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Tax Day reminds us why the Franklin Center exists

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Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Every year, April 15th serves as a potent reminder of why the Franklin Center exists. As many of us noticed this week, the government collects a lot of our money in taxes, from the federal level down to small cities and towns, and we think it’s important to know how that money is being spent.

The stakes are as high as ever. As our watchdog journalists recently reminded us, Americans will have to devote nearly four months of their work year to pay off their annual tax burden to Uncle Sam, and the burden grows every year. Not surprisingly, more than half of Americans think the amount they pay in federal income taxes is too high. And to make matters worse, even with such a huge chunk of our paychecks going straight to government coffers, many states (and especially the federal government) continue to rack up billions upon billions of dollars in debt!

What is to be done? Who will stand up for the average, hardworking American to keep elected officials accountable and push state spending toward a sustainable path? When government blows through hard-earned tax dollars in a wasteful, abusive, or, worst of all, fraudulent manner, who will take them to task?

More and more, we cannot depend on legacy media to do the hard work of investigative journalism needed to track and expose government spending. Bias often plays a factor in  mainstream outlets’ ineptness and tendency toward lapdog journalism, but so do hard economic realities. Investigative journalism takes time. It means following rabbit trails, making calls and waiting for calls back, pouring through countless pages of documents, and much more.

Time is money, as they say, and news outlets often lack both. At a time when government is at its largest, the traditional fourth estate is shrinking. The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ most recent newsroom census found that total newsroom employment nationwide was 38,000, the lowest since they began counting in 1978.

As one journalist from a newspaper in “flyover country” recently said, when budgets are tight and the pressure to get clicks for advertisers is high, “what rationale can there possibly be for doing the investigative work, the longer-form stories that actually help explain the workings of a community to the people who live there?”

The Federal Communications Commission came to a similar conclusion in a 2011 report: “The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism. . . is in some cases at risk at the local level.” Think about that. Even the government acknowledges the weakening capacity for local news outlets to produce hard-hitting journalism.

That’s where our Watchdog.org and Citizen Watchdog initiatives come in. Through professional reporters and citizen activists, the Franklin Center is dedicated to doing the hard work of local watchdog journalism in statehouses and city halls all across America. As a prime example of why we need these journalists to keep tabs on how local government spends our tax dollars, here are just a few egregious examples of government spending we’ve exposed this year:

The list of wasteful spending goes on, but that’s why we’re here – to make sure these stories are told.

 

Citizen journalism shines during Sunshine Week

By
Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

The Franklin Center’s citizen watchdog initiative, Watchdog Wire, recently observed Sunshine Week, a nationwide event all about two of the most important building blocks of good government: transparency and accountability.

“Sunshine Week is important because it raises awareness of our increasingly opaque government, and also shows citizens ways that they can help fight to maintain an open, accountable political system on all levels of government,” says Rachel Swaffer, Outreach Associate for Citizen Watchdog.

“The fight for transparency never stops,” she notes, “but this one week helps to focus our efforts across the movement, so we can get transparency trending!”

And get it trending they did.

In addition to a tweet-up with OpenSecretsDC – one of their most highly engaged online events to date – Watchdog Wire asked their citizen journalists to audit their city, county, or township website. By week’s end, 21 citizens completed a web-form audit of their local government website, and 19 others wrote up full posts on their audits for WatchdogWire.com. Another five citizen watchdogs sent in an email audit to the Watchdog Wire account.

The audits were simple – a quick and easy webform and rubric that laid out a clear process for analyzing a local government website. Watchdog Wire designed them so that any engaged citizen could do one to increase his or her knowledge of local government, but they also made sure the audit would effectively evaluate the level of government transparency online.

“They found that county and township websites are generally doing better at making public information accessible, and providing meaningful content for citizens,” wrote Watchdog.org national reporter Matt Kittle, but he added that “real hurdles to transparency remain.”

These hurdles are significant, Kittle explained, because they keep citizens from obtaining vital information about the government that exists only because of their tax dollars.

