Grantee Stories

Don’t Count On the Census

The 2020 census will make a huge imprint on the nation for a decade, from determining how much federal money goes to states to divvying up congressional seats and helping city planners figure out where to build schools. But, as FIJ grantee Natasha Haverty reports for Reveal, when the Census Bureau does its next count this April, it will be counting nearly two million people in the wrong place: in the place where they are incarcerated, not where they call home.

What started as a quirk in the way we count people behind bars now serves to reinforce some of our country’s ugliest racial and political dynamics. In her report on a practice called “prison gerrymandering,” Haverty investigates what it means when our criminal justice system intrudes on the democratic process.

Read more and listen to Haverty’s podcast segment, published by Reveal, here.

Credit: Illustration elements taken from a drawing by Clifford K. Berryman, via the National Archives. Photo illustration by Michael I Schiller/Reveal

FIJ Grantee in North Carolina Brings Change to Sexual Assault Laws in the State

In October 2018, Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit news outlet, took a look at sexual assault conviction rates in North Carolina. What they found were outdated, ineffective laws that blurred the lines of consent and made it harder for offenders to be convicted.

“We looked at court data – a 4½-year data set – and analyzed it for the first time in North Carolina,” said Angie Newsome, founder and executive director of Carolina Public Press.

Her team found that fewer than one in four sexual assault defendants were convicted in the period they investigated, and fewer than a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties had sexual assault convictions. The state was the only one in the nation where a person could not revoke consent during a sexual encounter. The state’s law also determined that if a person was assaulted after drinking or doing drugs, it was not a crime.

“Those were the two aspects that led to the lack of convictions,” said Newsome.

Three days after the publication of the story, a North Carolina State House representative introduced legislation to fix the law. The reforms were approved in November of 2019. It was an outcome most journalists only dream of.

“This kind of impact is like lightning striking twice in the same spot,” said Newsome.

 

Gov. Roy Cooper signs a package of reforms to NC sexual assault laws Thursday afternoon, during a visit to a domestic violence shelter in Greensboro, as supporters of the legislation look on. Kate Martin / Carolina Public Press

A Look Back at Our Grantees’ Stories from 2019

It all starts with our grantees – the reporters and investigative journalists who commit their lives to uncovering, unraveling and documenting the stories that impact the world most. From migrant abuse at the border to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and beyond, our grantees reported on a diverse array of issues in 2019. Below, we give you a breakdown of the issues our grantees covered last year and some examples of their work.

In Massachusetts, FIJ grantee Shawn Musgrave documented prosecutorial misconduct and evidence tampering in drug offense cases for Reason Magazine, which resulted in the state having to throw out more than 47,000 convictions. And in Flint, Michigan, grantees Abby Ellis and Kayla Ruble investigated and uncovered the extent of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak during the water crisis, and how city officials failed to identify and address it. Their documentary titled “Flint’s Deadly Water,” was released by Frontline.

Our grantees also focused heavily on issues affecting the environment. In Washington state, John Stang documented how environmental groups are attempting to hold the U.S. Navy accountable after their dismantling of two decommissioned aircraft carriers left tons of toxic, copper-laden debris in Puget Sound. According to Stang’s reporting for Cascadia Magazine, environmental groups warn that the toxins left by the Navy could have deadly effects on the salmon population there. And in an isolated national refuge in Alaska, Jane Kay and photographer Ash Adams explored the impact of a Trump administration-approved road that could have a devastating effect on the wildlife and people living there in an article for Reveal.

Covering topics from corruption to women’s rights to police abuse, our grantees showed incredible commitment to journalism in 2019. The stories highlighted here, as well as the 39 other investigations completed by our grantees last year, can all be found on our website under “Grantees Work.”

Foster Parents Struggle Against Retaliation by State Caseworkers

Robbie Banks-Onthank and her husband Bill Onthank sit for a portrait at their home in Stevenson, Skamania County. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Reporter and FIJ grantee Rachel Nielsen investigated the complaints of foster parents in Washington state who say government caseworkers have created a culture of fear. The foster parents say they are being intimidated by state officials over trivial issues. State officials have held two meetings with groups of foster parents, but there have been no changes, according to records obtained by InvestigateWest under the Public Records Act.

