The rise of the Google Administration

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Google colors

A White House regular

Watchdog rocked the news cycle last week when content editor Johnny Kampis reported that Google has enjoyed unrivaled access to the White House during the presidency of Barack Obama.

The story found that Johanna Shelton, Google’s director of public policy (effectively the company’s top lobbyist), had visited officials from the White House a whopping 128 times since Obama took office in 2009.

If that sounds like a lot, well, that’s because it is. As a comparison, consider that the top lobbyists from other companies in the telecommunications and cable industry such as Comcast, Facebook, Amazon, and Verizon have visited the White House a total of 124 times over the same period.

Drudge Report picked up the story, and the Internet responded in outrage.

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, for example, had a few simple questions:

Actor Rob Lowe also chimed in:

Watchdog’s findings stem from information uncovered by the Campaign for Accountability’s Google Transparency Project. The Campaign for Accountability is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to expose corporate influence on government. In this case, that meant identifying the 50 biggest lobbying spenders’ policy pushers and tracking the number of times they appeared in White House visitor logs. In 2015 Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. spent $16.6 million on lobbying – the twelfth most of any company and more than any other technology firm. All told, visits to the Obama White House by employees of Google and its related companies over the past seven years add up to 427. That’s an average of more than once a week while Obama has been in office.

Many of these meetings have been with high-level officials. At least 21 included Obama himself, and about an equal number included higher-ups like White House chief of staff Denis McDonough; former chiefs of staff Jack Lew, Bill Daley, Pete Rouse, and Rahm Emanuel; senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and economic adviser Jeffrey Zients.

“You don’t know what the meetings are about, but the fact that someone has that level of access at the White House is revealing,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability. “It certainly suggests a level of influence.”

The visitor logs are only the beginning of the story here. The White House isn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so the public can’t verify that the logs reveal all such visits.

Antitrust allegations drag on

Information from the White House visitor logs suggests that some of those visits could have been particularly helpful to Google in 2011 and 2012, when the company was navigating a case brought by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC was investigating the company’s search-engine practices over concerns that Google was gaming search results to favor its services over competitors. The FTC found no wrongdoing, but Google reached a settlement with the commission in 2013 that granted its competitors access to important standardized technologies necessary for devices like phones and laptops.

Around the time the FTC was considering the case in 2011, Google Transparency Project found that Sheldon and a number of other top Google representatives held a flurry of meetings at the White House. In his story for Watchdog, Kampis highlighted one in particular that stands out: “Shelton, Google director of product management Hunter Walk and Raben Group lobbyist Courtney Snowden met with White House domestic policy counsel Steve Robinson on April 17, 2012. Raben Group was one of the lobbying firms Google retained to help with the FTC antitrust case.”

Even with the 2013 settlement, however, Google may not quite be out of the woods with the FTC. As Politico recently reported, officials from the FTC are again questioning whether Google has “abused its dominance in the search engine market.” Sources said this may be a sign that the agency intends to reopen the investigation.

The company currently faces a similar situation in an antitrust case with the European Commission. That legal battle has dragged on since 2010 as the company has repeatedly sought to reach a settlement with the European Commission. If no settlement is reached, which looks increasingly unlikely, it could result in Google being slammed with a 3 billion euro fine (around $3.4 billion in US dollars). That would be three times as large as the previous largest antitrust fine.

Read more from Watchdog’s series The Google Administration

Mark Levin cites Watchdog report on Medicaid expansion

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Author and talk radio host Mark Levin read through a report by Ohio Watchdog reporter Jason Hart nearly word-for-word on air on April 4. The story explained how Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid through Obamacare has cost taxpayers $7 billion in a little more than two years. Kasich claims his embrace of Medicaid is a fiscally responsible way to keep drug addicts and the mentally ill out of prison, but costs are zooming past his projections – the expansion was $1.5 billion over budget after just 18 months.

