more money with which to prosecute, defend and incarcerate the state’s defendants. This year, with the state mired in a fiscal crisis and the courts and public defenders warning that they may soon be unable to pay juries or defend the indigent, the pleas have reached piercing levels, pitting court officials against the governor and unleashing partisan bickering in the Legislature. The latest skirmish came when Gov. Susana Martinez used her line-item veto power to excise $800,000 in emergency funding for the courts from a routine bill passed by lawmakers to pay for the 60-day legislative session.
Los Angeles Times: An Apache reservation’s toxic legacy
The Los Angeles Times reports how planes delivered a chemical cocktail with components similar to Agent Orange known as Silvex as part of a little-known test effort from 1961 to 1972 to wipe out water-hungry vegetation on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. It was part of a larger effort by the federal government to protect scarce groundwater in the newly booming city of Phoenix. The dioxin-laden herbicide was spread over a population of 10,000 for more than a decade. Now, half a century later, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is sending investigators to the reservation this month to find out exactly what was sprayed and what lingering effects it may have on one of the nation’s poorest Native American reservations. “It’s in our air, our streams, our livestock,” said Charles Vargas, an activist on the reservation, 90 miles northeast of Phoenix. “This is fundamentally a crime, perpetrated on our people by the government, and no one’s ever had to answer for it.”
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Feb. 1, 2017
AP: US military flailing in online fight against Islamic State
The Associated Press reports a counter-propaganda program aimed at thwarting Islamic State recruiting over social media is plagued by incompetence, cronyism and skewed data, an AP investigation has found. Known as "WebOps," the program was launched several years ago by a small group of civilian contractors and military officers assigned to the information operations division at U.S. Central Command's headquarters in Tampa. But internal documents and interviews with more than a dozen people knowledgeable about WebOps suggest a program that appears aimed more at enriching contractors than thwarting terrorism. The people interviewed by AP requested anonymity because they are prohibited from speaking publicly about WebOps due to the sensitive nature of the work and they fear professional repercussions.
Oregonian: Lawmakers pay their business with campaign funds. It’s legal.
The Oregonian reports that 18 times in the last decade Oregon state Sen. Kim Thatcher’s campaign account has written checks to businesses she owns. It's all perfectly legal, and Thatcher, a Republican from Keizer, says she was given approval by elections officials to make the payments. But the transactions raise questions about how the campaign accounts of state lawmakers intersect with their private businesses. Campaign donors expect their money to be spent getting candidates elected. The wrinkle is, it's unusual for candidates to pay themselves in the process. "Are there ethical flags raised? All over the place," said Jim Moore, professor and director of Pacific University's Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation. He characterized lawmakers hiring their own businesses with campaign funds as "something akin to money laundering." Thatcher isn't the only Oregon legislator who has tapped campaign funds to pay their business or nonprofit. At least 10 others have made such payments in the last decade, records show.
Albuquerque Journal: People leaving New Mexico in unprecedented numbers
The Albuquerque Journal reports that since 2010, the number of people living in New Mexico has remained virtually stagnant, compared with significant population increases in neighboring states, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. From 2010 to 2016, New Mexico registered total population growth of just 1.1 percent, compared with 10 percent in Colorado and Utah, nearly 11 percent in Texas and 8 percent in Arizona, according to the Census Bureau. Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., analyzed the census numbers for the Journal and concluded that the population stagnation is unprecedented in New Mexico history. Sanderoff and a University of New Mexico population expert attributed the lack of population growth to a faltering economy – one hit by a national recession, federal spending cuts and, more recently, a crash in prices of oil and natural gas.
Sunday Star Ledger: Fentanyl’s OD deaths could top heroin’s
The Sunday Star Ledger reports that for law enforcement fighting fatal overdoses in New Jersey’s Middlesex County it seems like one step forward and two steps back. Despite the recent decline in fatal heroin overdoses, the overall number of total drug deaths hasn't changed much year-over-year. Fentanyl, a drug 50 times strong than heroin, has been moving into the county at an alarming rate, slowing local agencies' progress in combatting the statewide overdose epidemic, authorities told NJ Advance Media. In 2012, the synthetic opioid accounted for only three deaths in the county and 42 statewide, according to data from New Jersey's Attorney General's Office. By the end of 2015, Middlesex had credited 30 of its 106 fatal overdoses to fentanyl.
Kansas City Star: Election board’s relocation delay costs county double rent
The Kansas City Star reports that when the county executive’s office announced last year that the St. Louis County Election Board headquarters would relocate to the refurbished Northwest Plaza, the timeline put the move after the November general election. January is now nearly gone, and election workers are preparing for the April municipal elections in the space the agency has occupied for better than two decades. The county, as a consequence, is on the hook for two monthly rent payments in excess of $119,000 through April — $58,000 at the Maplewood address and nearly $61,000 for 50,000 square feet where the election board will share space with two other county departments at the Crossings at Northwest, the site of the former Northwest Plaza. “We’re using taxpayer money, for crying out loud,” said Rick Stream, who began his term as the Republican elections director on Jan. 9. “We should be cognizant of that.” The election authority requested the delay to avoid a move that threatened to slow preparations for the April elections.
Boston Globe: Law firms profited from county treasurer’s ties
The Boston Globe reports Plymouth County treasurer Thomas J. O’Brien is an unlikely magnet for campaign contributions from high-powered attorneys in Manhattan and downtown Boston. Yet, since 2007, lawyers from the Thornton Law Firm in Boston and Labaton Sucharow of New York City have given $100,000 to O’Brien’s political campaigns, accounting for almost half of all the donations he’s received over the decade. O’Brien’s popularity with the firms can be traced directly to the small retirement fund that, as county treasurer, he oversees. Fourteen times in the past decade, the Plymouth County retirement system has filed lawsuits on the advice of the lawyers from Labaton and Thornton, charging one corporation after another with misconduct that reduced the value of the retirement system’s investments. Court records show that the retirement fund has collected a grand total of $40,035 from all the lawsuits combined while the lawyers have received 1,000 times that amount: $41.4 million.
Baltimore Sun: Can police address violence and reform simultaneously
The Baltimore Sun reports that days into 2017, as Baltimore's historic spike in homicides stretched into a third calendar year, Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis announced the latest approach to violence. They would reassign 100 officers from mostly administrative posts to join street patrols. They did not say where they would find the officers. But according to transfer documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, nearly half were members of the Police Department's Community Collaboration Division — the unit that was expanded after the unrest of 2015 to rebuild relations with the community. The reassignments slashed the unit by more than 80 percent. A week later, Pugh and Davis appeared again in the same ornate room in City Hall to announce the agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the department. Caught between crime and the consent decree, Baltimore must now disrupt historic levels of violence while remaking the culture of the Police Department.
Des Moines Register: Rising home values left behind some neighborhoods
The Des Moines Register reports home prices have reached record highs, and Polk County's median home value has climbed to nearly $150,000. A wave of new homebuyers has prompted fast-paced sales. Bidding wars have broken out for homes in popular neighborhoods, where prices have surged more than 10 percent since the housing crash in 2008. But Des Moines' housing surge has left behind thousands of homeowners in poorer neighborhoods that have seen their home values fall as much as 13 percent — even as the economy rebounded, The Des Moines Register's exclusive analysis of Polk County assessment data shows. The Register found that in the five Polk County census tracts where house values rose the most from 2011 to 2015, a typical home increased about $25,000. But in the five tracts where assessed values fell the most, a typical home dropped by more than $5,000. Declining home equity puts poorer homeowners at an even greater disadvantage and widens the wealth gap, affordable housing advocates say.
Indianapolis Star: Elusive funding for Pence’s bicentennial projects dogs state
The Indianapolis Star reports Vice President Mike Pence has a new home in Washington, D.C., and an office in the White House, but back in Indiana, state officials are still scrambling to figure out how to pay for several bicentennial construction projects Pence initiated as governor without a solid financing plan. At issue are $53.5 million in new projects Pence sought as part of the state’s 200th birthday celebration last year. They included a new $2 million Bicentennial Plaza at the Indiana Statehouse, a $2.5 million education center at the neighboring State Library, a new $25 million state archives building and a $24 million inn at Potato Creek State Park in St. Joseph County. Skeptical lawmakers allowed Pence to spend taxpayer money on the projects as part of the state's 200th birthday celebration after he assured them he could pay for projects by leasing excess space on the Indiana's 340 state-owned cell towers. But two years after those assurances were made, a cell tower deal has yet to materialize.
Chicago Tribune: Bonds raised for gun crimes but suspects getting out faster
The Chicago Tribune reports that since Chicago's violence rate began to spike in 2012, Cook County judges have doubled the amount of bond set for people charged with felony gun crimes. If judges hoped the increase would keep armed gang members off the streets until their cases were decided, that did not happen. Despite increasingly high bonds, the opposite has happened — the same group of those charged with gun crimes is getting out of jail more than twice as fast as they were four years ago, according to a Tribune analysis of jail data of arrests and bonds. At the same time, the Chicago Police Department is making fewer gun arrests and recovering fewer guns. From 2012 through the end of last year, the number of guns recovered fell by 33 percent and the number of arrests dropped by nearly 9 percent overall despite a recent uptick, according to department figures.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: City blocks release of records in bribery probe
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports the administration of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has put a lock on public documents that could shed light on the bribery scandal enveloping City Hall — a move that First Amendment experts say stonewalls the public’s right to know about city operations, and could violate the state’s sunshine laws. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have been denied numerous requests for information about Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., a prominent Atlanta construction contractor who federal prosecutors say is the central figure in the million-dollar corruption scheme. The city’s law department has cited the on-going federal investigation as its reason for withholding the records, which include emails between city officials that mention Mitchell or his companies, and contracts awarded to his companies. Experts say the city’s position seems to conflict with the state’s sunshine law, which does not allow governments to withhold records from the public just because they may be related to an investigation.
Sun Sentinel: Bus driver in tragedy back behind wheel
The Sun Sentinel reports a Broward County bus driver has been returned to his job, despite his bosses' conclusion that he broke safety laws, ignored horrified screams from bus passengers, and left a 14-year-old boy permanently injured. Reinaldo Soto, 59, drives a Broward County Transit bus on Powerline Road's Route 14, county transit officials said. He was removed from the job after the high-profile tragedy nearly four years ago. But records released to the Sun Sentinel this week reveal an arbitrator's decision to return him to the roads in 2014. The Soto case highlights a bus system criticized as being too forgiving to drivers involved in accidents. A Sun Sentinel investigation in December 2013 found that Broward County Transit repeatedly allowed drivers with troubled histories to remain on the roads. The county auditor also found serious flaws in driver discipline and the tracking of bus accidents.
New Haven Register: Connecticut sees rise in pedestrian deaths
The New Haven Register reports more than 50 people were reportedly killed last year in Connecticut as a result of a pedestrian-involved motor vehicle crash, the highest number of pedestrian fatalities related to motor vehicle accidents since 1995, according to the University of Connecticut’s Crash Data Repository. There were 1,402 pedestrian-involved motor vehicle crashes reported to the research center from local police departments last year, said Eric Jackson, director of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center, which runs the crash data repository at UConn. Data is still being compiled and updated, Jackson said, but a search on the repository this week revealed that there were 54 pedestrian fatalities from motor vehicle crashes already reported for last year. Nationally, the numbers are high as well, based on information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While 2016 data is not yet available, the agency reported that in 2015 there were 5,376 pedestrian deaths nationwide as a result of motor vehicle crashes — the highest number of deaths since 1996.
San Francisco Chronicle: Aid to homeless reveals extent of heroin use
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Oakland leaders had ambitious goals three months ago when they sought to bring basic services and help to a squalid, needle-strewn homeless camp at 35th and Magnolia streets. The idea, they said, was to offer a humane alternative to sending in cleanup crews and clearing the 39 homeless people out. Instead, city employees hosed off the sidewalks, added portable toilets and trash bins, and provided counselors to help get the campers into housing. They installed concrete barricades to prevent the camp from growing and set a March 31 deadline to get everyone housed. Halfway through the effort, officials are finding out just how difficult it is to follow through with their bighearted intentions. And the city’s involvement has stirred controversy, with some neighbors applauding the efforts and others denouncing them. Perhaps the most entrenched problem facing the city is that many of the homeless people at 35th and Magnolia streets are addicted to heroin.
New York Times: Troops who cleaned up radioactive islands can’t get care
The New York Times reports roughly 4,000 troops helped clean up fallout from dozens of nuclear tests on the ring of coral islands known as Enewetak Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between 1977 and 1980. Hundreds say they are now plagued by health problems, including brittle bones, cancer and birth defects in their children. Many are already dead. Others are too sick to work. The military says there is no connection between these illnesses and the cleanup. Radiation exposure during the work fell well below recommended thresholds, it says, and safety precautions were top notch. So the government refuses to pay for the veterans’ medical care. Congress long ago recognized that troops were harmed by radiation on Enewetak during the original atomic tests, which occurred in the 1950s, and should be cared for and compensated. Still, it has failed to do the same for the men who cleaned up the toxic debris 20 years later.
Read more: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/28/us/troops-radioactive-islands-medical-care.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
Seattle Times: Washington’s 30-year earthquake drill for the “Big One”
The Seattle Times reports Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered a new report on seismic danger, adding to a paper trail of recommendations that have largely been ignored for decades. On Jan. 17, Inslee strode into an auditorium in Olympia with a message for the new subcabinet he formed to help prepare the state for a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. “The science is clear that we have in our future a megaquake,” Inslee said. “The establishment of the subcabinet is our attempt to marshal the resources of the state to have a coordinated resilience plan.”
But the governor’s rhetoric gave way to some familiar realities in Washington state. The subcabinet has no budget, staff or regulatory authority — and simply creating it took more than three years, internal records show. The dozen state officials assembled onstage were on loan from their day jobs. And the members are responsible for delivering just one product: a draft of their findings by July.
Tennessean: The power of the lobbyist
The Tennessean reports it's no surprise that in Tennessee politics, some companies use lobbyists and the power of the purse to have legislative sway. A Tennessean analysis of lobbyist compensation, expenses, campaign expenditures and legislative registration in recent years shows millions of dollars spent by hundreds of organizations every year to become power players at the statehouse. Lobbyists routinely meet with legislators, create client strategies and often write the actual language in a bill on behalf of a lawmaker. A winning strategy doesn't always mean passing a new law. Many times a win means killing legislation or orchestrating a public campaign to educate key lawmakers. Some say this gives a handful of people too much influence on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists, however, say they merely represent the interests of a broad swath of constituents and do much more than try to win for their client.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Region has hundreds of problem bridges.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the Delaware River Bridge was not one inspectors thought they had to worry about. The steel-truss bridge was in fact undergoing a $61 million upgrade. Evaluated in 2014 on its three key components -- deck, substructure, and superstructure -- the 60-year-old bridge got passing marks in all three. Yet last week a worker on a painting crew happened to spot, by chance, something so alarming, authorities rushed to close the bridge to the 42,000 cars that cross it each day: a beam beneath the bridge’s deck split in two. "It was absolutely amazing to see a crack like this," said Henry Berman, chief PennDot engineer for the district. The 1.2-mile bridge remains closed and, if inspected today, would be labeled "structurally deficient," a designation that describes nearly one in five bridges in Pennsylvania, the second-worst ranking in the country. An Inquirer analysis of federal and state transportation data identified the 30 poorest-rated bridges in the Philadelphia area that are heavily traveled and also designated as “structurally deficient.”
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Jan. 26, 2017
Toledo Blade: University athletics audit chronicles disarray
When Arizona workers refused to let Maribel Ontiveros see her son Christopher at the hospital, then came to her house three days later at 3:30 in the morning to take away her other two children, she kept asking what seemed a simple question: Why?
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Jan. 17, 2017
AP: Lie detectors trip applicants at border agency
The Associated Press reported that two out of three applicants to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection fail its polygraph, according to the agency — more than double the average rate of eight law enforcement agencies that provided data to The Associated Press under open-records requests. It's a big reason approximately 2,000 jobs at the nation's largest law enforcement agency are empty, with the Border Patrol, a part of CBP, recently slipping below 20,000 agents for the first time since 2009. And it has raised questions of whether the lie detector tests are being properly administered. CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said the failure rate is too high, but that it's largely because the agency hasn't attracted the applicants it wants. He and other law enforcement experts contend the polygraphs are generally working as intended at the agency, which has been trying to root out bribery and other corruption.
Los Angeles Times: California bullet train hurtling towards huge cost overrun
The Los Angeles Times reports California’s bullet train could cost taxpayers 50 percent more than estimated — as much as $3.6 billion more. And that’s just for the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest part of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion. The federal document outlines far-reaching management problems: significant delays in environmental planning, lags in processing invoices for federal grants and continuing failures to acquire needed property. The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.