InvestigateWest’s legal counsel, Kathy George, obtained more than 3,000 pages of records needed to complete this investigation. The state Department of Children, Youth and Families had improperly withheld the records for 16 months.

Read Nielsen’s entire story for InvestigateWest here.

Investigation Shows Native Americans More Likely to be Searched by Washington State Police

For more than 12 years, Washington State Patrol troopers have been searching drivers from minority communities, particularly Native Americans, five times more often than whites, FIJ grantees Jason Buch and Joy Borkholder,  report for InvestigateWest.

Their investigation also found that although there is a state law requiring that officers file reports on the race of drivers they stop, state troopers have done this only three times in the last 15 years.

For many people from communities of color in Washington State, Buch and Borkholder’s findings showed statistically what they have experienced in person for years.

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

White Supremacist Groups Recruitment in Police Departments

For decades, anti-government and white supremacist groups have been attempting to recruit police officers – and the authorities themselves aren’t even certain about the scale of the problem, FIJ grantees Varnham O’Regan and Maddy Crowell, report for The Guardian.

Hank Willis Thomas’ Raise Up statue at the National Memorial For Peace And Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Photograph: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Efforts to Stave off Detroit Foreclosures Leaves Many Residents Deeper in Debt

Nearly one in four Detroit homeowners owes more in delinquent property taxes than they did three years ago despite being a part of a county program designed to help them get out of debt and avoid foreclosure, according to a Detroit News analysis.

The payment plans, with lower interest rates and an extended five-year repayment deadline, were a solution devised by officials, including Mayor Mike Duggan, to get homeowners out of danger in the midst of Detroit’s record-setting tax foreclosure crisis.

But a Detroit News investigation by News reporter Christine MacDonald and FIJ grantee Mark Betancourt has found that the plans, enacted in state law in 2015, have kept thousands in a payment plan purgatory that likely will lead to the loss of their homes without more help.

Candis Patterson of Detroit has been on a payment plan for unpaid property taxes since December 2015. She finds it difficult to keep up with the $179 monthly payment and worries about losing her home. Photo by Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Spiraling Immigration Costs Under Trump Put a Strain on Migrant Families

Even as the immigration court system becomes more and more backlogged — rising to more than 1 million cases in September — and detention facilities managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have hit record levels, holding more than 50,000 people nationwide, officials are seeking much higher bonds for immigrants or refusing them altogether, FIJ grantee Paul Ingram reports for the Tucson Sentinel.

Margo Cowan meets with clients during a Keep Tucson Together event. An immigration lawyer for more than 40 years, Cowan worries about the rising prices of bonds for immigrants. Photo by Paul Ingram.

How a Georgia Jail Doctor Made a Fortune on Prisoners

For local law enforcement, health care for inmates can be a burden. For one doctor, it has been the opportunity of a lifetime. FIJ grantee Max Blau spent a year investigating how Dr. Carlo Musso, Georgia’s former deathrow doctor, built a medical empire in Southern jails. His stories were published in Atlanta Magazine and the Georgia Telegraph.

Illustration by Mike McQuade

A Murder in New Orleans and a Wrong Conviction

In 1988, Erin Hunter was convicted of a murder in New Orleans he claimed to know nothing about after a trial that took place in a single morning. Years later, the detective who investigated the case went to federal prison for extortion, the prosecutor remembered the single eyewitness as being of “dubious character,” and investigators suggested Hunter was set up. But Hunter remained in prison for three decades. Nicholas Chrastil reports this story for The Lens.

Photo: Erin Hunter as a young man. (Courtesy of the Hunter family)

Danger in the Ground: Lead Contaminates Neighborhood

Despite alarmingly high levels of lead in the soil of a mostly poor, largely African American community in Atlanta that is now an EPA Superfund “removal action” site, there has been no effort by state or local officials to test children for contamination.  An investigation by Georgia Health News, the Georgia News Lab and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought the story to light with the help of a grant from FIJ.