Listen to the segment here:

Vermont’s environmental civil war

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Solar panels vermont

With its beautiful northeastern scenery and idyllic towns, the state of Vermont has long been a bastion of environmental rectitude and environmentally-conscious policies. But whatever sort of coherence there may have been in the environmental movement in prior decades has been shattered in recent years. The rift in environmental priorities springs from the state’s ambitious goal of achieving 90 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by the year 2050. This staggering aim entails a massive expansion of green power sources like wind and solar, but these technologies have downsides. Vast solar arrays create unsightly breaks amid Vermont’s landscape, and wind power can be a noisy annoyance when sited near a community – not to mention the danger it poses to birds in the area.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the expansion of renewable energy in Vermont doesn’t always sit well with citizens – even those that place a high value on preserving the environment. The environmentalist movement thus finds itself in a civil war, of sorts, in which Big Renewables is pitted against average citizens and local municipalities.

More than one hundred towns in Vermont have banded together to form an “Energy Rebellion” against the unchecked spread of Big Renewables. Fueled by citizens and activists tired of moneyed interest groups disrupting their homes and their way of life, these towns are pushing back against the installments of vast solar arrays that take up acres of forests or farmland, and they’re resisting the construction of wind turbines that threaten local bird populations and make a lot of noise near residential areas.

wind turbine vermontTheir main concern is that the state’s Public Service Board is essentially rubber stamping the siting of new renewable energy projects without regard to the well-being of local citizens who might be affected by such projects. Since the Vermont Energy Rebellion began gaining steam, only one proposed project site has been rejected by the PSB, but activists worry that it doesn’t signify any meaningful change of priorities by the decision-makers at the PSB. The procedural process for towns that want to oppose the siting of proposed renewable energy projects remains complex, and towns still have virtually no authority of their own to counter the will of the PSB.

Legislation has been introduced in the statehouse to give the PSB incentives to choose locations that won’t harm rich farm land, property values, or, ironically, the environment. But activists again worry that it does little to actually grant towns more control of where and how new energy projects are sited.

Indeed, despite these limited victories, money and political will has not been on the side of local activists, and that is not likely to change. Renewable energy projects qualify for massive federal and state subsidies, making them quite lucrative. And with the pressure for Vermont to achieve 90 percent renewable energy use by 2050, government officials are eager to bring as many new renewable energy projects as possible online.

Could this clash between local environmentalists and Big Renewables be a portent of things to come in the rest of the country? Vermont is unique among states in its 90 percent renewables goal, but similar concerns over the unintended environmental effects of renewable energy projects, such as wind turbines, have been raised elsewhere.

Download Watchdog’s in-depth whitepaper to learn more about Vermont’s energy siting war

Watchdog finds ghost teachers doing union work on taxpayer dime

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Ghost man stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Neily, incoming President

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Nicole Neily headshot1Nicole Kurokawa Neily is the incoming president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Prior to joining the Franklin Center, she was a senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources, a communications firm based in Washington DC, where she worked with Fortune 500 companies and trade associations to help them counter threats from regulatory overreach, litigation, NGO attacks, and crony capitalism.

She has previously served as executive director and senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, and was both manager of external relations and media manager at the Cato Institute. In addition, she has worked as director of research analysis for the Winston Group, a public opinion and message design firm, and has authored several papers for the Illinois Policy Institute and Americans for Prosperity’s Illinois chapter. Nicole holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois, and a master’s of public policy from Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, she now lives in Austin with her husband Clark and two children.

Watchdog in the News: From the Big Apple to the blogger next door

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

tablet newspapers

One of the driving factors in the creation of Watchdog.org was the need for substantive investigative journalism at the state and local level – especially as small- and medium-sized news outlets struggle to fund dedicated investigative journalism in the digital age. That’s why Watchdog has sought out strategic media partnerships with both local and national newspapers and websites. We want other news outlets to “steal our stuff,” so that citizens can get information about their government from journalists who don’t pull punches and go the extra mile beyond rehashing press releases.

So, where did Watchdog stories end up last year? Here are just a few examples of how our stories are shaping both the national news narrative and local debates in statehouses and cities.

