Grantee Stories

Rats, roaches, bedbugs lead to Golden Mike Award

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

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

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

Questions about Buffet son’s activities along U.S. – Mexico border

In a two-part series for the Phoenix New Times, FIJ grant recipient Beau Hodai details how Howard Graham Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, has exerted influence over the sheriff’s office in Cochise County, Arizona. The county shares 83 miles of international border with Mexico and is the locale of two border ranches owned by Howard Buffett. At these ranches, Buffett, his associates and private employees perform their own private border enforcement efforts. The project also examines a campaign of chemical border defoliation undertaken by Buffett, as well as Cochise County’s long and dark history as an epicenter of the anti-immigrant movement and border vigilantism.

Image from the Phoenix New Times

Trump, “small” businesses drive road through Alaskan refuge

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

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

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”

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

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

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.]

Story highlights “crusade” against domestic violence in the black community

Five black women were killed in Mobile, Alabama, in 2016, six in 2017 and five by April this year. That is 16 women dead, mostly at the hands of black men, over three years in this small Southern city.

In a story for NBC News—and her latest piece on domestic violence in the black community—FIJ and Schuster Institute Fellow Chandra Thomas Whitfield tells of police sergeant John C. Young, who, in April, asked the Mobile City Council to address the issue of black women being killed by intimate partner violence.

Young received a tepid response.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study notes that black women are 35 percent more likely to be victims of domestic violence than white women. In the story, L.A. author Sa’iyda Shabazz says silence about the issue for many in the black community stems from worries of contributing to the racist stereotype that black men are more violent than men of other races.

Meanwhile, Young says he will continue his one-man crusade despite the city council’s lack of response.

John C. Young protests in front of the Mobile Government Plaza. Photo by Tim Jones

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

Racism, the mob and the FBI converge in a Chicago dump for new podcast

The Citya new investigative podcast from USA TODAY, tells the story of an undercover FBI investigation that failed to bring justice to a black Chicago neighborhood that had been the victim of illegal dumping perpetrated by the mob. 

The City was created by investigative reporter Robin Amer, who received bridge funding for the show from FIJ. 

The story begins in Chicago in 1990. Highways are rebuilt, old buildings demolished, new parks and skyscrapers erected. But all that rubble has to go somewhere: a pair of vacant lots in a black, working-class neighborhood called North Lawndale.

At the helm of this operation is a guy sporting a Cosby sweater, manicured nails, and underworld connections: John Christopher. For more than a decade, what Christopher does on this lot is a tour through the underbelly of Chicago: aldermen get indicted; an FBI investigation goes awry; a neighborhood gets polluted with impunity. And a community’s resilience is tested—all under the specter of racism in America.

A City of Chicago car drives past the illegal dump site at the center of the investigation. Photo by Brian Jackson

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

FIJ funded earlier story about owner of N.Y. limousine company behind crash

In 2011, FIJ helped fund investigative reporter Trevor Aaronson’s research into the FBI’s program of recruiting informants to break terrorist plots within the U.S. That reporting became the Mother Jones magazine story “The Informants,” which Aaronson wrote while a fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley. Part of that Mother Jones story followed the FBI’s involvement with counterterrorism informant Shahed Hussain – the owner of the company whose limousine crashed in upstate New York on October 6, killing 20. Ironically, Hussain’s relationship with the FBI began when he was caught running a scam at the New York DMV.

Aaronson, now the Executive Director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributor to The Intercept, says, “I think there’s a valid question here about whether this horrible accident would have happened had the FBI not protected this guy from deportation and prosecution for more than a decade.”

Investigation raises questions about police tactics in D.C. gun cases

A months-long investigation by WAMU reporter Patrick Madden and a team of graduate students from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University found evidence that many gun possession cases – nearly 4 in 10 – were dismissed in court, raising questions about police tactics in gun searches.

