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

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

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“Police took photos of my license plate”

Last spring, Kathryn Watson, an investigative reporter in Watchdog’s Virginia bureau, dug up an alarming tale – local police departments were randomly scanning license plates, tagging those images with dates, times, and locations, and then storing that data for years. She filed a request for her own record, and what she found stunned her.

In all, police captured 16 photos of her car, mostly at night, and recorded her license plate eight times on five dates from October 2013 to April 2014. (She’d filed her request just a few days into April.) The file included not just photos of her license plate and car, but a detailed tracking of her whereabouts as she traveled around the city, going to work, running errands, and going to Bible study. There were even photos taken as her car sat parked at home in a private lot belonging to her apartment building.

The data discovery was all the more shocking since the state of Virginia, through the office of former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, had told police departments the previous year that storing randomly collected license plate data is illegal.

America responds to the story

News outlets across Virginia and beyond featured Watson’s work. The Drudge Report was one of the first to pick up the story, and from there it exploded. The next day she appeared on NRA News, and went on to appear on Fox News to tell her story. Emails flooded in from all over the country, with readers asking how they could request their own records and how they could fight back.

One came from a teacher in Washington State, who said that he planned to use her story to show his students that they have “the right to challenge their school or government when they feel their rights have been unfairly infringed upon and violated.” Lawmakers, meanwhile, vowed to address the issues that Katie’s work highlights and to take action to curtail these programs.

Watchdog investigates abuses by law enforcement

Watson’s investigation, however, is just one of many Watchdog stories exposing troubling trends in law enforcement. Events in Ferguson, Mo. last year led to investigations revealing that more than $5 billion of military-grade equipment has been distributed to local law enforcement across America through the Defense Department’s 1033 program. As Watchdog found in states like Kansas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, small-town police forces have been equipped with equipment like grenade launchers, assault rifles, and mine-resistant vehicles. Pressured by media attention, President Obama ordered a review of the program, but decided to let it keep running.

Perhaps the most egregious abuses of law enforcement’s power, however, take place through civil asset forfeiture, a practice that essentially allows police to confiscate property or money if they suspect it was involved in the commission of a crime. From a legal standpoint, this is pulled off by accusing the property itself of a crime, and it leaves owners in the difficult position of trying to prove its innocence to have it returned. As Watchdog has found, it’s happening all over the country, and in some cases the practice has become a vital part of police department’s revenue. One Mississippi town, for example, funded a new $4 million police station through civil asset forfeiture.

Watson’s routine public records request has become a vivid illustration of what happens when these kinds of harmful and suspicious government practices are brought to light. These stories exemplify Watchdog’s mission – to shine a bright light into government’s dark corners. We find out what government is doing in secret and then spread those stories far and wide.

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

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

By
Monday, June 8th, 2015

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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

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

By
Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

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.

Counting the Kemper costs: Mississippi’s travails with “clean coal”

By
Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Kemper_County_Coal_Gasification_Plant

By XTUV0010 (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a boondoggle of football stadium proportions – or sports cars, fighter jets, or just about any other absurdly expensive item you can imagine.

Mississippi’s Kemper Project is a first-of-its-kind integrated-gasification power plant designed to fulfill the growing need for electricity in the Magnolia State. Extolled as a great technological leap forward, it functions by converting lignite coal to natural gas-like synthesis gas, which fire its 582-megawatt turbines. Its appeal lies in its Holy Grail-like prospects of burning “clean coal,” because it captures and stores carbon much better than traditional coal-fired plants.

Reality, however, hasn’t delivered on the advertising’s glowing promises. Since its inception, news about the Kemper Project has mostly been a one note tune: costs have increased again. And again. And again. And again.

Mississippi Watchdog reporter Steve Wilson, who has been following the Kemper Project story for more than a year now, ticks off a laundry list of disconcerting facts along these lines. The clean coal plant has increased in cost by more than 70 percent over its initial projections and is two years behind schedule – due in part to delays and government regulations. It is held up as an example for future coal power plants, but the dirty little secret is that currently it does not work – and might never work. Unfortunately, it is the rate payers for Mississippi Power, the utility that built the plant, who have been saddled with 18 percent rate increases to pay for the plant’s $6.175 billion price tag. That makes it one of the most expensive power plants per kilowatt in the country.

As a reference point, the facility’s original cost when construction was approved in 2010 was $2.4 billion. For a price tag comparable to the Kemper Project’s current cost of more than $6 billion, Mississippi could have built a pair of nuclear reactors – a proven, mature technology – capable of generating four times as much power.shutterstock_158535314

“This story is a classic example of the dangers of a ‘public-private partnership,’” said Wilson. It has its origin in the U.S. Department of Energy awarding Mississippi Power a sizable grant to build a first of its kind plant. The technology, however, hadn’t been proven to work and was bound to be expensive, so Mississippi Power decided to use a system of rate increases on its customers to pay for the rest. Just how much of the costs ratepayers will absorb is still a matter of controversy. Currently a cap on Kemper Project power plant construction costs is still in effect, meaning theoretically Mississippi Power can’t raise rates and cite the $6.2 billion plant as the reason. Mississippi Power, however, is arguing that under state law, the Mississippi Public Service Commission and the Legislature can authorize increases that exceed the cap of $2.4 billion.

“The worst thing for the company’s ratepayers is that it’s not like they can go elsewhere for their electricity, so they’ve been hit with the bill for a plant that is way over budget and not even proven to work,” said Wilson.