Shaping the national narrative

Pennsylvania Watchdog reporter Andrew Staub was featured in The Wall Street Journal with a piece that explores the causes and effects of the state’s months-long budget impasse. At issue are tax increases, support for the state’s struggling school districts, and the years-long effort to privatize the state-run liquor monopoly – an idea popular with voters but bitterly opposed by public employee unions, and therefore a non-starter for Democrat Gov. Tom Wolfe.

The Washington Times carried a series of breaking stories Watchdog reporter Art Kane produced holding the controversial Export-Import Bank accountable. In the first, Kane revealed that many companies receiving aid from the Ex-Im Bank have already shipped thousands of jobs overseas – while demanding continued funding from the bank to keep them, they say, from doing just that. In a follow-up a few days later, Kane revealed that the Ex-Im Bank gave out more than $65 billion in taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to companies that worked to keep nearly $458 billion in profits offshore.

Last June, Forbes published an in-depth investigation from Kane into the Small Business Administration, in which he uncovered more than $8 billion dollars in questionable SBA loans handed out over the past eight years, on which borrowers defaulted, leaving taxpayers on the hook. These loans were made to an assortment of luxury businesses including country clubs, boat dealers, and wineries. He also found defaulted, taxpayer-backed loans to liquor stores, bars and tobacco retailers.

California’s ongoing drought has been a topic of news and concern in recent years, and a rallying point for environmentalists keen to blame normal human activity. Watchdog’s five-part investigative series demonstrated that the water shortage is indeed a manmade problem – but one caused by the domination of the environmental lobby over key water decisions in the state, as well as by government mismanagement of major infrastructure facilities and subsidies. Newsweek was one of the top mainstream websites to pick up the story.

In your cities and states

Watchdog’s partnership with The Colorado Springs Gazette, Colorado’s second-largest circulation newspaper, began with a series from Art Kane about per diem abuse by state legislators that threatens to wreak further havoc on the state’s already-struggling public employee pension system. Kane broke the news that the per-diem payments issued to lawmakers as expense reimbursements are actually counted as salary for the purpose of their taxpayer- funded pension plans, artificially inflating their declared annual salaries and therefore their eventual pension benefits. Since then he has covered more stories for the Gazette about bills to make Colorado’s government more transparent and provide more access to judicial branch records.

Right Wisconsin, Wisconsin’s leading conservative site, picked up dozens of stories from Wisconsin Watchdog over the course of the year, drawing readers to the ongoing battle over a rogue prosecutor’s unconstitutional John Doe probe into conservatives and exposing abuse at the Tomah Veterans Affairs facility.

Pennsylvania Watchdog‘s reporting on the debate over liquor privatization in the state was a regular fixture at the York Daily Record. Andrew Staub wrote stories showing how nothing about unwinding and privatizing Pennsylvania’s government monopoly over wine and spirits sales is simple, and looking at the incoherence of proposals that would privatize wine sales but allow the state to continue to sell liquor.

In Texas, Watchdog reporter John Cassidy successfully defended Wallace Hall, a member of the University of Texas at Austin’s board of regents, who blew the whistle on powerful state legislators pulling strings to get family members and political friends admitted – and faced impeachment for it until Watchdog stepped in. Cassidy’s stories led to two official investigations – the second after he proved that the first underreported the problem by fully 90 percent – and led to the resignation of UT-Austin’s president this past June. No one in Texas media would touch the story until Watchdog covered it, prompting a columnist for The Dallas Observer to write that Texas Watchdog reporter Jon Cassidy “has done most of the real digging on this story.”

Franklin Center gathers for 2015 Staff Retreat

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

This week Franklin Center and Watchdog staff gathered for our all-staff retreat. It was a great time to connect with coworkers and allies, celebrate our victories in 2015, and prepare to start the next year with strength and clarity as an organization.

