Sustained Outrage

Here’s our weekly look at work at other media outlets that attracted our attention.

Not all of the articles have been published yet in Agents’ Secrets: Junk Science, Tainted Testimony, an in-depth, four-part investigation of problems at North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation by the Raleigh News & Observer. But from what we’ve seen already, this is a series worth following. On Day 1, the report looked at a discredited confession by a mentally retarded defendant who spent 14 years in a mental hospital before he was released in 2007. Day 2 examines testimony and reports by the SBI’s blood-spatter experts, which one juror described as “fraud.”

Anyone in your house complaining about boredom this summer? You might be interested in a Time magazine story by David Von Drehle, “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” No kidding. For a century, researchers have been documenting the cumulative loss of learning and achievement, particularly among kids with the least advantages, during the long summer break. But it affects middle- and upper-income students, too.

Even though a recent opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the release of names on petitions in favor of (or against) ballot referedums, a federal judge in Tacoma declined to release a list of supporters of a 2009 measure that unsuccessfully sought to repeal expanded benefits for gay and lesbian couples, the Seattle Times reported. The state is seeking the release of the names under Washington’s Public Records Act, while Protect Marriage Washington contends that identifying the signers would voilate their First Amendment rights by exposing them to the possibility of reprisals.

It’s Thursday again, which means that it’s time for another installment of stories by other media outlets that we’ve appreciated.

In the first vote of its kind in the nation, the New York State Senate approved a measure Wednesday to temporarily ban hydraulic fracturing in the state, effectively stopping any drilling for gas or oil until next spring, ProPublica.org reported. The legislation “initially arose out of concerns that New York could experience the same rash of water contamination, spills and air quality impacts that have affected Pennsylvania since it embraced widespread Marcellus Shale drilling two years ago,” the article states. The bill’s speedy passage was inspired in part by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the bill’s sponsor told ProPublica.

In a rare peek behind the reporting curtain, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed how hard it can be to assemble information regarding medical mistakes. Following up on multiple tips that a doctor may have removed the wrong kidney from a patient in 2007, the reporters sifted through 18,000 medical malpractice claims over the last decade before narrowing the field. Ultimately, state and federal regulators wouldn’t confirm that a report about an incident involving urologic surgery at DePaul Health Center was the case the reporters have been investigating.

In the wake of a salary scandal in the city of Bell, Calif., in which several officials resigned after it was revealed that they earned hundreds of thousands of dollars annually while serving a city of roughly 37,000, the city has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Los Angeles Times that asked for the salaries of two interim officials, among other information. The city clerk had previously told the paper that the city’s top priority was providing information to the state attorney general’s office, the article states. “For them to essentially say we’re being investigated for breaking the law, and so we don’t have time to give you the records, that seems outrageous to me,” said one attorney who specializes in public records litigation.

@“Fo lawyer r them to essentially say we’re being investigated for breaking the law, and so we don’t have time to give you the records, that seems outrageous to me,” saidtag:Reach Andrew Clevenger at aclevenger@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

Another installment of some work that drew our attention this week.

In the wake of the publication of a staggering amount of classified information related to the war in Afghanistan by Wikileaks, Propublica.org talked to Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter (and Pulitzer Prize winner for his book about Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie) who was on the receiving end of the Pentagon Papers leak. Propublica also provided a reading list to help put the leak into context.

The Obama administration is looking to make it easier for the FBI to gain certain information about e-mails and Internet activity without a court order, the Washington Post reported. The agency currently uses what are called national security letters, which require the recipient to turn over certain information and to keep the request a secret, the article notes. If the words “electronic communication transactional records” are added to the list of things the FBI can ask for, then companies may be forced to turn over information regarding who an e-mail was sent to, a user’s browser history and the time and date it was sent, but not, government lawyers say, the contents of the e-mail.

One outcome of the recently passed financial reform legislation was exempting the Securities and Exchange Commission from almost all Freedom of Information Act requests, according to this story by Fox Business. Under the new law, the SEC would not have to disclose records or information resulting from “surveillance, risk assessments, or other regulatory and oversight activities.” “Given that the SEC is a regulatory body, the provision covers almost every action by the agency, lawyers say,” the article states. “Congress and federal agencies can request information, but the public cannot.”

It’s been a busy first few weeks for Rafael Moure-Eraso, the new chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, as a story in the latest issue of Chemical and Engineering News (subscription required) explains:

Just four days after taking the helm of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), new chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso found himself in Portland, Conn., running a nighttime community meeting. There, he presented the final report on CSB’s investigation of an explosion that took place in February at the construction site of the Kleen Energy power plant where six workers died.

