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Trump disrupting news consumption, bringing in more women

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Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

This just in: President Donald Trump is polarizing.

Some love him. Some hate him. Hate is a strong word, but they hate him.

There are probably some who are too busy watching “The Price Is Right” or rainbow-vomiting cat videos to care. But they still might make time to check in on Trump.

Regardless of your thoughts on his presidency, Trump’s effect on media has been fascinating to witness.

No presidential candidate more masterfully usurped the mainstream media’s system to create his own narrative. Unquestionably, this disruption – primarily through the 140-characters-or-less social feed Twitter – is a byproduct of Trump’s ability to demean the mainstream media and leverage social media to allow for direct communication with the citizenry.

The so-called Trump effect has been stunning with regard to a renewed interest in national news. What audience segment is growing the fastest?

A recent Pew Research Center study says that American women represent the largest-growing demographic of national news consumers. Trump has stimulated a wave of new interest in media and current events among women, despite his past comments about women that have drawn the ire of the left (and, frankly, some on the right).

The study suggests that 58 percent of American women say they are paying more attention to politics since Trump was elected. That same research showed that 63 percent of women who identify as Democrats have increased their interest in U.S. political news. Interest in domestic political news among women who identify themselves as Republicans is up 54 percent.

Overall, Trump’s presidency has increased U.S. interest in political news by 52 percent.

Former President Barack Obama compares in numbers, but not in impact. Obama has about 93 million Twitter followers – nearly 55 million more than Trump. Together, they are the two most followed politicians in the world, but the winner on impact is decidedly lopsided – and there is nobody in politics who’s even close to Trump.

Trump’s Twitter feed is hyperactive, rarely boring and often the root of stories that aren’t reported exactly the same elsewhere. He’s randomly on Twitter, occasionally around the clock. This began well ahead of the past election cycle, and hasn’t slowed down. Trump vowed nobody would take away his phone. Nobody has.

In a completely unscientific polling of people I know who are dialed into social media, there seems to be equal measures of left- and right-leaning followers who mind his feed. And people from all walks of life seem to speak of Trump with corresponding degrees of disgust and curiosity.

Set aside the messaging for a moment and purely consider the impact to media: He’s demonstrated that news can be a business-to-consumer proposition for politicians, following the path of entertainers Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

Trump is cutting a new path in that regard – utilizing direct-to-market bursts of commentary to prompt behavior and create news narratives that the media is only too willing to follow. At its purest, it’s business-to-business communication.

He has, effectively, bypassed the permission of the press. He stays in the news by creating the news and discounts the media’s account of his story. Take a step back, and it’s difficult to argue that he isn’t setting the news agenda masterfully.

When you have the same tools as multi-billion-dollar media companies that could cloud your message, why bother offering the stories to them when you could skip the distributor and sell to the customer? Question Trump’s business acumen if you will, but his ability to promote and draw attention are changing the way that we think of presidential communication.

Since his election, which seemingly came against every legacy media prediction or poll, Trump has continued to be a boon to coverage of national affairs. If people didn’t care about national news in the smooth-jazz presidency of his predecessor, they care now.

And they are following.

Amid the otherwise awful news of decline of the mainstream press, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson told MSNBC in May that the company had added 308,000 digital subscribers in the first quarter (the company reports that is most in its history in a given quarter), and another 93,000 net subscribers in the second quarter. That was after the company reported that it increased 276,000 digital readers in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Newsonomics author Ken Doctor reported in a May article for The Street that, “The Washington Post said that January generated more subscription starts than any other month, beating what had been a record-setting November, with the Post overall seeing ‘doubled digital subscription revenue in the past 12 months, with a 75 [percent] increase in new subscribers.’ “

The news will always matter.

Where you get it, how you get it, and from whom you get it, though, may matter substantially more.

  • Chris Krug is President of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.

Editors and publishers fail when transparency is absent in reader “comments”

By
Monday, July 17th, 2017

Where the media falls down so badly so often is in its approach to stories.

Slanted and misleading headlines, hyperbolic and unsubstantiated reporting that’s short on facts and long on opinion, and manufactured outrage probably are the worst of what stands for journalism today.

But that’s simply the content that lives above the comment line. What of the interactive, social aspects of today’s journalism?

