A bad odor at ODAR: Whistleblowers expose Social Security Administration

Thursday, June 16th, 2016


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, 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.”

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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 last week 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.

UPDATE: A source close to the situation has told Wisconsin Watchdog that Pleuss appears to have been suspended over the allegations. His hearings in recent days have been canceled amid a looming SSA Office of the Inspector General investigation into the Madison ODAR.

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.”

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. Earlier this week, after a month of trying to get information, Johnson sent a formal letter to the Social Security Administration 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.

Here’s what the senator’s entire request formally seeks:

  • All documents and communications concerning allegations of whistleblower retaliation within the Chicago region, including but not limited to all personnel documents pertaining to Ron Klym, Celia Machelle Keller, and Mary Brister.
  • All documents and communications between or among the office of the acting commissioner, the counselor to the commissioner, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and the office of General Counsel, concerning the termination of Ron Klym.
  • An explanation of what SSA is doing to investigate the reported whistleblower retaliation within SSA ODAR.
  • An explanation as to whether SSA has disciplined any employees for retaliating against whistleblowers.
  • An explanation of how SSA will ensure that whistleblowers do not experience retaliation as a result of speaking to Congress or the media.

Johnson wants the information by July 28. Read the full letter here.

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Watchdog finds ghost teachers doing union work on taxpayer dime

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Ghost man stock

Pennsylvania may be full of ghost stories, but a much more tangible kind of “ghost” has been haunting the state’s school districts lately. These ghosts are found in the form of teachers working for their local teachers union – nowhere to be found in the classrooms in which they were originally hired to teach.

The term “ghost teachers” (also known, more tactfully, as “release time” or “official time”) refers to a practice common in school districts across the country of allowing teachers to leave the classroom to work full time for their local teachers union. This is problematic from the perspective of taxpayers because those teachers remain employed and paid by the school district even though they aren’t spending any time teaching.

Philadelphia schools, for example, paid at least 18 teachers $1.7 million while they worked for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers last year. For many of these teachers, it’s been years since they taught in the classroom; some have even been on release time for decades. The school district’s rules currently allow the PFT to pull up to 63 teachers from the classroom each year for union purposes. The PFT has said most of those teachers simply work as information officers, but it later revealed that some work as political operatives.

Granted, in the case of Philadelphia, the PFT says it reimburses the school district for the salaries of teachers who spend their workdays with the union. But there’s still a catch for taxpayers. Ghost teachers continue to accrue seniority while working for their union, even though they aren’t gaining any experience teaching, and they continue to earn a pension because they are still technically employed by the school district. On top of that, students must pay the priceless opportunity cost of losing out on an education from qualified, experienced teachers. This is especially significant in Philadelphia, where the school district has openings for 200 full-time teaching positions and lacks enough subs to regularly fill classrooms when teachers are absent. There is also no official requirement that teachers unions reimburse taxpayers for ghost teachers.

classroom schoolWatchdog reporter Evan Grossman has covered multiple efforts over the past year to rein in the ghost teachers practice. The Fairness Center, a free legal service that represents employees with cases against unions, has two lawsuits making their way through the courts targeting ghost teachers in the school districts of Philadelphia and Allentown. Last year a judge ruled that the first lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia County Court, “lacked sufficient facts to support the case,” but the Fairness Center intends to appeal the ruling.

“Unfortunately, this ruling perpetuates the PFT’s abusive ‘ghost teacher’ scheme and turns a deaf ear to the voices of Philadelphia teachers,” said David Osborne, general counsel for the Fairness Center. “The PFT is intent on making teachers’ jobs even more difficult by raiding the classroom as a means to staff union offices. Teachers, students and taxpayers are harmed when union leaders are allowed to take school district employees out of the classroom for decades, even while they receive all incidences of district employment.”

In Allentown, the cash-strapped school district has dished out more than $1.4 million in public funds since 1999 to pay the salary of the president of the Allentown Education Association, the local teachers union. In response, the Fairness Center is bringing a lawsuit on behalf of Allentown taxpayers Steven Ramos and Scott Armstrong to end the practice of allowing the AEA president to work full-time for the union while drawing a salary and benefits from taxpayers.

“It’s absurd that Allentown taxpayers are being forced to pay a union employee’s salary along with health and pension benefits,” Ramos said in a statement. “How many students could be educated with the more than $1 million the district has given to a private organization? This misuse of public money must end.”

The lawsuit, however, didn’t stop the Allentown Board of School Directors from forging ahead and approving a new teachers contract that keeps the practice of using ghost teachers intact. Out of the eight-person board of directors, only one voted against the contract, citing concerns over the release-time provision that continues to divert public funds away from classrooms.

In response to Watchdog’s reporting on the issue, Pennsylvania lawmakers in both the House and Senate have taken legislative action to try to end the practice. The latest attempt on this front is SB1140. Recently introduced by Sen. Pat Stefano, R-32nd district, it would ban the practice of using ghost teachers across the entire state.

“During an era of tight budgets and taxpayer concerns over increasing education costs, it is imperative that teachers on a school district’s payroll actually be in a classroom, teaching students,” Stefano said. “By banning this provision in collective bargaining agreements, this legislation will ensure a more effective use of public school resources and funds.”

