Author Archive

Meet Christian Britschgi of Arizona Watchdog

By
Monday, March 27th, 2017

Christian Britschgi

Christian Britschgi is Watchdog’s latest addition, writing for our newly launched Arizona Watchdog bureau. He began his journalism career in college, writing for the College Fix and The Lens. After graduating from Portland State University, he interned at Reason Magazine’s D.C. Office, where he wrote extensively on everything from public transit to pop culture.

As a reporter for Arizona Watchdog, Christian will report on a wide variety of issues, including cronyism, school choice, regulations and occupational licensing. Get to know him in the interview below:

1. Where are you from? Tell us about yourself and how you found yourself in Arizona.

I’m from a military family, so I guess you could say I’m not really from anywhere.  Because of my dad’s job with the Air Force I moved around a lot as a kid, living in places are far apart as Alabama and Australia. I ended up in Arizona thanks to Watchdog.org hiring me to be a reporter down here.

2. What do you do when you aren’t being a journalist?

When not being a journalist, I enjoy reading history, listening to heavy metal, and jogging.

3. Why did you choose a career in journalism?

I started freelancing articles for the College Fix while still in school, but for the longest time never seriously considered working as a journalist.  That changed when I got accepted for a journalism internship with Reason Magazine.  Having the opportunity to write about government abuses and the movement for liberty around the country really opened my mind to a possible career in journalism, and by the end of my internship that was all I really wanted to do with my life.

4. What is your favorite part of working in journalism?

My favorite part of the news business is the detective-like aspect of it all.  Every story starts as a sort of mystery, and it’s my job to uncover the facts, talk to the right people, and then connect all the dots in a way that is both interesting and informative.  It requires a lot of enterprise and hustle, and there is honestly never a dull moment.

5. What does watchdog journalism mean to you? What sets Watchdog.org​ apart?

Watchdog journalism represents a real opportunity to hold those in power accountable and inform the public of how their lives are shaped by forces they might not even be aware of.  Few outlets cast a more skeptical or penetrating eye on how our state and local governments operate, and I’m honored to be part of that effort.

You can follow Arizona Watchdog on Facebook and Twitter

A look back at Sunshine Week

By
Monday, March 13th, 2017

July 4, 1776 was the day America declared its independence, but December 15, 1791 was the day we declared our freedom.

It was on that day that the 13 former British colonies ratified the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment. Our right to speak out about the government was enshrined in law. Freedom of the press, long denied by government, was guaranteed.

While the First Amendment gave citizens powerful tools to hold their government accountable, there was more work to do. In the 1960s, the federal Freedom of Information Act, and similar state laws that followed, made it clear that government has an obligation to be open and transparent. But the framers of the Bill of Rights were the trendsetters, and their message was clear:

We the People are in charge.

Letting in the sunshine

Sunshine Week — March 12-18, 2017 — was hosted by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, two organizations that play a crucial rule in advocating for press freedom and government transparency.

The first ever Sunshine Week was in 2005, and it was established to coincide with James Madison’s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day, both on March 16. Madison, of course, proposed the Bill of Rights and is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

To mark the special occasion, Watchdog.org published a series of stories examining government transparency issues:

Sunshine Week: Vermont on a long road to accountability in government

Sunshine Week: Poor transparency plagues local tax abatement programs

Sunshine Week: Lots of money, little transparency in Texas bond campaigns

Sunshine Week: First Amendment Foundation goes to bat for Florida’s right to know

Sunshine Week: Michigan House tries to fix ‘worst in nation’ FOIA law

The 1791 Sunshine Initiative

In honor of the ratification of the First Amendment and the great Americans who set the stage for government transparency, we are proud to announce the launch of our 1791 Sunshine Initiative.

Throughout Sunshine Week and beyond, we are asking our supporters and readers to commit to donating at least $17.91 per month online in support of the First Amendment and freedom of the press.

Whether it’s exposing secret government meetings, uncovering shady dealings, or revealing wasteful spending, our Watchdog.org reporters spend each day letting in the sunshine. But they can only do it with your help.

We hope you’ll consider making a donation today to support our crucial work.

Here’s what our journalists have to say

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Meet Lou Varricchio, Vermont Watchdog Bureau Chief

By
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Lou Varricchio

Lou Varricchio is a writer, editor, dinosaur enthusiast, NASA alumnus, and now, Vermont Watchdog’s new bureau chief. He brings over 20 years of journalism experience to Watchdog, and we’re excited to welcome him to the team.

