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As newspapers shed staff, we are helping to fill the void

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Thursday, December 1st, 2016

Even the nation’s largest newspapers aren’t immune to newsroom layoffs: earlier this year the Wall Street Journal announced it would cut 48 jobs as part of changes to its print edition.

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Journalism shouldn’t suffer just because newspapers are facing shrinking budgets.

But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the losses taking place in the industry overall. In fact, newsroom jobs at daily newspapers across the country have declined by more than half from their high point in 1990, according to Ken Doctor, the president of Newsonomics.

And its only getting worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that newspaper reporter positions will decline by 28 percent and editor positions by 34 percent between 2014 and 2024.

This is bad news for newspapers, but it doesn’t have to be bad news for journalism.

Online and non-profit journalism are on the rise, as any follower of the Franklin Center knows. Our website Watchdog.org is proving that digital investigative journalism has an important role to play in the future of media.

In fact, the Franklin Center is teaming up with traditional media outlets to help spread the truth about government mismanagement and overreach. Newspapers are valuable community institutions that millions of Americans still depend upon for their news, and that’s why we make all of our stories available for free to any news organization who wants to run our work. We know that every daily or weekly newspaper can’t afford to hire an investigative reporter or keep tabs on the state capital. But we can, and we hope to fill the void.

When columnists bemoan the decline of print journalism, the biggest concern is there won’t be enough journalists informing the public about important issues. This doesn’t need to be the case. By partnering with newspapers and broadcast outlets large and small, we are doing our part to ensure the public is informed about their government, whether they get their news in print or online.

You can support the Franklin Center’s public-interest journalism by making a tax-deductible donation. Click here to donate. 

Asking questions, getting results: Texas Watchdog’s investigation into traffic cameras

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Monday, October 24th, 2016

When public officials learn that Watchdog is watching, they take notice.

Texas Watchdog reporter Mark Lisheron was hot on the trail of a secretive school zone camera program, and it all started with a phone call.

The caller gave us a tip about a lawsuit that wasn’t getting the attention it deserved; a citizen in Hays County (outside Austin) had sued the county government over speed cameras set up near schools, asserting that the Commissioner’s Court had no constitutional authority to enter into a contract with a private company that, in effect, created new traffic regulations – and meanwhile, most of the revenue generated was kept by the company.

Once Mark began asking questions, officials realized they could no longer hide. They had already gotten caught red-handed in the lawsuit, and we made their humiliation public. The day after our article was published, the county terminated its contract with American Traffic Solutions, Inc.

Click here to read “Hays County school-zone camera program could prove a costly mistake

But the issues with the cameras are far from resolved, as Bill Davis, the man suing over the program, explained to us in a follow-up article.

“The commissioners are taking the position to terminate a contract that is not a legitimate contract,” he said after the vote. “They didn’t address any of the issues in my suit. And what about all of the people like me who were issued citations?”

Davis is continuing his legal battle with the county, and Mark Lisheron and Texas Watchdog will continue to ask the tough questions.

Click here to read “Poof! Hays County school zone cameras gone”

Scooping the Times: Watchdog exposes Mississippi’s “clean coal” boondoggle

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

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Mississippi’s Kemper Project entered the world with the highest hopes of the Obama Administration: that coal could be cleanly processed even while serving as a power source. The first-of-its-kind integrated-gasification power plant functions by converting lignite coal to natural gas-like synthesis gas, which fire its 582-megawatt turbines, capturing and storing carbon much better than traditional coal-fired plants.

A recent investigation from the New York Times has drawn national attention to the travails of Kemper, finding that the plant has been plagued by technical problems, cost-overruns and blame-shifting. The Times’ findings that Kemper has failed to live up to its billing, however, should come as no surprise to readers of Mississippi Watchdog, which has been covering the plant’s travails every step of the way for more than two years running. 

On October 12, the plant at last generated energy from syngas in one of its gasifiers, but a lot more needs to be done before the plant is commercially operational. In the meantime, the total cost for the project, which was originally projected to cost $1.8 billion, has ballooned to nearly $6.9 billion.

Here are eleven Mississippi Watchdog stories you need to read to understand the history of this “clean coal” boondoggle:

7/28/14 – $5.53 billion Kemper Project’s genesis a tangled path

Red flags surrounding Mississippi Power’s Kemper Project started to become painfully apparent in the summer of 2014, when delays in the plant’s construction began stretching so long that it cost the Southern Company $133 million in federal investment tax credits. At this point the plant’s estimated cost had risen from $2.2 billion when it was initially proposed in 2009 to $5.53 billion. To help pick up the tab for rising costs, local ratepayers were slammed with an 18 percent increase on their utility bills.