Rachel Swaffer - Outreach Associate for Citizen Watchdog

Rachel Swaffer – Outreach Associate for Citizen Watchdog

“All in all, the local government websites tended to be pretty good on the basics,” says Swaffer. “However, many emphasized ‘looks’ over content, and very few of the websites included information on submitting an open records request.”

In New Jersey, state editor L. Tierney found that the quaint, suburban town of Maplewood often fails to post transcripts of public meetings. It also lacks clear information about New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, which helps promote an informed citizenry by setting a clear process by which anyone may request information.

Solid information on contracts, public employee wages, and other taxpayer-critical data was also lacking on many local government sites.

For example, Watchdog Wire-Nevada editor Michael Chamberlain found that Clark County, which includes the majority of Nevada’s population, provides little information on its website related to supply contracts. Chamberlain also found that Clark doesn’t include wage and salary information on current employees, as well as pensions and benefit information on retirees.

Watchdog Wire-Colorado editor Ben DeGrow found a similar situation in one of Colorado’s biggest cities, Arvada.

“Excluding the stipends to council members, any information on Arvada government employee compensation, including salaries, benefits, and pension earnings, is absent. Further, searches for public access to vendor contracts and bid processes came up empty,” DeGrow reported.

“It’s 2014 – there’s no excuse for local governments not to have easy access to public information online!” Swaffer summarized, “So we unleashed our army of citizen watchdogs.”

If the information about local government doings is made public and accessible (as it should be!) then there’s no reason for such a space to be the domain of journalists exclusively. The ability to make an open-records request can be a particularly powerful tool for citizens to use, and it’s something Watchdog Wire stresses when working with citizen activists.

Mary Ellen Beatty, Watchdog Wire’s director of citizen outreach, urges citizens not to be afraid of such tools. With resources from Watchdog Wire, like open-records guides for each state or a webform for auditing government websites, anyone can shine the powerful light of transparency in their states, counties, and cities.

“This is a national conversation we need to have to make sure our government is giving us the information we need to have and that we’re using our resources wisely,” she said.

Pounding away at the education beat

By
Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration pulled $210 million allotted for new charter school buildings and placed a moratorium on new charter school co-locations, Mary Tillotson, Watchdog.org’s education reporter, was there to ensure it made headlines. She noted the contrast between de Blasio and the previous mayor Michael Bloomberg’s positions on charters, and gave voice to leaders overseeing charter schools across New York and Connecticut.

“I think mayor de Blasio is laying a blueprint for killing charter expansion,” said Bill Phillips, president of Northeast Charter Schools Network, adding that the policy “is reputationally hurting our state.”

With New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support of charter schools setting up an inevitable clash between the two mighty politicians, Fox News picked up the story. The New York Times and a number of other major outlets have since reported extensively on de Blasio’s stance toward charter schools, and just last week, he decided to strike a more conciliatory tone, admitting missteps and stressing the need to education all children no matter what school they attend.

That is just one of scores of education stories across America that Tillotson has covered for Watchdog.org’s “Educating America” series. These stories accomplish a crucial part of the Watchdog.org’s mission to keep government accountable and look out for the taxpayer’s interest. Simply put, the education beat is important because people are important, says Tillotson. It determines in no small way how children become adults and what skills they learn.

“What do we value? How do we see the world? How do we see others, and how do we see ourselves? Are we capable of holding down a job?” she asks.“Those aren’t issues we should take lightly.” 

And they’re the issues that administrators, teachers, and students confront every day. 

Tillotson comes to Watchdog.org from School Reform News at the Heartland Institute, where she was a freelancer. Before that, she reported at the hyperlocal level for The St. Ignace News in St. Igance, MI (which has a population of just several thousand).  Since spearheading the education beat, she has covered stories from California to New York, and everywhere in between. It’s a lot of ground to cover, so she makes a point to stay in touch with people who are on the ground in their states, like Phillips from the story in New York. The distinctly local element of education news makes it even more of a challenge. No two states are the same when it comes to education policy and programs. They don’t all have charter school laws, for example, and those that do have laws for charters vary. Even private school programs work differently in each state.