A similar bill, HB1649, was introduced in the House last year by Reps. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Jim Christiana, R-Beaver/Washington, but it is still awaiting action in the House Education Committee.

“This measure will close a loophole that allows public school teachers to take leave from the classroom and work full-time for their union while they continue to earn salary, benefits, accrue seniority and time toward their pension,” Phillips-Hill said. Her office also noted that Watchdog’s reporting on the issue provided a “starting point” for crafting the bill.

Read the full series of stories and stay up to late with the latest news about Pennsylvania’s “ghost teachers” at Watchdog

Accountability beyond the horse race

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Nicole Neily headshot1A word from our new president:

It’s my pleasure to officially introduce myself to you as the new president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. It’s a great honor and privilege to take the helm from Erik Telford, and to continue leading Franklin in the pursuit of bringing accountability and transparency to state and local governments. I’m excited for the challenge and look forward to seeing what the future has in store for the Watchdog team.

When I was first asked to consider becoming the next president at Franklin Center, I immediately knew that this was just the opportunity I’d hoped to find: an organization that would enable me to both stand up for a free press and to expand the free market principles that I’ve promoted throughout my career. The timing couldn’t be better: as smaller legacy media outlets recede with the digital evolution of the news industry, our mission here at Watchdog is more important than it has ever been. The national media is preoccupied with covering the presidential horse race, but we still desperately need an informed citizenry committed to keeping government accountable – regardless of who’s up or down in the polls.

Rest assured I will do the best I can to not just continue but to grow the excellent work of the investigative journalists here at Watchdog. Their stories expose threats to our freedom and provide a valuable alternative to the narrative perpetuated by the legacy media at both the national and local level. Given the talented staff we currently have in place at Watchdog and the fact that outgoing president Erik Telford has joined our board of directors to provide ongoing support and leadership, I’m confident that Franklin’s best days are ahead!

In Liberty,

Nicole Neily

Transparency by the numbers: Watchdog prevails against government agency

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016


Holding government accountable takes patience and time. Too often it takes lots of both – like waiting more than a year and half for a government agency to answer a simple open records request.

In July 2014, Wisconsin Watchdog caught wind of an altercation at the Jefferson County Fair. Someone had destroyed signs and property at the GOP booth.

This was no random, run-of-the-mill act of vandalism, however. After party members made the incident public on the Vicki McKenna Show, a local radio program, Wisconsin Watchdog investigated and learned that a Germantown kindergarten teacher named April Kay Smith had perpetrated the incident. She had first denied, then admitted to county law enforcement that she had torn up signs at the Republican booth after the fair had closed for the night because she was “just so angry with (Gov.) Scott Walker.” Walker had signed Act 10 into law several years earlier, reforming Wisconsin’s public employee collective bargaining law and drawing the ire of many public workers.

The story was reported in full by Wisconsin Watchdog – but it received no help from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Just the opposite, in fact.

Like any responsible news organization, Wisconsin Watchdog had filed a open records request with the sheriff’s department seeking incident reports. No details about the incident were immediately forthcoming from the agency.

The request ended up taking more than a year and a half to fill, and even then it took legal pressure to get the sheriff’s department to comply. Just last week, the sheriff’s department, after a lengthy lawsuit, finally agreed to provide Wisconsin Watchdog with unredacted records of the incident. The settlement represents a huge victory for the press and open government. And in a stroke of poetic justice, it took place just in time for Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide celebration of government transparency and access to public information.

How did the sheriff’s department get away with dragging its feet for so long? Unfortunately, a little questionable legal reasoning and distrust of the press can make the government absurdly slow. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers showing the costly time and effort expended by Watchdog in pursuit of transparency:

1 year, seven months, 16 days – The total time between Wisconsin Watchdog’s first open records request to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department on July 22, 2014, and the release of the requested records following a lawsuit settlement, on March 9, 2016.

596 – The number of days between the initial request and the release of unredacted documents.

14,304 – The number of hours spent waiting for the requested information.

1 stubborn policy – In originally denying Wisconsin Watchdog’s request, the sheriff’s department cited department policy prohibiting the practice of publicly identifying information of suspects in police reports. That policy was driven by a Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision declaring that Palatine, Ill., police were wrong in placing a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle, that doing so violated the driver’s personal information. The case involved the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act. Jefferson County authorities said the DPPA required it to redact personal information from its public reports. The federal court originally said placing the ticket on the windshield was a “disclosure,” but after remand and another appeal found that an exception permitted the disclosure.

Zero – Tom Kamenick, attorney for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the public interest law firm that represented Wisconsin Watchdog in the open records lawsuit, said redaction policies like the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department’s are overly broad for no reason. He said there have been zero cases “where an open records request was filled and wound up making liable the people who filled it.”

3-3 – Last year, Wisconsin Watchdog’s open records lawsuit was stayed pending resolution of New Richmond News v. City of New Richmond, a case raising the same issue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court split 3-3 and remanded the case back to the court of appeals for consideration. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department subsequently agreed to settle the Wisconsin Watchdog case but admitted no wrongdoing.

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

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Free Speech Wins 3

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.


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

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

WhosWatching (1)

“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


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



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

Monday, June 29th, 2015

school buses

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

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015


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.