Well, that can be all forms of awful, too.

According to a report released July 12 by the Pew Institute, four of 10 Americans have experienced online harassment, 18 percent have been threatened in some way for sharing their point of view, and more than 60 percent consider this form of harassment a problem.

If you operate a news media site and allow the online forums to fester with hateful comments when matters are less important, they implode when real issues arise.

Most traditional media companies are so stripped down that they don’t have the resources to monitor comments and, as a matter of creating some visibility, have turned to Facebook comments to create some transparency. Oh, sure, they’ll take the clicks, but the responsibility for the environment? Not so much.

Others, well, I am not sure what they’re doing or if they are adhering to their own criteria because the inclusions and extractions appear arbitrary and capricious. One moment, a seemingly innocuous comment is there. The next time you might visit the site to see how people responded to your comment, but what you wrote is gone. Why? Nobody knows. For readers, the absence of continuity is jarring.

More than a decade ago, a daily newspaper and digital news site in greater Chicago I oversaw became one of the first in the country to allow comments on stories. We had this functionality and interactivity before any of the U.S. metropolitan newspapers had entered into the space. At that time, there was great debate whether the voice of the reader belonged alongside the journalism that had been published.

During my tenure as executive editor there, I saw comments as a meaningful way to interact with readers, and it provided explosive online growth at what was the onramp to the internet for most newspapers seeking to grow a digital presence.

We wanted to engage with the communities that we served. We believed, correctly, that our reporting was not the final word. We were part of a discussion – a significant part, but a part nonetheless. And we wanted meaningful conversations to occur around our reporting, because that is what journalists should strive to achieve.

We opened our online comments – I believe in 2005 – without rules, without filters, without any parameters at all really. It was a new frontier, so nobody knew what to expect.

Iterations ensued that required registration with a confirmed email, a profanity filter, and comments to remain in line with the subject of the story. It was an early handle on this key element of community building, interaction and balancing the newspaper’s standards with the community’s contributions that earned the 2007 Chicago Headline Club’s Lisagor Award for best website (over the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, et. al.) and an innovator of the year award from Local Media Association (an organization that then was called Suburban Newspapers of America).

The online community on our news site was vibrant, somewhat civil, oftentimes humorous, and with balanced and interesting points of view that – on occasion – brought new information or insight to the story. Because we served to include our community, we welcomed a reasonable amount of readers who came in without bringing their flaming torches or pitchforks.

There is nothing more essential to our democracy than the protections provided by the First Amendment. But if you want to hijack a discussion and run away with it on someone else’s news site, you’re not practicing discourse. Stay with the story. Participate in the discussion germane to that story. Be civil. Be frank, but be civil.

Civility may be too much to ask, though, as a story as innocuous as a local lemonade stand could elicit tangential commentary from trolls and wing nuts. Any digital forum, in particular those that welcome comments without accountability for them, can be hijacked by people far less interested in discussion and far more interested in hit-and-run bomb-throwing.

For publishers, a hands-off approach to comments on your site isn’t good ethical practice. It’s malpractice.

If you operate a site, and welcome guests to comment, your guests should adhere to house rules. So, as a site operator, basic rules should be determined that welcome discussion. Be clear about them; and fairly apply them.

And, to evolve the thinking, any organization that would seek to control the comments on their site through deceptive means (cloaking, fire-starting provocation, et al) is equally bad practice and, frankly, unethical.

Anyone who administers a site that allows comments knows the value of comments. And the law is on the side of the site owner. A site owner incurs no more responsibility for what is written on their “wall” than the landlord of a building whose alley-facing fence would for the scrawling from a graffiti artist. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of digital news, because light reveals truth – right there in front of God and everyone else.

Trolls, flamer-throwers, and other cowards make some news media sites run. They drive more traffic than the content itself. Some editors say they deplore them. But they know readers like them, and visitors return again and again to see what the newest screed says.

Online comments have become the media’s click machine, powering their sites by blowing breath into what otherwise can be so-so stories that don’t advance the reader’s understanding of a subject. As mainstream journalism continues to wane, comments often are more interesting and insightful than the stories that prompted them.