Covering the education beat offers plenty of reasons for both concern and optimism about the state of education in America. Tillotson hears story after story from parents who have tangled with their public school or school district over their child’s education. One can imagine that it would be equally frustrating for teachers trying to work with both discontented parents and the public system.

“I talked to a mom the other day who was told her school couldn’t serve her child because of a learning disability,” she says. “If the parents had the means to send their children to a school they were happy with, there would be less arguing… Chances are the child would have a better shot at a happy, successful adulthood too.”

At the same time, however, success stories abound. “I love when I get to talk to students, or parents of students, who went from being on the verge of dropping out of high school to enrolling in college with career plans,” says Tillotson. Those at successful schools tell her it isn’t a secret. As she reported about D.C. Prep, a public charter school network in the District of Columbia, all high performing urban schools doing the same fundamental things for students in poverty – school uniforms, longer school days, high expectations, and “A-plus-plus-plus-plus” teachers. The students’ achievements speak for themselves.

“There’s a lot of work to do, obviously,” Tillotson says, “but lives are already being changed.”

For example, Arizona’s Supreme Court recently upheld the state’s education savings account program. The program allows families to use a certain amount of money for tuition, therapy, tutoring, textbooks, and the like. Parents get to direct their children’s education in whatever way they think is best. Because school choice laws are often challenged in court, and because Arizona is the first and only state to have this type of program, the court’s ruling paves the way for its expansion across the country. Several other states, in fact, are already considering it.

Tillotson says she looks forward to covering these proposals and more across state legislatures and courtrooms this coming year. Someone has to educate us about education, after all.

The story behind Wisconsin’s secret war

By
Thursday, March 20th, 2014

It started with an innocuous report by a Milwaukee County employee about a shortfall in a veterans’ fund. A year later (after Scott Walker was elected governor) the District Attorney’s office launched an investigation into the missing money.

Yet the probe would soon grow to exceed the normal bounds of the situation. Over more than three years, the John Doe case, which forced those implicated to testify, expanded to include people and groups who had little or nothing to do with the missing money. John Doe investigations in Wisconsin are secret, yet leaks to the press about the targets in this particular probe soon revealed a troubling pattern. All of those targeted were supporters of Governor Walker.

Five months and 35 stories later, Watchdog.org national reporter Matt Kittle has emerged as one of the definitive voices on Wisconsin’s secret war – a Democrat-driven investigation into just about anyone, it seemed, connected to the state’s Republican governor.

“Wisconsin Reporter 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 Reporter 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 many of those believed to be prosecuting the John Doe would not even return phone calls.

Yet it was through the phones that Kittle made the breakthrough, reaching out to anyone who might know something.

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

For a long time, hardly anyone paid attention to the story except for Wisconsin Reporter and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. But as the D.A.’s actions fell under further scrutiny, it came out that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin was using the probe to raise campaign funds. Clearly, it seemed partisan politics were at play in this taxpayer-funded probe. The D.A.’s actions were so egregious that even Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, himself a Democrat, said it appeared to him that “the prosecution out of Milwaukee County is becoming weaponized for political purposes.”

Two months later, after a judge quashed some of the subpoenas to conservative groups, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board broke a piece featuring previously unpublished, sealed court documents. The article editorialized in favor of the judge’s ruling, calling it a “big victory for the First Amendment.” The editorial board concluded from the judge’s remarks that “prosecutors essentially invented without evidence the possibility of criminal behavior to justify the subpoenas and their thuggish tactics.”

A month after that, TheBlaze, which had started tracking the story and sources all the way from Madison and Milwaukee to the Twin Cities and Washington, D.C., aired a feature segment on “For the Record.” The story covered the D.A.’s investigation into conservative groups from the beginning, drawing directly from Wisconsin Reporter’s extensive investigation.

