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

Monday, October 24th, 2016


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

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

A bad odor at ODAR: Whistleblowers expose Social Security Administration

Monday, October 24th, 2016


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/

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. More information is available on this page at the Watchdog website

Political hangover? Watchdog covers the conventions

Thursday, August 4th, 2016


The national party conventions dominated the news for a week and a half, but while the clamor has died down, security and infrastructure costs from the national party conventions have saddled taxpayers with a “political hangover” that lives on.

Watchdog was in the thick of things in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Here’s a recap of our coverage:

A riotous RNC

Watchdog reporter Heather Kays showed up in Cleveland to a scene of chaos and protest – so much so that it was hard to figure out which person was protesting what cause.

Many of the usual suspects were there, such as Black Lives Matter and Code Pink, but others were harder to pin down. One proclaimed “The Pope is an Anarchist,” another offered “Free Hugs,” and a shirtless (but not braless) woman held a sign that said “BUST UP THE MILITARY BUDGET.”

Martha-Boneta-2016-RNC-photo-300x224On a more encouraging note, however, Republicans came out in strong support of school choice. Kays interviewed GOP House candidate Casper Stockham, who is running in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District on a platform that would create communities that provide school choice and “help kids learn the Constitution.” Stockham’s campaign is one example of the sharp contrast between the party platforms’ dueling visions of school choice. The current GOP platform pledges to “fight for school choice until all parents can find good, safe schools for their children,” while the Democratic platform doesn’t mention the term “school choice” at all.

Kays also had the opportunity to speak with Liberty Farms’ Martha Boneta (pictured above right). The Virginia farmer has been an outspoken advocate of property rights and is no stranger to the spotlight, but the self-described “crunchy conservative” said her appearance at the RNC was one of necessity.

“I just wanted a farm and to be left alone,” she said, but that became impossible when local officials tried to block her from selling local vegetables produced on her own land. She pushed back, and her struggles against big government prompted the passage of a pair of property rights bills in Virginia. It was a huge victory for Boneta, but as she sees it, it’s only the beginning of her fight to ensure that no citizen is at risk of having their rights and privacy invaded by the government.

Stinky shenanigans at the DNC


Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett having fun at the DNC.

Even with Donald Trump as their opposing candidate, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia kept pace with the newsworthy antics of their Republican counterparts in Cleveland. It started with the disgraceful exit of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which leaders like Senator Tammy Baldwin said was “the right thing to do” to “keep the focus where it belongs, on Hillary.”

The threat of a “fart-in” by unflappable Bernie Sanders supporters capped off the convention with an absurd note, and Watchdog reporter Matt Kittle provided a rundown of all the associated fear and loathing in Philly. Even though the Vermont Senator has now endorsed Hillary, members of the Bernie revolt showed up to protest the DNC’s handling of the primary. As Kittle reported, they could still spell trouble for Clinton in November.

Flatulence aside, many of the ideas aired by serious Democratic leaders have much more worrisome implications for Americans. The platform put forth by the Democratic Party was billed as the “most progressive platform in history” and calls for a number of pricey initiatives, including universal health care, a shift to 50 percent “clean electricity” within ten years, and an increase of the federally mandated minimum wage to $15 an hour.

As a prime example of what this Democratic platform could look like, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney showed up to brag on his city’s recently enacted soda tax, a “regressive” policy intended to help fund pre-K programs even as the Nanny State discourages consumption of sugary beverages.

But hey, at least Kenney stuck to his guns on the issue. Philadelphia can’t say the same for it’s approach to ridesharing. The city’s big-labor backed taxi lobby has tried to limit competition from sharing economy competitors like Uber and Lyft, but Philadelphia’s transportation regulator and ridesharing companies struck a “semi-legalized” agreement that allowed the companies to offer their services during the conventions.

Despite Bernie Sanders’ and many Democrats’ hostility to the free-market policies that allow companies like Uber and Lyft to thrive, they seemed more than happy to avail themselves of the ridesharing service.