Over the course of two days in Old Town Alexandria, reporters and staff heard from an inspiring slate of speakers about how we can move forward to promote liberty and transparency and better keep government accountable in 2016. Here are some of the highlights:

Reporters gather to hear opening remarks

FC staff reporters

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel shares about how his website, OhioCheckbook.com, has brought new levels of transparency to state spending and made government agencies think twice about how they use taxpayer dollars.

FC staff Josh Mandel

Wisconsin Watchdog reporter Matt Kittle and Wisconsin political strategist Eric O’Keefe share the inside story of the state’s controversial (and ultimately unconstitutional) partisan John Doe probe that targeted and intimidated conservatives, leaving them with no recourse but the free press.

FC staff WI John Doe

Daily Signal editor Rob Bluey, Celeste LeCompte of ProPublica, and Scott Reeder of Illinois News Network share tips for establishing media partnerships to grow Watchdog readership.

FC staff DS PP IL

Watchdog’s Matt Kittle joins co-authors Guy Benson of Townhall.com and Mary Katherine Ham of HotAir to provide dinner entertainment with a rollicking discussion of their new book, End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).

The title explains it all.

FC staff Guy book

Beverly Hallberg of District Media Group shares tips for looking (and sounding) good on radio and TV.

FC staff polished tv radio

John Schilling of American Federation for Children, Hubbel Relat of American Energy Alliance, and Evan Swarztrauber of Tech Freedom introduce their organizations and highlight some of the most pressing school choice, technology, and energy issues facing America.

FC staff Tech SC Energy

Meet Watchdog editor John Bicknell: journalist, author, history buff

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

10.16.15 004Watchdog’s new executive editor, John Bicknell, has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He came to Washington, D.C. in 1999 as an editor at Congressional Quarterly, where he led the production team for CQ Today and was a team editor for the publication. When CQ merged with Roll Call, he continued as national security editor, co-editor of the 2012 edition of “Politics in America” and eventually became editor of the opinion pages.

Bicknell’s hiring marks the latest step in the Franklin Center’s plan to expand beyond its 16 state bureaus, while growing staff in key states. As executive editor of Watchdog, he will work closely with our extensive network of investigative journalists and develop relationships with other media outlets.

Bicknell recently took a break from working with reporters to answer a few questions about his path to journalism and the state of today’s media:

Franklin Center: How did you first become interested in journalism, and what has kept you working in the industry for 30 years? 

John Bicknell: I grew up in a family very interested in politics and the news. And I always knew I wanted to be some kind of writer. So, while I didn’t major in journalism in college, it was always in the back of my mind that I might go into journalism. I’ve survived for 30-plus years by always looking to do something new, something different every few years.

FC: In addition to journalism, you’ve written a book about the presidential campaign of 1844 and have another one in the works. Clearly you’re a history buff, so how does that inform your approach to journalism and today’s rapid-fire news cycle?

JB: Studying history helps provide a long-term view of issues. When somebody says “this is the dirtiest campaign ever run,” or “this is the most important election of our time,” knowing something about history can provide perspective, as well as a way to debunk such claims. My new book, for example, is about John C. Fremont’s 1856 presidential campaign, the first Republican campaign and the first in American history to involve women and blacks in a substantial way. It was contested in perhaps the most violent peacetime atmosphere of any U.S. election, and though Fremont lost, he set the template that Abraham Lincoln followed four years later in winning.

FC: What is one issue or story you wish more Americans were paying attention to?

JB: It’s hard to narrow it down to one, and I have a different answer every other day. I think people are generally paying attention to issues of national security, probably immigration, maybe even the debt. So today let’s say it’s the decline of the notion about what it means to be an American, the idea of citizenship with responsibility. That might have something to do with studying history closely and seeing how much progress we’ve made in 200 years. Too often, I think, people ignore progress because they benefit from the culture of complaint.

FC: What is the biggest obstacle or challenge facing journalists today? 

JB: The biggest challenge facing journalists today is a self-inflicted problem: too many activists with bylines posing as neutral observers, and they’ve been found out. Once you’ve destroyed your own credibility, it’s very difficult to get it back, and we see that in many, if not most, legacy newsrooms.

