Grantee Stories

Grantees’ Podcast Series Details One of The Most Sophisticated Marijuana Smuggling Rings of the Past Decade

The Syndicate is an 8-episode, narrative podcast series about the rise and fall of one of the most sophisticated marijuana smuggling rings of the past decade. Host and reporter Chris Walker digs into how a group of college friends and family members gamed Colorado’s legal cannabis industry to hide a massive, black market operation. The group made tens of millions over a four year run, and even moved illicit pot across state lines using skydiving planes.

From laboratory explosions and daredevil pilots to undercover informants and buried bags of cash, much of the story plays out like a Hollywood movie. But Walker’s investigation reveals how the black market for cannabis is evolving in the era of legal weed, as well as how our country’s patchwork of marijuana laws has created new incentives for interstate trafficking.

Using his FIJ grant, Walker was able to file records requests and obtain over a hundred hours of videotaped interrogations that the State of Colorado conducted with members of the group. He also travelled across the country to meet with former members of the criminal enterprise to get their individual stories. The result is an unprecedented look into the inner workings of a modern day marijuana smuggling ring, with implications for legalization movements across the country.

Which Louisville Judge Let Police Search Your House? Most Signatures Are Unreadable

Louisville police were executing a no-knock search warrant signed by Judge Mary Shaw when they shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in her home. The case put a spotlight on the way Louisville police executes search warrants and how seriously judges scrutinize them.

In their new report, grantees from The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) examined more than 200 warrants of residences and found that about 70% of them had illegible signatures, an issue at the root of transparency in the criminal justice system in Louisville and the nation.

Read the full investigation

New U.S. Citizens Were One Of The Fastest-Growing Voting Blocs. But Not This Year.

On March 18, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) closed all of its field offices to public-facing activities due to the coronavirus, effectively putting much of legal immigration to the United States on pause, including naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies. As the months went by, other federal and state agencies turned to virtual infrastructure for their activities, but USCIS held out and insisted that its activities could only be done in person.

In her story, published in FiveThirtyEight, grantee Eileen Guo looks at how this has jeopardized the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of legal permanent residents just months away from citizenship, and how third party voter registration organizations are doing their best to make up for some of the losses.

Targeted: Pasco County Sheriff’s Program Monitors and Harasses Families

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco took office in 2011 with a bold plan: to create a cutting-edge intelligence program that could stop crime before it happened. But the machine Nocco built has turned into a system of organized harassment, according to a new investigation by grantees Neil Bedi and Kathleen McGrory at the Tampa Bay Times. Deputies swarm homes in the middle of the night, write tickets for overgrown grass and make arrests for any reason they can find.

Their investigation profiles several victims of the program’s monitoring and harassment, which identifies people likely to break the law based on lists of prior offenses and arbitrary police analysis. Their stories are harrowing and detail how the expanding program is ruining the lives of many in Pasco County, Florida.

Read the full investigation here.

Public Colleges Hide Identities of Donors Who Seek to Influence Students. Will COVID-19 Make It Worse?

The pandemic has presented universities a triple whammy: Reduced tax revenues slashing government support, online-only courses gutting dormitory and cafeteria revenues, and – with more students and families out of work – less ability to offset those losses with tuition increases.

FIJ grantee Miranda Spivack’s report, published in USA Today, details how the pandemic’s economic impact on universities could create more secrecy behind the donors who seek to influence students. 

Click here to read the full report.

Trump Appointees Short-Circuited Grid Modernization to Help the Coal Industry

A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study that demonstrated how a modernized American power grid could accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy and reduce reliance on coal was suppressed by Trump appointees in order to help the coal industry, according to FIJ grantee Peter Fairley’s report for InvestigateWest, also published in The Atlantic.

The study, as Fairley reports, was politically dangerous territory for a federally funded lab while coal-industry advocates — and climate change deniers — reign at the White House.

Click here to read the full report.

They’re Children at Risk of Abuse, and Their Caseworkers Are Stuck at Home

In California and other states across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering the child welfare system. A patchwork of new rules and guidelines meant to slow the spread of the virus has relaxed requirements for face-to-face meetings between caseworkers investigating abuse and children, leaving vulnerable children out of sight and caseworkers stuck at home.

