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Asking questions, getting results: Texas Watchdog’s investigation into traffic cameras

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

When public officials learn that Watchdog is watching, they take notice.

Texas Watchdog reporter Mark Lisheron was hot on the trail of a secretive school zone camera program, and it all started with a phone call.

The caller gave us a tip about a lawsuit that wasn’t getting the attention it deserved; a citizen in Hays County (outside Austin) had sued the county government over speed cameras set up near schools, asserting that the Commissioner’s Court had no constitutional authority to enter into a contract with a private company that, in effect, created new traffic regulations – and meanwhile, most of the revenue generated was kept by the company.

Once Mark began asking questions, officials realized they could no longer hide. They had already gotten caught red-handed in the lawsuit, and we made their humiliation public. The day after our article was published, the county terminated its contract with American Traffic Solutions, Inc.

Click here to read “Hays County school-zone camera program could prove a costly mistake

But the issues with the cameras are far from resolved, as Bill Davis, the man suing over the program, explained to us in a follow-up article.

“The commissioners are taking the position to terminate a contract that is not a legitimate contract,” he said after the vote. “They didn’t address any of the issues in my suit. And what about all of the people like me who were issued citations?”

Davis is continuing his legal battle with the county, and Mark Lisheron and Texas Watchdog will continue to ask the tough questions.

Click here to read “Poof! Hays County school zone cameras gone”

Scooping the Times: Watchdog exposes Mississippi’s “clean coal” boondoggle

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

Kemper_County_Coal_Gasification_Plant

Mississippi’s Kemper Project entered the world with the highest hopes of the Obama Administration: that coal could be cleanly processed even while serving as a power source. The first-of-its-kind integrated-gasification power plant functions by converting lignite coal to natural gas-like synthesis gas, which fire its 582-megawatt turbines, capturing and storing carbon much better than traditional coal-fired plants.

A recent investigation from the New York Times has drawn national attention to the travails of Kemper, finding that the plant has been plagued by technical problems, cost-overruns and blame-shifting. The Times’ findings that Kemper has failed to live up to its billing, however, should come as no surprise to readers of Mississippi Watchdog, which has been covering the plant’s travails every step of the way for more than two years running. 

On October 12, the plant at last generated energy from syngas in one of its gasifiers, but a lot more needs to be done before the plant is commercially operational. In the meantime, the total cost for the project, which was originally projected to cost $1.8 billion, has ballooned to nearly $6.9 billion.

Here are eleven Mississippi Watchdog stories you need to read to understand the history of this “clean coal” boondoggle:

7/28/14 – $5.53 billion Kemper Project’s genesis a tangled path

Red flags surrounding Mississippi Power’s Kemper Project started to become painfully apparent in the summer of 2014, when delays in the plant’s construction began stretching so long that it cost the Southern Company $133 million in federal investment tax credits. At this point the plant’s estimated cost had risen from $2.2 billion when it was initially proposed in 2009 to $5.53 billion. To help pick up the tab for rising costs, local ratepayers were slammed with an 18 percent increase on their utility bills.

11/5/14 – Report on Kemper Project casts embattled power plant in poor light

Concerns over the plant’s viability became more founded a few months later when Mississippi Watchdog covered a report on Kemper from POWER Burns & Roe — an engineering firm that specializes in building utility projects. At this point the cost of the plant had risen to more than $6 billion. The report highlighted three problem areas with the coal-gasification plant that were largely to blame for the delays and cost increases:

  • Safety issues caught late in the project and fixed at great cost
  • Major delays in acknowledging cost increases and delays in plant startup when the causes for those delays were apparent early in the process
  • Poor project management

3/20/15 – Nation’s oldest integrated coal gasification plant might point to more Kemper trouble

As a point of reference to the travails of the Kemper Project, which seeks to harness a relatively new technology, consider the experience of the nation’s oldest integrated coal gasification power plant: Tampa Electric’s Polk Power Station. Like Mississippi Power’s Kemper Project, this older and simpler plant uses a gasifier to turn coal into synthesis gas, and it, too, was beset by problems. A report by the Department of Energy in 2002, four years after the plant went online, found a raft of technical problems that eerily foreshadowed the difficulties the Kemper Project was to face.

7/24/15 – Kemper Project makes for an expensive natural gas plant

By July of 2015, the cost of the Kemper Project had ballooned to $6.229 billion and implementation of its gasification technology had dragged two years behind schedule. Instead of using the gasifier to transform the abundant lignite coal mined nearby into synthesis gas, as Kemper was designed, Mississippi Power began using natural gas to fuel the turbines of the combined cycle plant. Yet even as a natural gas plant, Mississippi Watchdog pointed out, the plant was still about $300 million more expensive to build than an equivalent conventional combined cycle natural gas plant powered by the same fuel.

9/10/15 – Kemper no longer considered just a clean coal plant

Once the Kemper Project started operating with natural gas, Mississippi Power began labeling it a “dual fuel” power plant capable of generating electricity from natural gas or synthesis gas made from lignite coal by the gasifier. This represented a major shift in the company’s tone from earlier documents authorizing construction that insisted the Kemper Project was intended to run on lignite coal as an environmentally friendly way of achieving “fuel diversity.” Mississippi Power CEO Ed Holland tried to spin this as a positive development, saying “the opportunity is there because gas prices are much lower than anyone predicted at the time the Kemper Plant was built.”