But anyone who operates a news media site and allows anonymous attacks – or those created under the veil of pseudonyms – to stand is morally complicit in those comments.

I don’t care what your lawyer says. Lawsuits shouldn’t be the bar by which this is measured. Responsible news sites should aspire to higher standards.

And, when comments are anonymous and authors shielded by the public, the scrutiny of authenticity is not met. It harms the journalism.

  • Chris Krug is President of Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. This column is original, but draws from his thoughts included in a column for ILNews.org that was published on July 7, 2017.

Krug: Trump hunt begs question: What is the media’s business?

By
Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Supporters said all along that President Donald Trump would be good for American business.

But many didn’t anticipate that the American media business stood to benefit from his presidency.

Currently the greatest love-hate relationship in U.S. politics, the mainstream and legacy media revels in Trump’s “fake news” claims. While they denounce his behavior publicly, reporters draw strength from Trump’s insults and use it as fuel to power their self-righteous crusade to shame the president.

They wear each hostile tweet as a badge of honor and consider it confirmation they are doing God’s work.

Trump has worked the media masterfully. He didn’t need the legacy media’s support or endorsement when he campaigned for president, and he doesn’t need them now. They are a distraction, and Trump is working them.

Historically, American media have pursued a noble mission to serve the public and keep the government in check. But that mission falls on deaf ears when the watchdogs become attack dogs. We have reached that point.

When does pursuing a story become crafting a narrative with an obvious political agenda? It starts with basic editorial decision-making. And according to the Media Research Center’s recent study, network news has decided that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election outweighs other critical issues such as health care, tax reform, and jobs. It feels almost as if it was pulled from a season of Netflix’s “House of Cards” – only not as clever.

And then there’s CNN, the cable news network that continues to beat the Russia drum even after there is no new evidence or information to report. Their desperation to find the smoking gun resulted in the retraction of a Russia-related story and the resignation of three staffers last week.

The driver? Not truth. No, it was red meat for the left; creation of controversy. We’ll wait for the next public opinion poll, but I think it’s safe to say that the Russia investigation is not at the top of everyday Americans’ priority list.

The videos released by conservative journalist James O’Keefe, known for undercover sting operations, show CNN producers admitting that the Trump-Russia investigation is overhyped for enhanced ratings. They need something they can own to differentiate themselves from other cable-news channels. And so the love-hate cycle continues.

Although this epic rivalry can be comical at times, it’s sad to look behind the curtain and realize that Big Media has its interests too – and it doesn’t always include the American public.

For media to be credible – truly credible – it must report independently verified facts. It must seek the truth, and report with integrity. It must distill facts and straight news from opinions and insights gleaned from perceptions of original reporting.

The criteria for whether a story is good to air or publish should be somewhat higher than a corporate lawyer’s opinion on the likelihood that it opens up the organization to a lawsuit.

The lone criteria should be truth and public interest. Often, it’s not.

Television news, in particular that which appears on 24-hour cable cycle, is rife with opinion. Understandably so: There simply are not enough resources on any network or cable channel to fulfill a mission of 365-day news content that would be interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention. Without commentary, every network would resort to the C-SPAN model of airing raw footage of endless committee meetings.

Opinion is less expensive than actual reporting, and is in endless supply. It is far more economical to bring in a person from a studio in Washington, D.C., than it would be to send a correspondent and crew to Moscow. That’s a business decision that saves media brands money and costs taxpayers in reliable information.

So what is passed off as straight news often is a new take of an opinion. And with each passing “hot take,” the message is pushed further and further away from the truth.

Why does it matter? Can’t people have an opinion on the news?

Certainly. This is America, and our speech is protected constitutionally. But it matters that the continuous news cycle rarely differentiates between straight news and opinion. The content is often indistinguishable. Context is rarely offered. Oftentimes, the crawl beneath the commentary is in clear conflict. The opinion often overwhelms the core of the story.

The result is that the news itself – the facts, the verification, the story, and the truth – has been discarded in favor of a take on the news.

A controversial or salacious quote often makes a better headline than the old journalism standby of who, what, where, when, and why. Just look at the mainstream media’s obsession with President Trump’s recent tweet about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, or the video he posted of an old WWE appearance where Trump punches out a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his face. The exaggerated response gives President Trump an even greater villain to demonize and justification for controversial actions such as banning cameras from the White House press briefings. Veering from the facts lowers the public perception and credibility of media as a whole. It threatens our democracy.