11/5/14 – Report on Kemper Project casts embattled power plant in poor light

Concerns over the plant’s viability became more founded a few months later when Mississippi Watchdog covered a report on Kemper from POWER Burns & Roe — an engineering firm that specializes in building utility projects. At this point the cost of the plant had risen to more than $6 billion. The report highlighted three problem areas with the coal-gasification plant that were largely to blame for the delays and cost increases:

  • Safety issues caught late in the project and fixed at great cost
  • Major delays in acknowledging cost increases and delays in plant startup when the causes for those delays were apparent early in the process
  • Poor project management

3/20/15 – Nation’s oldest integrated coal gasification plant might point to more Kemper trouble

As a point of reference to the travails of the Kemper Project, which seeks to harness a relatively new technology, consider the experience of the nation’s oldest integrated coal gasification power plant: Tampa Electric’s Polk Power Station. Like Mississippi Power’s Kemper Project, this older and simpler plant uses a gasifier to turn coal into synthesis gas, and it, too, was beset by problems. A report by the Department of Energy in 2002, four years after the plant went online, found a raft of technical problems that eerily foreshadowed the difficulties the Kemper Project was to face.

7/24/15 – Kemper Project makes for an expensive natural gas plant

By July of 2015, the cost of the Kemper Project had ballooned to $6.229 billion and implementation of its gasification technology had dragged two years behind schedule. Instead of using the gasifier to transform the abundant lignite coal mined nearby into synthesis gas, as Kemper was designed, Mississippi Power began using natural gas to fuel the turbines of the combined cycle plant. Yet even as a natural gas plant, Mississippi Watchdog pointed out, the plant was still about $300 million more expensive to build than an equivalent conventional combined cycle natural gas plant powered by the same fuel.

9/10/15 – Kemper no longer considered just a clean coal plant

Once the Kemper Project started operating with natural gas, Mississippi Power began labeling it a “dual fuel” power plant capable of generating electricity from natural gas or synthesis gas made from lignite coal by the gasifier. This represented a major shift in the company’s tone from earlier documents authorizing construction that insisted the Kemper Project was intended to run on lignite coal as an environmentally friendly way of achieving “fuel diversity.” Mississippi Power CEO Ed Holland tried to spin this as a positive development, saying “the opportunity is there because gas prices are much lower than anyone predicted at the time the Kemper Plant was built.”

10/1/15 – Mississippi PSC commissioner accused of accepting illegal contributions

The image problems at Kemper went from bad to worse last fall when Mississippi Watchdog reported that Mississippi Public Service Central District commissioner Lynn Posey was accused of illegally receiving campaign funds from contractors on the Kemper Project. It is unlawful under Section 77-1-11 (1) of the Mississippi Code for a PSC commissioner to accept any gift, pass, money or campaign contribution from any person or entity of a utility under the regulatory authority for the PSC. The violations allegedly took place two years earlier at a pair of simultaneous fundraising dinners at Tico’s Steakhouse in Jackson and Weidmann’s in Meridian.

10/26/15 – Expert: More delays likely for Kemper Project

If there are any common threads running through the Kemper saga, they can be summed up in two words: overruns and delays. That was the conclusion, at least, of Don Grace, an accountant and subcontractor working for the Public Utilities Staff who told the Mississippi Public Commission last October that Mississippi Power invested in only “minimal design” to determine its original cost estimates and operating schedule. The result was cost overruns and construction delays that Grace predicted would delay Kemper’s startup date in the second quarter of 2016, potentially leading to rate hikes and the loss of more federal tax breaks.

For those keeping score at home, at this point the cost of Kemper had risen to $6.267 billion, and the plant was still two years behind schedule.

2/16/16 – Former manager: Southern Company lied about Kemper schedule

Yet another bombshell fell on the scandal- and schedule-plagued power plant in February when a former project manager at the then-$6.36 billion plant ended his company-ordered silence. Brett Wingo, who previously worked as an engineer for Southern Company Services, told Mississippi Watchdog that the company lied to regulators about the Kemper Project’s construction schedule in an effort to hang onto more than $234 million in federal tax credits. Wingo said he went all the way up the company’s chain of command in 2014 after he started to suspect impending delays two years earlier, but his pleas were ignored at every turn. Wingo was placed on administrative leave in August 2014.

3/3/16 – Lawsuit alleges fraud over ‘goliath’ Kemper Project power plant

The Kemper Project has yet to generate any power from its integrated coal gasification technology, but it has generated one thing in bunches: lawsuits. The latest was filed in March by three plaintiffs — a Biloxi seafood processing firm, Island View Casino and a Gulfport resident — claiming Mississippi Power Co. damaged its roughly 186,000 ratepayers by avoiding accountability for “fraud and mismanagement while fleecing the public in the interest of profits” in building the “goliath” Kemper Project power plant. The suit takes a different legal route than some of the previous lawsuits filed against Mississippi Power in that it does not seek to change the utility’s rates. Instead it is seeking economic losses, punitive damages, attorney fees and court costs.

