Featured

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.

 

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

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

Peaches

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

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.

Education Watchdog_square-01 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

(This article was originally published at Watchdog.org)

SolarCity: Elon Musk’s empire of government subsidies

By

shutterstock_250363594

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By

shutterstock_138987431

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help us deliver better news to you by completing our quick survey

A webform by Podio

What can we do about the decline of local news?

By

newspapers vertical stack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help us deliver better news to you by completing our quick survey


A webform by Podio

Police took $4.1 million from motorists and built a police station: Watchdog covers civil asset forfeiture

By

Richland PD sign civil forfeiture

What’s the deal with the Richland’s new police station?

At first glance, residents of Richland, Mississippi were probably thankful for their new $4.1 million police station, complete with a top-level training center and a fleet of black-and-white Dodge Charger police cars, especially with the sign announcing that funds for it were “tearfully donated by drug dealers.” It seemed like a win-win. After all, who could argue against money from bad guys going to keep us safe?

Mississippi Watchdog reporter Steven Wilson, however, took a deeper look at the Richland Police Department, and uncovered a much different story behind the new station. While much of the money may have come from drug dealers, it was acquired through a much more controversial practice: civil asset forfeiture – property and cash seized from during traffic stops from motorists on the mere suspicion that they had committed a crime – no conviction necessary.

The sheer egregiousness of the practice launched Steve’s story up the ranks of top posts to reach the number two spot on Reddit, the “front page of the internet,” where nearly 6,000 readers upvoted the story and more than 3,000 commenters chimed in, driving tens of thousands of readers to learn about the huge forfeiture numbers racked up by Richland’s four-officer interdiction team, whose total civil forfeiture collection averages out to $72 per resident of the small town.

Watchdog Opinion contributor Logan Albright explains how civil asset forfeiture works: “If police or federal agents suspect that property has been involved in the commission of a crime, they can simply take it. No charges need be filed against the property owner, no trial must occur. In effect, the property itself is accused of a crime, and it’s up to the owner to prove its innocence if they ever wants to see it again.”

A long list of abuses

This story is hardly an isolated incident. Last year in Philadelphia, for example, Chris Sourovelis and his family lost their home after his son was caught by police selling $40 of heroin – a punishment that hardly seems commensurate to the crime. Reporting on the case exposed some of the worst aspects of Philadelphia’s civil asset forfeiture program, showing how the city’s police department and district attorneys’ office regularly seizes homes, cars and other property from suspected criminals without any conviction. In some cases this even took place without any charges being filed.

shutterstock_25312519At the federal level, many innocent business owners have been targeted by the IRS through civil asset forfeiture laws, such as the Hirsch family from Long Island, NY, who own a distribution company. They had more than $446,000 in assets and cash seized by the Internal Revenue Service in 2012, even though they were never charged with a crime. The federal government eventually dropped its case against the Hirschs, but it took nearly three years of legal battles for them to get their money back.

The issue has been steadily rising in the national consciousness lately, thanks to efforts by civil rights advocates and in-depth investigations by prominent mainstream publications like The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. It doesn’t take much political savvy to understand why civil asset forfeiture inspires activists and strikes a nerve with readers. The practice runs counter to many Americans’ sensibilities about property rights and the principle that citizens should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. It has its legal origins in British maritime law in the mid-1600s and first came into use widely in America during the Prohibition years, when police used it to seize cash and property from bootleggers. Since the war on drugs escalated in the 1980s, law enforcement has revived civil asset forfeiture to crack down on drug trafficking, and the practice has become steadily more lucrative. Justice Department seizures from a single program, for example, have risen from $407 million in 2001 to $4.2 billion in 2012.

The movement for reform

As more voters and the lawmakers who represent them become aware of civil asset forfeiture, proposals to reform the system have received substantial support from across the political spectrum. Two states that have passed reform this year, for example, have done so overwhelmingly despite having politically divided statehouses and governors.

Earlier this year New Mexico’s legislature unanimously passed a bill making significant reforms to its civil asset forfeiture laws, and it was signed into law by Governor Susana Martinez – a former prosecutor – in April. The state now requires a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited, proceeds from forfeitures will go into the general fund (rather than to local law enforcement budgets), and property owners have better due process protections such as a codified “innocent owner” presumption. New Mexico

In Montana, the Republican-dominated statehouse and Democratic governor Steve Bullock joined together in April and May to pass House Bill 463. Similar to reform in New Mexico, the law requires a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited, and it requires police to provide “clear and convincing” evidence tying the property to criminal activity for them to keep it. The Montana law does not go so far as to divert forfeiture revenue into a general fund, however.