Washington Post: Tiny ethics office takes on Trump’s business ties
The Washington Post reports President-elect Donald Trump’s refusal to divest from his global business empire has provoked a showdown in Washington over government ethics, pitting a small federal agency tasked with preventing conflicts of interest against the incoming administration and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill. The dispute erupted Friday, Jan. 13, after a top House Republican demanded to question the director of the independent Office of Government Ethics, who took the unusual step this week of denouncing Trump for retaining ownership of his businesses while transferring management to his sons. With Republicans and Democrats weighing in, the episode has brought unprecedented attention to a usually obscure office and its director, Walter Shaub Jr., who became an instant sensation on Twitter and in news headlines this week. He blasted Trump’s plan as “meaningless” and said the president-elect is not meeting the standards set by “the best of his nominees.”
Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/trumps-business-ties-prompt-a-showdown-between-a-tiny-ethics-office-and-the-gop/2017/01/13/0dc1b500-d9c8-11e6-b8b2-cb5164beba6b_story.html?utm_term=.ec251c628ef2
Boston Globe: Climate change is biggest threat to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago
The Boston Globe reports that few places are as vulnerable to the rising seas as this tony barrier island, a narrow, 16-mile strip of sprawling estates and pampered gardens between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Worth. The advancing ocean has already cost residents here millions of dollars, and will probably exact a far greater toll in the years to come, town officials say. An overwhelming majority of scientists attribute sea level rise to climate change, and they warn that the oceans could rise substantially in the coming decades. Yet the most influential of the island’s 8,100 residents — President-elect Donald Trump — has dismissed the threat of global warming, calling it “a hoax.” Around Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s opulent estate here, rising sea levels are largely seen as a present danger, not a distant risk.
Star Tribune; Food stamp enrollment swells among elderly Minnesotans
New York Times: Trump’s E.P.A. pick backed industry donors over regulators
The New York Times reports a legal fight to clean up tons of chicken manure fouling the waters of Oklahoma’s bucolic northeastern corner — much of it from neighboring Arkansas — was in full swing six years ago when the conservative lawyer Scott Pruitt took office as Oklahoma’s attorney general. His response: Put on the brakes. Rather than push for a federal judge to punish the companies by extracting perhaps tens of millions of dollars in damages, Oklahoma’s new chief law enforcement officer quietly negotiated a deal to simply study the problem further. The move came after he had taken tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from executives and lawyers for the poultry industry. It was one of a series of instances in which Mr. Pruitt put cooperation with industry before confrontation as he sought to blunt the impact of federal environmental policies in his state — against oil, gas, agriculture and other interests.
Read more: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/14/us/scott-pruitt-trump-epa-pick.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
Columbus Dispatch: Narcotic pain pills still plentiful in Ohio
The Columbus Dispatch reports heroin and fentanyl grab the headlines, but narcotic painkillers still fill Ohio medicine cabinets. Drug-overdose deaths in Ohio continue to soar, with the 2016 toll expected to far exceed the record 3,050 in 2015. Increasingly, heroin and fentanyl are responsible for overdose deaths. But narcotic pain pills such as OxyContin continue to be a problem. Records show that many Ohioans get dozens of pills a year. Significantly, that’s usually the starting point for people who later become addicted to heroin and other hard drugs. Almost no one goes directly to heroin, experts say. The Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System, the computer system that tracks how drugs are prescribed and dispensed, shows that 2.6 million people received 11.2 million prescriptions for opioid pills in 2015, the last full year for which statistics are available. There were 684.2 million pills dispensed in 2015, an 11.3 percent drop from 2010.
Austin American-Statesman: Texas A-F grades give boost to charter schools
The Austin American-Statesman reports critics of the new A-F grading system for Texas schools have long warned that the state’s letter grades would give an undeserved boost to charter schools. An American-Statesman analysis of the advisory A-F grades issued this month shows that charter schools did fare better compared with their traditional public school peers under the letter grade system than they did under the state’s old ratings. The advisory grades show how schools and districts would have performed for the 2015-16 school year if the A-F rating system already had been in place. Under the existing accountability system, charter schools that year were slightly more likely to have at least one failing mark than traditional public schools. But traditional schools — not charters — were more likely to fail under the new letter grades, even though data from the same year were used to calculate them, the Statesman analysis shows.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Jan. 12, 2017
AP: Trump has taken few steps to disentangle from private empire
The Associated Press reported that while President-elect Donald Trump pledged to step away from his family-owned international real estate development, property management and licensing business before taking office Jan. 20, with less than two weeks until his inauguration, he hasn't stepped very far. Trump has canceled a handful of international deals and dissolved a few shell companies created for prospective investments. Still, he continues to own or control some 500 companies that make up the Trump Organization, creating a tangle of potential conflicts of interest without precedent in modern U.S. history. The president-elect is expected to give an update on his effort to distance himself from his business at a Wednesday, Jan. 11, news conference. He told The Associated Press on Friday, Jan. 6, that he would be announcing a "very simple solution." Ethics experts have called for Trump to sell off his assets and place his investments in a blind trust, which means something his family would not control. That's what previous presidents have done.
Oregonian: “Escaped” GMO grass defies eradication, divides seed industry
The Oregonian reports that after more than a decade of unsuccessful efforts to eradicate the genetically modified grass it created and allowed to escape, lawn and garden giant Scotts Miracle-Gro now wants to step back and shift the burden to Oregonians. The federal government is poised to allow that to happen by relinquishing its oversight, even as an unlikely coalition of farmers, seed dealers, environmentalists, scientists and regulators cry foul. The altered grass has taken root in Oregon, of all places, the self-professed grass seed capital of the world with a billion-dollar-a-year industry at stake. The grass has proven hard to kill because it's been modified to be resistant to Roundup, the ubiquitous, all-purpose herbicide. The situation is particularly tense in Malheur County, where Scotts' altered grass has taken root after somehow jumping the Snake River from test beds in Idaho.
Des Moines Register: Penny sales tax funds athletic, extra school projects
The Des Moines Register reported that a rural school district in northern Iowa opened a $3.1 million gym in December complete with indoor track, weight room, treadmills and elliptical machines. Plans call for adding televisions and weekend yoga classes. West Fork Schools hired a full-time attendant to oversee gym memberships, which families can purchase for $300 a year, and classes such as Zumba and aerobics. During school hours, it's closed to the public. The project was largely paid for with revenue generated by a statewide penny sales tax originally intended to finance school infrastructure upgrades such as replacing aging roofs and windows. It's among dozens of athletic or extracurricular spending projects The Des Moines Register found after surveying more than 50 of Iowa's 333 school districts. The sample represented various sizes and geographies, and asked how the schools spent tax revenue.
Louisville Courier-Journal: Child abuse findings voided secretly in Kentucky
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that after grabbing the teenage girl from behind, Kevin Watson, a security monitor for Jefferson County Public Schools, slammed her head to the table, opening a gash that splashed blood on the girl's clothes, the table and the floor, according to accounts of witnesses at Breckinridge Metropolitan High School. Yet, despite a state Child Protective Services investigation that substantiated the incident as child abuse, Watson has a clean record with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Using a secret process, Watson, exercising his right to a confidential appeal, was able to overturn the cabinet's child abuse finding against him. That kept his name from being added to an official list — also confidential — known as the state Child Abuse and Neglect Registry that can restrict adults from some occupations or activities, such as child care, working or volunteering with youths or serving as foster parents. And data obtained from the cabinet by the Courier-Journal show Watson's case is not unique.
Times Picayune: Children of incarcerated parents are forgotten victims
The Times Picayune reports that thousands of children in Louisiana, although they have done no wrong and committed no crimes, are being punished for their parents' mistakes. They are the hidden casualties of the state's world-leading mass incarceration rate, and, beginning Monday, Jan. 9, The Times-Picayune plans to explore the damage done to children when a parent is sent to prison. The multi-part series exposes how law enforcement and the courts don't always recognize that the people they arrest, prosecute and sentence are more than just suspects: often they are mothers and fathers. And their imprisonment will affect children, households and entire communities. The series will show how parents charged with nonviolent offenses are held for months -- sometimes years -- as they await trial simply because they are too poor to pay bail and how this practice can leave children teetering on the edge of homelessness or falling into the foster care system.
Austin American-Statesman: Bad grades, hiring practices doom lab leader
The Austin American-Statesman reports that when Austin police embarked on hiring a new chief forensics officer a few months ago, officials said they wanted a top-flight scientist to resurrect their shuttered DNA lab and restore confidence in its work. Their pick was Scott Milne, who has worked in both law enforcement and private forensics labs in Arizona and Colorado, for the $111,000 position. Today, Milne is being paid to stay home. No one — not human resources staff, not an interview panel, not department brass — noticed or flagged a less-than-stellar college transcript Milne gave them with his application. Had they, they would have seen that Milne’s academic history was pockmarked with failing grades, including many courses directly related to his career, according to records obtained by the American-Statesman.
New York Times: Kushner, Trump in-law and adviser, chases a Chinese deal
The New York Times reports that on the night of Nov. 16, a group of executives gathered in a private dining room of the restaurant La Chine at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The table was laden with Chinese delicacies and $2,100 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild. At one end sat Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of the Waldorf’s owner, Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese financial behemoth with estimated assets of $285 billion and an ownership structure shrouded in mystery. Close by sat Jared Kushner, a major New York real estate investor whose father-in-law, Donald J. Trump, had just been elected president of the United States. Since the election, intense scrutiny has been trained on Mr. Trump’s company and the potential conflicts of interest he will face. But with Mr. Kushner laying the groundwork for his own White House role, the meeting at the Waldorf shines a light on his family’s multibillion-dollar business, Kushner Companies, and on the ethical thicket he would have to navigate while advising his father-in-law on policy that could affect his bottom line.
Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/us/politics/jared-kushner-trump-business.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
Arizona Republic: Pattern of political donations raises concerns
The Arizona Republic reports that most top campaign donors in Phoenix city elections are well-known figures — developers, sports team owners and political consultants. But one major donor is a mystery to many candidates who benefited from the thousands of dollars he gave over the past five years: Bishop Monty Moody. He leads a church in a building behind his Peoria home. Moody, his family and associates have become one of the largest sources of individual contributions to candidates running for office in Phoenix. A review of public records shows little obvious interest in Phoenix politics for Moody save one thing: his longstanding and close relationship with political consultant Joe Villasenor, a former city staffer who works with developers that have business at City Hall. Contributors tied to the church gave another nearly $8,000 in Glendale, where Villasenor has done work.
Seattle Times: How Washington state education system hurts poor schools
The Seattle Times reports that this year’s legislative session in Olympia will be an 11th-hour culmination of the puzzle handed down to lawmakers by Washington state’s highest court, which said in an 2012 decision that Washington chronically underfunds public schools. By 2018, the court ruled, legislators need to find billions of new dollars for education. Many onlookers see this moment as an unusual opportunity not only to increase overall investment in schools, but also to shift the way Washington allocates education funding. Simply injecting more money into a system that distributes it haphazardly, or inequitably, they point out, could deepen imbalances that already exist.. Without a new model, resolving the McCleary school-funding lawsuit may answer the court’s mandate, but not the question of what to do about hundreds of thousands of kids who start out behind and remain there.
New York Times: Confirmation hearings begin without all background checks
The New York Times reports that as Senate Republicans embark on a flurry of confirmation hearings this week, several of Donald J. Trump’s appointees have yet to complete the background checks and ethics clearances customarily required before the Senate begins to consider cabinet-level nominees. Republicans, who are expected to hold up to five hearings on Wednesday, Jan. 11, alone, say they simply want to ensure that the new president has a team in place as soon as possible. “I believe all the president-elect’s cabinet appointments will be confirmed,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said. But Democrats are calling for the process to be slowed and for the hearings to be spread out. That, they say, would allow more time to vet the nominees. “Our first overarching focus is getting tax returns and ethics forms,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota.
San Francisco Chronicle: Emergency dispatchers fall behind
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that national guidelines say that 90 percent of 911 calls should be answered within 10 seconds, a standard San Francisco has not met since early 2012. The state standard says 95 percent of calls should be picked up within 15 seconds. At San Francisco’s 911 call center — where hiring freezes have left staffing short and emergency call volume has surged — only about 79 percent of the 1.27 million emergency calls received in 2015, the latest year for which data are available, were answered within the 10-second standard, a Chronicle analysis shows. Nonemergency calls trended lower, with an average of 57 percent of calls answered within the recommended one-minute mark. The number of calls to San Francisco’s call center jumped from 919,908 in 2007 to 1.26 million in 2015, paralleling a swell in the city’s population.
Los Angeles Times: Pay raise comes with loss of cheap childcare for some
The Los Angeles Times reports hen the minimum wage in California rose to $10.50 an hour Jan. 1, more than a million people got a raise. But for an untold number of families across the state, that pay bump could price them out of child care. It’s an unintended consequence that was never part of the plan,” says Rich Winefield, the former executive director of Bananas, a day-care and preschool referral agency in Oakland. “It’s unbelievable that we have policy that creates this.” This year, for the first time, two parents working full time at minimum-wage jobs, with one child, will be considered too well off to qualify for state subsidies for day care and preschool. It’s been 10 years since the state set the threshold for who is poor enough to get the benefit, which is pegged to 2005 income levels. That’s just one of the likely ripple effects a rising wage will have for California businesses, their employees and their customers.
Washington Post: Makers of gun silencers want restrictions lifted
The Washington Post reports the federal government has strictly limited the sale of firearm silencers for as long as James Bond and big-screen gangsters have used them to discreetly shoot enemies between the eyes. Now the gun industry, which for decades has complained about the restrictions, is pursuing new legislation to make silencers easier to buy, and a key backer is Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter and the oldest son of the president-elect, who campaigned as a friend of the gun industry.
They hope to position the bill not as a Second Amendment issue, but as a public-health effort to safeguard the eardrums of the nation’s 55 million gun owners. They even named it the Hearing Protection Act. It would end treating silencers as the same category as machine guns and grenades, thus eliminating a $200 tax and a nine-month approval process.
Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/gun-silencers-are-hard-to-buy-donald-trump-jr-and-silencer-makers-want-to-change-that/2017/01/07/0764ab4c-d2d2-11e6-9cb0-54ab630851e8_story.html?utm_term=.0e640920daaa
Dallas Morning News: Child abuse deaths on rise despite governor’s efforts
The Dallas Morning News reports that shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott took office in 2015, he promised to overhaul the state’s child welfare system and made an ambitious goal: no more child deaths. To that end, Abbott placed the Department of Family and Protective Services under his thumb. But despite Abbott’s heavy hand, Child Protective Services has been in a state of perpetual crisis under his watch and, by nearly every metric, has gotten worse at protecting children. Data obtained through an open records request shows that more Texas children died of abuse and neglect since the governor's office began applying pressure on the agency to improve last year. In fiscal year 2016, at least 202 Texas children died because of maltreatment, compared with 173 the year before. That toll will probably rise as the state reviews 123 more fatalities.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Convicted kingpin left trail of blighted houses
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Elgin DeMarco Jordan may have been dealing cocaine and heroin, but he was an Atlanta businessman just the same. And when the suspected head of a major area drug-trafficking organization had money to spare, he did just what amateur investors, venture capitalists and other businessmen tend to do in Atlanta nowadays. He snapped up blighted, cut-rate real estate in the city’s struggling Westside neighborhoods, looking to cash in on the intown boom. “I got so many properties, I can’t think sometimes,” Jordan, 42, told an undercover agent, a federal court filing states. Owners in Atlanta’s blighted neighborhoods often remain hidden behind shell companies and non-existent addresses, but Jordan’s criminal prosecution for drug dealing lifts the veil on how a single owner can impact a community.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK
Arizona Daily Star: Penalties for workplace safety violations cut in Arizona
The Arizona Daily Star reports Phoenix roofers labored 20 feet above the ground without guardrails or fall-protection gear. In Tempe, workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals, including chlorine gas, without an adequate safety plan. An untrained Mesa worker was injured using a machine that didn’t guard human limbs from moving parts. After all three workplace safety violations this year, officials from the cited businesses showed up at an Industrial Commission of Arizona meeting, asked for a reduction in the penalties proposed by occupational safety inspectors — and got it. Now, federal officials are scrutinizing the unusual practices of the governor-appointed commission. In Arizona, civil penalties imposed for hazardous working conditions aren’t only subject to reductions during settlement conferences or formal appeals with employers. Unlike in all other states, penalties here can also undergo an early round of cuts that are largely unaccounted for because they happen before the penalties are even issued
Los Angeles Times: OxyContin goes global and is “just getting started”
The Los Angeles Times, exploring the role of OxyContin in the nation’s opioid epidemic, reports the drug is a dying business in America. With the nation in the grip of an opioid epidemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, the U.S. medical establishment is turning away from painkillers. Top health officials are discouraging primary care doctors from prescribing them for chronic pain, saying there is no proof they work long-term and substantial evidence they put patients at risk. Prescriptions for OxyContin have fallen nearly 40 percent since 2010, meaning billions in lost revenue for its Connecticut manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. So the company’s owners, the Sackler family, are pursuing a new strategy: A network of international companies owned by the family is moving rapidly into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions, and pushing for broad use of painkillers in places ill-prepared to deal with the ravages of opioid abuse and addiction.