10/1/15 – Mississippi PSC commissioner accused of accepting illegal contributions

The image problems at Kemper went from bad to worse last fall when Mississippi Watchdog reported that Mississippi Public Service Central District commissioner Lynn Posey was accused of illegally receiving campaign funds from contractors on the Kemper Project. It is unlawful under Section 77-1-11 (1) of the Mississippi Code for a PSC commissioner to accept any gift, pass, money or campaign contribution from any person or entity of a utility under the regulatory authority for the PSC. The violations allegedly took place two years earlier at a pair of simultaneous fundraising dinners at Tico’s Steakhouse in Jackson and Weidmann’s in Meridian.

10/26/15 – Expert: More delays likely for Kemper Project

If there are any common threads running through the Kemper saga, they can be summed up in two words: overruns and delays. That was the conclusion, at least, of Don Grace, an accountant and subcontractor working for the Public Utilities Staff who told the Mississippi Public Commission last October that Mississippi Power invested in only “minimal design” to determine its original cost estimates and operating schedule. The result was cost overruns and construction delays that Grace predicted would delay Kemper’s startup date in the second quarter of 2016, potentially leading to rate hikes and the loss of more federal tax breaks.

For those keeping score at home, at this point the cost of Kemper had risen to $6.267 billion, and the plant was still two years behind schedule.

2/16/16 – Former manager: Southern Company lied about Kemper schedule

Yet another bombshell fell on the scandal- and schedule-plagued power plant in February when a former project manager at the then-$6.36 billion plant ended his company-ordered silence. Brett Wingo, who previously worked as an engineer for Southern Company Services, told Mississippi Watchdog that the company lied to regulators about the Kemper Project’s construction schedule in an effort to hang onto more than $234 million in federal tax credits. Wingo said he went all the way up the company’s chain of command in 2014 after he started to suspect impending delays two years earlier, but his pleas were ignored at every turn. Wingo was placed on administrative leave in August 2014.

3/3/16 – Lawsuit alleges fraud over ‘goliath’ Kemper Project power plant

The Kemper Project has yet to generate any power from its integrated coal gasification technology, but it has generated one thing in bunches: lawsuits. The latest was filed in March by three plaintiffs — a Biloxi seafood processing firm, Island View Casino and a Gulfport resident — claiming Mississippi Power Co. damaged its roughly 186,000 ratepayers by avoiding accountability for “fraud and mismanagement while fleecing the public in the interest of profits” in building the “goliath” Kemper Project power plant. The suit takes a different legal route than some of the previous lawsuits filed against Mississippi Power in that it does not seek to change the utility’s rates. Instead it is seeking economic losses, punitive damages, attorney fees and court costs.

At this point, the cost of the plant had ballooned further still – to $6.644 billion.

3/25/16 – Monitor: Kemper Project might not make its start date

Several months into 2016, Mississippi Power has yet to get its act together concerning the Kemper Project. According to a report in March from AECOM, an engineering firm that independently monitors and supervises the construction of the Kemper Project, the facility might not make its scheduled start date in the third quarter of this year. Randall Hodges, who leads the monitoring team, said that progress “will have to improve to meet the reported operational date of third quarter of this year.” He added that if Mississippi Power continues its startup progress of about 1 percent per month so far this year, it will take another 13 months to finish, pushing the in-service date into 2017.

Any delays beyond the end of August – the company’s projected commercial operation date – could cost the company up to $30 million per month.

10/18/16 – Utility admits Kemper Project could be costlier to operate than originally estimated

The cost of the Kemper Project has grown to nearly $6.9 billion, but costs could continue to rise even after the coal gassification plant comes online. Mississippi Power now estimates operating the plant will cost up to $1 billion over its first five years in operation. That’s a huge increase over what the utility company initially projected, and that means the plant will be even more expensive for utility ratepayers when it begins operating on November 30.

See all of the articles on Watchdog.org

*This article was originally published in July and updated in October. 

A bad odor at ODAR: Whistleblowers expose Social Security Administration

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

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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 2015, 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.”

Click here to read more articles in this series

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 in June 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. Pleuss even referred to an African-American woman as “gorilla-like” and said another woman “looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”

Less than a week after our first bombshell story about the judge, a source close to the situation told Wisconsin Watchdog that Pleuss appeared to be suspended over the allegations. He was soon hearing cases again, but that didn’t last long: Sources later confirmed that he was removed from hearing cases through the end of the year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s losing his job or facing any serious consequences.

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.”

Come August, Klym was out of a job.

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. Johnson sent a formal letter to the Social Security Administration in June 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.

Shaking things up 

But while the SSA keeps quiet, more whistleblowers are speaking up. It appears their voices are being heard: Sources have told Watchdog that SSA’s Office of Inspector General is intensifying its investigation into whistleblowers’ claims.

Meanwhile, at the SSA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago, which oversees the troubles offices in Wisconsin, a major shakeup has taken place. Two employees in managerial roles have moved to different positions, and two judges in the Chicago headquarters have resigned.

We will continue to cover the fallout from the revelations of SSA whistleblowers. If you have something to tell us, you can reach us at [email protected]

Click here to read more articles in this series

*This article was originally published in June and updated in October. 

Watchdog finds ghost teachers doing union work on taxpayer dime

By
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
President

Transparency by the numbers: Watchdog prevails against government agency

By
Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

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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

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

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

 

Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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