Sustained Outrage

Time for our weekly look at stories that attracted our notice.

Before fans tune in for the big game on Sunday, you may want to take a look at Mark Bowden’s 2009 piece in The Atlantic, The Hardest Job in Football, to get a fuller appreciation of just how complicated a football broadcast is. Bowden describes the virtuosity of Bob Fishman, who directs up to 20 cameras and 40 replay machines to produce a seamless rendering of the game. “More than any other professional sport, football is primarily a television show,” Bowden notes. “The broadcast arrives in their living room, packaged in stereo sound and in full-color high-definition, shown from constantly shifting angles, from stadium-embracing wide shots to intimate close-ups, all of it smoothly orchestrated and narrated, and delivered up as though from the all-seeing eye of the supreme NFL fan, God Almighty.”

Mississippi’s attorney general has accused BP of pressuring financially strapped victims into accepting quick (and comparatively small) settlements in exchange for promising not to sue later, Bloomberg News reported. In a filing in federal court, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said that the company was deliberately stalling any action or payment on interim claims “to increase financial hardship on the claimants,” making them more likely to settle. Conversely, the $20 billion fund has quickly paid 95 percent of the “quick-pay” claims, in which claimants agree not to sue in exchange for not having to document their losses.

Two Mississippi men spent a combined 30 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit because a flawed autopsy purported matched them to “bite marks” on the bodies of two deceased 3-year-olds, NPR reported. On television, medical examiners and coroners often uncover key forensic evidence, but in reality, they operate in “a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes,” the joint investigation with ProPublica.org and PBS’ “Frontline” determined. In the Mississippi cases, the men were exonerated, and an expert panel assembled by the Mississippi Innocence Project concluded that the bite marks were probably caused by routine decomposition or activity by fish, turtles and insects in the water where the bodies were found.

Once again, a look at stories that caught our interest this week:

With the world turning its attention to Super Bowl XLV, The New Yorker took an in-depth look at the substantial risk of devastating and debilitating injuries faced by football players, particularly through repeated head collisions. Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other forms of brain damage are playing a bigger part of the N.F.L.’s discussions of its future. (In an aside, author Ben McGrath notes that a doctor told him that concussions among Iraq and Afghanistan could be “the next Agent Orange.”) “Throughout most of the Super Bowl era, football was understood to be an orthopedic, an arthroscopic, and, eventually, an arthritic risk,” McGrath wrote, but we’ve also learned that retired N.F.L. players are many times more likely to be diagnosed with a dementia-related health problems than the general population.

In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered as he searched for connections to so-called “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in Pakistan. Earlier this month, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published The Truth Left Behind, which began as a journalism class project at Georgetown University. The Pearl Project concluded that 27 men were involved in the kidnapping and murder, and as many as 14 of them remain free. “The story we have written is the one I think Danny would have reported,” wrote co-author Asra Nomani, who grew up in Morgantown.

Secure Communities, a program developed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, includes a database of fingerprints of illegal immigrants, but when Virgina authorities ran the prints of Salvador Portillo-Saravia, a gang member from El Salvador who had been deported in 2003, they came up empty. Four weeks later, Portillo-Saravia allegedly raped an 8-year-old girl, and is the subject of a manhunt, the Washington Post reported. Secure Communities is supposed to flag people who may be in the country illegally for possible deportation, which in Portillo-Saravia’s case would have likely kept him in custody following his November arrest on public intoxication charges. Authorities later admitted that many people who were deported before 2005 are not in the fingerprint database.

Time for another set of stories we read with interest this week:

After he was convicted of battery for groping a patient, a medical doctor in Illinois admitted that he had sexual liaisons with three patients, the Chicago Tribune reported. But the state only learned this information after he relocated to Florida and tried to have his criminal records sealed, and now the statute of limitations has passed for his earlier behavior in Illinois. Had Illinois regulators known about the additional transgressions, they likely would have handed down a harsher punishment than the four-month suspension he received, a spokeswoman told the paper.