Chicago Tribune: Pharmacies miss half of dangerous drug combinations
The Chicago Tribune , in the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, tested 255 pharmacies to see how often stores would dispense dangerous drug pairs without warning patients. Fifty-two percent of the pharmacies sold the medications without mentioning the potential interaction, striking evidence of an industry wide failure that places millions of consumers at risk. CVS, the nation's largest pharmacy retailer by store count, had the highest failure rate of any chain in the Tribune tests, dispensing the medications with no warning 63 percent of the time. Walgreens, one of CVS' main competitors, had the lowest failure rate at 30 percent — but that's still missing nearly 1 in 3 interactions. In response to the Tribune tests, CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart each vowed to take significant steps to improve patient safety at its stores nationwide. Combined, the actions affect 22,000 drugstores and involve additional training for 123,000 pharmacists and technicians.
Baltimore Sun: Young women treated more harshly in justice system
The Baltimore Sun reports young women are disproportionately locked up for misdemeanors, which are low-level offenses, in Maryland’s juvenile justice system. And they are more likely than boys to be taken before a judge for probation offenses such as running away, breaking curfew and defying their parents. Once in the system, they are often detained longer. At the state’s most secure facilities, they are committed 25 percent longer, on average, than boys, even though girls are less likely to be there for felonies or violent offenses. There are racial disparities as well. African-American girls in Maryland are nearly five times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than white girls. That’s twice the national disparity.
Moreover, juvenile advocates and public defenders say facilities for girls are dilapidated or unsafe. They also offer fewer vocational and treatment options, compared with the facilities for young men.
New York Times: How Russian cyberpower invaded the U.S.
The New York Times reports that when Special Agent Adrian Hawkins of the Federal Bureau of Investigation called the Democratic National Committee in September 2015 to pass along some troubling news about its computer network, he was transferred, naturally, to the help desk. His message was brief, if alarming. At least one computer system belonging to the D.N.C. had been compromised by hackers federal investigators had named “the Dukes,” a cyberespionage team linked to the Russian government. It was the cryptic first sign of a cyberespionage and information-warfare campaign devised to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, the first such attempt by a foreign power in American history. What started as an information-gathering operation, intelligence officials believe, ultimately morphed into an effort to harm one candidate, Hillary Clinton, and tip the election to her opponent, Donald J. Trump.
Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/us/politics/russia-hack-election-dnc.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=a-lede-package-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: States fail to meet newborn screening goals
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports most states have not met federal benchmarks to screen newborns in a timely manner for serious yet treatable genetic disorders, according to a new report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Although progress has been made, no states met a goal to have 95 percent of results reported to pediatricians within five days of birth for babies with the most time-sensitive conditions. And no states had 95 percent of samples reach their state lab within 24 hours of being collected. As part of a bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2014, the report was required in response to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation that found infants have died and suffered permanent disabilities because of screening delays by hospitals and state labs. The investigation was triggered by a Wisconsin baby who nearly died and was left brain damaged due to a delayed screening in 2012.
Seattle Times: Earthquake insurances prices soar in Washington
The Seattle Times reported State Farm filed documents in 2014 with Washington state’s insurance regulator seeking approval to raise earthquake rates around the state, including by 39 percent for commercial property in King County and by 117 percent for Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. A state insurance official called State Farm’s proposed profit “absurdly high” and objected to any rate increase, according to state records. But the regulator, negotiating on the public’s behalf, was at a disadvantage: Insurers in Washington don’t have to offer earthquake insurance if they dislike the terms, and State Farm is the state’s largest licensed provider of quake coverage. When the company refused to back down, Washington’s insurance regulator approved the rate hike, as requested. That lopsided negotiation is typical in Washington, where companies almost always get the earthquake rates they ask for, an examination by The Seattle Times has found.
Houston Chronicle: No officers indicted in over 200 shootings since 2012
The Houston Chronicle reports prosecutors in all but one of Texas' biggest counties have launched a spate of police officer prosecutions in the shootings of unarmed or mentally ill people over the past three years that parallels a similar rise in police prosecutions nationwide. Harris County, which leads the state in police shootings by a wide margin, is the exception. Prosecutors have presented evidence in more than 200 officer-involved shootings to grand juries here since 2012. One of every five individuals shot by police was unarmed. But in every case, the officer was not indicted, records show. In an interview, newly elected Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she will attempt to make videotapes of shootings by officers available first to families and then to the public "as soon as possible" to boost transparency and public confidence of shooting reviews.
Austin American-Statesman: Officials get $25,000 bonus, no questions asked
The Austin American-Statesman reports a little-known state program that allows the most powerful county officials in Texas to goose their annual salaries by as much as 50 percent operates with no oversight and is being exploited by some, wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money. Despite their title, constitutional county judges are the top administrative officers in Texas counties, elected to oversee budgets and preside over commissioners courts. They are often compared to city mayors. Yet the state constitution also empowers them to perform many courtroom functions. In smaller or isolated counties lacking law-school-trained judges, especially, the work is essential. For the past 20 years Texas legislators have offered a bonus: County judges who spend at least 40 percent of their time managing court cases can earn a perk on top of their salaries. A Statesman analysis shows some appear to do little for the extra pay. Others perform it more as a lucrative side gig than as a government necessity.
Oregonian: How justice system in Oregon treats trooper who slapped son
The Oregonian reports former state Trooper James Duncan slapped his 11-year-old son so hard across the face that it knocked him down. Duncan could have faced a felony charge and permanently lost the right to have a gun. But that's not what happened. He made a deal to plead guilty to a misdemeanor -- and then went back to court for a do-over when it turned out the first arrangement wasn't as favorable as he had thought. He kept his police certification. And he won special permission to carry a gun for work -- twice. Along the way, Duncan got the benefit of the doubt from the district attorney in Washington County, a trial judge, a retired Oregon Supreme Court justice and the guardians of Oregon's police standards. Even so, he lost his job last month when Oregon State Police decided he couldn't be trusted. But he's already trying to get it back. Duncan's case shows how an elite police officer with powerful friends can negotiate out from under mandatory gun prohibitions.
Columbus Dispatch: Ohio’s messy lame duck sessions generate oponents
The Columbus Dispatch reports that to taste the craziness of the Ohio legislature’s lame-duck session it tracked what happened with the most recent concealed-carry legislation. More than two dozen opponents showed up at the Statehouse on Nov. 30 to testify against legislation to expand Ohio’s concealed-carry law — and they talked to mostly empty chairs. Most Senate committee members were elsewhere, including at other committee meetings that were stacked up on the calendar as bills were being rushed into hearings. One witness chastised the panel because only three of 12 senators were present to listen. Two of the three senators then announced that they had to leave for other matters. House Bill 48, which allows concealed carry on college campuses and day-care centers as long as trustees or business owners agree, was amended and passed out of committee. The next day, it was amended again on the Senate floor to alter language involving carrying guns in public buildings, and it was passed. But it became even more complicated.
Kansas City Star: How detectives “dropped ball” in child abuse cases
The Kansas City Star reports a look into the troubled Kansas City Police Department’s Crimes Against Children unit found what one police commander called the biggest systemic failure he had ever seen. The problems were so deep that the Police Department launched an internal affairs investigation and in January suspended seven of the unit’s eight detectives entrusted to seek justice for raped, molested or otherwise abused children. The Smith case is one of scores touched by those detectives winding through the courts, warts and all. Between those cases, and ones never charged, obstacles abound in obtaining justice, The Star found in a new analysis of the fallout of the unit’s failures. The Star first revealed the severity of the unit’s problems three months ago, showing that the department in late 2015 identified nearly 150 “severely mishandled” cases, including “gross negligence” and even possible police deceit.
Arizona Republic: $1 billion went to Navajos. So where did it go?
The Arizona Republic reports the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, or NAHASDA, took effect in 1998 to ease housing shortages in Indian country. The Navajo Nation, the country’s largest tribe and whose reservation is one of the poorest places in America, gets the biggest share — $1.66 billion since it was enacted. Despite that, an Arizona Republic investigation found the Navajo Housing Authority, the agency responsible for that money, has failed in ways almost too numerous to count. Among them, more than $100 million has been squandered on projects that never housed anyone. Some housing developments sit empty years after they were built. In the northern Arizona community of Tolani Lake, nearly $7 million was wasted on igloo-shaped fourplexes that still sit empty.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Checks on Uber and Lyft drivers “hit or miss”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports Minneapolis and St. Paul have made it easy for people with criminal records or bad driving histories to work for Uber and rival Lyft by enacting the least restrictive rules of any of the nation’s top 25 metro areas. A Star Tribune review of local laws found the standards that exist are mostly self-enforced by the companies, and drivers who shouldn’t qualify can find ways around the rules. Among those approved to drive here: convicted felons, drivers with as many as four drunken driving convictions and men convicted of crimes related to assaulting their wives and girlfriends. Most continue to drive for the companies, which now provide more rides in the Twin Cities than traditional taxis. When Uber and Lyft came to the Twin Cities in 2013, the companies convinced local officials that tough regulations would make it hard to sign up enough drivers. As a result, the standards are either identical to those Uber and Lyft proposed or, in some cases, more flexible.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Dec. 13, 2016
Sarasota Herald Tribune: Florida’s broken sentencing system
The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports justice has never been blind when it comes to race in Florida. Blacks were first at the mercy of slave masters. Then came Jim Crow segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. Now, prejudice wears a black robe. Half a century after the civil rights movement, trial judges throughout Florida sentence blacks to harsher punishment than whites, a Herald-Tribune investigation found. They offer blacks fewer chances to avoid jail or scrub away felonies. They give blacks more time behind bars — sometimes double the sentences of whites accused of the same crimes under identical circumstances.
Read more: www.heraldtribune.com/bias
Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama’s “huge shift” in sentencing guidelines,
The Montgomery Advertiser reports the criminal justice system has historically relied on human judgment for sentencing, but Alabama’s recent criminal justice reforms are attempting to equate human error to a quantifiable number. Crimes now equal a score that effectively decides an offender’s punishment. A similar score sheet labels parolees as high, medium or low risk. Alabama is a bit of a trendsetter — for better or for worse — on the criminal justice front, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission tasked with both implementing the 2013 and 2015 reforms as well as crunching the data. “With the passage of the 2015 reforms, I think you’re seeing Alabama acknowledge for the first time that data driven decisions need to be the driving force of all criminal justice policy,” Wright said. “That’s a huge shift in policy.”
Arizona Republic: What happened to the investigations into Tom Horne?
The Arizona Repubic reports that more than two years have passed since then-Attorney General Tom Horne, seeking re-election beneath a cloud of controversy, lost the Republican primary to Mark Brnovich. A former employee turned whistleblower came forward claiming Horne was using the Attorney General's Office as a de facto campaign headquarters, with his employees planning events, contacting donors and doing other work related to the race on state time. Horne denied the allegations and called them politically motivated. But no fewer than two separate investigations were launched: one commissioned by the state Solicitor General, and another by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. The allegations contributed to Horne's defeat. But since his loss, there has been radio silence about the investigations which helped push him from power.
Los Angeles Times: How free coupons help drugmakers hike prices 1,000%
The Los Angeles Times reports Horizon Pharma charges more than $2,000 for a month’s supply of a prescription pain reliever that is the combination of two cheap drugs available separately over the counter. Another company, Novum, sells a small tube of a prescription skin rash cream, containing two inexpensive decades-old medicines, for nearly $8,000. What is key to the companies’ business plan of raising prices by 1,000% or more? The answer: coupons that deliver Horizon’s pain reliever Vimovo and Novum’s skin cream Alcortin A for as little as nothing to the patient, while leaving America’s health system to pick up much of the rest of the price. Experts warn that the coupons, increasingly being used by dozens of companies, are sharply adding to the nation’s medicine bill. That cost is passed along to most Americans through higher insurance premiums and taxes needed to pay for government health programs.
Denver Post: Only one conviction after thousands of complaints of abuse
The Denver Post reports residents at a state-run center in Pueblo for the severely intellectually disabled were subjected to sexual assaults and ongoing physical abuse and neglect from 2012 to early 2016. Incidents ranging from patient discomfort to more severe allegations of abuse were reported at a rate of about 150 each month to the center’s staff during that time, according to federal records. In the end, just two staff members were charged criminally and only one was convicted, for the petty offense of making too much noise. At least 12 cases were investigated by the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office. Eight employees were fired. The reasons that so few faced criminal sanctions range from difficulty prosecuting cases in which the victims are mute and incapacitated to a reluctance on the part of co-workers to testify against one another. But a review by The Denver Post also found significant miscues in how police work initially was handled.
Miami Herald: Suspected of corruption at home, powerful foreigners to U.S.
The Miami Herald reports wealthy politicians and businessmen suspected of corruption in their native lands are fleeing to a safe haven where their wealth and influence shield them from arrest. They have entered this country on a variety of visas, including one designed to encourage investment. Some have applied for asylum, which is intended to protect people fleeing oppression and political persecution. The increasingly popular destination for people avoiding criminal charges is no pariah nation. It’s the United States. An investigation by ProPublica, in conjunction with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, has revealed that officials fleeing prosecution in Colombia, China, South Korea, Bolivia and Panama have found refuge for themselves and their wealth in this country, taking advantage of lax enforcement of U.S. laws and gaps in immigration and financial regulations.
Chicago Tribune: Lottery didn’t award 40% of grand prizes
The Chicago Tribune investigation found the Illinois Lottery collected hundreds of millions of dollars from selling tickets to instant games in which it did not hand out all of the life-changing grand prizes — sometimes awarding no grand prizes before ending a game. For the biggest instant games, beginning in 2011 and ending in 2015, the lottery did not award 23 grand prizes, or more than 40 percent of those designed into the games, the Tribune found. While lotteries across the country sometimes do not hand out all grand prizes in every game, Illinois' rate of awarding the top prizes in these games was significantly lower than any state studied by the Tribune. The Tribune also found that, because of how the games ended, the lottery often paid a lower percentage of revenue than the games were designed to pay. While fluctuations are common in the industry, Illinois' results were lower than found elsewhere — keeping millions of dollars from players' pockets.
Oregonian: National Guard inaction exposes communities to lead
The Oregonian reports an 18-month investigation has found hundreds of armories across the United States have been contaminated by dangerous amounts of lead dust. The Defense Department and state National Guard officials knew about these toxic armories for nearly two decades but moved slowly to address the problem, leaving soldiers, civilian employees and children exposed, records and interviews show. In Oregon alone, tens of thousands of people have spent time in armories covered in lead. Armories in big cities and small towns have housed tearful deployments, joyful reunions and thousands of community events. They're civic landmarks, where part-time soldiers drilled one weekend a month and fired weapons at indoor shooting ranges. But the firearms emitted an insidious form of lead every time a bullet left the chamber.
Austin American-Statesman: DNA gaffes could cost taxpayers up to $14 million
The Austin American-Statesman reports it has learned Travis County and the city of Austin will be forced to spend up to $14 million, according to some estimates, to review and reopen thousands of DNA samples from the shuttered Austin police crime lab — an unexpected cost so high it could result in a significant hike to taxpayers. Officials are still trying to estimate how much it will take to ensure that faulty lab work has not resulted in wrongful convictions and that forensic analysis in pending cases is accurate. The revelations about the expenses are the latest unwelcome surprise concerning the lab that centers on its troubled DNA unit. Those issues have ranged from lab staff not using commonly accepted national practices to a supervisor’s decision to keep mum about a freezer housing hundreds of vials of DNA evidence that sat broken for eight days, potentially damaging the samples. The lab closed six months ago and its future remains uncertain.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • Dec. 8, 2016
Santa Fe New Mexican: Case highlights flaws in investigating police shootings
The Santa Fe News Mexican reports the killing of James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man, by Albuquerque police in 2014 ignited the city’s largest street protests in a generation and fueled criticism of a department with a record of using excessive force. Capping the furor was the three-week murder trial against the two officers whose bullets felled the 38-year-old man who was camping illegally and occasionally flashed two pocketknives while surrounded by nearly 20 police officers. The trial ended in a hung jury in October after jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict. Lawyers for the officers called the outcome justice, noting that nine of the jurors voted to acquit. But a close examination of the proceedings and interviews with legal experts and the special prosecutor reveal a system that is fraught with conflicts of interest and ultimately ill-equipped to determine whether a police shooting has veered from negligent to criminal.