Get to know Lou and why he loves journalism, paleontology, and astronomy in the interview below:

  1. Where are you from? Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Pennsylvania and worked for the Quakertown Free Press (daily) and then became editor of the Emmaus Free Press (owned by the QFP back in the day).

Among my various career highlights was working as a NASA senior science writer at the Ames Research Center in California. I wrote stories for “NASA Insights” magazine about the team that did spacecraft and aircraft design testing using supercomputers, notably for the cancelled “Venture Star” X-33 space plane project that was supposed to replace the Space Shuttle.

I have undergrad degrees in communications from Temple University and Grahm College (now Mt. Ida College) and a M.S. in space studies from the University of North Dakota.

  1. How did you end up in Vermont?

I moved to Vermont in 1989 after I met my wife-to-be in 1988. She was a long-time resident of Vermont.

I worked as managing editor of the Vermont Eagle weekly newspaper from 2000 through 2016.

  1. What do you do when you aren’t being a journalist and editor?

In addition, having a master’s in science credential, I am able to teach college-level courses as an adjunct science instructor.

I teach both astronomy and dinosaur paleontology courses at the Community College of Vermont (CCV).

My love of dinosaurs emerged as a boy and then blossomed into being an amateur paleontologist. I have assisted my cousin, Dr. David Varricchio of Montana State University, on a Nat’l  Science Foundation dinosaur egg-nesting field project in the Montana badlands for several summers. I also enjoy observing the Moon through a telescope and star gazing–at least when the often cloudy skies of Vermont are clear enough to see through!

  1. Why did you choose a career in journalism?

I always liked writing and journalism, beginning in high school, and later science journalism; I started in community news reporting in Pennsylvania back in the ’70s. But I also worked on the other side, in public relations, at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. for many years, trying to get the attention of editors and reporters.

  1. What is your favorite part of working in the news business?

The news business is both exciting and stressful with issues and deadlines being part of the package. It is especially wonderful to be close to the inner workings of our republic when reporting about local and state government. News reporting is an awesome responsibility. It is important that journalists not be part of the story or insert themselves in the reporting. The news business has changed a lot since the 1970s, most notably with the rise of online news sources.

  1. What does watchdog journalism mean to you? What sets Vermont Watchdog apart?

I came to greatly admire Watchdog.org when the Vermont Eagle began publishing Vermont Watchdog reports in every issue starting in 2014. As the former editor, I watched how readers get more engaged; it is a terrific, investigative statewide feature to bring to a local weekly paper. That’s why I was honored (and humbled) to be asked to become part of Watchdog’s important mission. The Vermont Watchdog team is exceptional; we talk to each other and respect our strengths as well as our special beats. It should never be about egos or agendas, but finding and reporting the stories which support our news mission.

The choice between bureaucratic over-regulation or forward-facing tech policy (Glass op-ed)

By
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Franklin Center’s Kevin Glass examines how infrastructure regulations hamper technological innovation in a Washington Examiner op-ed:

The next wave in wireless technology rollout is poised to be “small cell” technology, but local regulations have hindered deployment for years. Localities have looked at this kind of infrastructure deployment as a piggy bank. But there are ways forward that governments can take to ease some of the onerous regulatory processes.

Current rules typically force wireless companies to go through regulatory procedures that were put in place for giant cellphone towers for each individual small cell, despite the fact that small cell technology will both supplement and complement the large towers going forward — and the need for dozens, if not more, small cells per each large tower.

Local governments have refused to adapt their regulatory regimes to new technologies, and small cells are no different. The permitting process typically involves mountains of paperwork for both the tech companies and the local bureaucrats. There are, of course, fees for each installation. Too many localities would prefer to keep the status quo in place and continue collecting that money, even if it means a slower rollout.

There are ways to update this. New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has praised the 2014 Mobile BILD Act, Georgia’s statewide update of their wireless infrastructure laws. The BILD act streamlined the permitting process for wireless infrastructure and limited the fees that localities could collect from wireless infrastructure companies.

Click here for the full piece in the Washington Examiner.

Watchdog Investigates: The problems with the Paxton prosecution

By
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Watchdog reporter Jon Cassidy isn’t afraid to go where no other journalist will go.

Watchdog reporter Jon Cassidy

Whether he’s exposing a far-reaching admissions scandal, uncovering wasteful spending by school districts, or shining a spotlight on union malfeasance, Watchdog.org readers have come to expect hard-hitting reporting that challenges the prevailing narrative.

That’s certainly what they are getting with his reporting on the prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for securities fraud. Over the course of nearly two years, Cassidy has exposed inconvenient truths about the prosecutors’ flimsy case — which is costing taxpayers dearly.

