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BEST OF THE STATES 3-4-2015
California's new Senate leader, Kevin de Leon, made a splashy debut last fall by throwing himself a $50,000 swearing-in celebration at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, complete with food trucks and a mariachi band.
Some questioned the pricey party, but the Latino Caucus at the time assured everyone that they used private donations to pay for the event. Organizers were adamant no taxpayer money was involved.
Except it was.
Using a public records request, Sacramento reporter Judy Lin found that taxpayers were billed more than $25,000 for dozens of staff and security to attend. She also learned $15,000 in similar costs were incurred for ceremonies for the new Assembly leader.
Her reporting started with a tip that a large number of staff and security had traveled from Sacramento to Los Angeles for the de Leon event. The entourage was unusual because they were policy staffers who work on the budget, environmental and education issues -- not campaign staff. And though the sergeant at arms act as security guards for members, the sergeants themselves typically remain in the Capitol to staff Senate meetings.
Lin filed a Legislative Open Records Act request with the Senate and also decided to ask for Assembly records. The Senate made it more difficult for her, giving her expenses for the whole week and forcing her to weed out unrelated items.
Lin was in the midst of reporting the story when a source tipped her that a competitor was working on the same thing. She quickly wrapped up work and beat local media by more than an hour. The story played up and down the state, from U-T San Diego to the San Francisco Chronicle. The well-read Capitol Basement blog credited Lin for her beat and provided a link to the story.
BEST OF THE STATES 2-12-15
BEST OF THE STATES 2-5-15
San Antonio Correspondent Seth Robbins, who joined AP just a few weeks ago, has been given the mandate to break news and develop deep enterprise. He did both with his recent story on thousands of immigrants seeking legalization through the U.S. courts who have had their hearings canceled without warning.
Robbins was searching the Twitter accounts of immigration lawyers working in the newly opened detention center in Dilley, southwest of San Antonio, when he came across an intriguing tweet: “Same in San Antonio--cases at the Denver immigration court at a standstill.” That led him to a blog post describing how non-detainee hearings for Denver immigrants were being canceled as a result of the fast-tracking of Central American families and unaccompanied minors who crossed the border last summer.
Robbins called the few lawyers he had met in his short time in Texas, and also lawyers in Denver, including the author of the blog post. All described having hearings canceled and not rescheduled. Most were angry because they had clients who had waited years to get in front of a judge. They were now being told that their cases were on hold indefinitely.
Seeking to quantify how big a problem this might be, Robbins contacted the Justice Department branch in charge of immigration courts and immigration lawyers in cities most affected by last summer’s surge of Central American migrants.
Immigration officials in Washington insisted they did not have statistics on the total number of canceled hearings. But they did acknowledge that about 415,000 immigrants not in detention had cases pending. Several more calls to the department followed, including one in which a spokeswoman let slip that the cancelled hearings were being rescheduled for a date in 2019 -- nearly five years away.
Robbins kept pressing to understand the scope of the problem. He surveyed immigration lawyers in New York, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Denver about how many of their cases had been canceled, and one Denver lawyer finally went on the record saying thousands of cases had been canceled in that city alone.
With that critical information giving scope to the problem, Robbins was now in need of a human story to help illustrate the impact of the delays. The same Denver lawyer put Robbins in touch with Maximiano Vazquez-Guevarra, who'd won an appeal to become a legal permanent resident but needed to go in front of an immigration judge one last time. Yet his case had been pulled from the docket, which meant that he couldn’t leave the country to visit his dying brother in Mexico.
Robbins, who speaks Spanish, interviewed Vazquez by phone. Vazquez and his wife agreed to have their photos taken, and Denver photographer David Zalubowski quickly scheduled a shoot, ensuring there were photos that would help report the story before competition got wind.
The story got strong web play and ran on a number of newspaper front pages throughout the country, including The Dallas Morning News
BEST OF THE STATES 1-8-15
In 2014, there were few reporters in the business who got more out of their beat than the New York City bureau's Jake Pearson. So it is fitting that we open the Best of the States year with a win by Pearson for yet another big scoop on the distressing conditions at the city's notorious Rikers Island jail complex.
The judges agreed this was the strongest field in memory for BOTS, with a half-dozen nominees that could have won in another week. But Pearson rose to the top for again scooping the most competitive media market in America, and for his full body of work on Rikers Island.
Pearson’s latest newsbreak was about a mentally ill inmate who hanged himself on New Year's Day after orders to put him on 24-hour suicide watch were never implemented. His story, based on the account of two city officials, showed numerous breakdowns in protocols leading up to the suicide of 35-year-old Fabian Cruz. Pearson's story moved a full two hours ahead of the NY Times version. And while the NY Daily News was first to report a suicide, it missed the news of a mandated suicide watch. Pearson also was able to get a mugshot of the inmate, something his competition didn't have.