San Francisco Chronicle: A fashionable San Francisco charity’s ugly reality
The San Francisco Chronicle reports an examination of the public financial records of Helpers Community Inc. — known until 2015 as Helpers of the Mentally Retarded — shows the $6 million charity appears to have strayed from its cause, pursuing questionable practices with scant oversight from a small board that includes its director, Joy Venturini Bianchi, and her longtime friend. Over the last decade, filings to the Internal Revenue Service reveal the nonprofit has done little charitable work while amassing millions of dollars in assets and donations and generously compensating Bianchi, as she travels to red-carpet galas from Beverly Hills to Manhattan, appearing alongside celebrities such as Demi Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow and Katy Perry. Helpers’ mission statement defines its “most pressing and important goal” as supporting quality residential care for the developmentally disabled. But in the past 13 years, the charity has given nothing to residential programs.
San Diego Union Tribune: Police have paid nothing in excessive force cases
The San Diego Union Tribune reports the city of El Cajon, thrust into the national spotlight in September when police shot and killed Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man, has had a spotless record the past five years defending its police over claims of excessive force or civil-rights violations. A review of the legal claims filed against the Police Department during that time shows the city has not paid out any money to claimants or plaintiffs. The largest expense has come in legal costs to the city for handling the claims. That totals $438,836. The only significant police-related payout in recent years was made to one of the department’s own employees. Officer Christine Greer settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Sgt. Richard Gonsalves for $90,000 last year.
Washington Post: “Second chance” law puts violent criminals back on streets
The Washington Post reports that hundreds of criminals sentenced by D.C. judges under an obscure local law crafted to give second chances to young adult offenders have gone on to rob, rape or kill residents of the nation’s capital. The original intent of the law was to rehabilitate inexperienced criminals under the age of 22. The District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act allows for shorter sentences for some crimes and an opportunity for offenders to emerge with no criminal record. But a Washington Post investigation has found a pattern of violent offenders returning rapidly to the streets and committing more crimes. Hundreds have been sentenced under the act multiple times. In dozens of cases, D.C. judges were able to hand down Youth Act sentences shorter than those called for under mandatory minimum laws designed to deter armed robberies and other violent crimes. The criminals have often repaid that leniency by escalating their crimes of violence upon release.
Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/second-chance-law-for-young-criminals-puts-violent-offenders-back-on-dc-streets/2016/12/02/fcb56c74-8bc1-11e6-875e-2c1bfe943b66_story.html?utm_term=.1dc91743350a
Sun Sentinel: Death on their watch
The Sun Sentinel reports that Armor Correctional Health Services of Miami, the private company paid to handle jail health care, has failed to protect some Broward inmates endangered by their mental illnesses -- with deadly consequences. Among other finding, a Sun Sentinel examination of inmate deaths since 2010 and a review of thousands of pages of court, medical and jail records showed:
• Armor left severely mentally ill inmates unmedicated and malnourished, despite having the authority to help them. Lack of medication can worsen mental health symptoms, leading mentally ill people to not eat and to harm themselves.
• Despite longstanding concerns about the impact of isolation on mentally ill inmates, seven killed themselves or suffered dramatic weight loss while being held alone in cells.
• Armor staff acknowledged mishandling the care of at least four mentally ill inmates before their deaths.
Chicago Tribune: Local taxpayers paying more for schools in Illinois
The Chicago Tribune reports local taxes and school fees in Illinois now make up 67.4 percent of revenue for school districts statewide — the highest percentage in at least 15 years, according to the most recent state finance data. The state contributes 24.9 percent — one of the lowest shares in the country — and the federal government 7.7 percent. The local portion for education has slowly climbed since 2001, when local dollars covered, on average, 61.9 percent of K-12 public school expenses in Illinois. A confluence of factors affects the figures, including rising and falling levels of state aid. Some school administrators say local tax dollars are making up for what they say is a lack of funding from the state. At the same time, some districts are leaning on local taxpayers to make a steeper investment in education. The reliance on local dollars also has exacerbated the unequal funding for schools, as wealthy districts pump in local revenue to spend more on students, while less affluent districts can't keep up.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Safety net is failing in Maine
The Maine Sunday Telegram reports that when Pineland Center closed in April 1996, advocates and state officials considered it a major victory for adults with intellectual disabilities. Maine emerged as a national leader in how to provide quality care for this population in community group homes, rather than large institutions. But since the late 2000s, Maine has been turning the clock back on these adult services, advocates say, leaving thousands of adults with autism, brain damage, Down syndrome, and other intellectual developmental disorders vulnerable. Leaders of nonprofits say the system of community-based services is on the verge of collapse. Currently, about 1,200 developmentally challenged adults are on a waiting list – or about one of every four to five people who qualify for the service, according to state statistics. That’s a tenfold increase since 2008, when the waiting list stood at 111.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Extreme isolation scars state inmates
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports thousands of inmates in Minnesota are punished with solitary confinement — which inmates call “seg,” for segregation, or the “hole” — for long periods of time, frequently for just minor infractions, and often with no regard for their mental illnesses. An examination of state Department of Corrections records from the past decade shows more than 1,600 inmates in Minnesota have been held in such isolation for at least six months. Four hundred and thirty-seven have endured stays of a year or longer. One man spent more than seven consecutive years in solitary. Another spent longer than 10 years. Across the country, states are taking new steps to either curtail or review solitary confinement, and the federal government also has cut the use of solitary confinement in its detention facilities by 25 percent in recent years. But in Minnesota, the state’s prisons continue to rely on the use of solitary confinement.
New York Times: The scourge of racial bias in New York state prisons
The New York Times reports its review of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against prison inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York. In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found. They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations. At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites. A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.
Cleveland Plain Dealer: All ticket costs are not equal in northeast Ohio
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports speeding in Northeast Ohio could cost you $100 in one spot and $200 on the other side of the street, according to a cleveland.com analysis. It all depends on where you're stopped - how much the fine is in that town, what it costs to run the court and what special fees are tacked on top. Cleveland.com collected the costs of speeding tickets in 69 mayor's and municipal courts in 195 communities across six Northeast Ohio counties. The total cost for driving 50 mph in a 35 mph zone? It ranged from $81 in Lagrange in Lorain County to $222 in East Cleveland. Get busted for disorderly conduct and you're looking at fines from $114 (Seven Hills) to $283 (Rocky River). And for driving with a license that expired a month before, $87 to $272 (Lagrange and East Cleveland, again.)
Dallas Morning News: How a hospital died under the care of a Texas doctor
The Dallas Morning News reports the only hospital in Tonopah, Neveda, shut down in August of 2015 leaving the only major town between Las Vegas and Reno without an emergency room or clinic. A raft of residents, local officials and health-care experts say they know who is to blame for the hospital's demise: a Texas doctor and businessman who drained it of millions of dollars while splurging on fancy hotels, lavish meals and a 100-acre Hill Country ranch. Under a fragmented and often toothless regulatory system, no one stepped in to stop him despite years of red flags. The doctor, Vincent F. Scoccia, did not respond to repeated interview requests or written questions about the hospital. The Dallas Morning News pieced together the sometimes bizarre tale through dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of hospital records and court filings. Scoccia has not been charged with any crimes.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Landlords keep identities secret
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Elijah Mohammad Rashaed, a major central city-landlord with a trail of code violations, court fines and lawsuits, has long frustrated Milwaukee building inspectors and creditors with a dizzying array of companies created to run some 180 rental properties. Rashaed and other landlords are routinely using LLCs to avoid paying fines incurred for renting out substandard, unsafe housing or for violating ordinances aimed at preserving neighborhoods. In all, LLCs owed the city nearly $3 million in past due fines for building code violations, as of Nov. 7. At least $9 million more is owed in delinquent property taxes. The fines, involving 777 LLCs, were imposed in 1,927 court cases dating to 2004. Yet the city does not go after Rashaed — or those behind other LLCs that own problem-plagued housing — personally to collect the money. City and court officials say it's difficult to determine true ownership and, if they could, those behind the LLCs are protected by law.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM THE PAST WEEK • Nov. 30
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Doctors and sex abuse: a nationwide study
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports a 50-state examination found that only one – Delaware -- has anything close to a comprehensive set of laws protecting patients from doctors who commit acts of sexual abuse. “Instead of looking out for victims or possible victims or protecting our society, we’re protecting doctors,” said Rep. Kimberly Williams, a member of the Delaware General Assembly who sponsored a patient-protection bill last year. As part of its ongoing “Doctors & Sex Abuse” series, the AJC studied five categories of laws in every state to determine the best and worst at shielding patients from sexually abusive doctors. Not a single state met the highest bar in every category the newspaper examined, although Delaware came the closest. Meanwhile, in 49 states and the District of Columbia, multiple gaps in laws can leave patients vulnerable to abusive physicians, according to the newspaper.
Arizona Daily Star: Critics decry tax breaks for Monsanto
The Arizona Daily Star reports the Pima County Board of Supervisors expects to hear hours of objections to a 7-acre greenhouse that global biotech giant Monsanto Co. wants to put in rural Avra Valley, northwest of Tucson. Critics are upset not just about Monsanto’s plans to operate here, but also about County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s support of incentives that would reduce the company’s property taxes by two-thirds. The company promises $95 million to $105 million in investments, 40 to 60 jobs paying an average of $44,000 a year and an emphasis on sustainability. The greenhouse will turn out a new generation of corn seed varieties, both conventional and genetically modified, that will help farmers around the world have more productive and resilient crops, Monsanto says. But critics — who have organized rallies and circulated petitions against the deal — say Monsanto’s presence would seriously damage Tucson’s burgeoning reputation as an international City of Gastronomy. UNESCO bestowed the title last December.
Los Angeles Times: Breitbart News, fiery and conservative, plans to go global
The Los Angeles Times reports that as Donald Trump prepares to take office as president, the Breitbart News Network stands poised to become one of the most influential conservative media companies in the country. Stephen K. Bannon, the site’s controversial executive chairman, was a key figure in Trump’s campaign and has been named chief White House strategist. For Breitbart, this could mean a direct line to the West Wing, a level of media access unprecedented in modern times, according to experts. While some believe this will turn the outlet into an extension of the Trump administration, leaders at Breitbart see it as an opportunity that will allow them to compete not only with conservative rivals like Fox News, but the entire media firmament, which it sees as dishonest about its left-leaning bias.
San Diego Union Tribune: Affordable housing additions don’t keep up
The San Diego Union Tribune reports that despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent to provide affordable housing, San Diego is apparently losing ground — opening up fewer low-income units than the ones that are shutting down. The newspaper says that a review of public meeting minutes and property and financial records, city officials agreed to remove 10,000 affordable dwellings from the rolls over the past six years — the same number the San Diego Housing Commission has opened since its inception in 1979. The city’s affordable housing laws generally require that the homes demolished, converted or otherwise removed from low-income housing stock be replaced. But in many cases, projects were granted waivers or found to be exempt from rules that would force developers to either pay a fee or set aside some percentage of new housing units as affordable.
Washington Post: Zuckerberg outlines Facebook’s ideas to battle fake news
The Washington Post reports that a week after trying to reassure the public that it was “extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg outlined several ways the company might try to stop the spread of fake news on the platform in the future. “We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post on his own Facebook page He then named seven approaches the company was considering to address the issue, including warning labels on false stories, easier user reporting methods and the integration of third-party verification. “The problems here are complex, both technically and philosophically,” he cautioned, repeating the company’s long-standing aversion to becoming the “arbiters of truth” — instead preferring to rely on third parties and users to make those distinctions.
“We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or mistakenly restricting accurate content,” he said.
Stamford Advocate: Schools demand more from next building contractor
The Stamford Advocate reports that on the night before the long Veterans Day weekend, school officials quietly released a document that could wean the district from its powerful, controversial contractor.. The document, a request for proposals, lays out everything the district wants from the next contractor it hires to manage school buildings. It will demand from any future company more than was demanded from its 16-year facilities director, AFB Construction Management. The document illustrates what the district should have asked from AFB all along. The Board of Education has a history of not questioning AFB but, eight months ago, the FBI began investigating whether the company used its position to solicit payments from another municipal contractor. The city was ordered to turn over all records pertaining to AFB to a federal grand jury in New Haven.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Housing agency skirts salary cap for top execs
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Atlanta Housing Authority’s publicly paid executives have evaded federal rules that were put in place to crack down on extravagant pay. An Atlanta Constitution-Journal investigation found that since 2012, the authority has supplemented six-figure salaries paid to its top executives by $4 million, using money from a little-known nonprofit that shares revenues with AHA and other Georgia housing authorities. The money could have been spent on housing services for the poor — that’s what some other housing agencies have done — but Atlanta officials elected to devote it to salaries instead.
Revenue AHA receives from National Housing Compliance in Tucker has kept top Atlanta authority salaries at levels higher than almost every other public housing authority in the nation — and well above the $158,700 annual cap on federal housing money that can be spent on those salaries.
Chicago Tribune: Illinois hides abuse and neglect of adults with disabilities
The Chicago Tribune reports that as Illinois steers thousands of low-income adults with disabilities into private group homes, the newspaper has found many casualties in a botched strategy to save money and give some of the state's poorest and most vulnerable residents a better life. In the first comprehensive accounting of mistreatment inside Illinois' taxpayer-funded group homes and their day programs, the Tribune uncovered a system where caregivers often failed to provide basic care while regulators cloaked harm and death with secrecy and silence. The Tribune identified 1,311 cases of documented harm since July 2011 — hundreds more cases than publicly reported by the Illinois Department of Human Services. Confronted with those findings, Human Services officials retracted five years of erroneous reports and said the department had launched reforms to ensure accurate reporting. To circumvent state secrecy, the Tribune filed more than 100 public records requests with government agencies.
Des Moines Register: Speed cameras sang thousands from out of state
The Des Moines Register reports tens of thousands of out-of-state motorists were snagged last year by automated traffic enforcement speed cameras in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City. The three are the only U.S. cities that have speed enforcement cameras monitoring interstates, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Speed cameras in those three cities issued more than 200,000 speeding tickets in 2015 to motorists traveling on interstates, generating more than $13 million in revenue, according to a Des Moines Register review of data obtained through public-records requests. Two of every five citations, 78,228 in all, were sent to out-of-state motorists. And a majority of citations were issued to people who weren't residents of the city where they were ticketed.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Rule breakers bring dark side to ride-share culture
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports Uber and the rival service Lyft now provide more car rides than traditional taxicabs in the Twin Cities. Operating with little city oversight and less stringent rules than taxis, an informal and dangerous ride-sharing culture has emerged in which people casually hail unmarked cars and barter for rides. Uber and Lyft both tell customers they shouldn’t get in vehicles unless they first book their ride through the companies’ phone apps. But many people ignore the warnings, accepting rides from strangers who sometimes turn out to be predators. At least five women in the Twin Cities have been abducted or assaulted by men who presented themselves as Uber drivers in the past two years, police reports show. In Atlanta, Los Angeles and other cities, men pretending to work for Uber have been charged with attacking women after luring them into their cars. Chicago police warned last year of robbers posing as Uber drivers.
Houston Chronicle: Mentally ill lose out as special ed declines
The Houston Chronicle reports the Texas Education Agency's decision to set an 8.5 percent target for special education enrollment has led schools to cut services for children with all types of disabilities, but mentally ill students have been disproportionately affected, the Houston Chronicle has found. Federal law requires schools to provide counseling, therapy, protection from discipline and other support to children with "emotional disturbances," including severe anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, however, Texas schools serve 42 percent fewer of those students relative to overall enrollment, than when TEA set the benchmark in 2004. It is a bigger drop than has occurred in almost any other disability category. In all, an estimated 500,000 school-age children in Texas have a serious mental illness that interferes with their functioning in family, school or community activities, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK • NOV. 16
Houston Chronicle: Bad mix: Risky cargo in dense areas
The Houston Chronicle reports back in 1976 a tractor-trailer on Interstate 610 struck a bridge rail, rolled over the edge and fell about 15 feet onto the Southwest Freeway below. The tractor separated from the trailer, and its tank exploded, spewing 7,509 gallons of anhydrous ammonia. The toxic fog killed six people and injured 178. Afterward, the National Transportation Safety Board praised the city of Houston for having designated the 610 Loop as the official route for hazardous materials, keeping trucks from more populous areas. Forty years later, that route snakes through a city that has doubled in size, leaving Houston vulnerable to a catastrophic accident. About 400 trucks a day loaded with tons of hazardous chemicals, such as chlorine, butadiene and formaldehyde, inch along 610 in bumper-to-bumper traffic and pass within a mile of NRG Stadium, Memorial Park and the Galleria shopping center.
Austin American-Statesman: Feds shield employers who violated rights of vets
The Austin American-Statesman reports that as waves of National Guard reservists answered the call to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, they were protected by a 1994 law that required their employers to hold their jobs until they returned. But records show that hundreds of employers have been found to have violated the rights of veterans by firing them because of their military responsibilities, or failing to hire them back after their service ended, or denying them promotions. Some of those employers are government agencies. Yet the Department of Labor, which investigates potential USERRA violations on behalf of service members, refuses to disclose the identities of even the most frequent offenders, shielding the companies from public scrutiny despite repeated complaints and findings of fault. The department also shielded the identities of taxpayer-supported state, local and federal agencies that ran afoul of the law.
