The Fund for Investigative Journalism

Supporting investigative reporting projects around the world

  • Next Deadline: May 13, 2019 (11:59 pm Eastern)

  • Grantees’ Work

    Business districts target the homeless in Denver

    February 20th, 2019

    FIJ grant recipient Rob Waters looked at the growing influence of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in cities across the country, and how they are used to restrict homeless people from downtown areas. His investigative feature for Next City, No Place Left to Go: Business Districts Keep Homeless Populations on the Move, focused on Denver, where downtown business interests have long influenced development and management of the urban core. Redevelopment projects and “slum clearance” came first, followed now by the creation of BIDs, which collect property assessments and manage key aspects of public space. 

    Waters reports that an industry has grown up around BIDs, including contractors that provide private security “ambassadors” to patrol business districts. Some use a proprietary phone app that allows “ambassadors” to set up a Persons of Interest Database with entries for “panhandler, street performer, vendor, homeless individual.”

    In an earlier story in San Francisco Public Press, Waters looked at a report on California BIDs by law students at UC Berkeley School of Law.

    In response to an “urban camping” ban passed by the Denver city council, police broke up an encampment of people experiencing homelessness near Coors Field. Photo by Rob Waters

    Rats, roaches, bedbugs lead to Golden Mike Award

    February 15th, 2019

    Rina Palta, an FIJ grant recipient and correspondent on the investigative team at KPCC radio, has won a Golden Mike Award for Best Investigative Reporting from the Radio and TV News Association of Southern California.

    Her story, Rats, roaches, bedbugs, mold: Why thousands of LA’s homeless shelter beds sit empty each night, led the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to pass a new ordinance creating uniform standards for homeless shelters in the county.

    Palta’s initial FIJ-funded story revealed a patchwork oversight system that allowed safety and sanitation problems in homeless shelters – shelters usually run by non-profit and faith groups, but partially funded by the county.  While there are around 43,000 homeless people in L.A., only 16,000 shelter beds are available. Even so, shelters funded by the county’s Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority had only a 78-percent utilization rate, well below the 90 percent required by their contracts. Homeless people interviewed by Palta said that the sanitation and safety issues were main reasons they refused to stay in the shelters.

    Craig Aslin, originally from Virginia, stays in a tent in Hollywood, California. Photo by Susanica Tam for KPCC

    47,000 convictions dismissed so far in Massachusetts drug lab scandal

    February 15th, 2019

    Over the last two years, the state of Massachusetts has dismissed 47,000 drug convictions and guilty pleas due to two tampering scandals involving drug lab chemists. Many more convictions are likely to be dismissed, with the total expected to exceed 50,000.

    While the first scandal received more attention, mainly due to it being first and taking place in Boston, the second, centering on chemist Sonja Farak, may be worse, says FIJ grant recipient Shawn Musgrave. In a story for Reason, he writes that Farak’s crimes were compounded by prosecutorial misconduct that the state’s top court called “the deceptive withholding of exculpatory evidence by members of the Attorney General’s office.”

    Because of the combined tampering and prosecutor misconduct, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dismissed thousands of cases Farak may never have even touched, including every conviction based on evidence processed at her lab from 2009 to the day of her arrest in 2013.

    Musgrave’s story reconstructs both scandals, and questions why a handful of prosecutors presided over one of the worst criminal justice failures in recent Massachusetts memory.

    Photo illustration by Reason.

    Of FEMA, maps and Maine

    January 29th, 2019

    In the wakes of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency contracted private firms to redraw coastal floodplain maps across the United States. In Maine, those new maps dramatically increased the number of homes and businesses at risk of catastrophic flooding, and exposed many towns to new insurance fees, lost commercial zoning, lowered property values, and lost tax revenue.

    But the new maps weren’t necessarily accurate, and only towns with deep pockets could afford to contest them. “These are truly a disaster,” said Kathleen Billings, the town manager of Stonington, Maine, one of the few towns in the state with a working waterfront.

    In a story for Pacific Standard, grant recipient Annie Avilés followed how Stonington fought to re-draw their flood maps over the past few years with the help of a local environmental systems consultant, who has regularly proven the FEMA maps wrong. She also shows how other towns never even realized they had the option.

    Photo of Stonington, Maine, by Bob O’Connor for Pacific Standard

    Trump, “small” businesses drive road through Alaskan refuge

    January 9th, 2019

    A year ago, the Trump administration approved a land swap allowing a road to be built through a remote national refuge in Alaska. The road was supposed to be a route for evacuating sick people from a small Aleut town. But an investigation revealed a little-known loophole in the agreement that allows for transport of millions of dollars of seafood.

    Grant recipient Jane Kay and photographer Ash Adams explore the impact of the road on wildlife and the people of King Cove in an article for Reveal.

    At the personal urging of President Trump, the Interior Department ignored two federal reports saying the road would harm irreplaceable, extraordinary wilderness and that patients could be transported via water instead. Interviews and documents obtained by Kay show that the intent of local leaders was to link its harbors to ship fresh fish. The agreement allows the road to be used by small businesses, which can sell tens of millions of dollars in seafood yet still qualify as “small.” Local leaders pushing for the road all own commercial fishing boats.

