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Watchdog’s victory in Maine: Sometimes success takes time

Friday, July 17th, 2015

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For those who have been with us from the beginning, you might remember a story from nearly five years ago, when one of our reporters caught Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) engaging in the “do as I say, not as I do” behavior that too often comes naturally to our elected officials. In her previous work as president of the left-wing group Common Cause, Pingree had publicly and sharply criticized officials who accepted free trips on private planes from wealthy influencers. At the time, she wrote: “Most Americans never have and never will fly on a chartered jet, much less a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches. So when members of Congress constantly fly around on corporate jets and pay only the cost of a commercial ticket, it contributes to the corrosive public perception that members of Congress are more like the fat cats of Wall Street than they are like the rest of us.”

Chellie_Pingree portraitOnce elected to Congress, she even introduced a bill to ban this kind of lavish travel from influence-buyers. So when one of our Watchdog reporters, Stephan Burklin, received a tip that recently-elected Rep. Pingree (pictured, right) might be flying around on, in her words “a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches,” he went digging.

What Burklin found was that Rep. Pingree was in fact frequently traveling in style on a plane owned by her billionaire boyfriend and hedge fund owner Donald Sussman. Burklin discovered flight manifests that indicated numerous trips, and he even staked out the Portland airport for photos of Pingree arriving on the jet. When the Watchdog story broke, it was a national embarrassment for Pingree and Democrats– especially when it transpired that then-Rep. Barney Frank had also traveled on the plane. News outlets across the country picked up the story, and one Maine political observer wrote that he hoped the work of the Franklin Center – then in our infancy – “inspires the old, tired media to get off their collective butts and do some digging.”

It’s been nearly five years since that story, years during which, thanks to your support, the Franklin Center has grown, changed, and racked up a record of accomplishment beyond what we ever imagined. But in a long-awaited and deeply satisfying conclusion to this story, just last week news came across the wires that Rep. Pingree would finally face sanctions, as the Federal Election Commission slapped her with a fine and also ordered her to pay back the cost of her flights.

Over the last five years, we’ve written stories that triggered immediate action. At other times, results have come slower. But we’re proud to share with you this story from the Franklin Center’s earliest days that has finally borne fruit. Thank you for standing with us through both the wins that come quickly and the results that take longer to produce.

Watchdog investigation brings justice for Wisconsin conservatives targeted in John Doe probe

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Free Speech Wins

It was nearly three years in coming, but justice finally prevailed in Wisconsin, as the state Supreme Court shut down a years-long politically motivated investigation, widely regarded as a witch hunt, targeting supporters of Governor Scott Walker and his landmark budget reforms.

Over the course of two harrowing years Wisconsin Watchdog bureau chief Matt Kittle, produced more than 200 news stories exposing this injustice. His groundbreaking investigative reporting chronicles the egregious civil rights abuses inflicted by Milwaukee County’s Democrat district attorney and his shadowy John Doe investigation against Governor Walker, his political supporters, and dozens of conservative groups.

Under Wisconsin’s unique John Doe procedure, a single judge vested with extraordinary power to compel witnesses to testify presides over the secret investigations. Targets and witnesses can go to jail for saying anything to anyone other than their attorneys about the John Doe. Several targets in this probe risked their freedom to tell their stories to Wisconsin Watchdog and make the investigation possible.

The ordeal goes back to May of 2010, when the Milwaukee County DA began investigating reports that money may have been stolen from a veterans’ fund in the Milwaukee County Executive’s office. Scott Walker was a county executive at the time, so democratic District Attorney John Chisholm used the discrepancy to launch a John Doe probe targeting a vast swath Walker aides, allies, and associates in his gubernatorial campaign. Even though Chisholm found nothing substantial beyond the financial discrepancy (which Walker reported himself anyways), the targeting would continue for five years.