Finding America’s Unsung Heroes

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016


The news is so full of pontificating politicians, talking heads, and statements from spokespeople that it’s easy to lose sight of the American people who are supposed to be at the heart of it all. As it turns out, however, there are many citizens who are working hard to stand up for their freedom and keep government abuse in check. To highlight and celebrate their accomplishments on behalf of their communities and their country, The Washington Times has been running a series of stories by Watchdog reporters featuring America’s “Unsung Heroes” – citizens across the country who are successfully fighting for responsible government and individual rights.

Meet the “cookie ladies”

Kriss Marion was an organic farmer, not a fighter. But Wisconsin’s restrictive law on homemade baked goods forced this peaceful sustainable homesteader to fight back.

Like a lot of small farmers, Marion is constantly looking for ways to monetize her farm. Organic veggies don’t have a big profit margin, so she and others in her circle turned to baking. Before the business could get off the ground, however, Marion learned that in Wisconsin, selling muffins, cookies, brownies or any other such homemade baked goods could get her into trouble. In fact, she was told by inspectors at the Dane County Farmers Market not to do it – otherwise she would face a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

It didn’t make sense to Marion that she could serve someone a muffin legally, but could not sell a muffin legally, so she became an activist against the absurd rule, helping to lobby legislators to pass the so-called “cookie bills.” The first proposal in 2013 failed, despite bipartisan support, so Marion is taking the fight to the courts, where the legal battle is moving through the slow discovery process.

Read more about Marion’s story in The Washington Times.

Mississippi activist making a difference for liberty

A mere three years ago, Elaine Vechorik didn’t imagine herself becoming a political activist. She was a small business owner, satisfied with making a success of her motorcycle restoration and parts shop. Then she decided to get involved in the political process.

Mississippi hasn’t been the same since.

Rather than focus on national issues, Vechorik prefers to stick with ones that directly affect Mississippi taxpayers. She’s done a lot to save her fellow citizens money. One of her biggest successes was helping to kill the state’s inspection sticker law, which charged $5 per sticker and cost the state money every year. For several years, the Mississippi House had passed bills to end the program, which gave garages $3 for the cursory inspection and $2 back to the state, but each year the bills died in the Senate. Vechorik’s photo illustrations and persistent calls to key legislators for action finally helped goad the Legislature into killing the program in 2015, a statewide election year.

Read more about Vechorik’s story at

Kristi Rosenquist tilts at windmills

Minnesota resident Kristi Rosenquist isn’t one to rest on her laurels.

This past spring, for example, she was hard at work battling the wind industry (yet again), trying to persuade members of the Minnesota Legislature that the state needs better noise standards for siting wind turbines because those spinning noise-makers are now allowed as close as 500 feet from residents’ homes.

The problem is that the state uses noise standards not designed for turbines, Rosenquist argues. She said the Minnesota needs to eliminate the standard and create a new one.

“That means, in my opinion, they shouldn’t build any more turbines until they have new siting standards,” she said.

This latest fight is just one of a long list of Herculean efforts by Rosenquist in the fight against big government and the green energy industry. The battle began with a personal battle to protect her own hobby farm…

Read more about Rosenquist’s story at

Help us find more heroes!

Do you know an unsung hero in your state? Our friends at State Policy Network are currently accepting nominations for the sixth annual Unsung Hero Award, generously sponsored by the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

The Unsung Hero Award honors an individual whose work defines entrepreneurial public policy action in the spirit of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation’s founder and president, Helen Krieble. The winner will receive a cash prize of $25,000, an all-expense paid trip to this year’s Annual Meeting in Nashville, TN, and recognition during the conference. Additionally, the nominating organization will receive a $5,000 prize.

To nominate someone for SPN’s Unsung Hero Award, please submit your form here by July 6, 2016. All nomination details and response questions are available here.

Puerto Rico is bankrupt: Is your city or state next?

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016


Cracks in the dam

“A new crack has appeared in the dam that restrains a great lake of federal, state, and local debt from inundating the country.”

So reads the ominous lede of Watchdog reporter Jon Cassidy’s story about the implications of Puerto Rico’s recent bankruptcy. As May began, the harsh reality of the U.S. commonwealth’s massive $70 billion debt hit the fan as the government defaulted on a $422 million bond payment.