    Frosty Peak, more than a mile high, looms over Izembek Lagoon in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ash Adams for Reveal

    Reporter dodges restrictions to interview former Syrian Kurdish fighters

    January 9th, 2019

    In a story for The Intercept, Roy Gutman interviewed four Syrian deserters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who recounted recruitment at gunpoint, recruitment of child soldiers, jail terms for relationships with women, sending conscripts to the front lines, and conscripting family members to replace deserters. The PKK – an ally in the U.S. fight against ISIS in Syria – restricts media access, so Gutman interviewed the four in northern Iraq.

    The four also spoke of the PKK as a movement – one that is listed as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and E.U. They say its decades-long armed struggle for an independent state has not improved the lot of Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Reinforcing that thought is an interview with Osman Öcalan, the brother of the jailed leader of the PKK, and a founding member who also deserted the group, 15 years ago.

    PKK-led Syrian Democratic Forces forced this family to flee Jarablus in in advance of the American bombing in Raqqa, Syria. Photo by Roy Gutman

    No easy options when leaving Salvadoran gangs

    December 4th, 2018

    In two stories for The Intercept, FIJ/Schuster Institute diversity fellow Danielle Mackey reports on the difficulty and politics of leaving criminal gangs in El Salvador.

    The first piece follows a 21-year-old who wants to retire after 10 years of murder and extortion with the gang Barrio 18. He hopes for a new life working with an evangelical Christian church. To his surprise, the gang lets him go, with conditions.

    Besides entanglements with their old gangs, former gang members are ostracized by society and are targeted by police and other gangs. There are about 60,000 gang members in El Salvador. Mackey asks, “What is the solution to this problem if they can’t retire?” This story was highlighted in the New York Times and Longreads.

    The second piece reports on a historic change in U.S. foreign policy toward El Salvador that allows aid money to be used to help people leave gangs. The unannounced policy shift happened after a years-long political battle fought in both Washington and the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador.

    A view of prisoners inside Apanteos prison, west of San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo by Salvador Meléndez/Revista Factum

    [FIJ thanks The Ford Foundation for providing the funding for this project.]

    Grant recipient investigates government contract “piggybacking”

    December 3rd, 2018

    Over five months, PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, investigated the use of “piggybacking” contracts used by city and county governments in the region. The practice allows some government officials to circumvent contract vetting processes by “piggybacking” on contract requests already approved by other agencies. Doing so can save governments time and money by avoiding negotiation and approval steps. But critics say the practice has led to higher costs for taxpayers and leaves government agencies vulnerable to fraud.

    According to data compiled by PublicSource from Pittsburgh’s contract repository, only 10 percent of 1,135 contracts that were active as of December 1, 2018, were actually negotiated by the city.

    City Controller Michael Lamb told PublicSource, “When you just automatically jump to these cooperative contracts rather than doing a local competitive process, I think you’re cheating taxpayers.”

    View of the City-County Building in Pittsburgh. Photo by Kat Procyk

    [FIJ thanks the Park Foundation and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation for providing the funding for this project.]

     

    Report uncovers prison sex abuse, “rubber stamp” audits

    November 26th, 2018

    Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 to “prevent, detect, and respond to” sexual abuse in American prisons. Yet at least 11 lawsuits alleging criminal sexual abuse of inmates have been filed against former employees of New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women since 2015.

    So, when PREA auditors examined the prison in 2014 and 2016, how did it pass?

    This question is at the center of FIJ grant recipient Lauren Lee White’s story, “#MeToo Behind Bars: How Federal Investigators Are Ignoring Prison Sexual Assaults They Are Hired To Report,” the first in a series for WitnessLA.

    Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, calls one of the Edna Mahan audits a “rubber stamp.” It includes nearly verbatim passages found in at least 12 other audits of other facilities conducted between 2015 and 2018. Wright’s story explores this apparent failure of the PREA auditing system and shows how that affects incarcerated women across the country.

    View of the entrance to the L.A. County women’s jail. Photo by Lauren Lee White

    [FIJ thanks the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation for providing the funding for this project]

    New book explores international corporate bribery, consequences

    November 16th, 2018

    Kickback, a new book by FIJ grant recipient David Montero, traces the ways that international corporate bribery foments poverty, violence, and environmental disaster around the world.

    The book notes a litany of foreign and domestic companies accused of bribery and kickbacks, both historically and today, from the British East India Company to the international conglomerate Siemens.

    One chapter explains how a history of ingrained bribery in Greece contributed to that country’s economic collapse. And an FIJ grant helped Montero complete reporting on a chapter documenting international pharmaceutical firms’ payoffs to gain market share in China.

    But a main point is that “corruption rarely stays ‘out there,’” Montero says.

    “Bribes eventually harm Americans, American society, American values, and American interests, both domestically and around the world, in ways that are difficult to gauge.”

    [FIJ thanks The Reva and David Logan Foundation for providing the funding for this project.]