Based on Watchdog’s series of stories on the Kemper Project, it is apparent that so-called clean coal doesn’t work and that the Department of Energy’s investments in the technology have so far been wasteful and misguided. Trying to convert coal into natural gas (which is basically what the gasifier does) is hard to justify in terms of cost when you can already get natural gas out of the ground inexpensively. “Plus, the product of the gasifier (synthesis gas) actually has a lower energy content than natural gas, so you’re expending a great deal of time, effort and ratepayers’ money on a technological dead-end,” said Wilson.

The fact that there are only a handful of similar plants – most much smaller than Kemper’s – is evidence itself that the process isn’t economically appealing and certainly doesn’t reflect the will of any sensible ratepayer.

“If these coal gasification plants worked so well and natural gas was as expensive as Mississippi Power claimed it’d be when the plant came on line, there would be more of them,” Wilson said. “But as it is, turning coal into basically inferior natural gas is an energy-intensive science project.”

Few stories by the local media probe beyond surface-level coverage of the many cost increases to the Kemper Project, which has risen more than half a billion dollars in the past nine months alone. Wilson’s coverage has been instrumental for citizens seeking to understand the issue by painting a more complete picture.

“They don’t explain the why and that’s where Watchdog.org fills the void,” he said. Anyone who pays a power bill in South Mississippi is well aware of the impending rate hikes. They surely aren’t happy about it, and ought to be informed about the reasons for the hikes.

Electricity bills, however, are only the beginning of the story. “Eventually, more local businesses will have to pass these increased costs onto consumers served by Mississippi Power,” Wilson said. “Local governments will be affected as well, dealing with an added cost beyond their control.”

If and when they do, Mississippi Watchdog will be there to make sure the story is told.

Booze, babes, and EBT: Watchdog.org covers welfare abuse

By
Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

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The Washington Post recently ran a series of articles purporting to explain how welfare benefits are spent in America. They open with ledes like “Poverty looks pretty great if you’re not living in it,” and “There’s nothing fun about being on welfare, and a new Kansas bill aims to keep it that way.” The idea behind such pieces is to provide a counter-narrative to the “suspicion” that the poor use food stamps and other government benefits to buy luxury goods like lobster and filet mignon.

Absent from the Post’s coverage is clear, convincing data about how much abuse takes place when it comes to welfare spending. They skirt the obvious question: Can anything be done to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent more responsibly?

For Watchdog.org, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

The Post’s stories were prompted by welfare reform bills in statehouses, such as House Bill 2258 in Kansas, which tightened restrictions on government assistance. In short, it means no more spending welfare funds on movies, gambling, or tattoos.

What drew lawmakers’ attention to welfare abuse in the first place? The story was nowhere until Kansas Watchdog began reporting on the issue in 2013. When reporter Travis Perry first investigated trends in the state’s distribution of funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, he was stonewalled and told that his request for records posed “an unreasonable burden on agency resources.”

Asking for such information was well within reason, especially since rumors of welfare fraud at the time had already prompted investigations in New York and Tennessee. Perry kept digging into the story, and eventually was able to expose thousands of abusive transactions where welfare cash had been withdrawn at liquor stores, smoke shops, casinos and strip clubs. In all, he calculated that Kansas residents receiving assistance through TANF spent about $43,000 on potentially-illicit goods and services from August to October of 2012.

EBT card

Kansas law prohibits the use of government assistance to purchase alcohol, tobacco, or lottery tickets. But the rule is more bark than bite because most businesses that cannot process EBT cards conveniently have an ATM location nearby, allowing welfare recipients to skirt the law with ease.

Just a few months after Kansas Watchdog exposed the poor enforcement of the law, Watchdog.org’s Tennessee bureau found itself facing a similar situation. In response to Tennessee Watchdog stories detailing a plethora of questionable EBT transactions, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law prohibiting the use of EBT cards at adult establishments like liquor stores and strip clubs. But when Tennessee Watchdog followed-up on the story, reporter Chris Butler found that the law had been slow to go into effect – the owner of a Memphis liquor store, for instance, hadn’t even been notified of the new law!

Not all news has been discouraging, however. Many of Watchdog.org’s reports on welfare spending have led to more promising government action. Last year, for example, Colorado Watchdog published a series of stories showing that withdrawals from ATMs at casinos, liquor stores, and strip bars were still happening even though both federal and state laws prohibit it. Worse, Colorado Watchdog also discovered that welfare recipients had withdrawn money at pot shop ATMs and out of state in places like Las Vegas, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands. All in all these abuses totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the stories prompted a federal review of whether the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) is doing enough to stop them.

The state legislature soon acted to curb the abuse, introducing bills that would help keep CDHS more accountable by requiring it to regularly report illegal withdrawals to lawmakers. Businesses would be required to post a sign near ATMs saying welfare withdrawals are prohibited at their establishments, and owners of businesses or ATMs could face penalties if they do not act to stop the abuses.

Kansas, Tennessee, and Colorado do not represent isolated incidents. Watchdog.org has uncovered similar stories across the rest of the country, such as New Mexico, Iowa, and Texas. In each state, these stories represent a textbook case of what Watchdog.org was created to do – shine a light on abuse so that our government can do better. And now after years of faithfully reporting on the issue of welfare abuse, the national conversation is finally starting to turn. Legacy media outlets like The Washington Post may attempt to take the moral high ground and dismiss efforts at reform, but they only tell part of the story. These states ultimately acted to make better use of their tax dollars because Watchdog.org dared to undertake a grueling investigation and fearlessly report the facts.

Read more Watchdog.org stories about welfare abuse.