Puerto Rico has no viable means of ever digging itself out of the hole, a fact that has led to calls for some type of federal bankruptcy declaration and Congressional action. The current bill on the table in Congress, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), would confer a large degree of power over Puerto Rico’s finances to a seven-person Oversight Board. This board would have authority over debt restructuring and the ability to override the territory’s laws, executive orders, and existing contracts.

Critics in Congress say the creation of such a board is problematic because it undercuts the authority of Puerto Rico’s constitution, which backs its bonds with the “full faith credit and taxing power of the Commonwealth.” This means, these critics argue, that bondholders should get first priority for repayment. Despite their protests, the House has refused to take this constitutional “guarantee” language seriously, undercutting the “full faith” guarantee.

Think about it this way, Cassidy wrote, “as long as your monthly income exceeds your credit card minimum, you’ve got a balanced budget, Puerto Rico style.”

The cities and states to follow

The great danger of any Congressional proposal to help bail out or otherwise fix Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is the precedent it could set for other state and local governments.

“PROMESA sets a political precedent, although not a legal one,” wrote Heritage Action in a critique of the bill. “States may reasonably conclude that Congress will be willing, when the time comes, to change bankruptcy law in their favor, offer a stay of litigation, and/or offer them novel mechanisms for restructuring debt.”

In his coverage of a study from the Mercatus Center, Cassidy lists the ten states and cities that are most likely to follow Puerto Rico’s example and come crawling to Congress for help with their debt. The bottom ten states – Kentucky, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Maine, California, and Hawaii – are much closer to the basket case of our Caribbean commonwealth than they are to states in relatively good fiscal health like Texas, the Dakotas, Florida, and Nebraska. However as states they are forbidden by federal law from declaring bankruptcy. This makes them less likely than a place like Puerto Rico to fall into insolvency (at least in the short term).

Cities, though, are another matter entirely, and much more likely to try shirking their obligations to creditors. Recent years have given us a number of examples of this (Detroit, MI; Alabama’s Jefferson County; and Stockton, CA, for starters), and many more cities appear to be on the fritz. These include New York City, with a whopping $46,400 debt per capita; Jersey City, where state and local debt weighs in at $41,800 per person; and Chicago, with a crushing $46,900 in state and local pension debt per person.

Click here to read the full list of the bottom ten states and cities facing bankruptcy.

Public unions play their game

As debt talks continue to stall, Puerto Rico’s public employee unions have been hard at work pushing to protect themselves in the bankruptcy. As Kevin Glass, Director of Policy and Outreach at Franklin Center, recapped in a op-ed for the Daily Caller, a commission established by the Puerto Rican government recently released a report suggesting that a portion of the debt involved was issued illegally. The report recommended a full audit was needed before attempting any further resolution to the debt crisis.

The problem with that recommendation, Glass argued, is that the head of this supposedly “independent” commission is also the president of the Puerto Rico chapter of the Service Employees International Union. This group has a huge vested interest in the outcome of the debt crisis. If only some debts are going to be paid, public sector unions want the government to prioritize its obligations to their pension funds.

“In any resolution to the debt crisis, unions will want to see every single dime of their own debt obligations to be saved, while finding ways to discount or invalidate other components of the island’s debt,” Glass noted, so having a union leader head up a government-established commission on the issue seems like a conflict of interest.

Just as unions fought to dispute the math surrounding Detroit’s pension obligations when that city went bankrupt, Glass said, “Union shops are trying to obstruct and gum up the works for any potential solution to Puerto Rico’s crisis; what’s needed is an honest accounting by those who do not have such obvious conflicts of interest.”

If more cities go bankrupt, their local public employee unions may look to Puerto Rico’s “independent” commission to see how they can protect their own interests at the cost of other creditors.

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

Government regulators vs. the people: Texas Watchdog covers ridesharing regulations

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016


With their efficient services and innovative crowdsourcing business model, ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft have captured the affection of an new generation of consumers. Local governments, however, have not been so quick to warm up to these disruptive new companies.