So much so that it must be next to impossible for Americans to understand the media’s job, or what business we’re in anymore.

  • Chris Krug is president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
  • Also posted on Watchdog.org here.

Chris Krug to lead Franklin Center and Watchdog.org

By
Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

CHICAGO (April 17, 2017) – Veteran newsroom leader Chris Krug has been named President of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity and its journalism project Watchdog.org.

“The journalistic mission and value of the Franklin Center and Watchdog.org are more important now than ever in today’s changing media landscape,” Krug said. “This is an exciting time to grow the Watchdog.org brand and expand its critical role in keeping government accountable and citizens informed.”

Krug brings to the Franklin Center more than 25 years experience in the media industry. He currently leads the Illinois News Network as Publisher and General Manager, a role which he will continue as he takes the helm at the Franklin Center.

Krug is former publisher of the suburban Chicago Pioneer Press newspaper chain. Prior to his tenure as a vice president at Sun-Times Media Network and oversight of Pioneer, he was responsible for all news operations and managed properties in the suburbs as a vice president for Shaw Suburban Media in the greater Chicago area. In 2008, the Local Media Association honored Krug as national editor of the year, and his newsrooms have received hundreds of regional, state and national awards for work in print, video and on digital pure-plays. Krug also is the former president of the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association.

The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity and Watchdog.org are committed to creating non-partisan journalism focused on restoring oversight of state governments and holding politicians and bureaucrats at all levels accountable for their handling of taxpayer dollars. Reporting by the Franklin Center has uncovered significant misconduct, whistleblower retaliation, a university admission scandal, and has driven legislative action.

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A look back at Sunshine Week

By
Monday, March 13th, 2017

July 4, 1776 was the day America declared its independence, but December 15, 1791 was the day we declared our freedom.

It was on that day that the 13 former British colonies ratified the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment. Our right to speak out about the government was enshrined in law. Freedom of the press, long denied by government, was guaranteed.

While the First Amendment gave citizens powerful tools to hold their government accountable, there was more work to do. In the 1960s, the federal Freedom of Information Act, and similar state laws that followed, made it clear that government has an obligation to be open and transparent. But the framers of the Bill of Rights were the trendsetters, and their message was clear:

We the People are in charge.

Letting in the sunshine

Sunshine Week — March 12-18, 2017 — was hosted by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, two organizations that play a crucial rule in advocating for press freedom and government transparency.

The first ever Sunshine Week was in 2005, and it was established to coincide with James Madison’s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day, both on March 16. Madison, of course, proposed the Bill of Rights and is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

To mark the special occasion, Watchdog.org published a series of stories examining government transparency issues:

Sunshine Week: Vermont on a long road to accountability in government

Sunshine Week: Poor transparency plagues local tax abatement programs

Sunshine Week: Lots of money, little transparency in Texas bond campaigns

Sunshine Week: First Amendment Foundation goes to bat for Florida’s right to know

Sunshine Week: Michigan House tries to fix ‘worst in nation’ FOIA law

The 1791 Sunshine Initiative

In honor of the ratification of the First Amendment and the great Americans who set the stage for government transparency, we are proud to announce the launch of our 1791 Sunshine Initiative.

Throughout Sunshine Week and beyond, we are asking our supporters and readers to commit to donating at least $17.91 per month online in support of the First Amendment and freedom of the press.

Whether it’s exposing secret government meetings, uncovering shady dealings, or revealing wasteful spending, our Watchdog.org reporters spend each day letting in the sunshine. But they can only do it with your help.

We hope you’ll consider making a donation today to support our crucial work.

Here’s what our journalists have to say

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A new administration begins, and Watchdog reporting continues

By
Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

 

No matter who leads our country, federal bureaucrats with political agendas will always run amok in Washington. And that means we are always under threat of overreach from the federal government. 

With a new administration taking office, here’s a look back at three major stories Watchdog.org broke in 2016 about the federal government and how we will continue covering these issues in the new year.