In the latest chapter of the case, the prosecutors are now seeking to move the trial to a new county, claiming that Cassidy’s factual reporting — which they refer to 18 times throughout their court filing — is biasing potential jurors in favor of Paxton’s innocence.

Check out excerpts from Cassidy’s reporting below for more on the problematic Paxton prosecution.

An admission of innocence?

In Cassidy’s latest story, he dissects the prosecution’s claim that his reporting is biasing prospective jurors:

The court-appointed attorneys trying to imprison Attorney General Ken Paxton effectively admitted last week that he is innocent.

In filing a motion to move his trial to another county, Brian Wice, Kent Schaffer, and Nicole DeBorde blamed Watchdog.org for ruining their chances to convict Paxton in Collin County.

It is a first principle of American criminal justice that the accused should be presumed innocent, that any fair and impartial trial begins with this presumption, and that it is the responsibility of the prosecution to overcome the presumption by assembling enough evidence to convince the jury of the guilt of the accused.

Wice, Shaffer and DeBorde do not have any evidence of Paxton’s guilt, so they have already started blaming the presumption of innocence. If jurors believe Paxton to be innocent, why then they must be “tainted,” according to these lawyers.

And what “tainted” prospective jurors? Cassidy’s exclusive reporting on the Texas Rangers’ investigation into Paxton might have something to do with it.

The Texas Ranger files

Watchdog exclusively reported on the Texas Rangers’ investigation into the charge against Paxton. The investigatory records showed that the criminal case against the Attorney General is based on an assumption. Here’s what Cassidy reported:

It’s an assumption that state Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana) says he made about Paxton before investing $300,000 in a company called Servergy. Three of his friends say they made the same assumption, according to files obtained by Watchdog.org.

These four friends – Cook, Joel Hochberg, Bill Sandford, and Bob Griggs – have been investing together for decades. Cook and Sandford started going in on deals together 30 years ago; Hochberg joined them 20 years ago.

Those four had Cook’s attorney, Terry Jacobson, shop a complaint about Paxton to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Travis County District Attorney’s office, among others, before Paxton had even taken office as attorney general.

The first complaint, in early 2014, had been “submitted by someone who was associated with a political opponent of Paxton who was seeking office in the 2014 Republican primary election,” according to the Rangers’ reports.

Paxton’s opponent that year was Rep. Dan Branch (R-Highland Park), who was, like Cook, a member of the state House leadership team that Paxton had challenged two years prior in a failed run for speaker.

And then there’s this:

For more than a year, the complaints were tossed like a hot potato from one jurisdiction to another. The last toss was from Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis, an old friend of Paxton’s who couldn’t afford the perception that he was doing special favors.

Willis asked the Texas Rangers, a division of the Department of Public Safety, to investigate on April 14, 2015. In July, two well-paid special prosecutors and a judge who later recused himself got Paxton indicted on state criminal charges. The SEC jumped on the dogpile in April 2016 with a lawsuit against Paxton.

The Rangers’ first interview, on April 17, 2015, was with Jacobson, who said he was representing the four investors.

Although deception is a key element in any fraud case, none of the four claimed Paxton misled them – about getting Servergy stock, about putting his own money into the company, or anything else.

Rather, “Jacobson said the four investors assumed Paxton was also investing in Servergy based on past investments with Paxton,” Ranger Stacy McNeal wrote.

However, it was Cook who turned Hochberg, Sandford, and Griggs onto the Servergy opportunity, according to the records. It was Servergy CEO Bill Mapp who gave the presentation on the investment, not Paxton.

Sandford and Griggs, by their own admission, never even talked to Paxton about Servergy.

Their discussions about whether to invest were with Cook, who “was committed to investing in Servergy,” according to Sandford. Nobody claims that what Paxton was doing with his money even entered into the discussion.

Taxpayers on the hook

A politically-motivated prosecution is bad enough. Even worse? This is costing taxpayers a hefty sum.

The special prosecutors appointed for this case have billed the taxpayers in excess of half a million dollars, potentially in violation of state law. Here’s what Cassidy reported in January:

The court-appointed prosecutors in the Ken Paxton case have submitted new invoices that bring their compensation to date to $575,105.99.

The new batch of invoices from Kent Schaffer, Brian Wice and Nicole DeBorde covers the last year, with a total of $205,191.24 in new billing. Collin County taxpayers have already paid them $369,914.75.

The Collin County Commissioners Court had not yet received the invoices as of Thursday afternoon, but the latest tab is sure to set off a debate. In October, the commissioners voted 5-0 in support of a resolution to challenge excessive court-ordered payments for attorneys.