Columbus Dispatch: More “elder orphans” without family near needing help.
The Columbus Dispatch reports nearly a quarter of Americans older than 65 are — or are at risk of becoming — what some experts call “elder orphans.” They are people who are getting older without a spouse, partner or adult children — or at least any who live nearby. With an aging baby boomer population and a third of Americans ages 45 to 60 either choosing to be or finding themselves single, the number of seniors living alone will only grow, experts say. Many will need extra help with health care and household tasks as they age or their health deteriorates. “Most of us will have caregiving needs at one time or other,” said Dr. Maria Carney, a New York geriatrician. “Our goal is to highlight that this is a vulnerable population that’s likely to increase.” She’d like officials to determine what community, social services, emergency response and educational resources are needed to help, particularly as more people with multiple chronic diseases remain at home.
Democrat and Chronicle: Lead tainting Geneva’s soil kept hidden for 30 years
The Democrat and Chronicle reports New York state officials first uncovered evidence 30 years ago that toxic metals from an old foundry in the historic Finger Lakes city of Geneva had contaminated an adjoining neighborhood. A state environmental health expert concluded then that people were at risk of lead poisoning and neighbors should be warned. A decade later, consultants presented additional evidence to state and city and recommended that the lead-laden soil in yards be removed. But state and city officials never warned residents and the decision to clean it up was deferred 16 more years, a Democrat and Chronicle investigation has found. The silence ended only in early October, when state environmental officials mailed letters to nearly 100 properties near the former Geneva Foundry site, informing the owners their soil contained lead or arsenic in concentrations that are considered unsafe.
New York Times: Your cellphone is a 10-digit key code to your private life
The New York Times reports that the next time someone asks you for your cellphone number, you may want to think twice about giving it. The cellphone number is more than just a bunch of digits. It is increasingly used as a link to private information maintained by all sorts of companies, including moneylenders and social networks. It can be used to monitor and predict what you buy, look for online or even watch on television. It has become “kind of a key into the room of your life and information about you,” said Edward M. Stroz, a former high-tech crime agent for the F.B.I. who is co-president of Stroz Friedberg, a private investigator. Yet the cellphone number is not a legally regulated piece of information like a Social Security number, which companies are required to keep private. That is a growing issue for young people, since two sets of digits may well be with them for life: their Social Security number and their cellphone number.
Newark Star Ledger: Lobbyists reviled by Trump in campaign join transition
The Newark Star Ledger reports Donald Trump, who promised to "take our country back from the special interests," is staffing his presidential transition team with lobbyists and fundraisers. "It certainly veers drastically from the campaign rhetoric," said David Vance, a spokesman for Common Cause, which supports stronger ethics laws. "It's business as usual in Washington. He's gathering the same old guard around him. It hardly rings of change." Trump had called for new ethics rules, including limits on lobbyists and term limits for members of Congress. "My contract with the American voter begins with a plan to end government corruption – and to take our country back from the special interests," Trump said in Minnesota on Sunday. Trump's proposed ethics legislation doesn't fix the problem and likely won't pass, experts say.
Boston Globe: Organic farmers fight USDA to defend their turf
The Boston Globe reports that for the past 36 years Dave Chapman has dug his hands into the soil to plant, then pick, organic tomatoes from his fields and greenhouses in rural Vermont. His love of organics is rooted in a simple motto: “Feed the soil, not the plant.” So when he heard that hydroponic growers were starting to obtain USDA certification that declared their crops organic, Chapman was incensed. What is organic, he wondered, without the marvel of microbes inherent in dirt? “They try to pretend that they’re me,” he said. “They aren’t. It’s a lie.” Now Chapman is digging in his heels against what he calls the invasive growth of organic hydroponics, grown by farmers who use extensive watering systems and chemical nutrients. He’s pushing the USDA to, as he puts it, “keep the soil in organic” and prevent hydroponic farmers from gaining a designation that’s become both on-trend and remarkably lucrative.
Baltimore Sun: Few doctors sign on to recommend marijuana in Maryland
The Baltimore Sun reports just 1 percent of the 16,000 doctors who treat patients in Maryland have signed up for the state's medical marijuana program, and two of the largest hospital systems in the state have banned their physicians from participating. The lack of enthusiasm threatens to undermine the fledgling program by limiting access to the drug that has shown promise in easing pain and other severe conditions. "Clearly there are not going to be enough physicians, given the level of demand anticipated," said Gene Ransom, CEO of MedChi, the state's professional association for physicians, which hasn't taken a position on medical marijuana. "That's going to create a problem."
Maine Sunday Telegram: Jacket sales at L.L. Bean indicate warmer winters
The Maine Sunday Telegram reports that just like shrinking Arctic sea ice, sales of jackets at L.L. Bean are an indicator of warming winters. Ten years ago, the best-selling jacket at Maine’s flagship outdoors retailer was a heavily insulated parka rated for temperatures between 10 degrees and minus 40. Today, the top seller is an ultralight down jacket rated between 25 and minus 25. Coming on strong is a down sweater that weighs almost nothing and is rated between 30 and minus 20. A warming climate might be hotly contested by some, but the appeal of a lighter winter jacket isn’t. It’s an industry-wide trend driven by consumer demand, not science or ideology. “It has been the biggest shift in the outerwear business in the past five years,” said A.J. Curran, product director for outerwear at L.L. Bean. “We call it seasonal versatility. People can use (these jackets) through a normal winter day, what has become the new normal.”
Courier-Journal: Diabetes a scourge in Kentucky
The Courier Journal reports that from Louisville to Pikeville, Paducah to Ashland, diabetes ravages Kentucky, striking more than one in nine adults — a statistic that has skyrocketed in the last two decades and shows no sign of slowing. Kentucky’s rate of diagnosed diabetes shot up from 4.3 percent in 1994 to 11.3 percent in 2014, ranking the state sixth-worst in a nation that has seen diabetes double over that time. That's according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, which ranks neighboring Indiana 18th with 9.7 percent, slightly above the national average. Diabetes takes thousands of lives each year and the American Diabetes Association estimates related medical costs and lost productivity total around $3.85 billion in Kentucky, $6.6 billion in Indiana, and $245 billion nationally. Kentucky is also plagued by all the social ills that cause diabetes to fester. Chief among them is poverty, which makes it tough to eat well, find safe places to exercise or get to the doctor and avoid complications such as blindness and amputations.
Des Moines Register: Iowa police killings prompt look at tougher penalties
The des Moines Register reports the recent ambush slayings of two Iowa police officers has pulled the state into a national debate on whether law enforcement officers need extra legal protections. Support is growing for an Iowa lawmaker’s proposal that would slap stiffer penalties on those who seriously injure or kill officers. And some in the state say they would not oppose reinstating the death penalty for cop killers. Iowa hasn't allowed capital punishment since 1965. At the federal level, momentum may grow to make attacks on law enforcement officers a hate crime, potentially boosted by last week’s election results, giving Republicans control of Congress and the Oval Office. President-elect Donald Trump billed himself as a "law and order" candidate and has been an ardent supporter of the Blue Lives Matter movement.
Sun Sentinel: A din of health concerns from courthouse employees
The Sun Sentinel reports that in dozens of emails sent to Broward County, courthouse prosecutors and judges say the building they work in is making them sick. They report rashes, hives, coughs that won't go away, migraine headaches, itchy eyes, sore throats, nosebleeds and cancer. While a new courthouse has been under construction next door, the county has quietly settled —while "expressly denying" liability — 13 lawsuits during the past two years filed by employees, according to public records examined by the Sun Sentinel. Each fell under the $15,000 threshold that requires a County Commission vote at a public meeting. Now that the new tower is more than a year behind schedule, the steady din of health grievances in the old courthouse is growing louder. In emails to county hall, 120 employees, some of them judges, many of them prosecutors, described health problems they said appear or worsen when they're at work.
Washington Post: Parents insisting on doctors who insist on vaccinations
The Washington Post reports that pediatricians around the country, faced with persistent opposition to childhood vaccinations, are increasingly grappling with the difficult decision of whether to dismiss those families from their practices to protect their other patients. Doctors say they are more willing to take this last-resort step because the anti-vaccine movement in recent years has contributed to a resurgence of preventable childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and whooping cough. Their practices also have been emboldened by families who say they will only choose physicians who require other families to vaccinate. But the decision is ethically fraught. Doctors must balance their obligation to care for individual children against the potential harm to other patients. They must respect parents’ right to make their own medical decisions. And they need to consider the public health consequences of a refusal to treat, which could result in non-vaccinating families clustered in certain practices, raising the risk of disease outbreaks.
Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/parents-are-insisting-on-doctors-who-insist-on-vaccinations/2016/11/12/81c1a684-a202-11e6-8d63-3e0a660f1f04_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories-2_vaccine-610pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory
Sacramento Bee: Is reservoir a savior for the Sacramento Valley?
The Sacramento Bee reports that an hour north of Sacramento, in a ghost town tucked into a remote mountain valley, California is poised to build a massive new reservoir – a water project of a size that hasn’t been undertaken since Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor in the 1970s. Sites Reservoir, all $4.4 billion of it, represents an about-face in a state where drought has become the norm and water users are told to scrimp and save. Promoters of Sites say the reservoir would significantly enhance water supplies for the rice farms of the Sacramento Valley as well as the cities of Southern California. The fact that it would be built just outside tiny Maxwell, in a poor and often-overlooked area of the state, has become a point of fierce regional pride. “Instead of the water going out to sea, the water will remain here,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, during a recent media event at the Sites operations office a few miles east of the reservoir location. “That is a significant policy change.”
Arizona Daily Star: Pharmacy spending soars in Tucson area under Cenpatico
The Arizona Daily Star reports that Tucson behavioral-health providers say they have seen surging pharmacy spending since Cenpatico Integrated Care took over Southern Arizona’s public behavioral-health care system. At the same time, the number of prescriptions written for behavioral-health patients appears to have declined in the past year. Three local behavioral-health agency leaders say the limited pharmacy data they have from Cenpatico indicate average monthly pharmacy spending on their patients soared by 53 to 83 percent this year. “I’ve never seen anything like that level of increase in that short a period of time,” said Rod Cook, chief financial officer at COPE Community Services, where pharmacy spending has gone up 74 percent. Cenpatico and AHCCCS, the state’s Medicaid agency, attribute the spending rise to a drug-company rebate program that has resulted in more brand-name prescribing this year.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM THE PAST WEEK • NOV. 8
AP: Trump-Pence campaign aide stays on Indiana payroll
Sacramento Bee: Home for sex victims closed but non-profit still raised funds
The Sacramento Bee reports Courage House got the good news from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on June 17: a $60,808 grant had been approved to help fund services at the Northern California home for young sex-trafficking victims. What the state agency didn’t know at the time was that the Courage House outside Sacramento had closed three days earlier, shuttling the four remaining girls off to other providers amid a rash of citations from regulators, including allegations of inadequate staffing and repeat violations of clients’ rights. Over the summer, Courage Worldwide Inc. emailed OES at least eight times without divulging the local facility’s status. While the Rocklin-based nonprofit was laying off much of its staff, a remaining worker was asking OES for advice on the forms and submitting documents for reimbursement, according to emails provided by OES.
New Haven Register: Police build voluntary DNA database; ACLU objects
The New Haven Register reports that four years ago the Branford Police Department started collecting voluntary cheek swabs from people suspected of a crime prior to arrest to build its own private DNA database of offenders. Five hundred and sixty-five samples have since been collected, and the department has been able to tie suspects to property crimes that would otherwise go unsolved. But the practice has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Connecticut chapter about whether it violates a person’s constitutional rights and creates an unconscious racial bias. Collecting a person’s DNA is far more invasive than the search of a backpack or the taking of a fingerprint, said David McGuire, interim executive director of the ACLU’s Connecticut chapter.
Washington Post: Killings surge but Chicago police solve fewer homicides
The Washington Post reports Chicago’s growing body count of unsolved homicides puts it on pace to have one of its deadliest years in two decades, and some residents blame police for perpetuating the violence by leaving killers on the streets. Last year, Chicago police cleared homicides at one-third the rate they did 25 years ago — a time when they faced twice as many killings, according to a Washington Post analysis of police data obtained through a public records request. The department has gone from having one of the best clearance rates nationwide to one of the worst. In 1991, Chicago police solved about 80 percent of all homicides in the city, compared with about 62 percent by police nationwide, according to data from the FBI and Chicago police. Since then, the national rate has remained fairly constant, but Chicago’s dropped below 26 percent last year, the worst clearance rate for police in any large city in the country, The Post analysis shows.
Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/as-killings-surge-chicago-police-solve-fewer-homicides/2016/11/05/55e5af84-8c0d-11e6-875e-2c1bfe943b66_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories-2_chicagohomicides-610pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory
Sun Sentinel: Flood, mold hit new courthouse
The Sun Sentinel reports that meld, the very courthouse menace that prompted construction of a new, 20-story court tower, is now delaying its opening. In documents and interviews provided in response to a public records request, Broward officials revealed a stunning series of events that soaked the new $197 million tower with rainwater, and then toilet water, and provided the wet conditions for mold and other contaminants to grow. Walls, floors and ceilings were ripped out, repairs made, and independent tests showed air quality returned to normal, top county officials say. But the county’s worries linger. County officials haven’t publicly discussed the floods or mold, but said in an interview that they won’t open the new courthouse until their air quality concerns are put to rest.
Baltimore Sun: Schools not told bus driver in fatal crash lost driving privileges
The Baltimore Sun reports the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration informed Glenn Chappell in early September that he was "no longer authorized" to drive a school bus and could lose his license unless he provided documentation that a doctor had cleared him to be behind the wheel. But the state agency didn't inform the Baltimore school system that his driving privileges had been suspended. For 40 school days, Chappell continued to ferry 17 homeless and special-needs students across the city. Then this week, Chappell drove his school bus into a transit bus, killing himself and five other adults. The state did not revoke Chappell's commercial driver's license, which prompted an alert to the school system, until Wednesday — the day after the crash. That lag in flagging a potential safety risk has raised questions about how closely authorities monitor drivers of school buses and other commercial vehicles. It was not the first time Chappell's commercial driving privileges had lapsed for lacking proof of good health.
Philadelphia Inquirer: No candy-coating lack of charity at Hershey school
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the charitable Milton Hershey School, gushing with cash, has amassed more assets than every elite private college-prep school in the nation. Its endowment is about 25 percent larger than the University of Pennsylvania's and surpasses all but a half dozen of the country's best-endowed colleges. But few know about this rich school on Homestead Lane that has a one-of-a-kind dilemma: how to spend a $12.5 billion fortune on at-risk children in an isolated campus in central Pennsylvania? The Hershey School's answer: Expend only a tiny fraction of the charity's assets each year and do it lavishly on 2,000 students. The Hershey School's per-student expenditures of $118,400 a year are roughly double the tuition and room and board for Harvard University and nine times the per-pupil expenditures at the Philadelphia School District. Yet even this level of spending fails to dent the school's coffers,.
Dallas Morning News: Tough-love rehab for poor addicts
The Dallas Morning News reports that when Irving police raided a rundown rental house crammed with dozens of men, they first thought smugglers must be hiding illegal immigrants. After all, some of the residents said they were being held captive, tied up, even beaten. But the site on Penn Street was in fact a shoestring “sober house” for Spanish-speakers seeking help with alcoholism and drug addiction, according to interviews and police records obtained by The Dallas Morning News. At least three unlicensed rehab operations have been investigated recently by officers in Irving and Fort Worth; at two, residents complained of being held against their will. All three offered a cheap place to sleep and 12-step-style treatment, according to police records. Such unlicensed rehabs have long existed in poor neighborhoods but “are surfacing more often,” said Fred Dandoval, executive director for the National Latinio Behavioural Health Association.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK NOV. 1, 2016
AP: Trump University staff included drug trafficker, child molester
The Associated Press reports that while Donald Trump says he hand-picked only the best to teach success at Trump University, dozens of those hired by the company had checkered pasts — including serious financial problems and even convictions for cocaine trafficking or child molestation. An Associated Press investigation identified 107 people listed as speakers and staff on more than 21,000 pages of customer-satisfaction surveys the Republican presidential nominee has released as part of his defense against three lawsuits. Trump and his attorneys have said repeatedly that the surveys show the overwhelming majority of participants were satisfied. However, the suits allege his namesake real-estate seminars were a massive fraud designed to upsell students into buying course packages costing as much as $35,000.
Los Angeles Times: Top politicians. Unlikely donors.