At this point, the cost of the plant had ballooned further still – to $6.644 billion.

3/25/16 – Monitor: Kemper Project might not make its start date

Several months into 2016, Mississippi Power has yet to get its act together concerning the Kemper Project. According to a report in March from AECOM, an engineering firm that independently monitors and supervises the construction of the Kemper Project, the facility might not make its scheduled start date in the third quarter of this year. Randall Hodges, who leads the monitoring team, said that progress “will have to improve to meet the reported operational date of third quarter of this year.” He added that if Mississippi Power continues its startup progress of about 1 percent per month so far this year, it will take another 13 months to finish, pushing the in-service date into 2017.

Any delays beyond the end of August – the company’s projected commercial operation date – could cost the company up to $30 million per month.

10/18/16 – Utility admits Kemper Project could be costlier to operate than originally estimated

The cost of the Kemper Project has grown to nearly $6.9 billion, but costs could continue to rise even after the coal gassification plant comes online. Mississippi Power now estimates operating the plant will cost up to $1 billion over its first five years in operation. That’s a huge increase over what the utility company initially projected, and that means the plant will be even more expensive for utility ratepayers when it begins operating on November 30.

See all of the articles on Watchdog.org

*This article was originally published in July and updated in October. 

A bad odor at ODAR: Whistleblowers expose Social Security Administration

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

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Madness in Milwaukee

It all began, as many stories of scandals do, with a single gutsy act.

For years, Ron Klym had worked as senior legal assistant for administrative law judges at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). As part of the Social Security Administration, these judges are tasked with granting or denying Social Security benefits.

Reviewing and dispensing Social Security benefits is an important responsibility, and one that was being plagued by management problems, Klym realized. He alerted senior officials about the problem, but then things started to get rough.

The SSA’s ODAR isn’t exactly known for its efficiency and timeliness. As of October 2015, the average wait time for processing disability claims was 450 days. The pace gets even slower, however, if one tries to appeal the agency’s decision. At the Milwaukee office where Klym worked, records obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog showed that dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. Some even stretched to more than 1,000 days. Klym said the backlogs had grown to record levels and worried that the delays were impairing applicants’ civil rights. They may not have a right to the benefits, he reasoned, but they have a right to due process. So he blew the whistle.

“No one can guarantee the benefit. I know a case where someone has filed for a benefit 26 times,” he said. “It’s not the result, it’s the opportunity. If your opportunity has been waylaid, to paraphrase (George) Orwell, we’re all equal, but some are more equal. That’s a process issue.”

Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region (which includes Milwaukee), said the agency was aware of the long waits for disability appeals hearings and was “working to address the issue.”

Click here to read more articles in this series

As Klym tells it, however, the Milwaukee office was doing just the opposite. Rather than trying to address his concerns, he said the agency played a shell game by dumping scores of cases off to other regional offices, giving the impression that the Milwaukee office was performing better than it actually was. Worse, he said, the agency retaliated against him for blowing the whistle with harassment, additional work assignments, and unreasonable deadlines. He took his concerns to lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, and then went public to the press.

Shortly after Wisconsin Watchdog published a story detailing his allegations, he was placed on administrative leave.

Coming out of the woodwork

Innocent-1-225x300More whistleblowers have since come forward. After speaking anonymously with Wisconsin Watchdog in its initial report, Mary Brister went public with her story. She says that just a few days after she was anonymously quoted about alleged bullying and harassment within the Milwaukee ODAR, she was suspended for five days and given a one-year suspension from teleworking.

“I do believe this suspension is the result of me going forward with my story,” she said. As a veteran with PTSD, she added that she wanted to take her story to the public in order to stand up against an environment of intimidation in the ODAR workplace.

Celia Machelle Keller had a similar experience. A week after she went public with claims of misconduct and intimidation among managers at the Madison ODAR, she said a pair of federal investigators from the SSA showed up at her door and peppered her with questions. As the lead case technician at the Madison office for several years, Keller says management retaliated against her after she was called to testify in an inner-office misconduct case last year.

Like Brister, Keller was first quoted anonymously by Wisconsin Watchdog when she blew the whistle on misconduct, and she claims she experienced alleged bullying, harassment, intimidation and retaliation in response. She decided to go public, she said, because she was tired of living in fear.

News of the abuses at the Madison ODAR got worse in June when Wisconsin Watchdog reported that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss is accused of extremely “inappropriate conduct,” including sexual harassment, at the Madison ODAR operations. In that story, a whistleblower told Watchdog that there is a “culture of corruption and cover-up” in the SSA offices, “and it begins at the top.”

