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Watchdog Investigates: The problems with the Paxton prosecution

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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.

Meet Carter DeWitt, Franklin Center’s New Vice President of Development

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Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

Carter DeWitt is no stranger to public policy organizations, bringing over 25 years of experience at the national, state and local levels with helping donors support the causes they are passionate about. She’s the Franklin Center’s new Vice President of Development, and she’s got big plans for 2017.

Get to know Carter and how she plans to grow the support for our public interest journalism in the interview below:

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

I grew up on the beaches of northeast Florida (Ponte Vedra Beach) and lived in Florida most of my life – except for a recent five year stint in Washington, DC.  North Florida is a wonderful place to be, it has a younger demographic profile and tourism is a small sidebar, not a major industry. You get the best of both worlds, a thriving economy and great weather supporting year round recreation.  Not surprisingly, Forbes ranked Jacksonville, Florida as the number two place in the country for attracting new residents in 2016.

Washington, DC is a fantastic place to be as well, although I could not have chosen two more opposite places to live. I remember thinking when I first landed in DC, if someone had told me on the tennis courts a year ago I would be living a block from the White House and working in the National Press Building, I would have laughed and said “I’ll have two of whatever you’re drinking!” I loved DC, but sandy beaches were calling and I returned to Florida in 2013.

  1. How do you spend your leisure time? What are your interests?

Maybe this means I have no life, but I dedicate a lot of my spare time volunteering for a wide variety of other nonprofits from animal rescue to the homeless.  I guess I just love what I do – I don’t consider it a job and have no problem giving back in my spare time.

Now if you ask my adult children what I am interested in, besides tennis, they will tell you anything science especially dinosaurs and fossils. I have a budding fossil collection and a substantial shark tooth collection numbering in the thousands including a few megalodon teeth as large as your hand. I collect as I walk on the beach.  

  1. Why have you chosen a career in nonprofit fundraising? What excites you about development work?

I didn’t actively pursue a career in fundraising, actually I have a B.S in chemistry, which I never used.  However, my favorite reads are still medical journals and research papers. I am continually amazed at the ever increasing speed of scientific discovery. From new surgical techniques, to age reversal to anti-gravity devices and to AI (artificial intelligence), it’s a fabulous future barreling towards us all.

I fell into nonprofit fundraising because I seemed to have a natural knack of connecting donors with that special project, event or organization they felt passionate about.  I always felt blessed in life and always gave back to the community. I started early, raising $30,000 for a local zoo when I was in high school. As I matured I was called upon to chair events, oversee campaigns and it just grew from there. When my husband passed away, way too early, I delved into fundraising full time. I now have successful experience at the national, state, regional and local levels in almost every funding vehicle. Best of all I don’t feel like I am working. I wake up energized and looking forward to the day.

  1. What is your favorite part of working with donors?

Good question! I always say I work with my fellow development team members, but I work for our donors. It’s never about what I want – but always about what the donor wants. I enjoy helping individuals, foundations and businesses match their support – whether it be time, talent or treasure – to the projects and missions that resonate in their hearts and minds. I’ve met so many talented and fascinating people over the years and I feel blessed to have played a small part in assisting them as they give back to the community. It’s such a feel good career.

  1. What does watchdog journalism mean to you?

I was one of the angry masses during the 2016 presidential election cycle and my trust in mainstream media is pretty low – for good reason. Recently I read a quote from the New York Times complaining about President Trump, saying (paraphrasing here) that the public is inflamed over the treatment of a cherished and beloved American icon – the press. I broke out into laughter and all I could think was ‘what cup of coffee did that reporter buy in la-la land this morning?’

I’ve come to appreciate Watchdog journalism for its integrity, its investigative method and its nonpartisan reporting. I may not always agree with what is said, but I have to admit, we tell both sides of the story. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with and talking to a lot of the staff reporters and they are an impressive group. It means a lot to me when I talk to donors about our journalists and I can accurately use the highest of accolades. Few news outlets can do that with truth.

  1. What do you want donors to know about Franklin Center?

I left Washington, DC a few years ago thinking to myself “Been there, done that and got the t-shirt.” Despite several incredible job offers to return since I left, I had no intention of going back to the national scene, and I had no problem saying “no thank you.”  That changed when Nicki Neily, Franklin President and an old DC friend, reached out to me asking me to consider joining the team.  Out of respect for her I did my due diligence and analyzed the potential for Franklin Center and Watchdog.org. though to be honest, I started with every intention of repeating my “No, but thanks for thinking of me,” as soon as I finished my research.