The entire probe has ended up becoming a perverse twist on what John Does are actually designed to do, which is protect the innocent. With the leaks, that point becomes moot, and people lose trust in the system. In response, some conservatives have hit back hard. Eric O’Keefe of Wisconsin Club for Growth filed a lawsuit charging that the probe is an attempt to shut down the First Amendment rights of Wisconsin conservatives.

In order to dodge O’Keefe’s lawsuit, the prosecutors have tried to get the judge to deny O’Keefe’s motion, but they can’t offer evidence why. The problem with this line of thought, as Kittle recently reported, is that “the defendants have already filed with the court the materials they claim they cannot disclose to the court.”

The whole saga still smells foul. “In the nearly two years since the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office launched its second secret ‘John Doe’ investigation,” Kittle reported, “legal observers say they still don’t know exactly how such probes work.” This, of course, makes the story all the more concerning when political interests appear to be involved.

Conservative lawmakers have talked about revisiting Wisconsin’s unique John Doe laws. The clear partisan nature of this sort of investigation, with all of its politicians and advocacy groups mixed up in legal proceedings, has raised questions about abuse of power and prosecutorial misconduct, especially in Milwaukee County where this story took place. Much of the remaining story will be resolved in several courts – both federal and state – but concerns about political speech, civil rights, and law enforcement remain to be dealt with in the public square.

“It is a story that transcends the state of Wisconsin,” says Kittle. The outcome could embolden those intent on stifling political speech they don’t agree with, or strengthen America’s founding principles. Indeed, conservatives see nothing short of basic constitutional rights at stake here – not just their rights, but those of all citizens.

There’s a new player in Mississippi news

By
Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

As a veteran sports reporter, Steve Wilson knows a thing or two about curveballs. But since the launch of Franklin Center’s Mississippi Watchdog bureau in February, he has started keeping an eye out for a new kind of curveball — the kind politicians throw at taxpayers.

Wilson’s first big story covered Mississippi Power’s Kempar Project, a first-of-its-kind power plant that uses pulverized coal dust to fuel power-generating turbines. Approved under the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal Power Initiative, it has yet to go online. The 582-megawatt plant had an original budgeted cost of $2.4 billion, but that has since doubled to almost $5 billion. And to make matters worse, it will lose $133 million in tax credits now that it is expected to miss a start date of May 2014.

The Sierra Club attended hearings with the Mississippi Public Service Commission, the state’s governing body for utilities, to voice their concerns about the plant’s technical issues and cost overruns. In response, Mississippi Power filed a motion to remove the Sierra Club from the hearings – thus silencing criticisms about the inevitable new costs to ratepayers. Wilson was on top of the story to make sure the people of Mississippi knew what was happening.

When things don’t add up in The Magnolia State, someone needs to show up to call out the powers that be.

“Steve has a head for numbers and statistics,” said Watchdog.org editor Will Swaim, who has been pleased with the new bureau’s progress so far. “He knows when politicians are throwing junk.”

It’s never easy breaking into a state’s media landscape, but the shrinking circulation of Mississippi’s largest newspapers has left a new demand for hard news. Some local publications, like the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, have moved to compensate for this by expanding their legislative reporting teams. But with fewer reporters overall covering state government, citizens still often lack information about their politicians and the policies being put in place.

“You need someone who isn’t afraid of antagonizing lawmakers,” says Swaim, “someone like Steve who is a sort of diplomat, who can keep open the lines of communication without becoming a public-relations person for the powerful.” There is a surplus of reporters these days, he adds, but few can manage that balance.

For example, Mississippi allows up to $20 million in tax breaks for the film industry every year, and the state House recently passed a bill that would increase this cap. The state’s favoritism toward the big business of Hollywood here raised big questions about the policy’s economic benefits. Wilson wrote a story about it to foster the debate over whether it actually helps taxpayers overall by invigorating the economy, or only spreads a greater tax burden to locals through other channels.