It was Moure-Eraso’s first CSB public meeting, as well as fellow new board member Mark A. Griffon’s. Neither of them even had time to unpack his Washington, D.C., office before leaving for Connecticut. With their arrival on the board, CSB will have its full complement of five members, which hasn’t happened in three years.

The two hit the ground running, and the pace is unlikely to slow for them, the other board members, or CSB’s 40-person staff as they face a record number of active investigations. The most recent addition to the board’s docket came in late June, when it accepted a congressional request to investigate the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. This study promises to be one of CSB’s largest: Moure-Eraso estimates that it will take two years to complete and will cost $2.5 million.

Still, Moura-Eraso made time to visit the Kanawha Valley this week, meeting with officials from Bayer CropScience, citizens from People Concerned About MIC, and with Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. It was Carper, of course, whose complaint that the CSB was stalling its final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire at Bayer’s Institute plant prompted Moura-Eraso’s visit.

Moura-Eraso stopped by the Gazette newsroom this morning, and told us:

We wanted to show the flag and to say that we are on the job.

Again this morning Moura-Eraso promised the board would have its final report on that 2008 explosion and fire — which killed two plant workers — ready for release at a public meeting in the Kanawha Valley this fall, probably in September, according to Carper.

Continue reading…

Here’s another batch of stories that drew our notice this week.

Two years of investigating by the Washington Post produced Top Secret America, a multi-part (and multimedia) exploration of the rapidly expanding intelligence community following 9/11. “The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work,” the second article in the series noted.

Baltimore’s Police Department has been so focused on murders and gun violence that its treatment of rape cases has become a “crisis” according to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the Baltimore Sun reported. Specialized detectives will handle rape cases from now on, instead of patrolmen, who routinely dismiss claims at the scene, the paper found. “[S]ince 2004, Baltimore has led the country with more than 30 percent of rape reports marked ‘unfounded’ by detectives, meaning police believed the victim was lying,” the article stated.

Although the United States and Europe have taken steps to curtail exposure to asbestos, the industry has found new markets in developing countries, the Center for Public Integrity reported in Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade. “Health officials warn that widespread asbestos exposures, much as they did in the West, will result in epidemics of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis in the developing world,” the investigation’s overview noted. Some experts have projected as many as 10 million total asbest0s-related deaths worldwide by 2030.

Another Thursday, another installment of stories we admired this week.

Oregon spends about $700 million a year on mental health, but some are questioning whether it could be spent more efficiently, the Oregonian reported. “Oregonians with well-controlled mental illness generally can find routine care. But once they grow too sick to keep appointments, the health system offers little support until they explode into crisis and threaten themselves or others,” the article notes. Much of the funds are spent treating patients in crisis, either in hospitals or jails, rather than keeping them from reaching that point, health experts say.

Back in 1999, drug company SmithKline Beecham had indications that its new diabetes medicine Avandia may not be as safe for the heart as Actos, made by a competitor. SmithKline Beecham did not share this information with the public or with federal regulators, according to this article in the New York Times.

After two years of federal investigation, six New Orleans police officers were indicted Monday, four on charges that they shot unarmed civilians on Danziger Bridge following Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported. All six are accused of participating in a massive coverup following the shootings that allegedly included “manufactured witnesses, fabricated statements by police, the planting of a gun and lies by officers questioned by the FBI.” The first inquiry into the controversial events on the bridge, conducted by police, resulted in no charges filed against the officers.

What we’re reading: Literary edition

Here’s our weekly look at stories that grabbed our attention, with a decidedly literary bent this week:

We’re usually a little less theoretical on this blog, but if you haven’t read it yet, a New York Times commentary “Byrd and the Bard” is really worth a look: “While Robert Byrd’s love of Shakespeare did not necessarily make him a better man or a better leader, his rich understanding of the greatest writer in the English language did represent a last link to a politics based on text, and to the humanist tradition,” writes Esquire columnist Stephen Marche.

It’s not everyday that we get to read a new work by Mark Twain, but PBS NewsHour debuted a previously unpublished essay from one of America’s most celebrated writers. The essay, “Concerning the ‘Interview,'” offers a fascinating window into Twain’s take on the celebrity his writing thrust upon him: “Yes, you are afraid of the interviewer, and that is not an inspiration. You close your shell; you put yourself on your guard; you try to be colorless; you try to be crafty, and talk all around a matter without saying anything: and when you see it in print, it makes you sick to see how well you succeeded.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United attracted widespread attention for concluding that corporations have free speech rights under the First Amendment, a more recent opinion, in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, offered another window into the Roberts Court’s views on free speech, noted David Cole in the New York Review of Books. In the new ruling, “the Court ruled—for the first time in its history—that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activity can be subject to criminal penalty, even where the speakers’ intent is to discourage resort to violence.”