Consider the story of Uber. After launching in June 2010 in San Francisco, the company’s value has skyrocketed to more than $62 billion – making it the world’s most valuable startup. And yet it has been opposed by government at nearly every turn. Shortly after launch, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and California Public Utility Commission tried to shut down the burgeoning company. In New York, the Taxi and Limousine Commission threw its full political weight against Uber. In Chicago, the company caught a break only when local newspapers found that local transportation authorities were trying to change their own regulations to keep Uber out. And in Washington, D.C., the City Council tried to force the company into a rate five times as high as that charged by taxis.

You might think that Texas, a state whose business-friendly reputation has long been championed by Governors Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, would welcome innovative new companies like Uber and Lyft with open arms. But many cities in the state have been downright hostile to the ridesharing business by passing ordinances that require all ridesharing drivers to be fingerprinted by the city – a costly and time-consuming process – before they can drive.

The people rise up in Austin

After Uber and Lyft said that they would leave the Austin market if the city’s fingerprinting requirements for ridesharing drivers went into effect, Mayor Steve Adler pushed for a delay in the implementation of the new regulations to buy time to find a compromise. His hand was forced, however, by a remarkably successful petition effort among citizens. Ridesharing Works, an advocacy group that supports ridesharing, spent just three weeks gathering 65,000 signatures for a petition calling for the council to either remove the fingerprinting rules or let citizens vote on whether to keep them.  The vote will be held on Saturday, May 7th.

The groundswell of public support for the companies seemed to come as a surprise to pro-government Austin officials. As Austin writer Neal Pollack observed, “the city council proved itself to be remarkably tone-deaf to the actual needs of its citizens. They still seem stunned by the outcry.”

“You’ll still hear that this was some sort of corporate scheme, but look at these people,” said Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, referencing petition supporters, many of whom are ridesharing drivers who testified against the fingerprinting rules. For her part, Troxclair voted against the ordinance.

Even the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesmen, which usually takes the side of government regulators, called on the city to surrender to the people.

Despite the public outcry, the council refused any compromise. Adler said he offered a system that would merely incentivize fingerprinting for drivers without making it a requirement, but the city council majority buried it. Rather than reverse their positions, they punted to a special election, which will cost taxpayers around $500,000 to $900,000 to hold.

With the election just a few days away at this point, Texas Watchdog bureau chief Mark Lisheron distills the issue down to this: “No matter what you see or hear or read from now until election day on Saturday, Proposition 1 asks whether or not people of free will want ridesharing companies to offer their services in Austin. Everything else is politics.”

It’s as simple as that.

Corpus Christi “reconsiders”…

While ridesharing advocates have reason for optimism going into Saturday’s election, the story looks decidedly less promising for ridesharing companies in Corpus Christi, where Uber already pulled out in March after failing to convince the city council that its drivers shouldn’t have to submit to and pay for fingerprinting. That made Corpus Christi the third Texas city in a six week span to see Uber depart (the other two were Galveston and Midland).

Uber argues that such regulations are costly, redundant, and deter drivers. It seems lost on the council that Uber already performs criminal background checks on all of its drivers apart from fingerprinting.

“The proposed ordinance,” wrote Uber regional general manager Sarfraz Maredia, “would require drivers to complete unnecessary and duplicative steps that make it difficult for them to earn extra money and hurt our ability to ensure that riders have access to reliable and affordable transportation.”

There was apparently enough pushback to prompt the Corpus Christi City Council to reconsider its fingerprinting ordinance, as three weeks after Uber pulled out City Councilman Chad Magill asked that the issue be brought up again. It was unclear exactly what this reconsideration would look like, but Magill mentioned that Uber officials had met with him for the first time to offer alternatives to the city’s policy.

“The motion to reconsider is a clear message that we are listening, and new information reopens the conversation – and rightfully so,” said Magill, who may have also had in mind a website called Save Uber in CC, which is gathering signatures online to push the council to roll back its fingerprinting ordinance.

One of those signers is Steve DeAses, co-founder of Corpus Christi Digital, who set up the website. He told Watchdog that every one of the 1,300 signatures signed on the website (which was only a week old at the time) went directly to Mayor Nelda Martinez.