FC: What opportunities are you most excited about as you join Watchdog’s network of investigative journalists?

JB: As I said, our opportunity is to fill the wide, wide space left empty by legacy journalists who believe their job is to defend the status quo at the expense of reporting facts and explaining why things happened the way they happened.

The feds’ cash-for-visas foreign investor program: What could go wrong?

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Grassley EB-5 ss

Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) took to the Senate Floor to call for reforms to a government program that most Americans probably haven’t even heard of: the EB-5 Regional Center Investment Program. Simply put, the program allows foreign investors to invest large sums of money in American projects in return for a green card, but as Grassley pointed out, the government hasn’t always followed the spirit of the rules for such investments.

The program is divided into two different investment thresholds. The lower level, requiring a minimum investment of $500,000 is supposed to help Targeted Employment Areas – poorer and rural regions – get a nice economic jolt, but gerrymandering of these regions has instead led to the EB-5 program funding lavish building projects in wealthy urban areas. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Grassley said, have covered cases where wealthy areas like Midtown Manhattan had projects funded by EB-5.

“The EB-5 program is supposed to favor distressed economic areas,” said a Washington Post editorial, “but the definition of a needy zone has been stretched to include nearly the whole country, including hot downtown real estate markets.”

Embedded in the heart of Grassley’s speech was Watchdog’s coverage of the program. Specifically, Grassley cited reporter Kenric Ward’s investigation into the program’s abuse in Dallas, where a luxury apartment project in uptown Dallas, one of the most affluent parts of the city, cashed in on funding from 100 overseas investors who each provided $500,000. Acquiring visas through investments of that size is supposed to be reserved for ventures in federally designated Targeted Employment Areas: usually rural or impoverished areas in need of jobs. The fact that EB-5 was used in this way to help develop an area with 0.8 percent unemployment indicates the areas designate by federal regulators as in need of improvement have been badly gerrymandered.

The EB-5 Immigration Investment program was originally established by the Immigration Act of 1990. It took more than a decade for it to gain traction, spiked in use during the Great Recession and now has achieved its full capacity of 10,000 immigrant investors (which includes family members of investors, so the total number of spots for individual investors is more like 3,000). Initially it required a minimum investment of either $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the affluence of the area being invested in, and was required to create at least 10 solid jobs for every investor. In return, investors would receive green cards for themselves and qualifying family members. To stimulate interest, however, the jobs requirement was changed to include “indirect” jobs created, a figured calculated by complex equations.

shutterstock_331350053Grassley’s speech only covers one area of the problems associated with EB-5. The complicated calculations and debatable economic assumptions used to determine the number of indirect jobs created by investments make it difficult to evaluate the true economic impact of the program. The agency also has yet to adequately address questions and concerns over national security. About 85-90 percent of EB-5 investors come from China.

As is often the case, concerns about the effectiveness and integrity of the EB-5 program run all the way to the top. Last spring an Inspector General’s audit accused Alejandro Mayorkas, former director of U.S. Citizenships and Immigration Services, which administers the program, of improper conduct in his handling of EB-5. After the audit, Mayorkas testified before a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing about the program. His answers were curt and evasive, and they did little to bring any much-needed transparency to the program. He described himself as a “hands-on manager,” for example, yet admitted he had significant gaps in operational knowledge. He was unable (or refused) to say how many jobs had been created or whether the thousands of visas issued led to any breaches in national security. When House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul asked whether Chinese nationals who acquired visas through EB-5 were properly vetted on national security grounds, Mayorkas simply answered “I would hope so.”

That’s hardly a ringing statement of confidence.

With critics of EB-5 resigned to its inevitable renewable, many are pinning their hopes on Grassley’s proposed reforms in the American Job Creation and Investment Promotion Reform Act, which would focus on ensuring smaller investments go to high-unemployment zones and rural regions, raise the investment thresholds by several hundred thousand dollars, and require foreign investors to actually prove the creation of direct jobs before receiving permanent residence.