File notes from cases support this accusation that the judge determined disability claims on whether he believed a claimant was sexually attractive. Pleuss even referred to an African-American woman as “gorilla-like” and said another woman “looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”

Less than a week after our first bombshell story about the judge, a source close to the situation told Wisconsin Watchdog that Pleuss appeared to be suspended over the allegations. He was soon hearing cases again, but that didn’t last long: Sources later confirmed that he was removed from hearing cases through the end of the year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s losing his job or facing any serious consequences.

If Klym’s experience is anything to judge by, the fears of Brister and Keller are not groundless. His administrative leave status soon grew dire in the aftermath of his revelations. Less than a month after Wisconsin Watchdog’s first report, he said he was forced to sign what was effectively his employment death warrant.

He told Watchdog what happened when he was called into the office of Chief Administrative Law Judge Christopher Messina:

“He had a stack of papers in front of him. I said, ‘Well, it looks like a disciplinary action. Can I speak to my union rep? He said, ‘This is not a disciplinary action. This is a proposal to terminate. I need you to sign off on this.”

Come August, Klym was out of a job.

The Senate wants answers

Credit Image: © Jay Mallin/ZUMAPRESS.com

Amid the difficulties with their immediate employers at the SSA, these whistleblowers have found an important and powerful ally: U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (pictured), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Johnson’s committee has received a number of complaints from employees at ODAR since Wisconsin Watchdog broke news of the scandal, and it has been briefed by SSA officials about the million-plus case backlog plaguing the disability claim system.

There are a lot of issues the agency isn’t talking about, however, and Johnson’s committee is pushing for answers. When asked about the accusations of retaliation, the SSA has cited the Privacy Act, claiming the law prevents it from disclosing information to Congress unless the whistleblower signs a waiver or the chairman of the committee signs on.

There’s just one problem with that argument, the Homeland Security committee says: nothing in the law throws up such obstacles to fact-finding.

The SSA’s feet-dragging has only made Johnson more determined to get to the bottom of the scandal. He says his committee will continue to push for answers. Johnson sent a formal letter to the Social Security Administration in June asking for its “unfettered cooperation” in turning over information about allegations of misconduct and retaliation in its disability claims review offices.

“I write to you concerning reports of whistleblower retaliation within the Milwaukee and Madison hearing offices of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review,” Johnson said in the letter to Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner at the SSA. He went on to show how SSA officials have systematically refused to address questions about media reports quoting whistleblowers claiming harassment and retaliation.

“Despite the serious issues that these media reports highlight, SSA has refused to provide information to the committee about these personnel actions,” he wrote.

Shaking things up 

But while the SSA keeps quiet, more whistleblowers are speaking up. It appears their voices are being heard: Sources have told Watchdog that SSA’s Office of Inspector General is intensifying its investigation into whistleblowers’ claims.

Meanwhile, at the SSA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago, which oversees the troubles offices in Wisconsin, a major shakeup has taken place. Two employees in managerial roles have moved to different positions, and two judges in the Chicago headquarters have resigned.

We will continue to cover the fallout from the revelations of SSA whistleblowers. If you have something to tell us, you can reach us at [email protected]

Click here to read more articles in this series

*This article was originally published in June and updated in October. 

Chances are, our work appears in one of your favorite news sources

By
Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

Every year, the Franklin Center reaches millions of readers through our news site Watchdog.org. But we also reach millions more through our media partnerships with national, state, and local news sources. Our hard-hitting investigative reporting and statehouse news coverage complement the work of other media outlets, injecting important stories into the news cycle.

Chances are, our work has appeared in one of your favorite news sources.

Here are a few of our most recent media appearances:

Wall Street Journal: Texas Janitors Mop the Floor With a Bullying Union

Texas Watchdog reporter Jon Cassidy teamed up with Charles Blain of Restore Justice USA to write this important story about a janitorial company’s civil court victory against the Service Employees International Union.

Professional Janitorial Services of Houston sued the SEIU and was awarded $5.3 million by a jury, the first time the union has been held responsible for defaming a business. Cassidy takes an in-depth look at what the union did to face the jury’s judgment.

Capital City Sunday: Matt Kittle Discusses his “Deadly Delays” Investigation

Wisconsin Watchdog reporter Matt Kittle appeared on WKOW’s “Capital City Sunday” to tell viewers about his groundbreaking investigation into the Social Security Administration’s problems with case backlogs and allegations of abuse, mismanagement, and harassment.

View the segment below:

You can get more info on Kittle’s investigation by visiting Watchdog’s “SSA’s Deadly Delays” page.

Washington Post: Abolish the Senate to Reign in Modern Presidents

Watchdog.org’s executive editor John Bicknell wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about a unique idea to reign in the executive branch. In recent years, presidents have ignored Congress and taken unilateral action on a variety of issues. But to stop this from happening, the legislative branch needs to be emboldened, Bicknell writes:

Many proposals to address the imperial presidency have been floated over the decades. Some have even been implemented. None has stemmed the tide.

