Opinion: FOIA lawsuits a threat to our democracy, insult to our time

Friday, September 29th, 2017

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

Let’s talk about time, if only for a moment so as not to waste too much of yours.

More precious than gold, more fleeting than beauty, nobody who’s living a life worth living has an excess of time. Whether it is God, family, work or community, we’re allocating our time to things that further the American way.

So I don’t flinch when I read stories about low attendance – or no attendance – at community board meetings, legislative hearings or any other kind of governmental activities that legacy media outlets rag on the public for not showing up to watch it.

We the people, well, we’ve got other things going on. We simply do not have the hours in a day to be present to watch government work (or not work). We trust that it is functioning, but verification is a must.

Most of us are busy working to come up with the money the bureaucrats in those meetings are bleeding from us, one buried fee or required registration at a time.

Most times, when a community shows up en masse at an open governmental meeting is when professional activists round up their regulars – posing as authentic grassroots – to make a point. And I couldn’t possibly care less what they have to say when it’s their time to speak in public forum because someone else scripted that puppet show.

But let’s not wander too far from a point about meetings, and tracking government activity. Suffice to say, we don’t have much additional time in our lives to monitor the daily business of elected and appointed officials – even on those rare occasions when public meetings become a theater of the absurd.

And then there’s the business that is conducted next to the mushrooms that grow in the basements of our governmental haunts, deep in the darkness and away from the light of day. While we are throwing fits over the known public issues, the real terrors lie somewhere in a filing cabinet and on a spreadsheet.

Those dark dealings are unknown to the public without the protection of state sunshine laws.

Our journalists at Watchdog.org have been on the receiving end of silence when making FOIA requests for years. The paperwork was misfiled. The request was too broad. The request was too specific. The request was too onerous. Baloney, all of it. Some governmental bodies will do or say anything to keep the truth at bay.

So when I see stories such as the one published this week by The Associated Press about governments suing people who file Freedom of Information Act requests as a means of cloaking their activity, it sends shivers down my spine.

The only thing worse than a government that hides its decisions is one that slaps down those who question them. It’s difficult enough to pry the truth from government without them beating back journalists and interested citizens with bogus lawsuits.

Seems that there has been a rash of suits filed by governmental agencies. In a little-ballyhooed story that the Poynter Institute wrote in 2016, the Obama administration – self declared the most transparent administration in U.S. history –established a new high-water mark for FOIA denials, disregarding requests more than 100,000 times in 2015.

In addition to that, it was reported that Obama’s team had spent more than $36 million in federal court to block FOIA requests in 2016. That this action would come from the top has signaled a permission among lower levels of government to simply sue away requests that local officials deem to be a nuisance.

President Donald Trump said that he would drain the swamp, and we’re still waiting to see what that means with regard to our access to public information.

If you work for government, or are elected to conduct its business, you enter into the public domain. Your actions are accountable to those who fund it. You are not an independent business owner or operator, and your work, actions and directives are within the public’s right to know.

Mr. Mayor, you are not the king of our town. Ms. School Superintendent, this district is not your fiefdom. Doesn’t matter if you are the governor or the borough dogcatcher, the taxpayers fund your endeavors and you are accountable to them.

Local government directly affects the lives of Americans. It is local government’s hand that guides our daily lives, and is closest to our prosperity and wellbeing.

Government simply should not be allowed to sue those who seek to understand its activity as a deterrent.

Chris Krug is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and publisher of Watchdog.org. Contact Chris at [email protected].

Meet Christian Britschgi of Arizona Watchdog

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Christian Britschgi

Christian Britschgi is Watchdog’s latest addition, writing for our newly launched Arizona Watchdog bureau. He began his journalism career in college, writing for the College Fix and The Lens. After graduating from Portland State University, he interned at Reason Magazine’s D.C. Office, where he wrote extensively on everything from public transit to pop culture.

As a reporter for Arizona Watchdog, Christian will report on a wide variety of issues, including cronyism, school choice, regulations and occupational licensing. Get to know him in the interview below:

1. Where are you from? Tell us about yourself and how you found yourself in Arizona.

I’m from a military family, so I guess you could say I’m not really from anywhere.  Because of my dad’s job with the Air Force I moved around a lot as a kid, living in places are far apart as Alabama and Australia. I ended up in Arizona thanks to Watchdog.org hiring me to be a reporter down here.

2. What do you do when you aren’t being a journalist?

When not being a journalist, I enjoy reading history, listening to heavy metal, and jogging.

3. Why did you choose a career in journalism?

I started freelancing articles for the College Fix while still in school, but for the longest time never seriously considered working as a journalist.  That changed when I got accepted for a journalism internship with Reason Magazine.  Having the opportunity to write about government abuses and the movement for liberty around the country really opened my mind to a possible career in journalism, and by the end of my internship that was all I really wanted to do with my life.

4. What is your favorite part of working in journalism?

My favorite part of the news business is the detective-like aspect of it all.  Every story starts as a sort of mystery, and it’s my job to uncover the facts, talk to the right people, and then connect all the dots in a way that is both interesting and informative.  It requires a lot of enterprise and hustle, and there is honestly never a dull moment.