In addition to the abuse of gerrymandered targeted employment districts, however, EB-5 has seen its fair share of woes elsewhere across the country. In South Dakota last year, a meatpacking plant funded by Chinese investors through EB-5 went bankrupt, leaving investors without their promised visas (their investments likely won’t be recovered either). And U.S. Sen. Harry Reid once infamously pressured the feds to expedite more than 200 visa applications through a Las Vegas casino project funded by EB-5.

Neither of these cases, unfortunately, are all that surprising in light of a recent Government Accountability Office report on the program, which found that USCIS does not properly track the economic effects of the program. The agency, the report showed, rarely conducts site visits to verify claims of economic activity, never interviews investors before issuing them green cards, and has left itself open to fraud and abuse through its reliance on “paper-based documentation.”

Mayorkas has been gone from USCIS for almost two years now, but it remains to be seen if the agency can take steps to improve the effectiveness and security of the program – or if Congress will act to prevent future abuse.

Is all that public data actually helping us keep government accountable?

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015


Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center released a report that attempts to gauge public sentiment concerning open government data. It suggests there are two major factors paving the way for new ways in which people engage with government today.

“The first is data,” say authors. “There is more of it than ever before and there are more effective tools for sharing it. This creates new service-delivery possibilities for government through use of data that government agencies themselves collect and generate.

“The second is public desire to make government more responsive, transparent and effective in serving citizens — an impulse driven by tight budgets and declining citizens’ trust in government.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats have a more upbeat view of open data than Republicans, but that appears to be a reflection of their more optimistic view of government in general. Overall, Americans are divided or ambivalent about the prospect of more open government data, but they lean toward optimism. Fifty six percent said government data allows journalists to cover government activities more thoroughly, and 53 percent said it makes government officials more accountable to the public.

Americans are split right down the middle, however, on the question of whether more open data improves the quality of government services and whether it allows average citizens to have more of an impact on government affairs. And 53 percent of respondents don’t believe that open data results in better decisions by government officials.

For the Franklin Center’s Watchdog journalists and citizen contributors, those first two figures are evidence that success in our mission to bring greater accountability to government is possible. The last two figures, however, indicate that we still have a long way to go. As the report says, “most Americans have yet to delve too deeply into government data and its possibilities to closely monitor government performance.” This is what needs to change.

It’s easy for one’s eyes to glaze over in the face of government data, but a government transparency movement has been at work in recent years trying to help us make sense of all the information available to the public. In a Q&A with Watchdog, open data guru Waldo Jaquith, who works with government and private sector groups to make government data available for public consumption, points to a number of tools and organizations that help make government data more accessible and transparent, including the Sunlight Foundation and FederalRegister.gov, which helps citizens track proposed changes to legislation that could affect them.

As an example of how far the transparency movement has come, Jaquith points to OpenFDA, which takes the raw medical data driving decisions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and makes it accessible to everyone.

“You the public are paying for this medical data,” he says. “You’re already paying us to do this research. Instead of leaving it on a private server somewhere, we’re going to put it up for anybody to access. It’s yours. We should give you access to it.”

Access to government data has allowed Watchdog to break a number of significant stories exposing questionable uses of taxpayer funds. Reporter Arthur Kane’s investigation into questionable loans dealt out by the Small Business Administration was featured in Forbes earlier this year. Kane has partnered with the Washington Times for an front-page exclusive look into how the Export-Import bank was shipping U.S. jobs overseas and allowing companies to keep profits offshore to avoid taxes.

Access to digital public records has also allowed Watchdog reporters to uncover patterns of welfare abuse and sparked reform legislation in several of their respective statehouses.

Strangely, the Pew study seems to leave little room for those who are both innately distrustful of government and those who believe open data initiatives can improve government services and performance. Holding both of those positions simultaneously, after all, is the key to reform. It requires skepticism and sharp eye to find areas of improvement, but also trust that through bringing the truth to light, the government can indeed serve its people better. We believe such change is possible.