To rebalance the separation of powers, it is necessary to make Congress stronger. The best way to do that? Abolish the Senate.

Read the full piece to learn more about why the Senate is the appendix of American politics.

American Spectator: Alabama’s ‘Gig City’ Has One Gigabit Broadband Subscriber

Watchdog reporter Johnny Kampis found that if you built it, sometimes they don’t come. In a story first published in the American Spectator, he takes a closer look at an Alabama town’s municipal broadband program.

Despite a huge investment of $43 million in broadband infrastructure to deliver ridiculously fast internet, only one person has signed up for the 1 gigabit-per-second option.  Most customers are opting for traditional internet speeds, raising plenty of questions about why the town spent so much on faster internet that no one wants.

National Review Online: Louisiana’s Gutting of School-Choice Programs Deprives Its Poorest Children of a Good Education

Franklin Center’s Kevin Glass wrote this opinion piece at National Review Online, examining the effects of Louisiana’s cuts to school choice programs. Hundreds of children are being deprived of better education options after the governor disregarded his promise to not cut the budget of the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

Making matters worse, this was done just before the school year was about to start. Glass examines the situation in Louisiana, finding that school choice is in high demand by parents.

But that’s not all…

Throughout the year, our work has also been featured or cited in a variety of other outlets, including Townhall, Fox News, Complete Colorado, PJ Media, Politisippi, The Wheeler Report, Right Wisconsin, Bizpac Review, The Washington Times, RedState, Christian Science Monitor, Colorado Springs Gazette, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Daily Signal, Hot Air, California Political Review, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Washington Examiner, Forbes, Daily Caller, The Jackson Press, The Vermont Journal, The Vermont Eagle, C-SPAN, CBS Denver, Drudge Report, Newport Daily News, Real Clear Policy, Texas Observer, Cap Times, Huffington Post, Reason, US News and World Report, Wisconsin State Journal, Fresno Bee, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Idaho Statesman, Kansas City Star, Miami Herald, The State, The Telegraph, Eau Claire Herald, Vicki McKenna Show, Joe Pags Show, Howie Carr Show, Madison in the Morning, Oxford Eagle, Vermont Public Radio, The Capitolist, The Orange Leader, Houston NPR, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Northside Sun, Detroit News, Vermont Business Journal, and many more.

 

Watchdog follows the money as students head back to school

By
Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

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It’s back to school season, so what better time than now to examine the intersection of money and education? As students across the country are starting classes, our reporters are hitting the books.

They certainly have plenty to investigate. Education accounts for nearly one-third of state budgets, with some states spending even more. Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth?

As the following examples from Watchdog reporters show, there is much more to education policy than what happens in the classroom.

Making bank at the FEA

Florida’s students and teachers have gone back to school. Union officials have gone to the bank.

Watchdog’s Will Patrick reports that the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union, pays 43 of its officials over $100K a year. The average teacher is making less than half of that with a salary of $48,000.

Looking at the numbers another way, almost half of all union dues paid by teachers go to pay FEA officials in salary and benefits. Much of the rest of the money goes towards supporting Democratic candidates and blocking school choice with lobbying and lawsuits.

Fortunately for Florida teachers, the state’s right-to-work law means they don’t have to join their union unless they want to. But these numbers might even have diehard union members rethinking their membership.

High pay for low grades 

Mississippi’s governor makes $122,000 a year. Thirty-six school superintendents in the state make even more.

That might be fine if their school districts were doing well. But as Watchdog’s Steve Wilson reports, among those 36 school leaders, nine of them — one in four — run districts that receive a D rating from the state.

That’s not the only area where spending and performance don’t match up. Of the 10 schools that spend the least per student, there were only two C or average districts, with the rest scoring an A or a B. On the flip side, the 10 highest-spending districts didn’t have an A grade among them, with one B, seven Cs and two Ds.

The good news for taxpayers? You have proof that you can spend less money to get better results, often because of charter schools: they’ve led the way in putting more money into classrooms and less into the pockets of bureaucrats, saving money and improving students’ lives along the way.

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Bonding with taxpayers

Bonds aren’t free money, but schools in Texas seem to be acting like it.

Texas already has the second largest per-capita school bond debt in the country, and overpriced new buildings financed with large bond measures aren’t helping.

Watchdog’s Jon Cassidy has the full story of how these expensive bond measures will cost taxpayers and why a pro-bond coalition continues to lie to the public.

Plans are in place to build the most expensive junior high building in Texas history, but local officials and advocates don’t want people to know the full cost.

Fiscal irresponsibility hurts students 

In every state and school district, officials are making decisions based on dollar signs that will impact students’ futures. Our Watchdog reporters monitor education budgets at all levels, uncovering stories and spotlighting issues that need more attention.