Lead Slag, a byproduct of smelting found near homes in Atlanta. Photo by Curtis Compton of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

 

California Foundation Created to Help Fire Victims More Interested in Lobbying for PG&E

The Rebuild North Bay Foundation was created in October 2017, ostensibly to provide relief to thousands of victims of wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties in California. As Peter Byrne and Will Carruthers report in the Pacific Sun the foundation performed little or no relief work, choosing to focus on lobbying on behalf of prominent businesspeople and Pacific Gas & Electric.

Photo Collage by Pacific Sun

 

Should Civilians Investigate Police-Related Shootings in New Hampshire?

Most police shootings in New Hampshire over the last three decades have been ruled justified by the state Attorney General’s Office perhaps because investigations were completed by the New Hampshire State Police. Nancy West of inDepthNH.org investigates how the state is now considering a civilian review board to determine whether police have acted appropriately when using lethal force against citizens.

Photo: Cody Lafont who was shot to death by a Claremont police officer who went to his home to tell him to stop calling 911 early on Sept. 25, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Lafont family.

Suicide Hidden in Colleges in Massachusetts

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students across the United States. And numbers are on the rise. But you won’t hear details about these tragic deaths from Massachusetts colleges and universities. Most of them don’t release information if they track it at all.

Jenifer McKim, a reporter with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, used data and public records to look into this problem in a state that draws students from across the world.  Here are her print and radio stories that ran in the Boston Globe and WGBH News.

Luke Tang  Harvard University freshman, committed suicide on campus in 2016.  Photo courtesy of Lucy Wang

Half the Judges in Venezuela are Linked to the Ruling Party

FIJ grantee Joseph Poliszuk of Armando.info, an online publication in Venezuela, finished a three-year investigation on the independence of judges in Venezuela. He and his partners at Armando.info created a website that tracks 6,000 judges throughout the country, finding evidence that 50 percent of the justices in the country were selected for those positions because of political ties to the Maduro government.  Poliszuk and his colleagues at Armando.info are now living in exile in Colombia after facing legal problems in Venezuela because of their journalism work. English versions of some of the stories are here.

Race, Land and Justice

More than two decades ago, a group including the white sheriff of Limestone County, Ala., rustled and slaughtered more than 60 head of cattle owned by Michael Stovall, a black farmer. They then dumped the carcasses into graves dug up on the farmer’s land. That was the finding of a Department of Agriculture special investigation. But the culprits remained free, and the farmer went to jail because officials accused him of starving the animals to death.

FIJ grantee Katti Gray delves into this story and others that look at how the USDA has engaged in actions that have eroded black farm ownership.

Michael Stovall inside a chicken house that was to be part of a USDA-financed farm expansion that never happened. Photo by Katti Gray

Local Communities Fight Oil and Gas Projects in the Pacific Northwest

“Holding the Thin Green Line,” a  radio documentary by FIJ grantee Barbara Bernstein, tells the stories of communities fighting fossil fuel industry projects in the Pacific Northwest .

The first hour follows the efforts of activists in Tacoma and Kalama, Washington, to stop construction of the world’s largest methanol refinery and delves into the saga of Puget Sound Energy’s effort to build a liquid natural gas facility at the Port of Tacoma. The second hour tells the stories of citizen push-back against the construction of what could become the largest liquid natural gas (LNG) export terminal on the West Coast. This mammoth facility is being proposed for Coos Bay, Oregon.  It would be fed by a 240-mile-long pipeline transporting fracked gas across four counties in southern Oregon, disturbing 480 rivers and streams in its wake.

Photo by Barbara Bernstein

Teachers and School Officials Get Off Easy on Sexual Assaults in Southern California

A two-year investigation by The Voice of San Diego of sexual misconduct by teachers and other public school employees found that the employees seldom face termination, but often leave with hush deals that protect reputations and enable them to continue working in education.

Records obtained show some teachers were quietly reprimanded for years as complaints piled up. Other times, school districts moved teachers from school to school after finding they violated sexual harassment policies with students. In one case, a Southwestern College educator resigned with a non disclosure agreement after committing sex acts with students in his office. He then went on to work at San Diego City College.

Loxie Grant, one of at least four women who have said physics teacher Martin Teachworth harassed them when they were students at La Jolla High School. Photo by Adriana Heldiz