1- The Google Administration

Watchdog reporter Johnny Kampis broke the news that Google officials visited the White House more than once a week on average since President Obama took office. The story immediately went viral, landing on the Drudge Report and the front page of FoxNews.com. Thousands of people were talking about the story on social media, including Rob Lowe, who tweeted his thoughts.

Kampis also broke a second story about the revolving door between Google and the Obama Administration, exposing that more than 250 people moved from Google and related firms to the federal government or vice versa since President Obama took office. For a second time the story was featured on the Drudge Report, and it also led to a segment on Fox Business.

Google was reportedly planning to remain close to the White House if Hillary Clinton has won, but with Donald Trump taking office, the tech giant is scrambling to get close to him and his staff. As Google and other major players try to gain access to the federal government and massage policy in their favor, we’ll expose their actions.

You can find all stories in our Google Administration series by clicking here.

2- Border Disorder

Watchdog.org Texas reporter Kenric Ward was built up trust with sources knowledgeable about immigration and border security, so they know they can come to him with big news. And they did: Watchdog was able to exclusively report that the Department of Homeland Security shut down a key aerial surveillance program along the border.

His reporting got the attention of a bipartisan coalition of public officials. Together, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn and Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar demanded that the department resume the program. Abbott also shared Ward’s work on Twitter:

Will the new president resume the program, which was responsible for apprehending 110,000 illegal border crossers? As the Trump Administration moves to secure the border, we’ll continue to cover this important topic.3-

3- Deadly Delays

Wisconsin Watchdog bureau chief Matt Kittle exposed a huge scandal in the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review: an employee who brought to light claims of incompetence, misconduct and long case delays told us that management was retaliating against him for blowing the whistle.

Meanwhile, Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss was accused of deciding disability cases based on the appearance and race of claimants and of making highly inappropriate and sexually-charged comments about them. Documents obtained first by Watchdog show the judge using terms such as “cute,” “buxom,” and “gorilla-like,” to describe claimants.

As a result of our reporting, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee began an investigation into the Social Security Administration. The judge was later suspended and escorted from his office, and more SSA employees at the center of scandals have decided to leave the agency or have been reassigned.

Will President Trump and the Congress clean up the SSA? We’ll be watching.

You can find all of our stories in the Deadly Delays series by clicking here. 

These stories are just a few examples of our impact journalism. And regardless of who holds office, government must be watched. That’s exactly what Watchdog does. While other news organizations get distracted with salacious stories and snappy soundbites, we keep the focus on what really matters.

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

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

Kemper_County_Coal_Gasification_Plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See all of the articles on Watchdog.org

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

A bad odor at ODAR: Whistleblowers expose Social Security Administration

By
Monday, October 24th, 2016

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Madness in Milwaukee

It all began, as many stories of scandals do, with a single gutsy act.

For years, Ron Klym had worked as senior legal assistant for administrative law judges at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). As part of the Social Security Administration, these judges are tasked with granting or denying Social Security benefits.

Reviewing and dispensing Social Security benefits is an important responsibility, and one that was being plagued by management problems, Klym realized. He alerted senior officials about the problem, but then things started to get rough.

The SSA’s ODAR isn’t exactly known for its efficiency and timeliness. As of October 2015, the average wait time for processing disability claims was 450 days. The pace gets even slower, however, if one tries to appeal the agency’s decision. At the Milwaukee office where Klym worked, records obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog showed that dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. Some even stretched to more than 1,000 days. Klym said the backlogs had grown to record levels and worried that the delays were impairing applicants’ civil rights. They may not have a right to the benefits, he reasoned, but they have a right to due process. So he blew the whistle.

“No one can guarantee the benefit. I know a case where someone has filed for a benefit 26 times,” he said. “It’s not the result, it’s the opportunity. If your opportunity has been waylaid, to paraphrase (George) Orwell, we’re all equal, but some are more equal. That’s a process issue.”

Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region (which includes Milwaukee), said the agency was aware of the long waits for disability appeals hearings and was “working to address the issue.”

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As Klym tells it, however, the Milwaukee office was doing just the opposite. Rather than trying to address his concerns, he said the agency played a shell game by dumping scores of cases off to other regional offices, giving the impression that the Milwaukee office was performing better than it actually was. Worse, he said, the agency retaliated against him for blowing the whistle with harassment, additional work assignments, and unreasonable deadlines. He took his concerns to lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, and then went public to the press.