An investigation by The Los Angeles Times has found more than 100 campaign contributors with a direct or indirect connection to Samuel Leung, a Torrance-based developer who was lobbying public officials to approve a 352-unit apartment complex. Those donors gave more than $600,000 to support U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles), Mayor Eric Garcetti and other L.A.-area politicians between 2008 and 2015, as Leung was seeking city approval for the $72-million development in L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood, north of the Port of Los Angeles, The Times found. The fundraising effort is a case study in the myriad ways money can flow to City Hall when developers seek changes to local planning rules. The pattern of donations from unlikely sources, some of whom profess to have no knowledge of contributions made in their name, suggests an effort to bypass campaign finance laws designed to make political giving transparent to the public.
New York Times: Justice Department discouraged move on Clinton e-mail case
The day before FBI director James B. Comey sent a letter to Congress announcing that new evidence had been discovered that might be related to the completed Hillary Clinton email investigation, the Justice Department strongly discouraged the step and told him that he would be breaking with longstanding policy, three law enforcement officials told The New York Times. Senior Justice Department officials did not move to stop him from sending the letter, officials said, but they did everything short of it, pointing to policies against talking about current criminal investigations or being seen as meddling in elections. That Mr. Comey moved ahead despite those protestations underscores the unusual nature of Friday’s revelations, which added a dramatic twist to the final days of the presidential campaign.
San Diego Union-Tribune: In failing homeless, San Diego stands apart
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports the soaring population of homeless people in San Diego represents a genuine crisis, yet most of the suffering is unnecessary. Far from being a hopeless cause, reducing or even ending homelessness seems quite possible, at least outside of San Diego. Federal statistics tell a story of abject local failure. From 2007 (when counting methods were standardized) to 2015, the nation’s overall number of unsheltered homeless people fell 32 percent to 173,268 people. Over the same eight years, the number increased 24 percent in San Diego County to 4,156. In San Diego, the number of chronically homeless soared 77 percent (to 1,249), while nationwide they fell 30 percent.
Sun Sentinel: Plan for traffic -- 'Make them suffer'
South Florida's public officials, faced with ever-increasing traffic jams, have come up with a plan: Make it worse, according to The Sun Sentinel. "Until you make it so painful that people want to come out of their cars, they're not going to come out of their cars," Anne Castro, chair of the Broward County Planning Council, said during a meeting last year. "We're going to make them suffer first, and then we're going to figure out ways to move them after that because they're going to scream at us to help them move." A Sun-Sentinel analysis of South Florida's roads and development plans reveals how planners are creating neighborhoods in urban areas where gridlock is the norm.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Maine a source for ‘crime guns'
The Maine Sunday Telegram says that every year, about 90 guns purchased in Maine turn up at crime scenes, are abandoned or get confiscated by police in Massachusetts. Those guns account for 8 or 9 percent of all “crime guns” recovered by police in Massachusetts – a figure that has held steady for the past decade amid rising and falling crime rates. Gun trafficking from Maine to other states is often cited by backers of Ballot Question 3 as a chief reason to require background checks prior to all private gun sales. Yet advocates on both sides of Question 3 acknowledge that tackling gun trafficking – which is intimately linked with drug trafficking – will require enforcing existing federal laws as well as better educating Maine gun sellers.
Baltimore Sun: Independent voters on rise in Maryland
Maryland's independent voters are the fastest-growing political bloc in the state, a trend expected to accelerate after a polarizing contest between two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in U.S. history, The Baltimore Sun reports. Voters across the country, especially millennials, have increasingly opted out of the two-party system. Maryland has twice as many unaffiliated voters as it did 15 years ago, and the rate of attrition from major parties is growing. Democrats on voter rolls still dwarf Republicans and independents in Maryland, outnumbering each by more than 2-1. But since 2008, the legion of unaffiliated voters has grown 46 percent, a rate more than three times that of either major political party.
Boston Globe: Law firm 'bonuses' tied to political donations
The Boston Globe reports a pattern of payments — contributions to political candidates by partners of the Thornton Law Firm offset by bonus payments by the firm to those same partners -- was commonplace, according to a review of law firm records by the Spotlight Team and the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks campaign finance data. From 2010 through 2014, partners David C. Strouss and Garrett Bradley, along with founding partner Michael Thornton and his wife, donated nearly $1.6 million to Democratic Party fund-raising committees and a parade of politicians — from Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada to Hawaii gubernatorial candidate David Ige to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Over the same span, the lawyers received $1.4 million listed as “bonuses” in Thornton Law Firm records; more than 280 of the contributions precisely matched bonuses that were paid within 10 days.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Bumblebee nominated for endangered species list
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports the rusty patched bumblebee, once one of the most common bees buzzing about Minnesota’s gardens, could be on the verge of extinction and is likely to be the first of its kind to find a place on the federal endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed legal protection for the bee, named for the distinctive orange marking on its back, after an extraordinarily swift decline in its numbers over the past two decades. Like dozens of other pollinators, the rusty patched is suffering from widespread use of chemical pesticides, an increasingly flowerless landscape, disease and climate change. But its decline also illustrates the often unexpected consequences for insects from the way people grow their food.
Las Vegas Review-Journal: Drug convictions rely on faulty police tests
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that for nearly three decades, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Clark County district attorney’s office have used cheap chemical field tests to identify illegal drugs and obtains tens of thousands of convictions. The tests seem simple. Officers placed suspected drugs in a pouch with chemicals and watch for colors to develop. But police and county prosecutors knew the tests were vulnerable to error all along, according to an investigation by ProPublica. Legal substances can create the same colors in the test kits as illegal drugs. Officers sometimes misinterpret results. In 2014, the police crime lab wrote a report arguing that officers should stop using most of the tests. But they did not stop.
The Democrat and Chronicle: Property tax exemptions -- Unfair share
The state of New York is home to 5.7 million parcels of property worth an estimated $2.8 trillion — with a ‘t.’ But when property-tax bills go out each year, nearly a third of that value — about $866 billion — never gets billed, The Democrat and Chronicle reports. Over the past six months, the USA Today Network combed through 17 years of extensive state data on property-tax exemptions at the county, municipal and school district level, examining trends and challenges presented by the state’s patchwork system of granting and enforcing tax breaks. The numbers show alarming growth in the number of completely untaxed properties owned by government and non-profits — from 179,420 in 1999 to 219,602 last year, a 22 percent jump.
Columbus Dispatch: Questions about scientist may cast doubt on convictions
Dozens, if not hundreds, of criminal convictions in Ohio could be in jeopardy because a longtime forensic scientist at the state crime lab now stands accused of slanting evidence to help cops and prosecutors build their cases, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The credibility of G. Michele Yezzo, who worked at the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation for more than three decades, has been challenged in two cases in which men were convicted of aggravated murder. One has been freed from prison because of her now-suspect work. A review of her personnel records by The Dispatch shows that colleagues and supervisors raised questions about Yezzo time and again while she tested evidence and testified in an uncounted number of murder, rape and other criminal cases in the state.
The Tennessean: Sexual harassment in state government
The Tennessean says an analysis of data across state government shows at least 460 sexual harassment complaints have been lodged against state employees or contractors since 2010. Although the state has roughly 40,000 employees, that’s still more than one complaint every week for the past six years. A Tennessean review of complaints filed in 44 state departments and commissions reveals the process of investigating workplace sexual harassment and meting out punishments is inconsistent from agency to agency — even though all employees work for the same employer: the state of Tennessee. A review of complaints shows that employees at one agency were given minor sanctions, even for potentially criminal acts, while some workers at other agencies were terminated for verbal harassment. Nearly two-thirds of the investigations into complaints were closed because investigators said they found no wrongdoing.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Medical staff shortage plagues Milwaukee jails
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says the private contractor responsible for medical care at Milwaukee County's jails has failed to meet basic standards of care and staffing mandates, putting inmates' health at risk, newly obtained documents and interviews with former employees show. At one point this spring, a court-appointed watchdog found that 30 percent of all medical jobs at the county's two jails weren't filled, a rate he called "inconsistent with adequate quality of service." Inadequate staffing by Armor Correctional Health Services and poor record-keeping by employees have led to a failure to deliver timely medical treatment, according to the records and former employees. The problems mirror some found recently at two jails staffed by Armor in New York, where the company has been temporarily banned from bidding on contracts as part of a legal settlement.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK OCT. 25, 2016
AP Exclusive: 'High threat' Texas border busts aren't always
Drivers in Texas busted for drunken driving, not paying child support or low-level drug offenses are among thousands of "high-threat" criminal arrests being counted as part of a nearly $1 billion mission to secure the border with Mexico, an Associated Press analysis has found. Having once claimed that conventional crime data doesn't fully capture the dangers to public safety and homeland security, the Texas Department of Public Safety classified more than 1,800 offenders arrested near the border by highway troopers in 2015 as "high threat criminals." But not all live up to that menacing label or were anywhere close to the border — and they weren't caught entering the country illegally, as Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is Texas' chairman for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, has suggested.
AP: Bayh didn't stay overnight in Indiana condo once in 2010
The Associated Press reports that Evan Bayh says that his Indianapolis condominium has long been his home, and that he has spent "lots and lots" of time there since deciding to run for his old Senate seat. But a copy of his schedule shows Bayh did not stay overnight there once during his last year in office in 2010. The schedule provided to The Associated Press shows the Democrat spent taxpayer money, campaign funds or let other people pay for him to stay in Indianapolis hotels on the relatively rare occasions he returned from Washington, D.C. During the same period, he spent $3,000 in taxpayer money on what appeared to be job hunting trips to New York, despite the assertion of his campaign that the trips were devoted to official media appearances.
Arizona Star: Cartels recruiting drug, people smugglers in bars, high schools
Smuggling arrests in Southern Arizona often conjure up images of Mexican drug cartel foot soldiers sneaking across the border in the dead of night. But a decade of U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics — and a review of more than 100 federal court cases by the Arizona Daily Star — turn that idea on its head. Actually, most suspected smugglers arrested in Arizona and along the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border either are U.S. citizens or went through the years long process of becoming legal permanent residents. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents — CBP statistics do not distinguish between the two — accounted for about two-thirds of smuggling arrests made by Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents in fiscal year 2015. Along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, citizens and legal residents accounted for 81 percent of smuggling arrests by agents.
Washington Post: DEA slowed enforcement while opioid epidemic soared
The Washington Post reported how a decade ago the Drug Enforcement Administration launched an aggressive campaign to curb a rising opioid epidemic that was claiming thousands of American lives each year. The DEA began to target wholesale companies that distributed hundreds of millions of highly addictive pills to the corrupt pharmacies and pill mills that illegally sold the drugs for street use. Leading the campaign was the agency’s Office of Diversion Control, whose investigators around the country began filing civil cases against the distributors, issuing orders to immediately suspend the flow of drugs and generating large fines. But the industry fought back. Former DEA and Justice Department officials hired by drug companies began pressing for a softer approach. In early 2012, the deputy attorney general summoned the DEA’s diversion chief to an unusual meeting over a case against two major drug companies. “That meeting was to chastise me for going after industry, and that’s all that meeting was about,” recalled Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who ran the diversion office for a decade before he was removed from his position and retired in 2015.
Maine Sunday Telegram: Maine sits on millions in federal welfare grant funds
Since 2012, when Gov. Paul LePage and his allies successfully established a 60-month lifetime cap on federal welfare benefits, Maine has drastically reduced both its caseload and its spending. The state still gets the same amount every year under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program – about $78 million – but instead of shifting that extra money to other areas designed to assist low-income families with children, Maine has mostly sat on it, The Maine Sunday Telegram reports. In less than five years, the LePage administration has quietly stockpiled $155 million in unspent TANF funds, according to state budget data, an unused balance that has grown at a rate higher than any other state in that time. Maine’s total as a percentage of annual grant funding is among the highest in the country as well.
Seattle Times: Plan for megaquake “grossly inadequate,” review finds
The Seattle Times says the largest disaster drill ever conducted in the Pacific Northwest found that, despite decades of warnings, the region remains dangerously unprepared to deal with a Cascadia megaquake and tsunami. During the four-day “Cascadia Rising” exercise in June, 23,000 participants grappled with a hypothetical catastrophe that knocked out power, roads and communications and left communities battered, isolated — and with no hope of quick relief. Washington state officials called their own response plans “grossly inadequate,” according to a draft report and records reviewed by The Seattle Times. The report warns that “the state is at risk of a humanitarian disaster within 10 days” of the quake.
Houston Chronicle: Schools push students out of special education
The Houston Chronicle reports that few days before school began in Laredo, Texas, in 2007, district administrators called an emergency staff meeting. The Texas Education Agency had determined that they had too many students in special education, the administrators announced, and they had come up with a plan: Remove as many kids as possible. The staffers did as they were told, and during the school year, the Laredo Independent School District purged its rolls, discharging nearly a third of its special education students, according to district data. More than 700 children were forced out of special education and moved back into regular education. Only 78 new students entered services. The story illustrates how some schools across Texas have ousted children with disabilities from needed services in order to comply with an agency decree that no more than 8.5 percent of students should obtain specialized education.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Authorities fail to charge rapist, student fights back
The bite marks and bruises were still fresh on Abby Honold’s body when she learned that the man who had raped her had been released from jail, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. The 19-year-old University of Minnesota junior did everything a rape victim was supposed to do. After she escaped, she immediately called 911. She went to a hospital for an exam. She reported everything that happened to her to the police. She agonized as she asked herself: How could there be no charges? What she didn’t know was that there had been more than 1,000 sex assaults reported since 2010 to the Aurora Center, the school’s rape prevention and victim advocacy department, according to a Star Tribune review of the center’s reports. Yet, according to the Aurora Center’s director, Katie Eichele, the total number of rapists who had been prosecuted was zero.
Los Angeles Times: Thousands of soldiers forced to repay enlistment bonuses
The California National Guard, short of troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, enticed thousands of soldiers with bonuses of $15,000 or more to reenlist and go to war. Now the Pentagon is demanding the money back, The Los Angeles Times reports. Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade. Investigations have determined that lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets.
Denver Post: Train design questions causing travel delays raised in 2013
The Denver Post reports officials with the Regional Transportation District raised questions about a contractor’s design of the A-Line’s electric system as early as 2013, three years before the high-profile train to the airport suffered the first of several power-related outages during its first months of operation. Most prominent among the stoppages on the University of Colorado A-Line was a seven-hour shutdown on May 24 caused by a reported lightning strike that severed a critical electric wire and resulted in a dramatic evacuation of passengers atop a bridge. One RTD higher-up expressed exasperation at efforts by Denver Transit Partners, the private contractor on the project, to avoid responsibility for the incident by filing a “force majeure” — or act of God — claim that the strike was unforeseeable and thus unavoidable. Greg Straight, RTD FasTracks Eagle P3 project director, wrote in an e-mail the day after the outage that RTD had long ago urged Denver Transit to run a static wire above the overhead catenary system — the pole-mounted electric propulsion system for the train — to help shield the lines from lightning.
Sun Sentinel: Stricter scholarship requirements hit poor, minorities
Tens of thousands of Florida’s poorest students are finding it harder to afford college because of tougher qualifications for the state’s Bright Futures scholarship, The Sun Sentinel reports. The academic scholarship was created in 1997 to keep the state’s top students in Florida schools. But the legislature voted in 2011 to increase the required scores on ACT and SAT tests, fearing out-of-control costs caused by standards they considered too easy. Since then, the number of freshmen receiving the scholarship has dropped by about half, but the changes have hit hardest among those with the greatest need, according to a Sun-Sentinel analysis of Education Department data, including information from about 100 South Florida high schools.
Honolulu Advertiser: Options for primary care doctors are shrinking
The Honolulu Advertiser says nearly a third of Oahu’s primary care doctors are no longer accepting new patients. Many patients are left in limbo s their doctors retire, decline patients on Medicare or Medicaid – the government health insurance program for seniors and low income residents – or are unwilling to take on those with complicated medical problems due to new payment models that penalize providers for poor patient outcomes. A total of 145 of Oahu’s 463 primary care physicians have stopped taking new patients regardless of insurance coverage, according to a study by Crown Care LLC, a Honolulu patient advocacy company. In addition,. 72 primary care doctors, or 16 percent, are accepting only privately insured patients.
Des Moines Register: Iowa schools have millions of dollars they can’t spend
Iowa school districts are sitting on more than $145 million in funding that frustrated superintendents say they can't spend because of legislative restrictions, according to The Des Moines Register. The earmarked money has built up in dozens of funds over the years, growing from $130 million in 2013, according to a Des Moines Register review of state data. Now, education officials are lobbying to loosen the spending restrictions so they can use the money where they say it is needed most, rather than watching the categorized accounts build up year after year while they scramble to find funding in other areas. "It doesn’t make much sense to have this money sitting in banks around the state," said Mary Ellen Miller, a member of the Iowa Board of Education. "Clearly, it's time to look at it."