“There is a big disconnect between the council and the public,” he said. “I don’t think most of the people on the council have ever used Uber. They haven’t given a whole lot of thought to what the public is interested in.”

Despite the efforts of Magill and many others, the reconsideration went nowhere. A two-hour marathon of renewed debates at the end of March failed to convince Mayor Martinez and four City Council members to reconsider the ridesharing ordinance. Martinez made it clear that if you don’t fingerprint, you don’t drive.

Ridesharing advocates felt ambushed, and have vowed to start gathering written signatures for a petition to get the ridesharing question put to a popular vote. Even if their petition is successful, the earliest the issue could be voted on is Nov. 8, on the general ballot.

Until then, Corpus Christi residents will have to content themselves with taxis.

Obamacare roadshow: Watchdog covers the cost of Gov. Kasich’s Medicaid expansion

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016


Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s poll numbers may not be skyrocketing, but the cost of expanding Medicaid in his state certainly is.

For Watchdog readers, neither of these things will come as a surprise. When Kasich announced his bid for the presidency last year, Watchdog’s coverage of his major policy decisions as governor of Ohio had already been nearly a year in the making. Since then, Kasich’s presidential campaign has brought his controversial decision to take advantage of President Obama’s unpopular 2010 healthcare law into the spotlight as Republican primary voters decide whether the Ohio governor’s policies align with their values.

Kasich’s Obamacare expansion

Watchdog reporter Jason Hart first took up the story in September 2014. Ohio’s Medicaid enrollment under the expansion had just topped 367,000, passing Kasich’s initial projection for enrollment levels at July 2015. In the year and a half since, the governor’s projections for his state have continued to fall far short of the actual tally. Last March was the most expensive month yet for the expanded program, costing taxpayers $411 million as more working-age adults with no kids and no disabilities flocked to the Medicaid rolls. This puts Kasich’s Obamacare expansion on track to cost $28.5 billion by the year 2020 – more than twice as much as his administration projected.

This has raised questions from critics who worry that expanding health care for able-bodied adults could be a disincentive to work. How many of the Ohioans who have recently enrolled in Medicaid have jobs?

No one knows, not even the Ohio Department of Medicaid. Last Spring, the department told state Senate members that 43 percent of enrollees were employed, but it has no current data on how many of Ohio’s 673,000 Obamacare expansion enrollees are gainfully employed. ODM also doesn’t track how many of these new enrollees had private or employer-sponsored health insurance prior to enrolling in Medicaid – or how many of them are incarcerated.

Never mind that Kasich initially estimated 447,000 people would sign up under the expansion by 2020. That means that “if ODM capped Obamacare expansion enrollment at its current level,” wrote Hart, “the two-year-old program would already be 48 percent larger than the Kasich administration said it would be after seven years.”

Lest anyone be confused about how Medicaid expansion became part of Ohio law in the first place, Hart has a helpful breakdown of how the policy fight played out in 2013:

  1. The Ohio House stripped the Obamacare Medicaid expansion from its version of the 2014-15 budget.
  2. The Ohio General Assembly explicitly banned expansion in the final 2014-15 budget sent to Kasich’s desk.
  3. Kasich used a line-item veto to strike the legislature’s ban on expansion.
  4. The Kasich administration, with approval from the Obama administration, expanded Medicaid to the guidelines set in Obamacare.
  5. The Kasich administration asked the Ohio Controlling Board to appropriate funding to pay for the Medicaid expansion.
  6. The Ohio Controlling Board approved Kasich’s Obamacare expansion funding request.
  7. Six Republican legislators and two Right to Life groups sued over Kasich’s Controlling Board maneuver, but the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in the Kasich administration’s favor.

The end-run around the state legislature is not quite the story Kasich has been telling primary voters over the past year. He claims the legislature didn’t want to vote, so he convinced General Assembly leadership to pass Medicaid expansion through the Controlling Board, but ranking members of Ohio House leadership at the time tell a different story.