State law says that a court-appointed prosecutor “shall receive compensation” in the “same amount and manner” under a county fee schedule as a court-appointed lawyer defending a homeless person.

That’s not much in this case: $1,000 for pretrial work, $1,000 a day for trial, with a possible $1,000 bump if a judge deems it appropriate.

Yet visiting judge George Gallagher has ordered a $300-an-hour rate for the three attorneys prosecuting Paxton, without ever explaining what unusual circumstances might justify the extravagance.

Jon Cassidy has extensively reported on the Paxton prosecution, and he’ll continue to doggedly follow this story as it continues to develop. To access all of Jon’s stories on the subject, click here.

Overbroad executive order threatens competitive advantage for American companies (Neily Op-Ed)

By
Friday, February 10th, 2017

Franklin Center President Nicole Neily examined how the White House’s executive order on immigration could have unintended consequences for American companies. Here’s what she wrote at RedState:

The White House’s executive order on immigration has prompted pushback from numerous American companies because of the implications it will have on their employees. Although the order was meant to protect the country, its haphazard enforcement jeopardizes the competitive advantage of some of the leading American companies – which, in turn, will impact American workers.

Both sides of the aisle have long agreed that the nation’s immigration system is broken and in need of an overhaul (how to do so, of course, is where the parties diverge). In national polls, immigration is regularly in the top 4 or 5 issues listed – and it’s an issue that also motivates voters, as the 2016 presidential election demonstrated. Throughout the campaign, President Trump emphasized strong borders and enforcement, which resonated with the electorate. Unfortunately, the President’s first executive order on the issue has been interpreted in an overbroad way and put our international competitiveness at risk.

Companies based in the United States have led the world in technological innovation for a long time, and our leadership has attracted the best and brightest from other countries to come here; now, some of those tech industry leaders are petitioning the Trump Administration to use its executive enforcement discretion to uphold our competitive advantage by not prohibiting some of its employees from travel to and from the United States.

Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon – among others, even in traditional manufacturing sectors – have sent an open letter to the Administration urging enforcement discretion for some of their employees who may be affected by the executive order. They argue that their employees who may be affected are those who hold permanent legal status through their visas, and their travel – for leisure, or to see family – could impact their work environment.

Microsoft, in particular, made a more specific and separate case from the general letter. The tech company’s chief legal officer wrote that they have 76 employees whose permanent work location is in the United States who may be impacted by the order, and of some heartbreaking conditions – cases where parents have been separated from their children, or where an employee has a critically ill family member abroad that they may be prohibited from visiting.

Click here to read the full piece at RedState.

Congress overturns some Obama regs, but there’s more to undo (Neily Op-Ed)

By
Friday, February 10th, 2017

Franklin Center President Nicole Neily pens an op-ed in The Hill about the need to undo more Obama-era regulations:

It’s always a risk that an outgoing presidential administration and the executive agencies under administration control will issue complicated and partisan rules as a last-ditch effort to preserve the president’s legacy.

In order to combat this, the Congressional Review Act (CRA) was signed into law in 1996 to expedite the process of peeling back last-minute regulations.

Obviously, it’s possible for many executive agencies to unwind some of the Obama-era regulations with standard policymaking; however, CRA review can be used for some of the big regulations that have already been put into effect that may already be hampering businesses and consumers.

Last week, Congress voted to strike down three Obama-era regulations, including environmental and gun control regulations, and they’ll use the CRA in more votes this week on education and labor rules.

But there are more executive regulations passed in the waning days of the Obama administration that Republicans could target — and ones that may be even more important.

Click her for the full piece in The Hill.

How the Left can win the culture war: Abandon their tactics (Glass op-ed)

By
Friday, February 10th, 2017

Franklin Center’s Kevin Glass weighs into the debate over free speech issues on college campuses with an op-ed in the Washington Examiner:

The culture war has turned from cold to hot in the past month on college campuses, all because of Milo Yiannopoulos, a subpar provocateur whose performance art consists of deportation jokes. At the University of Washington, a supporter shot a protester in the streets outside the performance. At the University of California, Berkeley, protesters destroyed multiple businesses in a riot against his invitation and speech.

Behind the headlines is a story of how to win the culture war without turning to violence.

Sarah Gamble and the rest of the College Republicans of the University of Washington, who invited Yiannopoulos to speak, are not the provocateur’s target audience. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the affair at Washington, Gamble “had supported Rand Paul in the primaries,” and “[v]ery few of the Republican club members were fans of Mr. Trump.” But Gamble felt backed into a corner: the atmosphere on campus was one of complete social sanction for non-progressive viewpoints.