In their story, published in the New York Times, reporters at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, with a grant from FIJ, reveal the crisis in our child welfare system, which has left scores of investigations into allegations of child abuse or neglect sharply curtailed.

Read the full report here.


Photo: Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Grantee’s Report Finds U.S. Asylum Shutdown Leaves LGBTQ+ People Stranded in Danger in Mexico

For five months, President Donald Trump’s administration has closed and blocked asylum at the US-Mexico border. This has left countless asylum seekers dangerously and indefinitely stuck — without a clear path forward, according to FIJ grantee William Martin’s report for The New Humanitarian. His article and ten minute documentary follows the story of 20-year-old transgender migrant Alejandra and her journey to find asylum in the US. 

FIJ Grantee Finds Florida Companies are Cashing in on Deportation Flights

Private companies are cashing in on transporting immigrants around the country and the world. And their profits are poised to grow as the Trump administration seeks a new influx of money for the already growing unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that handles the flights.

FIJ grant recipient Angelika Albaladejo investigated ICE Air’s costly expansion and found that the opaque nature of the private charter system and lax oversight could contribute to a proliferation of waste and misconduct.

The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald published the story online and in their Sunday print editions.

Climate Change is Killing Americans. Health Departments Aren’t Equipped to Respond

Climate change is killing Americans. Heat now causes more deaths than hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods in most years, creating a new public health threat. But health departments aren’t equipped to respond.

FIJ grant recipient Bridget Hickey and colleagues Ali Raj, Dean Russell, Elisabeth Gawthrop, and Veronica Penney from Columbia Journalism Investigations used data, reviewed thousands of pages of government records, and interviewed over one hundred people to reveal how a decade of neglect and politics undermined the CDC’s fight against climate change.

The story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and co-published in The Guardian. It has been cited by nearly a dozen publications, including Mother Jones, The Nation, and Grist.

FIJ Grantees Create Searchable Database of COVID-19 Information

FIJ grantee Derek Kravitz and his team at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation have just released an online repository of local, state and federal public records obtained through open-records requests called Documenting COVID-19.

The new site allows users to search for relevant document sets and records by state or thematic tags. So far, Kravitz and his team have compiled 50 document sets across 29 states and have published accompanying news stories with national outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post and local outlets like Colorado Public Radio, The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.

Coronavirus Grant Funds Investigation into Deportees Who Were Unknowingly Infected with The Virus

Two dozen Colombians who had been in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for several months, were sent home as part of an ICE sped-up repatriation program last May. Unknown to the deportees, they had become infected with COVID-19.

In the first piece of a multi-part investigation for palabra, FIJ grantee Jenny Manrique Cortes tracked some of the victims. The portrait that emerged is one where the negligence of both Colombia and the U.S., and a lack of medical protocols created a tragic path of infection.

 That flight was one of more than 300 that left with more than 70 thousand deportees, as the pandemic spread across the US, according to ICE data. Future stories will explore the situation in other Latin American countries.

FIJ Grantee Wins Green Eyeshade Award for Investigative Reporting

FIJ grantee Max Blau’s story detailing how Georgia’s former death row doctor built a for-profit empire by providing low-cost medical care to inmates recently won a first place Green Eyeshade Award for investigative reporting in magazines. 

“I’m thankful for the support of Atlanta Magazine and the Telegraph in Macon, which co-published the series, along with grants from the Association of Health Care Journalists, The Commonwealth Fund, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism,” Blau wrote in an email to FIJ. “I’m also grateful for Steve Fennessy’s editing, and reporting contributions from Margaret Pfohl and Jade Abdul-Malik.”

How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Playing Out Inside D.C.’s Troubled Child Welfare Agency

As the novel coronavirus continued to spread across the D.C. region in early spring, social workers at the district’s child protective services agency began to panic: Their bosses appeared oblivious to the toll this would take on their workforce. Dozens of sick or symptomatic employees, knockoff N95 masks, and COVID-19-positive foster children staying overnight at agency headquarters — in violation of a court order — would be just the beginning for the agency.

Writing for Washington City Paper, FIJ grantee Morgan Baskin investigated the Child and Family Services Agency’s reaction to the threat the pandemic posed. She found the agency delayed or never implemented  critical interventions that could have made vulnerable staff and children safer.