A Southern native, so far Wilson appears to be the right man for the job.

“I see Mississippi Watchdog challenging the powerful,” says Wilson, “demanding answers to questions no one is asking about taxpayer funds, corruption and fraud.”

Unlike sports reporting, he finds a unique gravity in covering local politics, because the quality of peoples’ lives is at stake. Wilson is deeply concerned about the level of corruption, fraud, and abuse that takes place at all levels of government. But thanks to the power of the press, he intends to make sure that a little bit less is overlooked each day.

“I see myself as the taxpayers’ eyes and ears in Mississippi,” he says, “and that’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.”

 

Keep up with the latest from Mississippi Watchdog on Facebook and Twitter!

Recapping CPAC 2014

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Watchdog Wire was at CPAC 2014, this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, covering all the hot speakers and panels, including Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Rick Perry, and Dr. Ben Carson.

Click here for a recap of all their CPAC stories, with many including video from the event! The list will be updated as news stories are published.

Wisconsin Reporter – it starts with the free press

By
Thursday, February 20th, 2014

wisconsin capitolWhen it comes to reporting news, the Franklin Center’s Wisconsin Reporter likes to start with one of our most basic freedoms.

“The biggest issue,” said national writer Matt Kittle, “any news organization should cover is what so many news organizations have failed to follow: The First Amendment battle and war on political speech.”

From this understanding of the primacy of freedom, Wisconsin Reporter sets out to cover the stories that really matter.

“Readers don’t come to us for the latest gossip,” Kittle said, “We deliver investigative and analytical journalism, exposing and shining light on waste, fraud, abuse and hypocrisy in government.”

Staying on point for these principles has led the Wisconsin Reporter to remarkable successes of late.

Ryan Ekvall’s stories have prompted state lawmakers and the governor to take a second look at education policy that was otherwise rubber-stamped by the state’s superintendent of Public Instruction.

The newest member of the team, Adam Tobias, Kittle said, “has opened up municipal and state records to show taxpayers how much they are spending on questionable programs and initiatives.”

As an example, Kittle mentioned Tobias’ much talked-about piece on a “White Privilege” public education seminar that was funded, in part, by state taxpayers.

Across the state overall, Wisconsin Reporter was the first – and for a time the only – news outlet covering a politically charged John Doe investigation. The extensive 27-part series, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” details the questions and concerns surrounding a secret, Democrat-led probe into Wisconsin conservatives, which many sources see as a blatant political witch hunt launched to bring down Gov. Scott Walker and his public-sector labor union collective bargaining reforms.

WR ss on the recordWisconsin Reporter’s stories often appear in Fox News and other local and national outlets including the Washington Times and National Review, sounding both the alarm on cases of abuse and lack of government transparency as well as a clarion call for press freedom.

On a national stage, Kittle has appeared on “On The Record” with Greta Van Susteren several times recently to report on his investigation into a Wisconsin teacher. The teacher was fired for watching and sharing pornography while at work, yet subsequently reinstated. After a number of Wisconsin Reporter stories, Gov. Walker has called for the teacher’s removal. The teacher has since apologized, but not before costing taxpayers more than $24,000. It’s the classic case of small-town abuses rightly recognized and reported on a much larger platform.

“I think when people come to our site, they know they are going to read stories that are going to affect their everyday lives,” Tobias said. “That way, they can become a better-informed voter when it comes to attending government meetings or heading to the polls.”

At the end of the day, that’s the essence of quality local news.

Journalism Projects from the Franklin Center

By
Monday, December 16th, 2013

Why Being A Journalist Is The Best Worst Job Ever

By
Thursday, December 12th, 2013

CareerCast.com ranked newspaper reporters as having the worst job in 2013. But here at the Franklin Center, there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing.

On Buzzfeed, we have all the reasons why being a journalist is the best worst job ever!

See them here!

Your First Amendment Rights at Stake

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Dial (571) 327-1799 to share your story!