Years after members of the Los Angeles Police Department were caught stealing drugs and money from street gangs, members of its drug and narcotics units are bristling at the suggestion that they have to open up their own finances to investigators, NPR reported. Some of the officers are considering transferring out of the unit rather than give the department access to the accounts and financial records. “They have no right to know what I might make going to Vegas gambling. They have no right [knowing] what I make in my personal investments. They have no right to know how much my wife makes. They have no right to know that I inherited money,” said one retired officer.

Oregon’s Attorney General is leading an effort to update the state’s public records laws, which haven’t changed substantially for 40 years, this account by The Oregonian noted. John Kroger intends to revisit the amount public agencies can charge to provide public information, and to eliminate more than 100 exemptions, including reports of waste, fraud and abuse provided to the Secretary of State once an investigation is closed and “personnel disciplinary materials for non-union management employees.”

Here’s another look at stories we enjoyed and admired this week:

Want to learn a bunch of things about the U.S. Constitution that will probably surprise you? (For example: During World War II, the four-page parchment — animal skin, not pulp paper — was stored at Fort Knox.) Then check out Jill Lepore’s highly readable essay about the 4,400-word document and its various admirers and detractors in The New Yorker. “A great deal of what many Americans hold dear is nowhere written on those four pages of parchment, or in any of the amendments,” Lepore wrote. “What has made the Constitution durable is the same as what makes it demanding: the fact that so much was left out.”

In 1964, a black business owner in Ferriday, La., was murdered when a Ku Klux Klan “hit squad” set fire to his store. On Wednesday, the Concordia Sentinel, citing comments from multiple family members, published a story that alleged that a Richland Parrish truck driver was one of the arsonists. The man denies any involvement in the fire, which ignited Frank Morris’ clothes. Morris died four days later in the hospital. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the paper obtained transcripts of the interviews the FBI conducted with Morris before he died. NPR has more information on the 46-year-old cold case.

Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed information surrounding the Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and others closely associated with the organization, the New York Times reported. This confirms the long-rumored criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over the publication of a series of classified documents, including extensive Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs. Leak investigations generally focus on government employees who disclose information, not the organization or individuals who subsequently publish it. “Most legal experts believe that efforts to bring criminal charges against WikiLeaks volunteers would face numerous practical and legal obstacles, and some human rights organizations and constitutional scholars have said such a prosecution could damage press freedom,” the story notes.

Here’s our first batch of stories from 2011 that we read with interest:

Almost 12 years after the British periodical Lancet published a vastly influential and much-cited study claiming to link autism to vaccinations for Measles, Mumps and Rubella (which Lancet retracted in 2010), a peer-reviewed article published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal has concluded that the study was largely based on falsified information. The appearance of a link, according to the first part of a series, was fabricated at a London medical school. A companion editorial called the study “an elaborate fraud.”

A riveting piece by Sarah Ellison in Vanity Fair details the complicated, convoluted and cautious dance between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the media outlets who agreed to collaborate on the publication of the Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs. The traditional media outlets’ efforts to provide context to the leaks and prevent any repercussions clashed with Assange’s belief, grounded in his background as a former computer hacker, that as much unfiltered information should be made available to the public as possible. Ultimately, Ellison wonders if Assange’s editorial model is sustainable: “Committed to a form of transparency that verges on anarchy, and operating on the sly and on the fly, it is inherently unstable.”

In October, as Miami police conducted a series of raids targeting (and seizing) hundreds of video gaming machines, Mayor Tomas Regalado twice tried to postpone the action, according to a former city manager and ranking police official, the Miami Herald reported. An escalating and public conflict between Regalado and Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito has ensued, culminating in Exposito writing two letters last week accusing the mayor of interfering with police investigations into illegal gambling. Miami Commissioner Richard P. Dunn II told the paper that Exposito has gone on the offensive to try to save his job, which his poor performance has put in jeopardy, and that Dunn intended to call for Exposito’s resignation at the next commission meeting.