Shortly after Wisconsin Watchdog published a story detailing his allegations, he was placed on administrative leave.

Coming out of the woodwork

Innocent-1-225x300More whistleblowers have since come forward. After speaking anonymously with Wisconsin Watchdog in its initial report, Mary Brister went public with her story. She says that just a few days after she was anonymously quoted about alleged bullying and harassment within the Milwaukee ODAR, she was suspended for five days and given a one-year suspension from teleworking.

“I do believe this suspension is the result of me going forward with my story,” she said. As a veteran with PTSD, she added that she wanted to take her story to the public in order to stand up against an environment of intimidation in the ODAR workplace.

Celia Machelle Keller had a similar experience. A week after she went public with claims of misconduct and intimidation among managers at the Madison ODAR, she said a pair of federal investigators from the SSA showed up at her door and peppered her with questions. As the lead case technician at the Madison office for several years, Keller says management retaliated against her after she was called to testify in an inner-office misconduct case last year.

Like Brister, Keller was first quoted anonymously by Wisconsin Watchdog when she blew the whistle on misconduct, and she claims she experienced alleged bullying, harassment, intimidation and retaliation in response. She decided to go public, she said, because she was tired of living in fear.

News of the abuses at the Madison ODAR got worse in June when Wisconsin Watchdog reported that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss is accused of extremely “inappropriate conduct,” including sexual harassment, at the Madison ODAR operations. In that story, a whistleblower told Watchdog that there is a “culture of corruption and cover-up” in the SSA offices, “and it begins at the top.”

File notes from cases support this accusation that the judge determined disability claims on whether he believed a claimant was sexually attractive. Pleuss even referred to an African-American woman as “gorilla-like” and said another woman “looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”

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

If Klym’s experience is anything to judge by, the fears of Brister and Keller are not groundless. His administrative leave status soon grew dire in the aftermath of his revelations. Less than a month after Wisconsin Watchdog’s first report, he said he was forced to sign what was effectively his employment death warrant.

He told Watchdog what happened when he was called into the office of Chief Administrative Law Judge Christopher Messina:

“He had a stack of papers in front of him. I said, ‘Well, it looks like a disciplinary action. Can I speak to my union rep? He said, ‘This is not a disciplinary action. This is a proposal to terminate. I need you to sign off on this.”

Come August, Klym was out of a job.

The Senate wants answers

Credit Image: © Jay Mallin/ZUMAPRESS.com

Amid the difficulties with their immediate employers at the SSA, these whistleblowers have found an important and powerful ally: U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (pictured), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Johnson’s committee has received a number of complaints from employees at ODAR since Wisconsin Watchdog broke news of the scandal, and it has been briefed by SSA officials about the million-plus case backlog plaguing the disability claim system.

There are a lot of issues the agency isn’t talking about, however, and Johnson’s committee is pushing for answers. When asked about the accusations of retaliation, the SSA has cited the Privacy Act, claiming the law prevents it from disclosing information to Congress unless the whistleblower signs a waiver or the chairman of the committee signs on.

There’s just one problem with that argument, the Homeland Security committee says: nothing in the law throws up such obstacles to fact-finding.

The SSA’s feet-dragging has only made Johnson more determined to get to the bottom of the scandal. He says his committee will continue to push for answers. Johnson sent a formal letter to the Social Security Administration in June asking for its “unfettered cooperation” in turning over information about allegations of misconduct and retaliation in its disability claims review offices.

“I write to you concerning reports of whistleblower retaliation within the Milwaukee and Madison hearing offices of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review,” Johnson said in the letter to Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner at the SSA. He went on to show how SSA officials have systematically refused to address questions about media reports quoting whistleblowers claiming harassment and retaliation.

“Despite the serious issues that these media reports highlight, SSA has refused to provide information to the committee about these personnel actions,” he wrote.

Shaking things up 

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

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

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

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*This article was originally published in June and updated in October. More information is available on this page at the Watchdog website

Watchdog finds ghost teachers doing union work on taxpayer dime

By
Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Ghost man stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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