“Wisconsin Watchdog first began hearing chatter about a possible probe into conservative groups in late September 2013,” says Kittle. “There was something big going down involving abuse of prosecutorial power, sources told us.” By late October, Wisconsin Watchdog had confirmed that the probe was targeting a number of conservative 501(c)(4) groups. The investigations were secret, however, and no one in official circles would confirm the existence of a John Doe. Many of those believed to be prosecuting the John Doe would not even return phone calls.

“At times it seemed almost impenetrable,” Kittle said. “One source would only meet at a fast-food restaurant 35 miles from his home. He would not talk on the phone.”

These sources had a lot of lose – they could have faced jail time for speaking in violation of the John Doe gag order – but they decided to trust Kittle, and that’s when the breakthrough happened. Wisconsin Watchdog reported on their accounts with the headline: “Sources: Secret probe targeting conservatives is abuse of prosecutorial powers.”

“This is not a question of what conservatives did wrong,” one source said in the report. “It’s a question of one party in this state using prosecutorial powers to conduct a one-sided investigation into conservatives.”

Soon news of the probe began garnering national attention. TheBlaze aired a feature segment on “For the Record,” which covered the D.A.’s investigation into conservative groups from the beginning, and drew directly from Wisconsin Watchdog’s extensive investigation. After a critical ruling by a judge quashed subpoenas into conservative groups, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board broke a piece featuring previously unpublished, sealed court documents. National Review would also begin covering the probe.

The stories of those targeted in the John Doe are harrowing. We heard accounts of law enforcement engaged in predawn, paramilitary-style raids at the homes of citizens who found themselves treated like drug dealers and gang bangers for alleged campaign finance crimes. Children were locked in rooms while agents rooted through the family’s possessions, and targets were told that they could not contact their attorneys during the broad searches and seizures. A prosecutorial spying operation grabbed digital data from ISPs of untold numbers conservative citizens, some who had no idea they are or were targeted in the investigation.

This kind of thing should never happen in our country, and the Franklin Center’s Watchdog reporters put everything on the line to stop it.

Multiple courts have ruled the prosecutors did not have probable cause for launching the investigation. But finally the Wisconsin Supreme Court shut the investigation down for good, declaring that “the special prosecutor’s legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law,” and was motivated by a naked attempt to “investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.”

Wisconsin Watchdog’s exposure of the investigation, its tactics, and its politically-motivated origins provided the John Doe plaintiffs with the ammunition they needed to make their case and get the investigation shut down. Multiple courts on the way to the Supreme Court’s decision have cited Wisconsin Watchdog stories as they issued opinions to suspend the investigation and chastise prosecutors.

The case cannot be appealed further to Supreme Court on its merits because it is a state court ruling on a state law, said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. John Doe prosecutors could appeal on the grounds that Wisconsin could not ethically and constitutionally rule on the case, but Esenberg says that is unlikely.

At long last, then, it appears the final nail has finally been pounded into John Doe’s coffin. “Wisconsin’s Secret War” is over.

The Franklin Center is proud to have been able to work with such courageous people to tell their stories and help them seek justice. But while we can take great pride in this victory, we know it’s only a matter of time until the next free speech battle. When that time comes, the Watchdog team has the experience and the expertise to prevail – provided citizens stand with us to make sure we are ready to fight again.

 

Lambos, yachts and tobacco: Watchdog covers the SBA

By
Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

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So-called “sin taxes” are popular among politicians because they offer a chance to discourage certain behaviors while raising a little more for the state coffers.

If we were to stick with the nickname, we might call many of the loans dealt by the Small Business Administration “sin loans,” because as Watchdog has found, the federal agency has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to liquor stores and bars, supercar dealerships, country clubs, and boat dealerships – all of which government has tried to penalize with special taxes.

Why would the politicians authorize special giveaways the very businesses that they also want to levy more taxes on?

That’s the question driving Watchdog reporter Art Kane’s stories about the SBA. His investigation was sparked by conversations with OpenTheBooks.com, a project of American Transparency, which advocates for transparency in public spending.

“Their data on loan guarantees was compelling,” said Kane, “but I noticed a key part was missing in their records — the loans that defaulted — so I decided to ask for that information under FOIA.”

In his “Luxury Loan” series, Kane uncovered $8.7 billion worth of failed loan guarantees by the SBA, which potentially left taxpayers on the hook for nearly $1 billion. Among these loans were a pair of Lamborghini dealerships, a Sonoma, California winery, and plenty of liquor and tobacco businesses.

SBA loans are usually backed by fees on lenders. But since 2009, taxpayers have subsidized about $835 million, according to a SBA report and a lender grade group. After the Great Recession, Congress also appropriated hundreds of millions more in tax dollars to reduce lender fees and improve loan terms.

“The reason we decided to give it so much attention is that nearly $1 billion in taxpayer money was spent backing these loans that weren’t paid,” said Kane, “and our mission at Watchdog is to hold the government accountable for wasting taxpayer money.”

Coverage from other news outlets – other than the back and forth with lawmakers critical of the administration of the program – has been scant. The Government Accountability Office and SBA’s Inspector General have criticized the agency for a lack of oversight, but apart from Watchdog, readers won’t find much about it in the press.

“Maybe $800 million isn’t a lot of money in Washington, DC, but I felt it was worth digging deeper since we knew many of those loans were backed for businesses most taxpayers probably wouldn’t feel comfortable supporting with their tax money,” said Kane. “Of course if taxpayers lost money on the loans, which is what we showed, they would have even greater concerns.”

Other Watchdog reporters have found similarly questionable loans in their states. In Wisconsin, for example, Watchdog reported on a golfer’s club that secured a $4.1 million loan from the SBA, which was one of three businesses “serving wealthy lifestyles” in the state to receive more than $1.7 million in loans from the agency. In Virginia, Watchdog reporter Kenric Ward found that the SBA dealt $150 million in 2009 stimulus money to a private equity-style firm; neither the company nor the SBA would say where the money went. In Louisiana, Watchdog reporter Chris Butler found that the SBA gave a $750,000 to a wedding caterer who is now under federal indictment. In Minnesota, Watchdog reporter Tom Seward found that the SBA’s million-dollar loan list “includes a dog spa, craft brewery, plastic surgeon, golf course, car-racing team, hotel chains, bowling alleys and chic restaurants.” And in Ohio, Watchdog’s Jason Hart reported on a $5.5 million “green” real estate loan secured from the SBA through a lending firm “when no local banks were willing to lend.”

These are just a few examples from a laundry list of luxury-oriented SBA-loans Kane compiled from the past six years. It includes an additional $21 million in loans for boat dealers, $25 million for country clubs and golf courses, and more than $20 million for jewelry stores.

When, then, will the SBA give an account for itself?

“People should care because it’s their money,” said Kane, who notes that the SBA didn’t respond to repeated questions from him asking them to explain why taxpayers should be backing supercar dealerships, wineries and boat sellers that were not able to repay the loans. Other than generic language about creating jobs, the agency did not offer any further justification of why it is important for our economy.

“There is a huge federal debt, and it’s an agency that can’t even justify why taxpayers should be funding it,” said Kane. “Every year, on top of the loans that don’t perform, taxpayers are funding the agency’s operations to the tune of more than $700 million,” he added.

If our elected officials are serious about cutting government, perhaps they should start by looking at the SBA.

 

Who’s watching me? A Watchdog reporter’s run-in with the police

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

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“Police took photos of my license plate”

Last spring, Kathryn Watson, an investigative reporter in Watchdog’s Virginia bureau, dug up an alarming tale – local police departments were randomly scanning license plates, tagging those images with dates, times, and locations, and then storing that data for years. She filed a request for her own record, and what she found stunned her.

In all, police captured 16 photos of her car, mostly at night, and recorded her license plate eight times on five dates from October 2013 to April 2014. (She’d filed her request just a few days into April.) The file included not just photos of her license plate and car, but a detailed tracking of her whereabouts as she traveled around the city, going to work, running errands, and going to Bible study. There were even photos taken as her car sat parked at home in a private lot belonging to her apartment building.

The data discovery was all the more shocking since the state of Virginia, through the office of former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, had told police departments the previous year that storing randomly collected license plate data is illegal.

America responds to the story

News outlets across Virginia and beyond featured Watson’s work. The Drudge Report was one of the first to pick up the story, and from there it exploded. The next day she appeared on NRA News, and went on to appear on Fox News to tell her story. Emails flooded in from all over the country, with readers asking how they could request their own records and how they could fight back.

One came from a teacher in Washington State, who said that he planned to use her story to show his students that they have “the right to challenge their school or government when they feel their rights have been unfairly infringed upon and violated.” Lawmakers, meanwhile, vowed to address the issues that Katie’s work highlights and to take action to curtail these programs.

Watchdog investigates abuses by law enforcement

Watson’s investigation, however, is just one of many Watchdog stories exposing troubling trends in law enforcement. Events in Ferguson, Mo. last year led to investigations revealing that more than $5 billion of military-grade equipment has been distributed to local law enforcement across America through the Defense Department’s 1033 program. As Watchdog found in states like Kansas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, small-town police forces have been equipped with equipment like grenade launchers, assault rifles, and mine-resistant vehicles. Pressured by media attention, President Obama ordered a review of the program, but decided to let it keep running.

Perhaps the most egregious abuses of law enforcement’s power, however, take place through civil asset forfeiture, a practice that essentially allows police to confiscate property or money if they suspect it was involved in the commission of a crime. From a legal standpoint, this is pulled off by accusing the property itself of a crime, and it leaves owners in the difficult position of trying to prove its innocence to have it returned. As Watchdog has found, it’s happening all over the country, and in some cases the practice has become a vital part of police department’s revenue. One Mississippi town, for example, funded a new $4 million police station through civil asset forfeiture.

Watson’s routine public records request has become a vivid illustration of what happens when these kinds of harmful and suspicious government practices are brought to light. These stories exemplify Watchdog’s mission – to shine a bright light into government’s dark corners. We find out what government is doing in secret and then spread those stories far and wide.

The EPA, Joe and the Giant Peach

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

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In Ruston, Lousiana, Joe Mitcham’s hands were tied. He couldn’t do anything to save his 68 year-old peach orchard – his livelihood, his family legacy, and a local landmark. He couldn’t hire more workers or expand his acreage. He couldn’t sell the property. He couldn’t contribute to the tourism market. And worst of all, he certainly couldn’t find a way to deal with the fungus killing his trees. The EPA’s regulations banning the only chemical that treats the fungus were on the verge of forcing Mitcham (pictured below) out of business – and the agency wouldn’t even respond to Mitcham’s desperate phone calls seeking help.

Ruston residents shared his concerns, as Mitcham’s orchards are part of the area’s tourism draw. They lamented the demise of “such a symbol of our area… a part of our history,” and feared “losing a big part of our community.”

“It’s like losing a family member,” said Ruston Lincoln Camber of Commerce President Judy Copeland.

That was before Watchdog’s Chris Butler found out what was happening and drove out to Ruston to tell the story and demand answers from the EPA. His headline captured the problem: “EPA regs likely to kill 68-year-old Louisiana peach orchard.”

Peaches MitchamIt wasn’t the first time Butler had covered a story that showed how the EPA seemed coldly detached from the real-life consequences of its policies. When he asked then-Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius what she would say to someone whose health insurance cost more because of Obamacare, she didn’t really have an answer. When the EPA announced new regulations requiring states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent from power plants, Butler asked local officials about the workers who will lose their jobs because of the regulations and the families who will face higher utility costs. All he received in reply was a dispassionate email about the need to reduce carbon emissions. And in Mitcham’s case, Butler reached out to the EPA well in advance of his deadline with questions about the banned chemical, methyl bromide. He received an email that neglected to answer some questions, and essentially copied and pasted its answers to others – technical information Butler had already found on his own.

Something especially poignant about Mitcham’s predicament – the hardworking farmer and businessman hung out to dry by a government that was supposed to look out for his best interests – struck a nerve. His story went viral, with thousands of readers on Watchdog’s web pages and other media picking up Butler’s original story. And then a funny thing happened. The next day, immediately after Butler published a commentary piece about the fallout over his story documenting Mitcham’s plight, EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones reached out to Watchdog and told us this:

“We are reaching out to Mr. Mitcham to discuss alternatives to methyl bromide that he can use for his orchard. There are registered alternatives to treat to soil pathogens.”

Just like that, we had good news for Mitcham, his employees, and the people of Ruston. Just as Jones said, an EPA administrator made a personal telephone call to explore alternatives for saving Mitcham’s orchards. Butler has continued to keep tabs on the EPA to ensure that they keep their promises and give Joe Mitcham the help he needs. Meanwhile, residents of the area have written in to tell us how much Mitcham Farms has meant to their families and the community over the decades.

“Every summer we took our family to Ruston,” wrote Lousiana resident Frances Davis. “We… visited the peach orchard and bought several crates so we could share them with our friends. Thank you for saving this orchard.”

A Texas-Sized Scandal

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

 

Texas

The story of the University of Texas admissions scandal began nearly two years ago in a dire place. Wallace Hall, a Gov. Rick Perry appointee to the University of Texas Board of Regents, was about to be impeached for ethics violations, charges driven by University of Texas-Austin President Bill Powers.

Twenty months later, Bill Powers has resigned in disgrace and Wallace Hall is a hero in Texas. But what was the catalyst for change? It took great courage on Hall’s part to take a stand for integrity, but the story’s narrative did not change in his favor until Watchdog Texas bureau chief Jon Cassidy got involved.

When Cassidy started covering the story, Wallace Hall was being railroaded by the media, the university, and the legislature. As Hall blew the whistle on influence peddling at the university’s law school, he was accused of requesting documents frivolously, of making wild accusations, and even of trying to destroy the university, when in fact, as Cassidy would go on to prove, Hall was right. A bipartisan group of legislators had for years been using the UT admissions process as their own spoils system. Wallace Hall threatened that privilege.

Cassidy profile picCassidy (pictured, right) went to work developing sources in the legislature and the university. He began with a simple hypothesis – simple but difficult to prove: if he could identify students who were underqualified for admission into the prestigious school but who were admitted anyway, he could locate how each one was connected to the influence-peddling scandal. He built a database that tracked over a decade’s worth of academic data from students admitted to UT and traced the individual students who later performed poorly on the Texas Bar exam. Then he found the smoking gun: documents that linked each under-qualified student to a powerful lawmaker or state official.

A subsequent investigation by Kroll Associates into UT admissions standards confirms Cassidy’s findings, but “just like it took a judge to break Watergate wide open,” he wrote, “UT’s malfeasance may not be thoroughly exposed without a judge taking an active interest in the case.”

The outcome of Cassidy’s work speaks volumes. It became the evidence that other media – and eventually an official state investigation – relied on. He also proved that Bill Powers had been complicit with all this and that he was part of a well-established system of admissions corruption. Other media in Texas, forced to confront the truth, have called this one of the biggest admissions scandals in U.S. history. They’ve called Jon’s work a “tour de force” and have said that without him none of this would have ever come out.

“There are no longer two sides to the University of Texas admissions scandal story,” wrote Cassidy in a potent summary. “This long and tangled affair has become a very simple matter: either you favor accountability or impunity, honesty or secrecy, oversight or cover-up.”

And the best proof that Cassidy’s work has made a difference? One of the state lawmakers who found herself in Cassidy’s crosshairs pushed back hard against legislation that offer Jon and other reporters like him of more access to government documents and the protections of press freedom. There could hardly be better evidence that he has done his work well – an elected official wants to shut him down by force of law.

Click here to read the full “Trouble in Texas” series at Watchdog.org

Amid newspaper decline, an important role emerges for education reporting

By
Monday, June 29th, 2015

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Without using a search engine, what can you explain about any of the 2016 presidential candidates’ positions on education?

Probably not much.

Even though Americans are worried more about our kids’ quality of education than many other hot-button issues like poverty, terrorism, and income inequality, news coverage of education is woefully lacking in the national media narrative.

Unfortunately, education coverage at the state and local level is just as problematic. A mere 7.5 percent of all education stories by local newspapers last year covered specific education policies, and most of the focus of that work is preoccupied by immediate concerns like funding, rather than taking a deep look at what can be done to make our education system better.

These trends in education reporting are outlined in a recent study by Andrew Campanella, an expert in education communication, examining the past 25 years of K-12 education-focused news coverage. It shows that education reporting, while more prominent at the local level, too often lacks substance, which highlights the need for in-depth education stories.

Campanella found that coverage of education policy issues has plummeted by more than 36 percent over a 25-year average. And yet, sports, events, and school funding comprise nearly a quarter of all education coverage in state and local media. Sports coverage alone receives roughly three times more coverage than educational curriculum.

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At Watchdog, in-depth coverage of education policy is one of our top priorities, and we’re working to fill the vital gap left by the decline of legacy media outlets. With a team of hyperlocal reporters, and a full-time education policy editor, we seek to highlight the important issues that are vital to ensuring that all children have access to a quality education.

It’s disappointing that education issues probably won’t end up getting much attention in the 2016 presidential race, but education reform is making strong progress at the state-level. In fact, more school choice legislation was passed in state legislatures in 2014 than any year in recent memory, with 2015 looking even more promising. As we’ve reported at Watchdog, for example, Nevada and Mississippi have recently joined Florida and Arizona in implementing education savings accounts, which divert education funds into an account that parents of students can use for education services like tutoring or private schools.

It’s easy for the national media to overlook the innovative education policies that states are implementing around the country, but as the nearly 200 school choice stories published at Watchdog.org over the last year attest, America’s “laboratories of democracy” are finding ways of leveraging the power of individual choice to make our education system better.

Our reporters have been cited by policy organizations and local leaders, and their stories have helped draw attention to programs that work. The Acton Institute in Texas, for example, helps students take initiative in their learning by playing to their strengths and natural interests. In poverty-stricken Baltimore, the Monarch Academy charter schools use the latest in developmental neuroscience to create an optimal environment for students to learn new concepts and skills. And in Milwaukee, the nonprofit organization College Possible helps low-income students attend college simply by helping them make it through the application process and find financial aid.

We can – and should – debate long-term issues like government spending, welfare programs, and public pensions, but what good will that do if we don’t prepare the next generation to face them? At Watchdog, we understand that an educated and informed citizenry is the foundation and prerequisite for debating any other issue or pursuing reforms. That’s why we’re not just riding the waves of education news coverage, we’re creating it.

(This article was originally published at Watchdog.org)

SolarCity: Elon Musk’s empire of government subsidies

By
Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

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Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk is not subtle about his business strategy: follow the government money.

That’s the conclusion, at least, of a recent article in the Los Angeles Times investigating how the businessman of SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX fame has built his multibillion-dollar fortune through companies that have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government subsidies.

Politicians love latching on to the SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX brands, which promise to lead the way into a greener future. The result is dependence on a slew of government incentives, “including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits,” reports the LA Times, adding that “it also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars.”

It’s gotten so egregious that states are actually competing to give Musk’s companies money, according to Musk biographer Ashlee Vance. “As his star has risen, every state wants a piece,” she said.

The story goes on to list some of the most egregious examples. The state of New York will spend $750 million to help SolarCity build a solar panel factory in Buffalo, which the company will lease for $1 a year and pay no property taxes on for a decade. And on the federal level, the Treasury Department has doled out almost half a billion dollars in direct grants to SolarCity.

Tesla, meanwhile, recently secured an agreement with Nevada to build a huge battery factory in Reno that includes $1.3 billion of incentives. In its home state of California, the company has made $517 million by selling environmental credits to other automakers, which must purchase credits from the state and federal government if they don’t sell enough zero-emission cars.

Hedge fund manager Mark Spiegel offers a devastating summary to the LA Times: “Government support is a theme of all three of these companies, and without it none of them would be around,” he said. Spiegel is betting that Tesla’s stock will fall, even though it has more than doubled over the last two years.

This raises a number of important questions for the taxpayer. How much longer will the public largesse continue? Will these companies survive without government subsidies? And even if they do, will the public ever recoup the value of the alleged benefits these green technologies will bring?

Readers who have been following SolarCity at Watchdog, however, shouldn’t be surprised by the LA Times’ findings. Watchdog reporter Tori Richards has written a series of stories over the past year that help fill in the picture of the Musk empire’s dependence on taxpayer funds.

In November of last year, for instance, she reported that SolarCity stock has soared since it went public, even though a company report admitted that business would be difficult to maintain without government help.

“If, for any reason, we are unable to finance solar energy systems through tax-advantaged structures … we may no longer be able to provide solar energy systems to new customers on an economically viable basis,” it said.

Even with the help of $244 million in federal grants , SolarCity posted losses of $55 million in 2013, and was running a $166 million deficit at the time. This year, it doesn’t appear much has changed as the government has continued to prop up the solar industry – most recently through an extra $32 million in funding from the Department of Energy.

More recently, Richards covered Congressional leaders’ calls to end the “potentially deceptive sales tactics” of companies like SolarCity that use a zero-down, 20-year lease business model. Congress’ attention was drawn to solar companies by consumer complaints that their solar panels weren’t bringing them their promised savings. As Richards reported, many customers, such as northern California resident Jeff Leeds, have found themselves locked into costly deals thanks to under-producing solar panels on top of their homes. Leeds later received a notice from his bank informing him that SolarCity had placed a lien on his home, which held him up from closing a loan to buy another house.

Richards’ coverage of SolarCity’s $750 million plant deal in Buffalo found that many of the details of the contract were confidential – even though public money is at stake and the contract was acquired through a Freedom of Information request. State officials claimed the redacted portions of the contract protected trade secrets.

For now, Musk’s companies have “a great strategy, but the government will cut you off one day,” warns Dan Dolev, an analyst at Jefferies Equity Research.

If and when those government funds dry up, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

 

Digging deeper: plenty of citizens share news, but why don’t they create it?

By
Monday, June 8th, 2015

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Inscribed over the main entrance to the Nebraska State Capitol is a saying taught to philosopher Hartley Burr Alexander by his father: “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness of the Citizen.”

Alexander’s quote captures the bedrock philosophy of the Franklin Center and our journalism team at Watchdog.org. It is vital to have professional investigative journalists on the beat, but their stories only make a difference to the extent that citizens read and respond to them. As we discussed here last month, local news still matters to most Americans in the digital age. That post focused on a recent Pew study of the news consumption patterns of three small- to mid-sized American cities. In a follow-up blog post on that report, Pew researcher Jesse Holcomb has taken a deeper look into the study’s findings about citizen engagement in the news process. His conclusion is mixed: “News audiences spread the word, but few get involved in local journalism.”

“To what extent is the public directly engaging in acts of journalism?” Holcomb asks. Its case studies of Denver, Macon, Ga., and Sioux City, Iowa – along with previous research – suggest it’s a “small but measurable share.”

In all three of these cities Pew found that residents were much more likely to share news online than to actually post or submit news themselves. Sharing was highest in Denver, where just over half of residents had shared a news story through a digital channel like email or social media in the past year. A smaller but still significant portion of respondents in Sioux City (40 percent) and Macon (36 percent) also shared news digitally. However, the report found that “no more than one-in-ten residents of each city had submitted their own local news content to a news outlet or website.”

shutterstock_155584379This is consistent with a similar survey Pew conducted last year, Holcomb noted, which found that “half (50%) of U.S. adults who are social-network users share or repost news stories, videos or images. But fewer post photos (14%) or videos (12%) that they themselves took of a news event.”

Obviously it is easier to share news stories than to produce your own original reporting. But thanks to advancements in mobile technology, the barriers to producing original news content are coming down. The Pew article points to new video streaming apps such as Periscope and Meerkat that will allow laypeople to easily distribute news. Even with these powerful new tools, however, this obviously still requires citizen journalists to have the news savvy to be in the right place at the right time so as to have information that has genuine news value.

In any case, Holcomb notes, it’s clear from these findings that “at least on one fundamental level, the public clearly plays a large role in the local news ecosystem.” More than a third of Macon’s residents (37 percent), for example, get local news from friends and neighbors. That’s just as many as those who rely on their daily newspaper (36 percent). The balance is similar in Denver. In Sioux City the daily newspaper still holds a more central role among residents, but getting news from others in the community still comes in as a top-three source for local news.

What does this mean for you? The report’s findings have two major implications. The first is simple: share important news stories! Another Pew study from 2011 found that 55 percent of adults said they got news and local information through word of mouth at least weekly. Tell your friends and family about big stories you’ve read and share them online. With the rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, every individual can have at least a small voice and platform.

Second, part of the beauty of America’s free speech protections is that ordinary citizens have the freedom to report news from their own perspective – providing you take initiative, put in the hard work, and stay truthful. To learn more about how you can become a citizen journalist in your community, check out our citizen stories at Watchdog Arena, and download our free Video Tipsheet for advice on capturing newsworthy moments from politicians, public meetings, protests and more.

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What can we do about the decline of local news?

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Friday, May 29th, 2015

newspapers vertical stack

Last week on NPR, outgoing CBS anchorman Bob Schieffer (pictured below) was asked about the biggest threat to the future of journalism. His answer spoke volumes about the precarious state of traditional journalism today:

“Unless some entity comes along and does what local newspapers have been doing all these years, we’re gonna have corruption at a level we’ve never experienced,” he said. “Because there’s nobody — so many papers now can’t afford to have a beat reporter.”

Both anecdotal experience and the latest studies on the value of newspapers confirm Schieffer’s observation. Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza noted that just in the past two weeks, the Louisville Courier-Journal closed its D.C. bureau, and in Montana, the company that owns the state’s five biggest newspapers shut down its Helena statehouse bureau.

Bob SchiefferMeanwhile, a new Pew report catalogs the sharply declining value of U.S. newspapers. As the Washington Examiner wryly summarizes, it is “short and very unsweet.” Last year alone, for example, three different media companies decided to let go of more than 100 newspaper properties – largely to protect their digital and broadcast divisions, which continue to be robust. The numbers are devastating, but given that weekday circulation has dropped 17% and ad revenue has declined by more than 50% over the past ten years, should it really come as a surprise?

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post last year for $250 million is a small bright spot, but for other papers of record the road ahead looks rough. For example, the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Sun-Times, and Minneapolis Star Tribune all have seen their values plummet by hundreds of millions of dollars in the past two decades and (with the exception of the Boston Globe) filed for bankruptcy.

Scheiffer goes on to summarize what this decline of local news looks like on the ground:

“Many papers don’t have a city hall reporter anymore. They send somebody to cover the city council meetings, but to cover city hall, you have to be there every day and you have to know the overall story, not just report whatever happens on a particular day.

In light of this trend, we at Watchdog are interested in hearing from you about how to accomplish our mission of providing quality investigative journalism at the state and local level.

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