Read the past two years of Watchdog reporting on Ohio’s Obamacare expansion

The “Obamacare Roadshow”

Another favorite talking point of Kasich’s is the claim that he slowed the growth of Medicaid from 10 percent to 2  1/2 percent – a drastic reduction. A Watchdog analysis of the numbers from ODM (see chart below), though, found that Ohio’s Medicaid enrollment and spending have actually grown at a much faster rate since Kasich was elected governor in 2011. Actual enrollment growth during his time in office is above 9 percent.

Kasich also likes to claim that Medicaid expansion is paid for with “Ohio money,” but as Hart points out, this claim is misleading at best. There is no special lockbox of “Ohio money” that Kasich chose to bring “back to Ohio.” The program is paid for with billions in new deficit spending from the federal government (which has a massive debt of its own).


During the primary elections Kasich has brought his “Obamacare roadshow” all over the country, but it has not always been well-received by Republican primary voters. In Maryland, he said he would repeal Obamacare while keeping the largest part of the unpopular law – the expansion of Medicaid – in place. In Wisconsin, when a town hall voter challenged his decision to “choose the Washington-based solution,” Kasich bristled. He pulled out his 2 1/2 percent talking point and framed his decision to expand Medicaid as an opportunity to treat the mentally ill, drug-addicted, and working poor, even though the program isn’t targeted at any of those groups.

Kasich has tried making a similar argument in Virginia, Florida, and South Carolina on the campaign trail – all states that rejected Medicaid expansion, and all states that chose a different candidate for president.

Read more Watchdog coverage of Kasich’s “Obamacare Roadshow”

On empty: Watchdog covers demise of Mississippi gas tax proposal

Thursday, April 21st, 2016


It began with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s state of the state speech at the Capitol in January. The governor wanted to sell voters on a middle-class tax cut, but there was a catch: a gas tax increase to offset the revenue loss.

“There is no reason we cannot balance an increase in fuel tax with an equal and sufficient tax reduction,” Bryant said. But it turns out he was wrong. Mississippi lawmakers would find plenty of reasons to avoid raising the gas tax.

Mississippi has a relatively low gas tax at 18.8 cents per gallon, which ranks 44th among states, but when combined with federal taxes it still adds up to a hefty sum – a tax of 36.4 cents on every gallon of gasoline.

It should come as little surprise, then, that public opposition to raising the tax remains high. A poll of 500 voters commissioned shortly after Bryant announced his push for a gas tax hike found that a decisive 86 percent of voters opposed increasing the gas tax. And in an implicit warning to lawmakers, the poll found that 73 percent of respondents would be less likely to vote for their representative if he or she voted to increase the tax on gasoline.

Elaine Vechorik, vice president of the conservative organization Mississippi for Liberty, said the governor’s plan was a “shell game” and outlined the case against a gas tax increase.

“Mississippi’s Department of Transportation is rife with corruption, incompetency and waste. We need transparency for departmental contracts and there is a need to better prioritize projects,” she said. “Throwing more money at a broken department will translate into even larger tax increases in the future.”

Bryant’s call for increasing the gas tax was prompted by a report by the Mississippi Economic Council that found the state needed to “invest” $300 million every year in additional highway spending for state roads, plus $75 million annually for counties and municipalities. The state could increase its revenue by this sum, the report said, at a cost to Mississippians of 37 cents per day.

The figure may seem low, at first glance, but Russ Latino, president of the Mississippi chapter for Americans for Prosperity, called on voters and taxpayers to have a little perspective. That 37 cents a day adds up to $135 a year for every person in the state, Latino said, so a family of four would effectively be paying an extra $540 in taxes every year.

Furthermore, Latino pointed out, the MEC report failed to account for Mississippi’s highway deficiencies relative to other states. The Reason Foundation’s highway report ranked Mississippi eighth among states with the highest performing road systems.