“You’re put into that position were you’re either quiet, or you fight back,” she says. And when you fight back, “It’s a bit more conservative than you intend to, and it’s a bit more rash than you intend to.”

College is a formative time for anyone, and an interesting time for those who are politically conservative. It means years spent in close quarters with people likely to be several degrees more liberal than the general population, and under authority figures on the faculty and in the administrative offices who are overwhelmingly politically left-wing. For conservatives, it can feel like a constant struggle merely to justify their existence.

Click here for the full piece in the Washington Examiner.

Global businessman Trump challenges globalism’s conventional wisdom (Ward Op-ed)

By
Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

Watchdog.org reporter Kenric Ward analyzed the political backlash over President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration in an op-ed that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, and other Texas newspapers:

Can we all take a breath and calm down?

The political backlash over President Donald Trump’s refugee and immigrant “ban” has gone beyond knee-jerk partisanship. The furor has abandoned reason.

It’s not clear if that’s because Trump’s opponents have yet to figure out he is not going to kowtow to their cherished conventional wisdom, or because they have figured it out.

Whichever is the case, they should prepare themselves for more of the same.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama designated seven countries as a security threat for U.S. travelers. Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen were cited, based on the threat of terrorism there.

The global situation has not improved, and Trump is not convinced U.S. border security is up to the task. So he directed that individuals from the terrorist-sponsoring countries not be admitted until they can be fully vetted.

Trump’s order is temporary, with security policies being reviewed and updated over the next 90 days.

More could follow. What that is will be determined by the outcome of the review.

But rather than wait and see what evolves, the opposition went immediately into full panic mode.

Could the new administration — in its whirlwind of executive orders, initiatives and appointments — have done a better job implementing the order? Certainly. More clarity on the status of green-card holders would have helped.

But Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Tuesday denied news reports that he was blindsided by Trump’s order (which, by the way, is consistently identified as “controversial” in media accounts, a word never applied to Medicaid, for example, which has been just as controversial and for a lot longer).

“We knew the executive order was coming,” Kelly said. “We had people involved in the general drafting of it. Clearly this whole approach was part of what then-candidate Trump talked about for a year or two. So we knew all this was coming.”

Kelly may as well have been talking to the wind. The false narrative that the president cut corners gave his opponents all the ammunition they needed to blast the policy and point to fictional fissures inside the new administration.

Let’s be clear. Amid their reactionary harangues, left-wing ideologues — including an increasingly desperate Democratic Party that was left by the November elections without a seat at either the executive or legislative tables — have demonstrated no firm allegiance to national security. They may not wish America ill when they mouth the glib diversity-is-our-strength mantra, but their agenda sows disunity and disrespect in this country, where we all bleed red.

Trump’s robust brand of nationalism also chafes global businesses, which see international travel as a borderless right.

But entering the United States is a privilege, and the executive branch has a legal duty to safeguard this country.

While the global economy has opened new opportunities for economic growth and prosperity, we live in an era in which commercial worship of that global economy has also opened the gates to global terror and made the world a more dangerous place.

In the irony of ironies, a businessman with global connections challenges the conventional wisdom that open borders are an inevitable good. Battered by a loss of jobs and growing insecurity, Americans elected Trump to break America’s dysfunctional political duopoly.

The country wants prosperity and safety. Trump is working for both those objectives. His detractors offer only shrill objections.

Here’s why Enterprise Florida is a bad investment for state taxpayers (Bicknell Op-Ed)

By
Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

Watchdog.org executive editor John Bicknell wrote the following op-ed, published in the Orlando Sentinel, explaining why Florida’s economic incentive agency, Enterprise Florida, isn’t a good investment of tax dollars:

The battle over the future of Enterprise Florida is, in microcosm, the battle over the role of government – what should it be doing, and who should it be doing it for?

Republican Gov. Rick Scott wants $85 million this year to fund Enterprise Florida, the state’s primary provider of incentives intended to lure new business to the state and keep existing ones.

But Enterprise Florida and other state economic development programs are not producing enough jobs or return on investment to justify the expense.

A review of Enterprise Florida Inc. and the Department of Economic Opportunity — the state’s major incentive providers – by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability looked at a decade of data on those two criteria, the most-often cited justifications for giving taxpayer money to private businesses, judging Florida against seven other states.

Florida didn’t fare so well, trailing in overall job growth as well as high-wage job creation.

The agencies are also failing as producers of revenue for the state government.

According to Amy Baker, Florida’s chief economist and legislative coordinator for the Office of Economic and Demographic Research, of the state’s 26 incentive programs, 18 failed to produce enough tax revenue to break even. 

Click here for the full op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel.