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The EPA created a disaster in Colorado: who will hold the agency to account?

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Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

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The hypocrisy of “sovereign immunity”

“Exxon had its Valdez, BP had its Deepwater Horizon and how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has its Animas River disaster with which to contend.”

That’s how Watchdog energy reporter Rob Nikolewski summed up the aftermath of the disastrous EPA-caused spill in Colorado’s abandoned Gold King Mine, which last month released 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River. The accident occurred when an EPA backhoe punched a hole into a waste pit during a clean-up effort, turning the Animas bright orange and threatening water sources as far as New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona as the waste dispersed downriver.

Charges of hypocrisy soon began flowing in.

“Nobody is going to take the attention away from EPA’s incompetence on this,” said Colorado Senator Cory Gardner. “If this was a private company, all hell would be breaking loose.”

“In their case, it seems that ‘we’re sorry’ is all that we the people are going to get,” wrote Lindsay Boyd for Watchdog Opinion. “What else can we do? The EPA is an unelected body of bureaucrats. But we all know what happens to private industry when they make mistakes… that lead to environmental disasters and contamination.”

If past spills by private companies are anything to judge by, Gardner and Boyd are right. Nikolewski compared the government’s reaction to the Animas spill to the huge fines issued by the Department of Jusice to Exxon and BP in the aftermath of their disasters. Unlike those companies, the EPA is protected from fines thanks to the common law rule of “sovereign immunity.”

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency “takes full responsibility” for the accident, but when Nikolewski reached out to EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. asking for a response to charges that the agency uses a double standard for private companies and for itself, he did not receive a reply.

Signs of trouble

As Watchdog reporter Tori Richards found in a series of bombshell investigations, the story actually goes back ten years. She spoke with the mine owner, Todd Hennis, who said the EPA has a record of releasing toxic runoff from mines that dates back to 2005.

“I have been battling the EPA for 10 years and they have done nothing but create pollution,” he said, suggesting that the activity was intentional so that the agency could declare the area a Superfund site.

gold king mine_EPA imageIn 2010, the EPA asked Hennis for access to his Gold King Mine so they could investigate hazardous runoff from other mines in the area. He refused, fearing that the EPA would create additional pollution, but Hennis said the agency countered with a threat – give us access within four days, or we will fine you $35,000 a day – so he “waved the white flag.”

The story garnered national attention on FoxNews.com and a number of other prominent media outlets, but it was not the only troubling testimony Richards uncovered. Just five months before the Animas River disaster, leaders from the nearby mining town of Silverton reportedly begged EPA officials not to perform tests that would declare the area a Superfund site. Even though no problems were found when the town was tested five years earlier, the EPA pressed back in.

Five days before the breach, another warning was sounded in the Silverton Standard, which published a letter to the editor from a man who identified himself as a professional geologist with 47 years of experience. It warned of a scenario where “the water will find a way out and exfiltrate uncontrollably through connected abandoned shafts, drifts, raises, fractures… contamination may actually increase due to the disturbance and flushing action within the workings.”

He wasn’t too far off.

With such warnings and suspicious activity prior to the spill, and a PR debacle in its wake, is it any wonder that the EPA withheld mine spill documents from Congress? As Richards reported several weeks after the spill, the agency failed to meet its deadline set by the House Science Committee, which requested documents pertaining to the Gold King Mine spill as part of an ongoing investigation into the incident.

The delay came on the heels of weeks of foot-dragging by the EPA, which took several days to notify Utah, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation that the spill was coming their way via the San Juan River. It took McCarthy a week to visit Colorado. The EPA did not give out the name of the contractor working on the project, along with other details generally considered public knowledge. And the Navajo Nation, which uses the San Juan for drinking water and farming, was given an emergency supply of water in oil-contaminated containers.

A voice on the ground

Watchdog Arena writer Marjorie Haun, a Colorado resident, meticulously covered the spill and ensuing debacle. She was one of the first to seize on the agency’s hypocrisy, noting that according to the EPA’s own “Waters of the United States” rule, the disaster warrants millions of dollars in fines.

After criticizing the agency for its tight-lipped response and low-information answers to questions from the press and local residents, Haun raised the deeper question that has begun to dog the agency: is the EPA even relevant anymore?

“From spill to clean up to compensation the EPA has bumbled its way through its responsibilities, beginning into question its own ability,” she wrote, citing a laundry list of mistakes. Navajo Nation President Russel Begaye for example, claimed the EPA “endangered our people” and called for the removal of all contaminated sediment from the San Juan River. Elsewhere, Haun noted, the EPA has proven little help in assessing the impact of its actions or funding cleanup efforts, while Colorado and New Mexico acted quickly to divert millions in state funds to help cleanup efforts in affected areas. And it was information provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that led Sheriff Sean Smith to declare the Animas River safe for recreational use after the waste was washed downstream.

The contrast between the state and federal responses has given traction to proposals that would bring environmental regulation under state control. In his coverage of the story, Nikolewski quoted Nicolas Loris, an economist who covers energy, environmental and regulatory issues for the Heritage Foundation. Loris questioned the 45-year-old agency’s reason for existing:

“That’s really what’s at the heart of the matter – transitioning away from the federal government and devolving most of those decisions down to the states,” Loris said. “The states have shown they do care about their own backyards. People don’t want to pollute their own property. States don’t want to do so either.”

Texas Watchdog’s “bullet-proof” coverage of the UT admissions scandal

By
Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

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It’s not often that a center-left news outlet calls out a major newspaper for misconstruing a story first reported by a nonprofit competitor, but that’s what happened recently when the Dallas Observer ran an article about the latest developments in the ongoing University of Texas admissions scandal. The day before, the Dallas Morning News had reported that influential Texans such as lawmakers, donors, and regents had written letters of recommendation that helped underqualified students gain admittance to UT. It pointed to the Kroll Report, an outside investigation into the admissions process that found that from 2009 to 2014, 73 students had been admitted to the premier school even though they had low high school GPAs (less than 2.9) and weak SAT scores (less than 1100).

“OK, this is one of those stop, do not pass go moments,” wrote Jim Schutze in The Observer. “That is not what this story is about. At the very least, even if you strip away all the larger implications, the UT admissions scandal involves 10 times that many students.”

Ten times as many? Yes, 764 to be exact, Schutze wrote, pointing to a recent report by Texas Watchdog bureau chief Jon Cassidy, who “has done most of the real digging on this story.”

The Morning News story went on to note that the students were specifically admitted by then-president Bill Powers, and said the Kroll report “suggested that political or personal connections may have influenced the decisions.” But as Schutze pointed out, it entirely ignored Cassidy’s reporting – dozens of stories that date back almost two years. Therein lay the problem.

“Doesn’t mean the News has to accept Cassidy’s reporting whole cloth,” Schutze wrote. “But I don’t see how they can get away with pretending it isn’t even there, especially given Cassidy’s bullet-proof record of accuracy on this story over almost two years of frequent reporting.”

Cassidy profile picIndeed, Cassidy’s (pictured) investigation paints a picture of relentless cover-ups and downplaying of the issue by school officials, lawmakers, and local media alike. He showed that the Kroll Report actually whitewashed the issue by exposing only “the thinnest veneer” of the problem in order to “shield UT and its partners in crime in the Legislature from any real or painful scrutiny.”

The admissions scandal, Schutze noted, is merely “one symptom of a larger institutional reality.” It transcends the admissions process and speaks for the state of the university itself. He quoted UT Regent Wallace Hall, the whistleblower responsible for exposing the admissions scandal (and a vital source in Cassidy’s reporting), from a previous interview. Here’s what Hall said about what spurred his interest in fixing mismanagement at UT:

“Listen, from 2003 to 2013 in-state tuition for the law school has gone from $7,100 to $31,000. The head count for the faculty, adjunct, tenure track and tenured, is up almost 40 percent in the same time. A third of our graduates do not get jobs. The average debt of a graduate is $150,000. And we teach 20 percent fewer kids… That’s a bad model.”