What I discovered was amazing. I was blown away. I realized Franklin Center and Watchdog.org stood on the precipice of opportunity and had all the tools to make their vision happen on a scale never anticipated since their founding in 2009. Experienced motivated leadership team? Check! Talented staff? Check! External opportunity created by self-implosion of a huge portion of mainstream media? Check! Untapped revenue sources? Check! My list just went on and on.  Call it a perfect storm or say that all the stars are aligned, but without a doubt, the next five years will be one heck of a ride and I wanted to be a part of the movement. I hope you’ll join me.

You can learn more about Carter by clicking here

The next battlegrounds for school choice: Stubborn red states (Glass Op-Ed)

By
Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Where can school choice advance in 2017? Franklin Center’s Kevin Glass takes a closer look at the education landscape in red states:

The sweeping successes of Republicans nationwide in the 2016 elections presents a huge opportunity for the school choice movement. Republicans have historically been more friendly to school choice than Democrats, and they now have 33 governorships and full control of 32 state legislatures.

Unfortunately, Republican control doesn’t always equal the best outcomes for students. In places like Texas and Mississippi, hundreds of thousands of students sit on waitlists for choice programs despite Republican control in both of those states.

“Mississippi is a little late to the school choice dance,” education activist Kevin Chavrous said, according to Mississippi Watchdog. The state has a choice program, but that “only a small percentage of Mississippi students are able to take advantage, and opportunities need to be expanded.” Reformers there are working with legislators.

Watchdog Texas reported that the state “remains a laggard” in this important area, and that the Republican speaker of the house has been an opponent of expansion of school choice programs. The status quo policies are what keep a reported 120,000 students on waitlists to get out of failing public schools.

Click here for the full op-ed in the Washington Examiner. 

A new administration begins, and Watchdog reporting continues

By
Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

 

No matter who leads our country, federal bureaucrats with political agendas will always run amok in Washington. And that means we are always under threat of overreach from the federal government. 

With a new administration taking office, here’s a look back at three major stories Watchdog.org broke in 2016 about the federal government and how we will continue covering these issues in the new year.

1- The Google Administration

Watchdog reporter Johnny Kampis broke the news that Google officials visited the White House more than once a week on average since President Obama took office. The story immediately went viral, landing on the Drudge Report and the front page of FoxNews.com. Thousands of people were talking about the story on social media, including Rob Lowe, who tweeted his thoughts.

Kampis also broke a second story about the revolving door between Google and the Obama Administration, exposing that more than 250 people moved from Google and related firms to the federal government or vice versa since President Obama took office. For a second time the story was featured on the Drudge Report, and it also led to a segment on Fox Business.

Google was reportedly planning to remain close to the White House if Hillary Clinton has won, but with Donald Trump taking office, the tech giant is scrambling to get close to him and his staff. As Google and other major players try to gain access to the federal government and massage policy in their favor, we’ll expose their actions.

You can find all stories in our Google Administration series by clicking here.

2- Border Disorder

Watchdog.org Texas reporter Kenric Ward was built up trust with sources knowledgeable about immigration and border security, so they know they can come to him with big news. And they did: Watchdog was able to exclusively report that the Department of Homeland Security shut down a key aerial surveillance program along the border.

His reporting got the attention of a bipartisan coalition of public officials. Together, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn and Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar demanded that the department resume the program. Abbott also shared Ward’s work on Twitter:

Will the new president resume the program, which was responsible for apprehending 110,000 illegal border crossers? As the Trump Administration moves to secure the border, we’ll continue to cover this important topic.3-

3- Deadly Delays

Wisconsin Watchdog bureau chief Matt Kittle exposed a huge scandal in the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review: an employee who brought to light claims of incompetence, misconduct and long case delays told us that management was retaliating against him for blowing the whistle.

Meanwhile, Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss was accused of deciding disability cases based on the appearance and race of claimants and of making highly inappropriate and sexually-charged comments about them. Documents obtained first by Watchdog show the judge using terms such as “cute,” “buxom,” and “gorilla-like,” to describe claimants.

As a result of our reporting, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee began an investigation into the Social Security Administration. The judge was later suspended and escorted from his office, and more SSA employees at the center of scandals have decided to leave the agency or have been reassigned.

Will President Trump and the Congress clean up the SSA? We’ll be watching.

You can find all of our stories in the Deadly Delays series by clicking here. 

These stories are just a few examples of our impact journalism. And regardless of who holds office, government must be watched. That’s exactly what Watchdog does. While other news organizations get distracted with salacious stories and snappy soundbites, we keep the focus on what really matters.

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

By
Wednesday, December 7th, 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.

Shutterstock Image

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 it’s 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

Kemper_County_Coal_Gasification_Plant

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 info@watchdog.org.

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

Shutterstock Image

Shutterstock Image

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.

Shutterstock Image

Shutterstock Image

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.