Here’s another installment of stories we admired this week.

Between 2000 and 2009, 154 American police officers were killed when they were struck by vehicles, the Boston Globe reported in the aftermath of the death of Douglas Weddleton, a Massachusetts State Police sergeant who was hit and killed by a driver who was allegedly driving drunk. Veteran officers bemoaned the culture of reckless driving, with more and more drivers believing rules don’t apply to them and failing to take officer safety into account. “[Drivers] are completely oblivious,” one veteran officer said. “We can’t even get people to pull over for ambulances anymore. It’s just a sign of the times.”

Illinois officials found a Bighead carp six miles upstream from Lake Michigan, above electronic barriers designed to keep the invasive Asian fish out of the Great Lakes, according to the Chicago Tribune. Last year, Michigan Attorney General sued Illinois to force it to close Chicago’s locks, which some suspect is the way the 19-pound carp made its way out of Lake Calumet. Environmentalists fear a profound impact on the Great Lakes ecosystem if the carp slip through.

The video-sharing website YouTube is immune from copyright liability, a federal judge decided, even for copyrighted material that is posted, as long as it promptly moves to take down the violating material when asked, Wired Magazine reported. Viacom had filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the Google-owned company, alleging that the site’s operators knew their site contained lots of copyrighted material. The ruling, which concludes that notification of violations under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act works efficiently, is expected to have widespread implications for Internet usage, particularly for search engines and social networking sites.

Once again, a quick look at stories we’re reading this week.

A principal in Louisville, Ky., holds a tenuous grip on his job as he tries to improve math scores and other academics, raise graduation rates and better prepare students for college or the workforce, Education Week reports. But it’s not just Keith Look’s job at Shawnee High School on the line, as the school will struggle to qualify for some of the $3.5 billion the Obama administration has pledged — much of it part of 2009’s stimulus package — to turn around the nation’s most struggling schools.

Portland’s new police chief wants to revise training methods for his embattled department so that officers move away from a “fear-based model” (where officers are taught that a motorist reaching down is grabbing a gun) to one based on “competency and confidence,” the Oregonian reported. The department has had three police-involved fatal shootings this year, including one on May 12, the day Mike Reese took over as chief. On changing the department’s mentality away from Us vs. Them to one where a mentally ill man is not treated the same way as a bank robber, Reese said: “That’s a mind shift and a culture shift we have to make in the Portland Police Bureau.”

Members of Los Angeles County’s Probation Department, which has 6,000 employees and an annual budget of $700 million, may face criminal charges after an audit determined that some employees may have used county credit cards to make unauthorized purchases of LCD televisions, Sony PlayStations, DVD players and video games, according to the L.A. Times. Most of the gaming platforms and video games could not be located, and some purchases were never approved by supervisors, according to the article.

Time for another weekly installment of stories that we’ve admired recently.

Internal investigations by BP conducted over the last decade warned that the company risked a serious accident if it continued to disregard safety and environmental rules, ProPublica reported. (The Washington Post also co-published a version of the story.) Reports on investigations conducted on BP’s Alaska operations in 2001, 2004 and 2007 found, amongst other things, that “BP had neglected key equipment needed for emergency shutdown” and “a pattern of intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns,” the article noted.

With the music industry in decline, performance rights organizations are cracking down on coffee houses, cafes and other small venues across New England that host live music (of the pass-the-hat to pay the performer variety) to collect royalties, the Boston Globe reported. Any public venue that features music is supposed to be licensed if songs under copyright are performed or recordings are played. There is a movement afoot to negotiate an exemption for non-profits and small businesses that don’t make any money from the performances, but that is progressing slowly, the article notes.

A high-ranking education administrator in Miami-Dade County has been charged with using $19,000 intended for children with disabilities to pay for her own children’s tuition at a Broward County private school, according to this article from the Miami Herald. Deborah Swirsky-Nuñez, who oversees Miami-Dade’s special education programs, allegedly falsified information to make it appear that her children had attended public school for at least a year (as required to qualify for John McKay scholarship money) and asked friends, colleagues and employees who reported to her to falsify documents on her behalf.