The broad support for reform in these states suggests that for the rest of the country, one of the greatest obstacles to reform is ignorance. Watchdog stories are helping to change that though, and legislative efforts are underway elsewhere in the country.

In Virginia, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are leading an effort to curb the police’s ability to seize cash and property from innocent citizens. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have begun calling for changes to the civil asset forfeiture system so that the “innocent until proven guilty” principle applies to law enforcement looking to take people’s property. And in Wyoming, the senate has supported civil asset forfeiture reforms with a decisive 80-9 vote on SF14. The measure was shot down by Republican Gov. Matt Mead, the legislature may consider updating the measure’s reforms to make them more agreeable to Gov. Mead.

Pick your headline: Chris Christie spends $300K on food and booze

By
Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Sometimes, a news story breaks that transcends the conventional boundaries of political parties, culture, ideology, interests, and even parody. It’s the story that gets a reaction from news outlets as diverse as DRUDGE REPORT, Gawker, USA Today, The Huffington Post, Bleacher Report, and everyone in between. It’s the story that simply must be shared, the one you tell your friends about, the one that gets all the talking heads, well… talking.

Last week, that story was a New Jersey’s Watchdog analysis of spending records that revealed that New Jersey governor Chris Christie has spent more than $300,000 on food and alcohol during his five years as governor – including more than $82,000 to Delaware North Sportservice, which operates concessions at MetLife stadium where Christie often attends NFL games. Traditionally MetLife allows him to use the luxury boxes at the games for free, but he has to pick up the tab for food and beverages.

The money comes out of Christie’s annual $95,000 expense allowance, which he receives in addition to his annual $175,000 salary. Christie returns surplus funds to the state each year, but Treasury officials say he does not submit receipts or accounting for the public monies he spends.

The governor’s press secretary was quick to respond with a statement, which explained that “The official nature and business purpose of the event remains the case regardless of whether the event is at the State House, Drumthwacket or a sporting venue.”

It’s also important to note that the spending at NFL games took place during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The following year, in what appeared to be an attempt to save political face, the New Jersey Republican State Committee reimbursed the state for the football spending, so taxpayers ultimately were not on the hook for it.

You can’t undo the past, however, and if you do the math, the fact remains that Christie spent on average more than $2,500 a game on  concessions.

SL sign of the apocalypse

Watchdog in Sports Illustrated

More than 100 websites and news outlets picked up the story, with reactions ranging from subtle criticism to downright outrage. Here are a few of the highlights:

“Let he who has not spent way too much of other people’s money on beer and nachos cast the first stone,” quipped Buzzfeed.

“Chris Christie, I salute you: It takes skill to spend $82,000 on snacks!” read the Salon headline. “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s spending may have been despicably wasteful, but it’s also impressive!”

Multiple accounts of the story, such as the Daily Caller‘s coverage, noted that Christie’s food spending dropped sharply at the same time as his own efforts to lose weight, with his monthly food spending dropping by 40 percent since he underwent Lap-Band surgery.

The Washington Post covered the story as a guilt trip by listing ten other things Christie could have spent $82,000 on, such as a block of Jersey Shore boardwalk rebuilding, a year’s household income for the average New Jerseyean, or three years of tuition at Rutgers.

The lede in the New York Times highlighted how Christie’s big personal spending clashes with his conservative rhetoric: “Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey likes to point out how he has made big cuts to state spending. But when it comes to using his allowance money as governor, he appears happy to be a high roller.”

Forbes echoed this sentiment: “One of the major policy tenets of the Republican Party is limiting government spending. But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, considering a run for the presidency in 2016, may not have gotten that memo yet.”

“We assume that $82,594 amounts to roughly seven beers and one soda in NFL stadium prices,” National Journal jibed. “While there’s nothing to suggest that the concessions spending was improper, especially since it was paid back to the state, it shows just how much Christie is willing to spend on football, or have spent on his behalf.”

Even the satirical Onion couldn’t resist taking a shot. “Impressive, but I’m still not sure he’s ready to misallocate funds at the presidential level,” wrote a fictional respondent.

At the end of the day, thanks in no small part to the sheer irony of the headline, the story turned into a huge media dogpile, thrusting Watchdog into the center of the national conversation. For Mark Lagerkvist and all the other reporters at Watchdog, it’s a refreshing reminder that substantive investigative journalism and viral internet stories do not need to be mutual exclusive things. And it’s an encouraging example of how audiences across the political spectrum – and even those who don’t closely follow their government and elected officials – can into a story that holds elected officials accountable for frivolous, freewheeling spending.