The investigation “Collateral Damage” focused on the impact of the Washington police department’s aggressive focus on confiscating illegal guns. The series – produced for radio, video and web – explored how tactics used by police to search for guns are also angering and alienating residents, especially in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods where police focus these efforts.

Illustration by Ruth Tam / WAMU

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

Home healthcare investigation finds shortfalls in labor pool, oversight

As America’s population ages, the need for homecare workers increases as well. FIJ and Schuster Institute Fellow Linda Matchan investigated this burgeoning industry in Massachusetts and found both a shortage of people willing to work in these low paying jobs, as well as a lack of oversight of the people taking care of the state’s elderly and homebound.

Matchan covers the issue in two stories for the Boston Globe. In the first, she documents the neglect and abuse that some patients suffer at the hands of criminal homecare workers. In the second story, she follows a Ghanaian woman who is part of a coterie of foreign workers who help fill the gap in home healthcare needs. Additionally, in an interview with radio station WBUR, Matchan describes the reporting, as well as her own story of looking for a home healthcare worker.

Photo of Deborah Lesco by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe

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

Black women more likely to be killed from domestic violence

In the September/October issue of Ebony Magazine (subscription required), FIJ and Schuster Institute Fellow Chandra Thomas Whitfield takes an in-depth look at the troubling statistic that Black women are more likely than any other group of women in the country to be killed in domestic violence incidents. She writes that while media reports tend to highlight crimes committed by strangers, research shows that Black women are most likely to be harmed by those closest to them–their partners and spouses. According to a CDC report, Black women are twice as likely as White women to be killed by an acquaintance. Another source says that poverty is a factor, especially for women with children who depend on their abusers for income.

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

Bilingual project looks at immigration policies and outcomes between Guatemala and the U.S.

Grant recipient Maria E. Martin has completed a bilingual web and radio project examining the effects of the Trump administration’s deportation policies on Guatemala.

According to her reporting, approximately 200,000 Guatemalans leave for the United States each year. And for the past two years, more than 50,000 Guatemalans have been deported annually. It is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million Guatemalans live in the U.S. and at least half of them lack legal status.

Martin told the stories of deported Guatemalans, both recent migrants and people who had been living and working in the U.S. for decades, in a story for NBC. And in a report for NPR, Martin talked with the director of a migrant refuge in Guatemala who calls the current situation, “a game of pingpong.” He said that 95 percent of deported migrants interviewed by his group will try to return again to the U.S.

Martin also completed a two-part documentary radio project for Making Contact that examined the plight of women migrants and the reasons so many Guatemalans are leaving their country. She also looked at the cost of deportations for the receiving countries, and specifically whether Guatemala is prepared to cope with the tens of thousands of people deported annually by the U.S.

Her reporting also ran as a series of audio and written stories on the Spanish-language radio network Radio Bilingüe, covering the cost of lost remittances to Guatemala; the particular dangers faced by women who want to migrate; and deported Guatemalans who try their luck again at returning to the U.S.

A woman and boy walk past towels for sale in San Juan Ostuncalco, one of hundreds of Guatemalan indigenous communities that send migrants north. Photo by Maria E. Martin

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

Inmate deaths and lack of oversight found in ICE contract prisons

Grant recipient Robin Urevich has published a series of stories in Capital & Main outlining two deaths connected to inadequate medical care at immigration detention centers run by Emerald Correctional Management. Urevich’s investigation found that the firm received millions from no-bid government contracts while providing sub-par service—this despite a history of poor performance on the part of the company. As of 2016, the company had abandoned or been fired from more detention contracts than it maintained.

The Louisiana-based firm went out of business in 2017, but the abuses uncovered reflect a lack of oversight by ICE in vetting potential prison contractors. Immigration detention has expanded fivefold in the past 23 years, Urevich reports, and with the Trump administration’s deportation surge, is growing larger.

Illustration by Define Urban for Capital & Main

[This project was funded by The Park Foundation.]