Read Baskin’s full report, here

FIJ Grantee’s Documentary on Reproductive Rights in Prisons to Open Human Rights Watch Film Festival

For the better part of the last decade, FIJ grantee Erika Cohn, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director/producer, has worked to shine a light on reproductive and human rights violations inside the walls of California’s women’s prisons. In 2010, Cohn began following the work of Cynthia Chandler, an activist lawyer, and Kelli Dillon, a woman who was involuntarily sterilized at the Central California Women’s Facility, as they fought to expose those abuses. The result is Cohn’s film, “Belly of the Beast.”

Set to debut on opening night of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 11, the documentary follows Chandler and Dillon as they wage a near impossible battle against the Department of Corrections, and spearhead investigations that uncover a series of statewide crimes, primarily targeting women of color, from inadequate access to health care to sexual assault to illegal sterilization.

“It was modern day eugenics,” said Cohn. “Even though I had hundreds of testimonials from people directly impacted, a lot of people couldn’t wrap their head around the fact this was actually happening.”

As a result of this skepticism, Cohn’s film went mostly unfunded in its early stages.

But in 2013, Cohn said, Chandler’s advocacy work along with increasing media coverage thrust the sterilization issue into a national conversation and helped validate the experiences of her sources. The mounting evidence also led to hearings in the state Legislature and eventually to the passage of a bill in 2014 banning sterilization as a form of birth control for the state’s female prisoners.

Cohn received a grant from FIJ soon after to further investigate the extent to which these violations had occurred in prisons throughout the state.

FIJ’s funding, Cohn said, came at a crucial time, and led to a wealth of new reporting that helped validate the experiences of hundreds of women interviewed throughout the film’s production.

“This film required a different investigative reporting process that a lot of traditional film funders weren’t supporting,” said Cohn. “FIJ’s support allowed us to take a deeper dive into the journalistic component.”

Coca-Cola Skirts Restrictions as Cape Town Runs out of Water

Capetonians living under unprecedented water restrictions limiting them to 50l per person per day in early 2018, descended on the city’s natural springs to collect water to supplement their municipal water use.  Photo: Steve Kretzmann

At the beginning of 2018, Cape Town faced the very real prospect of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water. City officials responded by dramatically increasing the cost of water to residents, fining anyone caught wasting water, and penalizing households that exceeded their daily 50-liter-per-person quota by installing water management devices that restricted the flow to their properties. Yet despite these restrictions, the Cape Town-based bottlers of Coca-Cola continued using at least 44 million liters of water a month without ever being penalized.

FIJ grantee Raymond Joseph and co-author Steve Kretzmann investigated Coca-Cola’s efforts to ignore water restrictions and skirt penalties for GroundUp.

Unique Reporting Project Untangles Myths Behind the Land Grant University System

Nearly 11 million acres of indigenous land. Approximately 250 tribes, bands and communities. Over 160 violence-backed treaties and land seizures. Fifty-two universities. From High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk comes “Land-Grab Universities,” a unique reporting project funded in part by FIJ that untangles the powerful and painful strains of myth and money behind the land-grant university system, largely credited with broadening access to higher education in the United States.

It was all part of President Abraham Lincoln’s creed: “The right to rise.” And though generations of land-grant graduates have exercised that right, reporters Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone say few have thought to ask who actually paid for the opportunity, and how it was done. According to their reporting, it came through the transfer or violent seizure of indigenous land. But to this day, indigenous people remain largely absent from student populations, staff, faculty and curriculum. In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. The act turned land taken from tribal nations into seed money for higher education.

You can read the full story here.

Photo: Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington. A parcel of indigenous land granted to the State of South Carolina
fir the benefit of Clemson University and South Carolina State University. Kalen Goodluck/High Country News

Heroes, Terrorists, and the Police

A small police training company owned by Chicago officers, the International Tactical Training Association (ITTA), has been training units of the police of El Salvador in the use of force, according to a recent report by FIJ grantee Danielle Mackey.

According to Mackey’s investigation, the training has no oversight from either the U.S. or Salvadoran governments, although ITTA appears to have extensive U.S. federal and military connections. Mackey reports that the situation is particularly concerning given the evidence of excessive use of force by both the Chicago trainers and the Salvadoran trainees.

You can read the full report here. 

Photo: Salvadoran PNC officers do target practice in an ITTA course. Source: ANSP Flickr account.