5. What does watchdog journalism mean to you? What sets Watchdog.org​ apart?

Watchdog journalism represents a real opportunity to hold those in power accountable and inform the public of how their lives are shaped by forces they might not even be aware of.  Few outlets cast a more skeptical or penetrating eye on how our state and local governments operate, and I’m honored to be part of that effort.

You can follow Arizona Watchdog on Facebook and Twitter

Meet Lou Varricchio, Vermont Watchdog Bureau Chief

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Lou Varricchio

Lou Varricchio is a writer, editor, dinosaur enthusiast, NASA alumnus, and now, Vermont Watchdog’s new bureau chief. He brings over 20 years of journalism experience to Watchdog, and we’re excited to welcome him to the team.

Get to know Lou and why he loves journalism, paleontology, and astronomy in the interview below:

  1. Where are you from? Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Pennsylvania and worked for the Quakertown Free Press (daily) and then became editor of the Emmaus Free Press (owned by the QFP back in the day).

Among my various career highlights was working as a NASA senior science writer at the Ames Research Center in California. I wrote stories for “NASA Insights” magazine about the team that did spacecraft and aircraft design testing using supercomputers, notably for the cancelled “Venture Star” X-33 space plane project that was supposed to replace the Space Shuttle.

I have undergrad degrees in communications from Temple University and Grahm College (now Mt. Ida College) and a M.S. in space studies from the University of North Dakota.

  1. How did you end up in Vermont?

I moved to Vermont in 1989 after I met my wife-to-be in 1988. She was a long-time resident of Vermont.

I worked as managing editor of the Vermont Eagle weekly newspaper from 2000 through 2016.

  1. What do you do when you aren’t being a journalist and editor?

In addition, having a master’s in science credential, I am able to teach college-level courses as an adjunct science instructor.

I teach both astronomy and dinosaur paleontology courses at the Community College of Vermont (CCV).

My love of dinosaurs emerged as a boy and then blossomed into being an amateur paleontologist. I have assisted my cousin, Dr. David Varricchio of Montana State University, on a Nat’l  Science Foundation dinosaur egg-nesting field project in the Montana badlands for several summers. I also enjoy observing the Moon through a telescope and star gazing–at least when the often cloudy skies of Vermont are clear enough to see through!

  1. Why did you choose a career in journalism?

I always liked writing and journalism, beginning in high school, and later science journalism; I started in community news reporting in Pennsylvania back in the ’70s. But I also worked on the other side, in public relations, at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. for many years, trying to get the attention of editors and reporters.

  1. What is your favorite part of working in the news business?

The news business is both exciting and stressful with issues and deadlines being part of the package. It is especially wonderful to be close to the inner workings of our republic when reporting about local and state government. News reporting is an awesome responsibility. It is important that journalists not be part of the story or insert themselves in the reporting. The news business has changed a lot since the 1970s, most notably with the rise of online news sources.

  1. What does watchdog journalism mean to you? What sets Vermont Watchdog apart?

I came to greatly admire Watchdog.org when the Vermont Eagle began publishing Vermont Watchdog reports in every issue starting in 2014. As the former editor, I watched how readers get more engaged; it is a terrific, investigative statewide feature to bring to a local weekly paper. That’s why I was honored (and humbled) to be asked to become part of Watchdog’s important mission. The Vermont Watchdog team is exceptional; we talk to each other and respect our strengths as well as our special beats. It should never be about egos or agendas, but finding and reporting the stories which support our news mission.

Meet Carter DeWitt, Franklin Center’s New Vice President of Development

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

Carter DeWitt is no stranger to public policy organizations, bringing over 25 years of experience at the national, state and local levels with helping donors support the causes they are passionate about. She’s the Franklin Center’s new Vice President of Development, and she’s got big plans for 2017.

Get to know Carter and how she plans to grow the support for our public interest journalism in the interview below:

  1. Where are you from? Tell us about yourself.

I grew up on the beaches of northeast Florida (Ponte Vedra Beach) and lived in Florida most of my life – except for a recent five year stint in Washington, DC.  North Florida is a wonderful place to be, it has a younger demographic profile and tourism is a small sidebar, not a major industry. You get the best of both worlds, a thriving economy and great weather supporting year round recreation.  Not surprisingly, Forbes ranked Jacksonville, Florida as the number two place in the country for attracting new residents in 2016.

Washington, DC is a fantastic place to be as well, although I could not have chosen two more opposite places to live. I remember thinking when I first landed in DC, if someone had told me on the tennis courts a year ago I would be living a block from the White House and working in the National Press Building, I would have laughed and said “I’ll have two of whatever you’re drinking!” I loved DC, but sandy beaches were calling and I returned to Florida in 2013.

  1. How do you spend your leisure time? What are your interests?

Maybe this means I have no life, but I dedicate a lot of my spare time volunteering for a wide variety of other nonprofits from animal rescue to the homeless.  I guess I just love what I do – I don’t consider it a job and have no problem giving back in my spare time.