This may well be the final installment for 2010, as your loyal contributors to Sustained Outrage take a quick break for the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our readers — please come back and visit us in 2011.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is weighing in on most business cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, with a remarkable success rate, the New York Times reported. During the last term, the Roberts Court sided with the party supported by the Chamber in 13 out of 16 cases, including the notorious Citizens United decision. Overall, the Roberts Court has been notably receptive to business concerns, issuing pro-business decisions 61 percent of the time, as opposed to 51 percent under Chief Justice Rehnquist, 47 percent under Chief Justice Burger and 29 percent under Chief Justice Warren.

The Pentagon’s health plan for troops and most veterans does not pay for cognitive rehabilitation therapy, even though many medical experts believe the lengthy, expensive treatment may produce the best results for patients with traumatic brain injuries, according to a joint investigation by NPR, Stars and Stripes and Propublica.org. Head wounds resulting in diminished functioning are a common injury in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, wreak concussive havoc on soldiers at close range. In a follow-up piece, the investigation noted that some of the best treatment options are paid for by a philanthropist, not the Pentagon.

More than 1/4 of the 5,000 cellphones owned by Los Angeles County’s child welfare department were used by non-employees, resulting in $330,000 in charges last year, the Los Angeles Times reported. One employee racked up bills of more than $2,000 by making international calls that were personal, according to an audit of the department’s phone usage. The audit also found that agency had more than 500 broadband cards to access the Internet from portable computers, but 220 unused cards were unused and still incurred $90,000 in service fees, the article noted.

On a snowy Thursday, here’s the latest edition of stories that we’re following with interest:

Could some American-made drywall face the same contamination issues that has plagued drywall manufactured in China? Almost 100 homeowners in four states have joined lawsuits against U.S. drywall makers over the last year, alleging that sulfur emissions are causing health problems and corroding wiring and appliances, making their homes unlivable, according to a joint investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and ProPublica.org. One theory is that “the gas release may somehow be connected to synthetic gypsum, a form of coal ash produced by the scrubbing process that removes sulfur dioxide from the emissions of coal-fired power plants,” according to the joint report.

An official with the Department of Energy has recommended that the U.S. reopen rare earth mines to ensure a steady supply, Bloomberg News reported. A new study suggests that stores of dysprosium, which is used to make wind turbines, solar panels and clean-energy products, may not meet demand. In addition to re-activating the Mountain Pass mine in California, the U.S. should start recycling materials that have rare-earth elements, the DoE official said.

A federal probe into alleged crooked hiring practices in the Massachusetts Probation Department has expanded to the state Legislature, the Boston Globe reported. Grand jury subpoenas were issued to the state Senate and House of Representatives. Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien has been suspended but continues to collect his $130,000 annual salary. A special investigator appointed by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court wrote in his report that “[t]he evidence demonstrates that an understanding existed among certain legislators and O’Brien that generous appropriations for the Probation Department were linked to O’Brien’s willingness to perpetuate and systematize fraudulent hiring and promotion on a pervasive scale.’’

Here’s another bunch of stories we’re reading this week:

In the last ten years, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., the nation’s second largest railroad, or its lawyers have been disciplined 13 times for breaking legal rules, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported as part of a four-part special report. In that time, at least 43 BNSF workers have been killed, and more than 7,800 have suffered work-related injuries, according to part four of the series. This has resulted in often-acrimonious legal battles, with judges citing the railroad or its lawyers repeatedly for a variety of behavior, including destroying evidence.

Bank robbers are using cutting-edge Hollywood masks to conceal their identities, the Los Angeles Times reported. Last year in Ohio, a white man disguised himself so well as a black man that authorities actually arrested an African American man for the bank robberies. Police in southern California are now beginning to think that the so-called Geezer Robber is not an older man, but a younger man wearing a SPFXMasks disguise.