Courier-Journal: Yuck! Louisville still has $943M sewer problem
A decade after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet forced a court-approved, 19-year plan to clean up Jefferson County's wastewater system, a Courier-Journal analysis has found that while much progress has been made, Louisville is still dumping huge volumes of untreated sewage into waterways. In a series of articles, the CJ examines local Metropolitan Sewer District data on spills since 2005 and other records. Among other findings, MSD has stopped spills at some 340 locations, but records show that as much as 5.8 billion gallons of raw sewage may have poured into area waterways in 2015, due to heavy rainfall. That’s the most since at least 2012. Cleanup costs are projected to climb to $943 million, an 11 percent increase over the $850 million previously estimated, as MSD faces a quick turnaround on a new round of expensive and complicated construction jobs
Maine Sunday Telegram: State doesn’t know if school employees are qualified
The Maine Sunday Telegram says state education officials don’t know whether every employee who works with Maine students – from teachers to bus drivers – has passed a criminal background check or is properly credentialed. To ensure their employees are qualified and safe to work with children, local schools rely on an antiquated, paper-based system that has errors. Districts trying to hire employees regularly experience delays of more than a month when trying to determine whether there is proper certification. The certification process for the 34,811 public school employees in Maine has been under scrutiny since April, when an education technician in SAD 6 was charged with sexually assaulting a student. The charges were later dismissed because Zachariah Sherburne left the job before having sex with the student, but the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald learned that Sherburne did not hold any credentials despite already being employed in another district, SAD 55, before he worked at SAD 6.
Orlando Sentinel: Vets find military records often embellished
The Orlando Sentinel reports Groveland mayoral candidate George Rosario posted a picture on his campaign's Facebook page of himself wearing a hat declaring him "Purple Heart Combat Veteran." His campaign website also said he had been awarded two Bronze Stars in addition to a Purple Heart while serving in the Army. The problem is, Rosario doesn't have a Purple Heart, which is awarded to soldiers who were killed or injured in battle, nor a Bronze Star, awarded to soldiers who showed heroic or meritorious achievement — let alone two. The claims — which Rosario's campaign manager blamed on "miscommunication" — were spotted recently by a retired Army veteran who spends his free time catching people he believes are guilty of so-called "stolen valor." Embellishing one's military service is becoming more and more common nationwide, said Mike Vitale of Clermont, who met with Rosario about the misrepresentations, which have since been removed the candidate's website.
New York Times: Outside money favor Clinton 2-to-1 over Trump
The New York Times reports that six years after a Supreme Court decision opened vast new channels for money to flow into national elections, Democrats have built the largest and best-coordinated apparatus of outside groups operating in the 2016 presidential campaign, defying expectations that conservative and corporate wealth would dominate the race. A dozen different organizations raised over $200 million through the beginning of October and since May have spent more than $110 million on television, digital, and radio ads in support of Hillary Clinton, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission through Thursday, Oct. 20. The handful of organizations backing Donald J. Trump have raised less than half that amount, a steep dive from four years ago, when wealthy Republicans poured hundreds of millions of dollars into groups backing the Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The Oregonian: University gained many students and a fed investigation
Concordia University now bestows more Master of Education degrees than any other public or private nonprofit school in the country, thanks to a popular online teaching program that helped quadruple the college's revenues in five years, The Oregonian reports. The meteoric growth came at a price to Concordia. The small Christian school has paid more than $160 million to a private contractor hired to handle aspects of the online graduate degree program. Students know little about the Silicon Valley company or its outsized role. Concordia and HotChalk Inc. drew rebuke last year after the U.S. Education Department concluded a two-year investigation into their relationship. A federal prosecutor said the arrangement appeared to violate laws that keep colleges from paying incentives for recruitment, or from outsourcing more than half an educational program to an unaccredited party.
Austin American-Statesman: Texas’ Hispanic population underrepresented
The Austin American-Statesman reports a first-of-its-kind analysis has found deep patterns of underrepresentation of the state’s fast growing Hispanic population on city councils and commissioners courts across Texas. More than 1.3 million Hispanics in Texas live in cities or counties with no Hispanic representation on their city council or commissioners court. The disparities remain high even when accounting for noncitizens. The imbalance is especially acute at the highest levels of local government. In a state where Hispanics make up 38 percent of the population, only about 10 percent of Texas mayors and county judges are Hispanic. In the halls of county government, Latino representation has largely stagnated over the past two decades. In 1994, Latinos made up 10 percent of county commissioner positions; today, the percentage has inched up just slightly to 13 percent — even though the state’s Hispanic population nearly doubled over that time.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK OCT. 18, 2016
AP: An accidental shooting kills a child every other day
The Associated Press and the USA TODAY Network report that during the first six months of this year, minors died from accidental shootings — at their own hands, or at the hands of other children or adults — at a pace of one every other day, far more than limited federal statistics indicate. Such tragedies play out repeatedly across the country. Curious toddlers find unsecured, loaded handguns in their homes and vehicles, and fatally shoot themselves and others. Teenagers, often showing off guns to their friends and siblings, end up shooting them instead.
Stamford Advocate: Connecticut day care inspections incomplete until now
As authorities probe the recent deaths of four infants in day care — including three in Connecticut’s Fairfield County — records show regulators did not annually inspect every licensed child care provider in the state until this year, according to The Stamford Advocate. In 2013, only 38 percent of nearly 2,500 family day care homes were inspected to ensure safety and quality of care, and 44 percent were inspected in 2014, a Hearst Connecticut Media examination of state records found. The inspection rate rose to 87 percent in 2015. The state Office of Early Childhoodsaid this year, all of the state’s nearly 4,000 child care providers will finally receive at least one yearly inspection, due to an infusion of state money to hire and train additional inspectors.
The Washington Post finds that opioid prescriptions have skyrocketed from 112 million in 1992 to nearly 249 million in 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available, and America’s dependence on the drugs has reached crisis levels. Millions are addicted to or abusing prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that, from 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 people died in the United States from prescription-opioid overdoses, which have contributed to a startling increase in early mortality among whites, particularly women — a devastating toll that has hit hardest in small towns and rural areas. The pharmaceutical industry’s response has been more drugs. The opioid market — now worth nearly $10 billion a year in sales in the United States — has expanded to include a growing universe of medications aimed at treating secondary effects rather than controlling pain.
Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-drug-industrys-answer-to-opioid-addiction-more-pills/2016/10/15/181a529c-8ae4-11e6-bff0-d53f592f176e_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_movantik-630pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Retaking classes online won’t master subject
The number of Georgia students who have made up courses they failed by taking online classes has grown rapidly, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports. But most students pass the online classes without mastering the material. Georgia students took more than 20,700 online “credit recovery” courses last year. State and local officials say the classes have helped Georgia improve its graduation rate, though it’s hard to pinpoint how much of the increase is due to credit recovery. About 90 percent of Georgia students who took one of these courses last year in subjects covered by state tests passed the course itself. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of results of the state-required tests found only about 10 percent of them were proficient in the subject.
Chicago Tribune: Two Chicago cops still sidelined decade after police scandal
A decade after one of the most damaging scandals in Chicago police history broke, two of the officers accused of wrongdoing remain on desk duty at full pay, filing papers or answering phones as they await the outcome of the city's slow-moving and much-criticized disciplinary process, The Chicago Tribune says. The two are just a fraction of about 85 officers who remain on the force but are barred from working on the street because of ongoing disciplinary cases that can take years to close. As Chicago police fight surging violence and Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledges the need for more police on the street, these sidelined officers are taking a toll on finances and available manpower. The group of about 85 officers — the size of some Police Academy graduating classes — is on track to cost the city at least $5 million in pay this year, according to a Tribune analysis of department records obtained through an open records request.
Des Moines Register: Iowa has little idea of cost of flooding protection
The Des Moines Resister reports Iowa is seeing heavier rains and more flooding as climate change takes its toll, yet the state has little idea how much it would cost to protect its homes, schools, factories and other infrastructure, let alone how to pay for it. Iowa cities and towns have put together $1.4 billion in plans to protect themselves from flooding, seeking to buy homes and businesses near rivers, build levees and flood walls and better protect utilities. But the state has failed to aggressively push to build wetlands, detention ponds and other upstream structures that can significantly reduce flooding risks for cities and towns. One senator says some Iowa lawmakers have discussed the need for increased flood mitigation that could also reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. But that message has gotten lost amid intense budget fights over education, health care and other funding needs.
Courier-Journal: Unequal justice: Kentucky’s county incarceration rates vary
Figures from the National Corrections Reporting Program show that Kentucky’s Carroll County sent people to prison at a higher rate in 2014 than any county in the state – and more than any county in the United States with a population of more than 10,000 for which data are available, The Courier-Journal reports. Carroll imprisoned offenders at four times the rate of Jefferson or Fayette counties and 20 times the rate of nearby Oldham, which incarcerated at the state’s lowest rate. If every county had locked up residents at Carroll’s rate, about 60,000 inmates would have been added to the state’s prison rolls in 2014, nearly tripling Kentucky’s total prison population. The figures show such huge discrepancies in the incarceration rate among Kentucky counties that sentencing reform advocates say they undermine the very notion of equal justice under the law.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: No candidates for hundreds of local offices
The Minneapolis Star Tribune says that hundreds of local offices in Minnesota — mayor, council member, clerk — have no candidates running for them. In Minnetonka Beach, an upscale Twin Cities suburb, officials worry that the city’s business will grind to a halt because nobody is running for city treasurer. In Elmore, boyhood home of former Vice President Walter Mondale, they’re hoping somebody — anybody — will raise their hand to fill a vacant City Council seat. Along with the vacant ballot slots, 60 percent of all local offices in Minnesota have only a single candidate running unopposed. In all, two-thirds of local offices statewide have either no candidate running or just one. The dearth of candidates interested in political life has local officials struggling with where Minnesota will find its next generation of leaders.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Evictions in St. Louis remain stubbornly high
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that in the fallout of the housing crisis, the number of lawsuits filed in local courts against people for back rent or possession of property rose, primarily because banks and mortgage companies evicted people after a foreclosure. But as foreclosure-related evictions have since fallen sharply, the court dockets remain busy, as suits filed by traditional landlords against renters have risen. Years into the economic recovery, thousands of households at the bottom rung of the rental market have yet to find stability. Court filings suggest evictions remain as frequent as in the immediate aftermath of the recession. In 2015, nearly 16,000 lawsuits for back rent or possession were filed in St. Louis and St. Louis County courts, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of court data. “No one wins in this eviction cycle,” said Lee Camp, a lawyer who represents tenants at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.
Newark Star Ledger: NJ taxed $1.4 billion for 911 system but never delivered
For more than a decade every person in New Jersey with a phone has paid a tax on their monthly bill to fund the 911 emergency phone system, handing over a whopping $1.37 billion to Trenton, according to The Newark Star Ledger. Then came the classic Jersey bait-and-switch. Rather than using the money for 911, lawmakers and governors have instead raided it time and again to balance the budget, leaving critical upgrades to the state's most important public safety system on hold. An NJ Advance Media analysis found that of the $1.37 billion the state has collected in 911 fees since 2004, only 15 percent, about $211 million, has been used to help pay for the 911 system. Investment in the upgrade, known as NextGen 911, has trickled to a halt.
Albuquerque Journal: NM has highest percentage of children on food stamps
The Albuquerque Journal reports New Mexico has the nation’s largest percentage of young children receiving food stamps, with nearly half of children age 4 and under participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to a report issued this week. The program, also known as food stamps, is the largest provider of nutrition assistance to children in poor families nationwide. In New Mexico, 196,300 children receive SNAP benefits, according to a report released this week from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Forty-six percent of children age 4 and under receive the benefits, according to the report, compiled from U.S. Department of Agriculture data for 2014, the most recent year for which the information is available.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Pennsylvania bucks trend to early voting
People are making their voices heard early in 37 states that have expanded early voting, a movement expected to result in a third of all votes cast in this year's general election, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Early voting represents a return to an election practice that started before the Civil War, a way to allow rural voters time to get to a polling place. It expanded in recent decades to make voting more convenient and to shield against bad weather having an outsize impact on a major election. New Jersey began expanding early voting in 2009. Pennsylvania remains among the holdout states. While its goals are to expand voter participation, observers say early voting this year could boomerang against Donald Trump in particular, as the Republican presidential nominee has less time to recover from scandal in early-voting battlegrounds like Florida, Colorado, and Ohio.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: $3 billion market for “overactive bladder”
In 2001, an automated telephone survey paid for by a drug company asked adults a simple, uncomfortable question: How often do you go? The results produced a striking number: Nearly 17 percent of adults in the United States — some 33 million people — were declared to have overactive bladder disorder. And a massive new market for drug sales was born, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Last year, sales of drugs to manage overactive bladder, once simply known as incontinence, reached nearly $3 billion — even though experts in the field say the condition is best managed without drugs at all. At the center of the issue are two urologists who re-named the condition, developed a definition for it and organized drug-company sponsored conferences that advocated for using drugs to treat it.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK OCT. 11, 2016
Denver Post: Tax law costs some Colorado families their mobile homes
The Denver Post reports how a bewildered mobile homeowner loses a property over a tax lien of a few hundred dollars and ultimately faces a painful choice: Buy it back for thousands or face eviction. While perfectly legal in Colorado, the practice has given pause even to county treasurers, who have seen a sudden spike in this seldom-used facet of tax lien law. The proportionality of the trade-off — losing a home over a minor tax debt — and more stringent payment expectations for mobile home owners compared to owners of real property have prompted a re-examination of the process. Owners whose tax liens are purchased by an investor have only about a year to redeem them before the investor can start paperwork to take ownership. Owners of real property — fixed buildings and land — have about three years to repay the debt.
Washington Post: In safety and reliability, Metro ranks in middle of the pack
An analysis of federal data shows the region’s rail transit system had an average or above-average performance in overall safety and reliability among the nine largest U.S. subways over the past eight years, the Washington Post reports. Metro had one of the lowest rates for passenger injuries from 2008 through 2015. Its reliability, despite having slipped recently, was not among the worst. It ranked smack in the middle — fifth out of nine — in collisions and fires. It had the third-lowest rate of total mechanical failures from 2011 through 2014. Chicago and Philadelphia had higher rates of passenger injuries, collisions and total mechanical failures than did Washington. San Francisco ranked near the top for good reliability, whereas Boston was safest in terms of passenger injuries.
Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/in-safety-and-reliability-metro-ranks-in-middle-of-the-pack-of-nations-big-systems/2016/10/08/aa7bb5a6-59b4-11e6-831d-0324760ca856_story.html
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Education fundamentally changed in Wisconsin
Five years into the Act 10 era, the aftereffects of Wisconsin’s bruising battle over union power are fundamentally altering public education in the state, according to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Once anchored in communities, teachers are moving from district to district, creating a year-round cycle of vacancies and turnover as fewer people enter the profession. The revolving schoolhouse door is rewarding the most sought-after educators with five-figure signing bonuses — giving better-paying districts an edge in recruiting away top talent. Newly empowered administrators are rooting out more underachievers, slowly but steadily linking pay to performance and prizing skill over seniority. Without real collective bargaining, unions have lost strength and membership, with many veteran teachers seething over bygone influence and compensation.
Courier-Journal: With jails crowded, Kentucky reconsiders prvate prisons
The Courier-Journal reports in the first of a two-part series that as jails across the commonwealth run out of beds amid a logjam of state prisoners, Kentucky officials are considering a controversial return to private prisons. Kentucky is grappling with an 18 percent rise in its prison population since 2013, according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts presentation, which has helped overwhelm jails around the state, including Jefferson County’s. The state says its roughly 11,700-bed prison system has been coping with around 23,640 prisoners - about half of whom are held in county jails. State officials see private prisons as a potential, temporary fix, but experts say those institutions entail significant risks even when used only as a short-term solution. The state stopped using private prisons three years ago after female inmates were sexually abused by guards at the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright.
Baltimore Sun: Untrained volunteers set up Maryland’s medical pot industry
The Baltimore Sun reports that when lawmakers first envisioned a medical marijuana commission, they created a panel of volunteers to look after what was supposed to be limited program of academic centers dispensing the drug. Three years later, those same untrained volunteers have become closely watched regulators who have presided over the rocky launch of Maryland's multimillion-dollar medical marijuana industry. Not even half of the preliminary licenses have been awarded, and the process is already mired in a lawsuit and ethics probe. The lack of diversity among licensees has drawn the ire of black lawmakers, including one who pushed to create the program.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune: County judge confronts police on “military tactics”
As Minnesota’s law enforcement agencies continue to arm themselves with more military weapons and tactics, critics of police militarization hope a court ruling will at least slow the use of SWAT teams when executing search warrants, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune says. Ben Feist, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, says: “Police are supposed to be out there protecting their communities, rather than treating people like they’re enemies in a combat zone.” Last November, 18 Hennepin County officials dressed in riot gear and carrying semi-automatic rifles stormed inside Michael Delgado’s home searching for drugs. Another 10 to 14 stood guard outside as an armored truck equipped with a sniper focused on the house. That search, Hennepin County District Judge Tanya Bransford ruled, was unconstitutional. She wrote that the “military style” tactics were a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Oregonian: Was Portland’s lead crisis preventable?