Now if you ask my adult children what I am interested in, besides tennis, they will tell you anything science especially dinosaurs and fossils. I have a budding fossil collection and a substantial shark tooth collection numbering in the thousands including a few megalodon teeth as large as your hand. I collect as I walk on the beach.  

  1. Why have you chosen a career in nonprofit fundraising? What excites you about development work?

I didn’t actively pursue a career in fundraising, actually I have a B.S in chemistry, which I never used.  However, my favorite reads are still medical journals and research papers. I am continually amazed at the ever increasing speed of scientific discovery. From new surgical techniques, to age reversal to anti-gravity devices and to AI (artificial intelligence), it’s a fabulous future barreling towards us all.

I fell into nonprofit fundraising because I seemed to have a natural knack of connecting donors with that special project, event or organization they felt passionate about.  I always felt blessed in life and always gave back to the community. I started early, raising $30,000 for a local zoo when I was in high school. As I matured I was called upon to chair events, oversee campaigns and it just grew from there. When my husband passed away, way too early, I delved into fundraising full time. I now have successful experience at the national, state, regional and local levels in almost every funding vehicle. Best of all I don’t feel like I am working. I wake up energized and looking forward to the day.

  1. What is your favorite part of working with donors?

Good question! I always say I work with my fellow development team members, but I work for our donors. It’s never about what I want – but always about what the donor wants. I enjoy helping individuals, foundations and businesses match their support – whether it be time, talent or treasure – to the projects and missions that resonate in their hearts and minds. I’ve met so many talented and fascinating people over the years and I feel blessed to have played a small part in assisting them as they give back to the community. It’s such a feel good career.

  1. What does watchdog journalism mean to you?

I was one of the angry masses during the 2016 presidential election cycle and my trust in mainstream media is pretty low – for good reason. Recently I read a quote from the New York Times complaining about President Trump, saying (paraphrasing here) that the public is inflamed over the treatment of a cherished and beloved American icon – the press. I broke out into laughter and all I could think was ‘what cup of coffee did that reporter buy in la-la land this morning?’

I’ve come to appreciate Watchdog journalism for its integrity, its investigative method and its nonpartisan reporting. I may not always agree with what is said, but I have to admit, we tell both sides of the story. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with and talking to a lot of the staff reporters and they are an impressive group. It means a lot to me when I talk to donors about our journalists and I can accurately use the highest of accolades. Few news outlets can do that with truth.

  1. What do you want donors to know about Franklin Center?

I left Washington, DC a few years ago thinking to myself “Been there, done that and got the t-shirt.” Despite several incredible job offers to return since I left, I had no intention of going back to the national scene, and I had no problem saying “no thank you.”  That changed when Nicki Neily, Franklin President and an old DC friend, reached out to me asking me to consider joining the team.  Out of respect for her I did my due diligence and analyzed the potential for Franklin Center and Watchdog.org. though to be honest, I started with every intention of repeating my “No, but thanks for thinking of me,” as soon as I finished my research.

What I discovered was amazing. I was blown away. I realized Franklin Center and Watchdog.org stood on the precipice of opportunity and had all the tools to make their vision happen on a scale never anticipated since their founding in 2009. Experienced motivated leadership team? Check! Talented staff? Check! External opportunity created by self-implosion of a huge portion of mainstream media? Check! Untapped revenue sources? Check! My list just went on and on.  Call it a perfect storm or say that all the stars are aligned, but without a doubt, the next five years will be one heck of a ride and I wanted to be a part of the movement. I hope you’ll join me.

You can learn more about Carter by clicking here

Bicknell Op-ed Published in The Daily Caller

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

Backlash Against Sharing Economy Worthy Of The Luddite Label

Many successful ventures in the sharing economy, such as Uber and Airbnb, have come under fire from liberal politicians in recent years. These all-knowing politicians believe they need to protect Americans from the potentially bad choices they might make, but could it be that their real goal is protecting favored constituencies and defending the crusty industries that support entrenched politicians?

John Bicknell, Executive Editor of Watchdog.org, published an op-ed about the issue in The Daily Caller:

Is the brief bloom of the sharing economy about to be trampled under the feet of big government? In Austin, Chicago and New York, it certainly appears that way.

Elegist Thomas Gray foresaw this in the mid-18th century:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

But not even George II, Gray’s sovereign at the time of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” was as imperious as the politicians who presume to tell you who can sleep in your home.

Read the full story in The Daily Caller.

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 Watchdog.org.

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 Watchdog.org.

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.

The rise of the Google Administration

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Google colors

A White House regular

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

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

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

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

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

Actor Rob Lowe also chimed in:

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

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

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

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

Antitrust allegations drag on

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

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

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

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

Read more from Watchdog’s series The Google Administration

Mark Levin cites Watchdog report on Medicaid expansion

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

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

Listen to the segment here:

Vermont’s environmental civil war

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

Solar panels vermont

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watchdog finds ghost teachers doing union work on taxpayer dime

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Ghost man stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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