James Wigderson exposed how a major school district in Wisconsin is raiding its maintenance fund to pay for expensive teacher health insurance plans.

Heather Kays brought readers the story of one family that is losing their school vouchers despite promises from the governor that the program would be spared from cutbacks. Emily Leayman

Emily Leayman examined how schools in Washington, DC are spending huge sums on non-teaching staff with questionable results.

For all of our education coverage throughout the school year, check out the Education Watchdog page on Watchdog.org.

Watchdog finds the surprising truth about public officials’ salaries

By
Friday, August 26th, 2016

When Watchdog reports, other journalists take notice. In Mississippi, Watchdog’s recent report on public officials’ salaries made the local news, including a segment on Good Morning Mississippi.

Here’s a quick excerpt from a report on ABC 6 that cites our story:

You heard that right. A grand total of 36 school superintendents in Mississippi make more than the governor. Of course, he’s not doing too badly himself. But this raises an important question about education spending in the state: Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth?

Another report from Mississippi Watchdog examined that issue, finding that superintendent pay doesn’t correlate to school district performance. In fact, among the 36 superintendents who make more than the governor, nine of them — 25 percent — serve districts that receive a D grade from the Mississippi Department of Education.

Bloggers and citizen journalists descend on Denver to Amplify School Choice

By
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Photo Credit: Josh Kaib

Fifty bloggers from across America joined the Franklin Center’s Amplify School Choice Conference

School choice is much more than a policy issue or a political football. For millions of students and their families, it’s a gateway to a better future. This was abundantly clear at the Amplify School Choice Conference, hosted by the Franklin Center earlier this month. 

Over 50 bloggers and citizen journalists joined us in Denver to learn from the city’s success with school choice and to take those ideas back to their communities across the country.

“I have a long list of potential topics for investigation and reporting thanks to the information presented at the conference,” said Tom Balek, who blogs at Rockin’ on the Right Side. “The conference also helped to shape my advocacy.”

Photo Credit: Josh Kaib

Franklin Center’s Nicole Neily explains why school choice matters.

On day one of the conference, attendees heard from a variety of speakers including Pamela Benigno and Ross Izard of the Independence Institute and political figures like State Rep. Angela Williams and State Sen. Kevin Lundberg.

In the afternoon, they were treated to informative talks from Ben Scafidi, a leading school choice economist with EdChoice and Kennesaw State University, and Tim Keller, one of America’s foremost school choice litigators with the Institute for Justice.

“The selection of speakers was great,” said Jim Shaw of Third Base Politics in Ohio.  

That evening at the Amplify School Choice Gala, Franklin Center’s president Nicole Neily addressed the audience, and EdChoice president Robert Enlow gave the keynote address.

The informative lectures and panel discussions gave everyone in attendance a unique opportunity to learn about many facets of education policy and how to apply that knowledge to their future reporting on the topic.

GET THE FACTS: Click here for Franklin Center’s School Choice Resource Guide

“The information was invaluable, a once in a lifetime experience,” explained D.C.-based blogger Mark Lerner. “I feel so fortunate to have been selected to attend.”

To end the conference, attendees visited two of the most innovative charter schools in the nation, STRIVE Prep and the Denver School of Science and Technology, to see school choice in action.

Photo Credit: Josh Kaib

Franklin Center’s Kevin Glass discusses how to best report on school choice.

They heard from Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of STRIVE Prep, and Bill Kurtz, founder and CEO of the Denver School of Science and Technology.

Both schools serve diverse communities throughout Denver, and they do so in close cooperation with the Denver school district, which has helped them find suitable facilities for their schools. This is often a problem for charter schools in other cities, but not in Denver.

STRIVE and DSST are both expanding quickly, but without lowering their high standards for students. In fact, the Denver School of Science and Technology expects to soon serve 25 percent of Denver students in grades 6-12 while maintaining its 100 percent college acceptance rate.

Our attendees were excited to return home and bring the school choice message to their local audiences with their newfound knowledge and strategies. As they continue writing about school choice, you can find their work at AmplifySchoolChoice.com.

“Thank you for your efforts in blitzing the nation with stories about the value of school choice,” California Political Review’s Stephen Frank said. “It takes a massive information drill to get the attention of the public: this conference gave bloggers and writers from all over the country the tools they needed.”

Josh Kaib, Franklin Center’s Outreach Manager, was the organizer and emcee of Amplify School Choice.

Franklin Center interns reflect on the summer

By
Monday, August 8th, 2016

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Rather than making copies or fetching coffee, interns at Franklin Center and Watchdog have an opportunity to make substantive contributions to our work, building their skills and resumes even as they help us with the hard work of keeping government accountable.

This summer the Franklin Center had the privilege of hosting six interns. They worked with our journalism, marketing, and communications teams to do research, assist with social media, and even do some reporting of their own. If you’ve read a story on Watchdog.org the past three months, there’s a good chance one of our interns had a hand in the reporting.