Cruz's death came six months after another of Pearson's exclusive reports on Rikers found that suicide-prevention protocols were not followed in at least nine of the 11 suicides at Rikers over the past five years. This latest story shows that there is still much work to be done to fix the systemic problems at the sprawling jail complex.
Pearson got the story after sending a text message wishing a longtime Rikers source a happy New Year. The reply: ""Thx, sad but there was a hang up in rndc tonight, will let you know what I find." RNDC is a Rikers facility.
Pearson stayed in touch the following day and he found out more, including that Cruz had been placed on 24-hour watch that was never implemented. Pearson then called a second source to confirm and learned even more details of breakdowns in suicide-prevention protocols.
The story was widely used online and in print during the holiday weekend, including fronting the news pages of Yahoo!, MSN and the Huffington Post.
Pearson's win caps a year in which he led the way on exposing the problems at Rikers. His work has included an array of stories, including the deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates, and others about guards' failure to follow jail protocol in cases that led to inmate deaths. His reporting led to promises of change from New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio and others, as well as a $400,000 federal grant intended to prevent suicides and other self-harm by inmates.
Just a few days before Cruz's death, AP published a deep and moving piece by Pearson that showed through the lens of another recent death how difficult it will be to implement the cultural and structural changes that are needed at Rikers. This is highly recommended reading as well.
BEST OF THE STATES 12-11-14
Pennsylvania's governor-elect, Tom Wolf, staked his successful campaign partly on a pledge to enact a new tax on natural gas drillers, which he said could generate $1 billion for the state and help plug a huge budget gap.
Northeast Pennsylvania correspondent Michael Rubinkam, acting on a suggestion from the industry that he should check the math, did exactly that.
He found the governor may have overstated the amount by hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially complicating his effort to win legislative approval for the tax, as well as his efforts to plug a budget gap that could be as much as $2 billion next year.
To analyze the numbers, Rubinkam obtained a spreadsheet with pricing data going back to January. The spreadsheet showed that the prices that drillers have been getting for their gas lags far behind the national benchmark price used to come up with the catchy $1 billion figure. The spreadsheet allowed Rubinkam to report with authority that, at current prices and production, the tax would bring in as little as $525 million.
Rubinkam confirmed with the U.S. Energy Information Administration that natural gas prices in Pennsylvania have been lagging because of a lack of infrastructure, and he interviewed two energy industry analysts who said prices are likely to stay low.
The story was most-read of the day on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's PowerSource energy blog; it was tweeted by The Philadelphia Inquirer's business section and by its energy reporter; and it landed on at least six front pages across the state. Another newspaper reported on the AP’s findings in one of its blogs, and at least one group of newspapers editorialized on the AP’s findings, writing:
“No doubt a number of factors led to Wolf’s victory. But predicting with confidence a $1 billion revenue stream made a lasting impression. Except it now appears the $1 billion figure was wrong, based as it was on old information and erroneous assumptions that have been shattered by the realities of the volatile energy industry.”
Statehouse politics and the natural gas industry are probably the two most competitive beats in Pennsylvania, so Rubinkam’s scoop was a twofer.
BEST OF THE STATES 11-13-14
Breaking News Staffers often play a critical role in assuring the success of AP’s coverage of major spot news, aggressively working the phones from the desk while also helping coordinate coverage.
Philadelphia’s early BNS, Michael Sisak, who recently transferred from the New York City bureau, took this role to a whole new level following the rescue of a woman abducted from a Philadelphia street, and the arrest of her alleged kidnapper.
The story gave Sisak an opportunity to demonstrate his expertise in mining online records and his strong multimedia skills while also getting out early ledes on the case.
After police identified the suspect, Sisak dove into Pennsylvania and Virginia court records and started compiling a criminal history through multiple databases, also pulling a bankruptcy filing that shed additional light on the defendant’s time in the two states.
Noticing that court records showed Barnes served his full eight-year sentence for an aggravated assault conviction (a rarity), he went to the parole board for answers, obtaining six pages of decisions documenting why he was not recommended for parole.
Meanwhile, determined to interview Philadelphia’s police commissioner on the case – and sub out comments the commissioner made on early morning network TV with AP’s own material – Sisak persuaded the police department to get him a one-on-one with the commissioner.
Realizing there was interest in the interview in all platforms, Sisak grabbed a Canon 5D Mark II camera that the photo department keeps in the bureau and shot video of his interview, too. He cut up the video on his laptop and sent it to the BNC, and a clip was included in AP’s v