A top lobbyist in Albany has agreed to a $500,000 fine and a five-year ban, according to the Albany Times-Union. Patricia Lynch arranged campaign donations, a consulting contract and thousands of dollars in gifts in an attempt to curry favor with then-comptroller Alan G. Hevesi and to convince the state’s $124 billion pension fund to invest with her lobbying clients. The settlement was reached with the New York Attorney General’s office.

Oregon Rep. presses Pentagon on KBR contract

As Julie Sullivan at The Oregonian reported this week, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has succeeded in getting the Department of Defense to provide more information about Pentagon contracts with indemnification clauses, or “promises that taxpayers will pick up the tab in cases where military contractors incur liability while executing contracts,” as Blumenauer’s announcement puts it.

But the DoD still won’t declassify KBR’s Project RIO (short for Restore Iraqi Oil) contract, which has resulted in a handful of lawsuits by members of National Guard units exposed to the toxic chemical sodium dichromate (a form of hexavalent chromium) while stationed at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in 2003.

West Virginia and Oregon-based units are among those who have sued KBR. (See previous coverage here, here, here and here.)

Sullivan explains:

Who pays when a military contractor causes harm has become a key issue in an Oregon lawsuit in which 34 National Guard soldiers have sued KBR. They allege that while guarding KBR’s operations, they were exposed to a rust-fighter piled around the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in 2003. It contained the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, and soldiers say they suffer serious health problems from it.

KBR collected $2.5 billion in its no-bid contract to get Iraqi oil flowing.

A deposition filed last summer in U.S. District Court in Portland revealed that on the eve of the Iraq invasion, a KBR attorney won a secret clause ensuring that U.S. taxpayers, and not KBR, would pay in the event of any death or injury.

The Oregonian has obtained a letter dated Feb. 18, 2010 in which KBR managers indicate that potential total costs of soldiers’ claims against KBR could be more than $150 million, Sullivan wrote.

“KBR does not believe that the company is liable for any damages,” KBR’s Michael Morrow wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But he wrote that KBR continues to incur research and legal fees, and would bill the government for allowable costs not paid by insurance.

In a news release announcing that the Pentagon had provided details on 123 contracts with liability clauses, Blumenauer promised to keep pushing for answers on the terms of KBR’s contract.

“This is a victory for transparency in the military’s contracting process,” said Blumenauer. “By uncovering more than 120 military contracts that include taxpayer liability provisions, this inquiry has given taxpayers a broad picture of where their money is – and could be – going.”

The documents cover a range of military contracts for work conducted in the U.S. and in Iraq. They show taxpayer liability clauses in contracts granted to (among others) the makers of the anthrax and smallpox vaccines, firms operating hazardous materials facilities in the United States and a company tasked with recovering potential radioactive materials during the Iraq invasion.

Here’s a link to information provided by the DoD. The release continued:

Continue reading…

Time for another installment…

When the Department of Homeland Security wants advice on how to guard against terrorist attacks at chemical plants, it relies heavily on a special agency panel focused on the topic, the Washington Post noted. There’s just one problem, critics say: The committee is stacked with more than a dozen chemical corporation lobbyists and other industry representatives, who have worked to water down agency standards and oppose tougher security requirements.

If you want a window into the complicated sparring and jockeying by the press and political aides who control access, a collection of e-mails obtained by the Columbia Journalism Review and Gawker.com provide a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain. As rumors swirled in Albany that the New York Times was about to publish a bombshell about Gov. David Paterson, the rest of the media scrambled to stay up-t0-date. Thanks to requests under New York’s Freedom of Information Law and a subsequent legal fight by CJR and Gawker, we now can see how the press and the governor’s staff responded.

Philadelphia’s School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman acknowledged that she instructed her staff to “find some work” for a minority firm as the city spent $700,000 on security work for a city high school, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted. In addition, the firm was also awarded a $7.5 million, no-bid contract to install cameras in 19 dangerous schools in the city.