As they depart the Franklin Center, Outreach and Content Manager Josh Kaib asked them to take a few moments to reflect on their experiences.

 

Grant Broadhurst

Grant Broadhurst intern 2016

Why did you want to intern with the Franklin Center?

The Franklin Center plays a unique role in the way it highlights stories that other news sources ignore. It has the freedom to break the 24-hour news cycle and keep government accountable at all levels, yet it manages to do so in an engaging way. I wanted to be a part of that and learn these skills from people with integrity.

What has been the most rewarding part of your internship?  

Writing stories and seeing them published has been the most rewarding aspect since the entire process fascinates me. I particularly like the way that I can call up strangers with much more experience and knowledge than myself and start asking them questions. “I’m a reporter” is a magic phrase: I can give people a voice and a platform to share their knowledge and professional opinions.

What would you like to say to Franklin Center donors and supporters?

Thank you. The people you support here truly care about what they do. They have invested a lot of time and expertise to equip the next generation of journalists. Wherever we go, they expect us to carry these ideas of accountability forward even if it’s under another banner or in a different role. You make that possible.

Read Grant’s stories for Watchdog.org

 

Nathaniel Crosser

Nate Crosser intern 2016

Why did you want to intern with the Franklin Center?

My initial phone interview with Josh Kaib sold me on the Franklin Center. He communicated a vision for the Franklin Center  — and what it can do for our society — that I ardently want to support. He described a culture of cooperation, diligent laborers, and camaraderie that I am grateful to be a part of. To be able to do meaningful and creative work in an organization like the Franklin Center is ideal.

What has been the most rewarding part of your internship?

The most rewarding aspect of working for the Franklin Center is the opportunity to support the mission. Other news outlets and companies care solely about ratings or ad sales and fail to promote a unifying, socially beneficial mission. The Franklin Center, unlike the mainstream media, wholeheartedly strives to make our country a better place.

What would you like to say to Franklin Center donors and supporters?

We are all truly grateful for your support. Every time you read an article or donate a dollar it is a blow of the hammer on the stake we hope to drive into the heart of the mass media and government complex that has so much power over the social, economic, and political structure of our society. Thank you for enabling us to shine the bright light of transparency into government’s darkest corners.

Read Nathaniel’s stories for Watchdog.org

 

Byron Solomon

byron solomon intern 2016

Why did you want to intern with the Franklin Center?

I had a gut instinct that it was the right place to be. More importantly, I believed in the mission, as my own home state (Alabama) is pretty corrupt. The Franklin Center can do a great deal of good across America, even in the most corrupt and financially irresponsible states.

What has been the most rewarding part of your internship?

The communication skills I have learned at the Franklin Center have helped me take the pro-liberty chapters I lead on my college campus to the next level. In general, I’ve been able to hone many professional skills at the Franklin Center.

What would you like to say to Franklin Center donors and supporters?

My time at the Franklin Center has encouraged me. There are bastions of hope in the media of which ol’ Ben can be proud. This is one of them. As long as Watchdog and the Franklin Center are around, state governments will be looking over their shoulders before wasting taxpayer money.

 

Graham Deese

Graham Deese intern 2016

Why did you want to intern with the Franklin Center?

As one of the few media outlets that shares my commitment to free markets, I was naturally attracted to the Franklin Center. By exposing waste, fraud, and abuse in government, the Franklin Center helps to shatter the illusion many people have that government can solve market failures without creating government failures of its own.

What has been the most rewarding part of your internship?

Working for the Franklin Center has given me the opportunity to raise awareness of a multitude of important issues throughout the state of Wisconsin. Additionally, working with Matt Kittle and the editing team has given me the chance to greatly improve my writing.

What would you like to say to Franklin Center donors and supporters?

You have made a great choice to support the Franklin Center. It brings into the media a perspective that all too often is forgotten or ignored. It keeps government officials accountable by exposing fraud and abuse to the public. I hope you continue your support so that the Franklin Center can continue its very important work for many years to come.

Read Graham’s stories for Watchdog.org

 

Michael Buse

michael buse intern 2016Why are you interested in journalism?

I think Journalism, especially watchdog journalism, is interesting because of its function as a check on power. Journalists tell stories, and the innate power of a story is framing a good guy and a bad guy. This power gives journalism the ability to hold people accountable, and that is very important to me.

Why did you want to intern with the Franklin Center?

As I read more and more into the focus of the organization, I came to realize that it is an organization dedicated to holding elected officials accountable, and that is something I am very passionate about, so everything just seemed to fall into place.

What has been the most rewarding part of your internship?

The most rewarding part has been filing information requests because, while preparing them can be tedious, getting them back and finding something comes with a massive “gotcha” moment.