Is it any wonder, then, that the picture Cassidy’s stories paint of the school’s administration is one of “self-dealing lotus-eaters shielded by a wall of political thorns?”

Only Texas Watchdog took the first steps into UT’s “fast-and-loose, semi-secret, good-old-boy” world. Wallace Hall – and by extension Cassidy’s investigation into the admissions scandal – weathered the firestorm of opposition from the school’s president, lawmakers in the statehouse, and a skeptical media. Cassidy’s reporting has borne up under the intense scrutiny, and yet the News did not include a single mention of Cassidy or Texas Watchdog in its report on favoritism in the admissions process.

The story of UT’s admissions scandal will continue to develop as more details surface about the extent of the corruption. But at this point the lesson is clear. Schutze’s commentary in The Observer helps draw attention to what Texas Watchdog has been saying all along. Namely, that there is a trove of public interest stories to be found in Texas’ premier university, that statements by those in power shouldn’t be taken at face value, and that the bright light of accountability, when founded on the truth, can and will persevere if journalists and whistleblowers are brave enough to hold their ground.

Franklin Center fellow Jillian Kay Melchior named Tony Blankley Chair for Steamboat Institute

By
Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

unnamed (2)We are proud to announce that Jillian Kay Melchior, the Thomas L. Rhodes journalism fellow at Franklin Center, has been selected as the 2015-2016 Fellow for the Steamboat Institute’s Tony Blankley Chair for Public Policy and American Exceptionalism.

Melchior writes for National Review as the Franklin Center’s Journalism Fellow and also covers energy and environmental issues for the Independent Women’s Forum. Her investigative reporting includes domestic issues, such as government waste, fraud and abuse, energy and environmental issues, and organized labor.

Most recently, she has reported on a class action lawsuit against the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, an venture owned by businessman and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump purporting to teach people how to do real estate deals. The lawsuit alleges that the program was a scam and raises concerns about Trump’s business record, which he has trumpeted in his bid for the White House.

“Jillian’s reporting exemplifies the watchdog journalism that our nation needs to hold government accountable,” said Franklin Center president Erik Telford. “I’m excited to see what she accomplishes through this fellowship in the coming year.”

“Jillian’s impressive work as a journalist is a fitting tribute to Tony Blankley’s legacy and we look forward to collaborating with her,” said Jennifer Schubert-Akin, Chairman and CEO of the Steamboat Institute. “Her reporting from around the globe exemplifies the determination, character and wit that made Tony so special.”

“I am honored to join the Steamboat Institute as its second Tony Blankley Chair,” Melchior said. “The fellowship’s namesake defended America’s most important values with nuance, verve and humor–a legacy that still thrives today at the Steamboat Institute. I’m deeply thankful for this opportunity and look forward to a productive year ahead.”

Melchior’s experience as a journalist is extensive and varied. She has lived in China, reporting on Christianity and persecution, and has also done foreign correspondence in Iraq, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and elsewhere. She has worked as an editorial writer for The Daily, an online editor for Commentary, a Robert Novak fellow, and a Bartley Fellow at the Wall Street Journal Asia. Her writings have been published in National Review, The Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, The New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, TechCrunch, The Detroit News and other publications. She is a graduate of Hillsdale College and a native of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The Steamboat Institute is a Colorado-based non-profit, non-partisan organization, whose mission is “to educate the public on the founding principles of the United States, and to inspire people to be actively involved in their implementation.”

Watchdog’s victory in Maine: Sometimes success takes time

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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 the recently-elected Rep. Pingree (pictured, right) might be flying around on “a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches” (to use her words), 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. In the years since then 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, news recently broke 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, like in this case, results have come slower, reminding us that even though the fight to keep government accountable is often a long, arduous process, in the end it is worth the effort.

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

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

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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

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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

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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

 

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)