The Oregonian reports that the lead crisis that gripped Portland's largest school district this summer might have been avoided if city leaders followed federal rules to minimize lead exposure in drinking water. An investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive found state regulators let Portland off the hook two decades ago as federal officials turned a blind eye. In November 1997, state officials approved a one-of-a-kind deal that let Portland ignore rules other cities across the country had to follow. New federal guidelines would have required Portland to add chemicals to its water to minimize pipe corrosion and the release of lead. But the city effectively bet it could reduce overall health risks — and save money — by focusing on lead paint instead of aggressively targeting lead in water. That decision affected not only schools but also thousands of homes, apartments and offices across the region connected to Portland's water supply.
Austin American-Statesman: Foster kids sleep in state offices
Since January, 330 foster children — more than four times as many as last year for the same period — have been forced to stay in hotels, Child Protective Services offices or emergency shelters across the state because CPS could not find a home for them, reports The Austin American-Statesman. And there’s no sign that the problem will abate anytime soon. The numbers have been consistently rising because of a shortage of foster placements. CPS has faced down this problem before. In 2007, local child placing agencies — private organizations that are paid by the state to find and oversee foster homes for kids — started rejecting more children with behavioral problems. There were foster homes available, they said, but families weren’t always equipped to handle challenging kids.
Houston Chronicle: MUDS sell bonds, levy taxes for developers who fund pols
The Houston Chronicle says that in Houston's conservative suburbs, where local governments are loath to raise taxes, the thankless task of hiking revenues has fallen to hundreds of so-called municipal utility districts created for developers to finance water and sewage systems, roads and other amenities. These MUDs, as they're called, have virtually unlimited power in bright red, anti-tax Texas to sell bonds and levy property taxes. The state's leading tea party conservatives, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have championed their creation in what ethics reformers say is a clear example of special interest influence in Austin. All told, lawmakers who carry bills creating MUDs and other water districts have collected $3.5 million in campaign contributions since 2001 from law firms that specialize in creating those districts on behalf of developers or do bond work on their multimillion-dollar deals, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentnel: Refugee resettlement agency under investigation
A Milwaukee nonprofit that offers after-school programs for refugee children and other assistance for refugees is under investigation for alleged misuse of federal funds, according to The Milwaukee Journal. The Pan-African Community Association gave money to at least 32 people who were not eligible to receive funds, investigators with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement have found, according to records obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, the organization violated terms of federal grants by spending more than 35 percent of its annual budget on administrative costs and paying individuals in the form of money orders, rather than paying vendors directly for items purchased, the reports state. The association received more than $440,000 in federal funds from 2012 to 2015 to help refugees from Africa and around the world buy cars and houses and to open businesses in Milwaukee.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK OCT. 5, 2016
AP: Across US, police officers misuse confidential databases
An Associated Press investigation has found police officers across the country misuse confidential law enforcement databases to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons unrelated to police work. Criminal-history and driver databases legitimately give officers critical information about people they encounter on the job. But the AP's review shows how those systems can also be exploited by officers who, motivated by romantic quarrels, personal conflicts or voyeuristic curiosity, sidestep policies and sometimes the law by snooping. No single agency tracks how often the abuse happens nationwide and record-keeping inconsistencies make it impossible to know how many violations occur.
The Los Angeles Times reports many thousands of Californians are dying every year from infections they caught while in hospitals. But you’d never know that from their death certificates. California does not track deaths from hospital-acquired infections. And unlike two dozen other states, California does not require hospitals to report when patients are sickened by the rare, lethal superbug that afflicted McMullen, raising questions about whether health officials are doing enough to stop its spread. University of Michigan researchers reported in a 2014 study that infections – both those acquired inside and outside hospitals – would replace heart disease and cancer as the leading causes of death in hospitals if the count was performed by looking at patients’ medical billing records, which show what they were being treated for, rather than death certificates.
The New York Times reported records it has obtained show Donald J. Trumpdeclared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, a tax deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years, records obtained by The New York Times show. The 1995 tax records, never before disclosed, reveal the extraordinary tax benefits that Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, derived from the financial wreckage he left behind in the early 1990s through mismanagement of three Atlantic City casinos, his ill-fated foray into the airline business and his ill-timed purchase of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Tax experts hired by The Times to analyze Mr. Trump’s 1995 records said that tax rules especially advantageous to wealthy filers would have allowed Mr. Trump to use his $916 million loss to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income over an 18-year period.
Washington Post: The cobalt pipeline
The Washington Post reports the world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say. The Post traced this cobalt pipeline and, for the first time, showed how cobalt mined in these harsh conditions ends up in popular consumer products.
Miami Herald: New intelligence upends Guantanamo assumptions
The Miami Herald reports that an ongoing review shows the U.S. intelligence community has been debunking long-held myths about some of the “worst of the worst” at Guantánamo, some of them still held today. The retreat emerges in a series of unclassified prisoner profiles released by the Pentagon in recent years, snapshots of much larger dossiers the public cannot see, prepared for the Periodic Review Board examining the Pentagon’s “forever prisoner” population. The new intelligence reports are not designed to help the panel decide a captive’s guilt or innocence. Rather they were prepared for representatives from the Departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, State and the Director of National Intelligence to evaluate each captive, a process that has whittled the detainee population down to 61 today.
Times-Picayune: Louisiana keeps prison costs down in new ways
The Times-Picayune reports that when it comes to prisons, Louisiana is first in many ways. The state has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with about one in 75 Louisiana adults in prison or jail at any given moment. Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly called Angola, is the largest maximum security prison in the country. But Louisiana is also the first to convert its two private prisons into jails -- yanking educational and medical services from thousands of state inmates -- to deal with state budget cuts. No other state has made a similar move, essentially using an administrative maneuver that allows the state to work around prison regulations and run a facility more cheaply.
Dallas Morning News: Reason for pregnancy-related deaths cloaked in secrecy
The Dallas Morning News reports the rate of pregnancy-related deaths among Texas women has nearly doubled in recent years, according to a national study, while a separate state-commissioned study found that black women are especially vulnerable. Researchers can't say why maternal death rates are higher in Texas than any other state, and the reasons are likely to remain hidden. That's because the data and records that could provide answers to the maternal death quandary are being kept secret by the Department of State Health Services, which has refused to disclose even an inventory of what data it keeps.
Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Bonds, delinquent bonds
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports bail bond companies that pledged bail money as guarantees that their clients would appear for criminal court proceedings now owe the state of Hawaii more than $2.4 million in forfeited bail bonds after the offenders failed to show up for their court dates. Data provided by the Hawaii State Judiciary in response to a public records request show the judiciary is owed money by companies doing business under three dozen names for bond forfeitures that is some cases date back to 2001 and 2002. A list of unpaid bail forfeitures in Family District and Circuit courts was compiled as of June 30 and includes amounts ranging from $100 to s much as $250,000 in one case.
Read more (online subscribers only): http://www.staradvertiser.com/2016/10/02/hawaii-news/several-bail-bond-companies-including-one-owned-by-dog-chapman-owe-the-state-more-than-2-4m/
San Francisco Chronicle: Resolutions benefit lawmakers as taxpayers foot bills
The San Francisco Chronicle reports almost 600 resolutions were introduced in the California Legislature during the past two-year session, which ended on Aug. 31. These legislative formalities, designed to honor individuals or groups or draw attention to issues, don’t create or change laws. Some considered this past session, for instance, asked Californians to celebrate cowboys and urged parents not to idle cars when picking up their kids from school. Taxpayer groups and other critics say they have become excessive and costly, and that there is little public benefit from them. Yet, there are, at times, clear personal benefits to lawmakers who push resolutions through the Legislature. A review by The Chronicle of all 578 legislative resolutions in the past two years found many instances where special interest groups made campaign contributions to the lawmakers who carried resolutions highlighting their organizations or causes.
WATCHDOG REPORTING: SUMMARY OF IMPACT JOURNALISM FROM PAST WEEK SEPT. 27, 2016
AP: California lawmakers collect thousands on top of salary while absent
The Associated Press reported from Sacramento that in addition to their six-figure salaries and benefits, California's 120 lawmakers are compensated for their cost of living and meals when they leave home and travel to Sacramento to write and pass bills. Unlike in many other states, however, California lawmakers have over time crafted loosely worded rules for themselves that allow them to collect those payments regardless of whether they even show up to work. It's a perk unlike anything typically available to workers in the private sector, allowing lawmakers such as Assemblyman Roger Hernandez to take unlimited time off and continue collecting a tax-free, daily allowance of $176.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: System shields doctor sex abuse nationwide
A national investigation by the newspaper identified more than 2,400 doctors disciplined for sexual misconduct involving patients since 1999,The The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Half are still licensed. But no state routinely requires doctors to tell patients when they have faced disciplinary action, the newspaper found. Four states post no disciplinary records online, and at least nine purge case files after as little as five years. Twenty-one states sometimes issue secret orders that allow doctors to continue practice with no public hearings and no public scrutiny. Even in states that publish disciplinary files online, getting to the details of a doctor’s offenses can be surprisingly difficult.
Daily Hampshire Gazette: Some restaurants pay less than minimum wage
The Daily Hampshire Gazette has identified at least seven Chinese and Japanese restaurants where workers seem to be making less than the legal minimum — and that’s without taking into account the time-and-a-half overtime pay many employers provide for work beyond the standard 40-hour week. The Gazette identified at least four Hampshire County restaurants whose managers acknowledged paying workers a sum that appears to be below the minimum wage. Additionally, workers at three other establishments reported wages that appear to be below the minimum. The Gazette attempted to interview owners or managers at 18 other Chinese and Japanese restaurants in Hampshire County. Some managers and owners either refused to comment or were said to be unavailable; others agreed to be interviewed but declined to comment on pay practices.
News Tribune: Secret studies say LNG plant poses no off-site danger
The News Tribune, of Tacoma, Wash., reports the safety studies of potential spills, leaks and fires at Puget Sound Energy’s proposed Tacoma Tideflats liquid natural gas plant appear to back up the company’s contention the hazards wouldn’t reach across the site’s property lines, The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, reported. Records, including a plant siting study, a fire protection evaluation and a series of video models of plant accidents, contemplate incidents from bad to worse as part of explaining the potential risks of building the plant. PSE has fought public disclosure of the documents. Among the scenarios envisioned in them: a leak in the natural gas pipeline that feeds the $275 million plant or a rupture and fire at the top of the storage tank that will hold 8 million gallons of liquid natural gas, or LNG.
Chicago Tribune: Other cities dig up toxic lead pipes, Chicago resists
The Chicago Tribune reports that as cities across the nation overhaul their aging, increasingly fragile drinking water systems, some municipal leaders are digging deeper to erase a toxic legacy that endangers millions of Americans: lead water pipes connecting homes to street mains. Other cities have plans in the works. Chicago has more lead service lines than any other city and required them by law until 1986, when Congress banned the use of the brain-damaging metal to convey drinking water. But as Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushes ahead with expensive plans to modernize Chicago's water system, administration officials say it is up to individual homeowners to decide whether it is worth replacing the pipes at their own expense. Of the $412 million Emanuel has borrowed from a federal-state loan fund during the past six years for water-related projects, none is going to replace lead pipes.
Los Angeles Times: Scope of Trump’s falsehoods unprecedented
Donald Trump says taxes in the United States are higher than almost anywhere else on earth, The Los Angeles Times reports. They’re not. He says he opposed the Iraq war from the start. He didn’t. Now, after years of spreading the lie that President Obama was born in Africa, Trump says that Hillary Clinton did it first (untrue) and that he’s the one who put the controversy to rest (also untrue). Never in modern presidential politics has a major candidate made false statements as routinely as Trump has. Over and over, independent researchers have examined what the Republican nominee says and concluded it was not the truth — but “pants on fire” (PolitiFact) or “four Pinocchios” (Washington Post Fact Checker).
Denver Post: Regulatory vacuum in oil and gas production compounds risks
A national legacy of encouraging oil and gas development — for energy security, for jobs, for the economy — has created a regulatory vacuum, according to The Denver Post. There is an entire federal agency devoted to mining safety, for instance, but nothing comparable exists for oil and gas. While OSHA has created specific safety standards that companies in other industries must follow, oil and gas businesses successfully beat back such regulations for themselves. Meanwhile, 1,333 workers died in the nation’s oil and gas fields between 2003 and 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nationwide death toll in 2014 of 144 was the highest in more than a decade. By another measurement — the number of worker deaths per active drilling rig — 2014 was the second-most lethal year in Colorado in a decade, according to a Denver Post analysis.
Miami Herald: How Miami-Dade was outgunned in war on Zika
The Miami Herald says that as the Zika virus spread across Miami-Dade County this summer, a staff of 17 that handles mosquito control for nearly 2.7 million people was outgunned, overwhelmed and maybe even a victim of its own success: in 2009 and 2010, the county managed to dodge a dengue outbreak that infected more than 100 people in Key West and four years later evaded a rash of Chikungunya. But Zika was something different, a mosquito-borne virus with terrifying implications for expectant parents that had ravaged parts of South America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly warned it was a public health threat that called for serious advance planning. Despite the early alarms, records show Miami-Dade largely proceeded with business as usual as the summer mosquito season approached.
Des Moines Register: Police now say investigative records sealed forever
A relatively recent interpretation of a 45-year-old Iowa law claims any document created or collected as part of an investigation can be considered confidential forever, The Des Moines Register reports. The Department of Public Safety denied all or parts of 40 out of 59 record requests it received during the first six months of 2016, a Des Moines Register investigation found. And of the 40 denials, 28 were based on the investigative file exemption — regardless of whether the case is closed, remains under investigation or went cold three decades ago. A spot check showed that local law enforcement agencies rarely use the same exemption. Des Moines police had no record of any requests it has denied citing that exemption in the first six months of 2016.
Baltimore Sun: Program aimed at vacant homes gets slow start
The Baltimore Sun reports that after decades of stalled promises to tear down the vacant row homes that have become symbolic of Baltimore's woes, Gov. Larry Hogan pledged at the start of the year that "thousands" would come down over four years with an infusion of $75 million in state money. Nine months later, the program, dubbed Project CORE, has barely begun. Officials had identified more than 370 properties for demolition by the end of 2016, but just 53 properties have been approved for razing, and costs are mounting faster than anticipated — both troubling signs the program could fall short of its goals. In interviews, city and state officials backed away from previous projections but said it is too early to judge the effectiveness the program, a partnership between the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and Baltimore's housing department.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin faces billions in retiree obligations
Over the next generation, Wisconsin's taxpayers and public workers reportedly must deal with at least $6.5 billion in unfunded retirement promises made by local governments, with more than $4.7 billion in the state's largest county alone. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation has found that from Milwaukee to Eau Claire, local governments face problems more severe than any in a generation. A review of thousands of pages of financial documents shows the biggest challenges lie in southeastern Wisconsin, with the city, county and schools in Racine, for instance, combining for at least $686 million in unfunded liabilities to retirees and workers — $3,500 for every person in the county. Local officials piled up these IOUs over decades by promising as much as $250,000 in health care benefits to individual retirees and putting nothing aside to pay for them.
Austin American-Statesman: Law change helps Texas graduation rate
Graduation rates in Texas once again have hit an all-time high — and the latest uptick can be attributed to a recent law that allows seniors to graduate high school without passing high-stakes, state mandated exams, according to The Austin American-Statesman. More than 5,800 students statewide, and at least 150 in the Austin area, were able to graduate in 2015 despite failing at least one of five end-of-course STAAR exams. The state’s graduation rates actually would have dipped slightly to 87.3 percent, had it not been for the law change. Preliminary data for the 2016 graduating class indicates that even more students were able to walk the stage in the spring under Senate Bill 149, which allows some students to bypass the requirement that they succeed on the exams to get a diploma.
San Francisco Chronicle: Climate change law has transformed California
The San Francisco Chronicle has found that more than 27 percent of California’s current demand for electricity is being met by renewable sources — primarily the sun, the wind and the Earth’s own heat. Just a few short years ago, that would have been considered astonishing. Now it happens on a regular basis. Next summer, the percentage will be even higher. State law requires that California get 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and 50 percent 10 years later. “Think about it — we’re sitting here right now, and there’s 7,000-plus megawatts of solar on our system,” says Eric Schmitt, vice president of operations for the California Independent System Operator. “That’s eight nuclear reactors’ worth of electricity on our system — just from solar.” Tuesday, Sept. 27, marks 10 years since then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger committed California to stopping climate change.