What would you like to say to Franklin Center donors and supporters?

I would encourage you to continue to support this organization in any way you can. So many people I’ve spoken to this summer has spoken to the importance of what the Franklin Center does in establishing a critical check on state and local governments, and I think that is really indicative of the niche that Franklin has made for itself. Supporting Franklin Center is an investment with an impact.

 

Benjamin O’Connell

Benjamin oconnell intern 2016

Why did you want to intern with the Franklin Center?

The experience this internship provides in both the journalism and political field is unparalleled. It is a great organization to work for because of the work they do to keep the government in check and report injustices that affect the public.

What has been the most rewarding part of your internship?

The most rewarding part of my internship has been seeing the way we can give a voice to people that otherwise wouldn’t have one. Sometimes the articles we write can call attention to issues in order to make a difference in other people’s lives.

What would you like to say to Franklin Center donors and supporters?

I would like to say thank you, and please keep up the support because the work that this organization does is well worth it. All of our successes are because of your support.

Read Benjamin’s stories for Watchdog.org

Political hangover? Watchdog covers the conventions

By
Thursday, August 4th, 2016

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The national party conventions dominated the news for a week and a half, but while the clamor has died down, security and infrastructure costs from the national party conventions have saddled taxpayers with a “political hangover” that lives on.

Watchdog was in the thick of things in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Here’s a recap of our coverage:

A riotous RNC

Watchdog reporter Heather Kays showed up in Cleveland to a scene of chaos and protest – so much so that it was hard to figure out which person was protesting what cause.

Many of the usual suspects were there, such as Black Lives Matter and Code Pink, but others were harder to pin down. One proclaimed “The Pope is an Anarchist,” another offered “Free Hugs,” and a shirtless (but not braless) woman held a sign that said “BUST UP THE MILITARY BUDGET.”

Martha-Boneta-2016-RNC-photo-300x224On a more encouraging note, however, Republicans came out in strong support of school choice. Kays interviewed GOP House candidate Casper Stockham, who is running in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District on a platform that would create communities that provide school choice and “help kids learn the Constitution.” Stockham’s campaign is one example of the sharp contrast between the party platforms’ dueling visions of school choice. The current GOP platform pledges to “fight for school choice until all parents can find good, safe schools for their children,” while the Democratic platform doesn’t mention the term “school choice” at all.

Kays also had the opportunity to speak with Liberty Farms’ Martha Boneta (pictured above right). The Virginia farmer has been an outspoken advocate of property rights and is no stranger to the spotlight, but the self-described “crunchy conservative” said her appearance at the RNC was one of necessity.

“I just wanted a farm and to be left alone,” she said, but that became impossible when local officials tried to block her from selling local vegetables produced on her own land. She pushed back, and her struggles against big government prompted the passage of a pair of property rights bills in Virginia. It was a huge victory for Boneta, but as she sees it, it’s only the beginning of her fight to ensure that no citizen is at risk of having their rights and privacy invaded by the government.

Stinky shenanigans at the DNC

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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett having fun at the DNC.

Even with Donald Trump as their opposing candidate, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia kept pace with the newsworthy antics of their Republican counterparts in Cleveland. It started with the disgraceful exit of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which leaders like Senator Tammy Baldwin said was “the right thing to do” to “keep the focus where it belongs, on Hillary.”

The threat of a “fart-in” by unflappable Bernie Sanders supporters capped off the convention with an absurd note, and Watchdog reporter Matt Kittle provided a rundown of all the associated fear and loathing in Philly. Even though the Vermont Senator has now endorsed Hillary, members of the Bernie revolt showed up to protest the DNC’s handling of the primary. As Kittle reported, they could still spell trouble for Clinton in November.

Flatulence aside, many of the ideas aired by serious Democratic leaders have much more worrisome implications for Americans. The platform put forth by the Democratic Party was billed as the “most progressive platform in history” and calls for a number of pricey initiatives, including universal health care, a shift to 50 percent “clean electricity” within ten years, and an increase of the federally mandated minimum wage to $15 an hour.

As a prime example of what this Democratic platform could look like, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney showed up to brag on his city’s recently enacted soda tax, a “regressive” policy intended to help fund pre-K programs even as the Nanny State discourages consumption of sugary beverages.

But hey, at least Kenney stuck to his guns on the issue. Philadelphia can’t say the same for it’s approach to ridesharing. The city’s big-labor backed taxi lobby has tried to limit competition from sharing economy competitors like Uber and Lyft, but Philadelphia’s transportation regulator and ridesharing companies struck a “semi-legalized” agreement that allowed the companies to offer their services during the conventions.

Despite Bernie Sanders’ and many Democrats’ hostility to the free-market policies that allow companies like Uber and Lyft to thrive, they seemed more than happy to avail themselves of the ridesharing service.