When it came time for lawmakers to introduce legislation in response to appeals by the governor and the MEC, one by one their proposals stalled and died. The first to go was Senate Bill 2859. Introduced by state Sen. Willie Simmons (D-Cleveland), it would have instituted an 8 percent tax on gas at the wholesale level, but Simmons quickly recognized that his bill was doomed. To give the gas tax issue a fighting chance, the Senate’s Highways and Transportation Committee voted to substitute in the text of a placeholder bill. As Mississippi Watchdog reporter Steve Wilson explained, passing a placeholder bill highlighted the code sections of state law that would have to be changed to raise the gas tax, allowing the measure to stay alive and keeping the debate open later in the legislative session.

The next two gas tax bills to die were on the House side. House Bill 1681, by state Rep. Robert Johnson III (D-Natchez) would model Mississippi’s gas tax after North Carolina by attaching a percentage rate of taxation (in this case 6 percent) on gasoline at the wholesale level. It would then reduced the set figure at the wholesale level to 15 cents per gallon. House Bill 1694, by state Rep. David Myers (D-McComb) would have simply raised the gas tax to 20 cents per gallon.

For a brief period of time, it seemed like the two chambers were locked in a game of chicken, where the loser would be the first to pass a tax increase, observed Wilson. House Bills 1681 and 1694, however, both died in committee. That left Senate Bill 2921 as the lone chance for increasing the state’s gas tax. SB 2921 made it out of the Senate Finance Committee, and after a lively debate on the Senate floor, during which some Republican members questioned the need for a higher gas tax in the first place, passed with a 34-13 vote.

The problem with SB 2921 was that it was merely a placeholder – a vehicle for a gas tax increases that didn’t contain a concrete proposal or specific numbers. This eventually forced the Mississippi Legislature into considering a compromise that would tether the gas tax to the wholesale price of gasoline. In exchange, the state’s corporate franchise tax would be eliminated, along with some smaller changes to the tax code.

If there was window of opportunity for the bill, this was it. The next statewide election would not be held until 2019, giving Republican lawmakers who ran on not increasing taxes some wiggle room.

“This is the very first year of your term,” said Nathan Shrader, a political science professor at Millsaps College who explained the situation to Watchdog, “so I suspect if they’re going to put themselves on the line to vote for a tax increase, this is really the only time they can do it.”

Any lawmakers who promised not to raise taxes, however, ended up staying true to their word. The Mississippi House killed SB 2921, effectively exhausting any and all chances the state had to raise its gas tax this session.

Where’s the justice for juvenile detention workers in Colorado?

Thursday, April 14th, 2016


Employees under attack

The story of juvenile justice problems in Colorado started a year and a half ago near the end of 2014. The headline from Colorado Watchdog resonated across the state: “Attacks on juvenile detention centers skyrocket after policy change.”

Over the prior four months, reporter Art Kane had found, 91 juvenile detention staffers in Colorado were injured in incidents with youths – almost twice as much as any four month span since 2012. Kane also found that the spike in incidents correlated with a policy change restricting the use of seclusion to handle violent youths at juvenile detention centers. This “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support” method sought to “infuse positive reinforcement” into detention facilities rather than using harsher policies like inmate seclusion.

Colorado authorities didn’t want to make the connection, however. State Sen. Keith Lambert, who chairs the powerful Joint Budget Committee, said the figure showed the Colorado Department of Human Services was mismanaging its youth detention facilities, while Robert Werthwein, the acting chair of CDHS Division of Youth Corrections, said he wasn’t sure what caused the increase in attacks. Werthwein speculated that there were likely a variety of reasons.

As is often the case in government, the proposed solution to deal with the spike in attacks on staff was simplistic: throw more money at the problem. Even though the inmate population hadn’t increased along with the number of incidents at juvenile detention centers, Werthwein’s division sought a budget increase of $10 million over the following two years to hire 208 new employees.

Watchdog dug deeper into public records and found a troubling string of evidence that painted a picture of ineffective policies. It was often repeat offenders, for example, who kept attacking juvenile detention staff. At the Colorado Springs Youth Service Center, one of the most troubled facilities when it came to inmate attacks on staff, eight youths were responsible for almost half all recent fights and assaults at the time. Lawmakers responded by grilling human service supervisors, who failed to provide any decisive answers.

Soon after the first Watchdog stories were published, former employees of CDHS began telling Watchdog that state policy changes were primarily responsible for the increase in attacks. These employees claimed administrators had “coddled” inmates to the neglect of staff safety. Robert Suiter, for example, spent more than a decade working as a youth corrections staffer before leaving because he thought the work had grown too dangerous. He told Watchdog that after implementation of the new policy banning seclusion, inmates had started realizing there were few consequences for violence. To make matters worse, Suiter said, word had spread unofficially among employees that staff who used physical force or restraint to control violent inmates would face greater scrutiny.

shutterstock_96736993“You can’t touch kids, you can’t lock kids up,” he said. “But these are seasoned criminals who have been committed a number of times – veterans – and if you can’t lock them up, they’re going to start punching people in the face as often as they can get away with it.”

A former teacher and principal at schools in youth detention centers named Larry Farmer reached out to Watchdog to echo this sentiment. “I don’t think the kids are held accountable like they need to be,” he said. “Kids live up to or down to the expectations that you put on them.”

One former juvenile detention worker who had been attacked twice told Watchdog that she was threatened with firing. Sonia Huerta worked at the Marler center at Mount View Youth Services Center, which is run by a private contractor called Rite of Passage Inc. She felt that the first attack on her encouraged inmates to attack her a second time, and that if she stayed at the facility it would make her a target for future violence. Rite of Passage, however, told her she would lose her job if she didn’t return to Marler, Huerta said. Both Rite of Passage and CDHS, which owns the Marler facility, declined to comment on the incidents involving Huerta.

In response to criticism over the Division of Youth Corrections’ handling of the new policy, Werthwein stressed that “we can’t violate (anyone’s) rights.” Explanations beyond that have been hard to come by.

The experiences of Huerta, Farmer, and Suiter do not appear to be uncommon among employees. The Division of Youth Corrections saw a 23 percent turnover rate over the prior fiscal year, making it difficult to fill open positions even with the $10 million increase in funding CDHS was asking for.

Troubles in the statehouse

A month after Watchdog’s initial reports, the woes of CDHS took on a new form in the Colorado legislature when the join Budget Committee voted unanimously to rescind $1.2 million from the department after it used the funds to hire new staff without telling lawmakers. This brought on a new level of scrutiny from the statehouse, forcing two top members of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s staff to come before the Joint Budget Committee and apologize for the “miscommunication.” Lawmakers began calling for greater scrutiny over the state’s juvenile detention facilities in light of Watchdog’s reports about the increase in attacks.

Frustrated by CDHS’ refusal to provide him with information about the problem, State Sen. Kent Lambert sponsored a bill that would used open records laws to require CDHS and other agencies to release “specified information related to incidents that occur in a facility operated by the Division of Youth Corrections, so long as all identifying information has been redacted.” The bill’s intent was to clarify that CDHS can withhold the identities of youth offenders yet still must provide information about what is happening in its juvenile detention facilities.

By September 2015, the rate of attacks had dropped about 40 percent from the previous year’s record levels, but the improvement came at a price. It cost Colorado taxpayers an extra $3.5 million to hire 75 new employees to reduce incidents to the level they were at before the state banned seclusion as a punishment for violent inmates. And despite an overall decrease in attacks, Watchdog found the rate of most violent attacks remained high.

Six months later, violence in the face of staffing issues continues to plague Colorado’s juvenile detention system. Even though the state legislature appropriated extra funding to increase staffing, Watchdog obtained figures showing CDHS had hired only half of the 22 positions it was authorized to fill this fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Watchdog continues to hear stories like that of juvenile corrections officer Gregory St. Martin. In August 2014 St. Martin herniated two discs in his back while trying to break up a fight between inmates. The injury effectively ended his career.

“We were undermanned,” he told Watchdog. “There’s no accountability. If you punch them, you’re going to get in trouble, but if they break your back, they won’t even face charges.” According to sheriff’s records, the incident was never reported to police for investigation and potential prosecution despite the severity of St. Martin’s injury.

“This guy tried to hurt me, meant to hurt me and they don’t even write this up,” he said. “They say this is obstruction of government operations instead of a violent assault.”

Read the entire story series about Colorado’s juvenile justice woes at