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Friday, September 1, 2006
FOIA Fruits

Public records lead to jucy investigative stories

By Jon Marshall

Reporters throughout the country dug deeply into public records this summer to create important stories that served the public. On beats ranging from health care to the environment to cops, the Freedom of Information Act allowed reporters to unearth documents that people in power wanted to keep hidden. The results were gems like these:

Behind Locked Doors

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a terrific series in June on extensive neglect and abuse against some of our most vulnerable citizens. “Broken Promises, Broken Lives” by Carolyn Tuft and Joe Mahr documented how mentally ill and mentally disabled people suffered 21 deaths and 665 injuries since 2000 in government-supervised centers in Missouri. Tuft and Mahr didn’t pull any punches in their lead: “Mentally retarded and mentally ill people in Missouri have been sexually assaulted, beaten, injured and left to die by abusive and neglectful caregivers in a system that for years has failed at every level to safeguard them.” See the full story.

Lone Star Justice

Maurice Possley and Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune continued their groundbreaking investigations into the death penalty with “Did One Man Die for Another’s Crime?” The three-part series, which started June 24, looked at the 1983 murder of gas station clerk Wanda Lopez and concluded that the state of Texas may have killed the wrong man for the crime. Carlos De Luna was convicted of the murder and executed even though another man, Carlos Hernandez, bragged about the killing. Mills and Possley used court transcripts and dozens of interviews with those connected with the crime to cast significant doubt on the verdict. Read the full story.

Get the Lead Out

Sharon Coolidge of the Cincinnati Enquirer used public records to discover that 570 Cincinnati children have suffered from lead poisoning in the past five years while city government did little to make landlords clean up their act. “Lead’s Dangerous Legacy,” published June 25, revealed that less than 1 percent of the hundreds of property owners who ignored city orders to remove lead paint were taken to court. As a result, hundreds of children are at risk of having their mental and physical growth stunted, Coolidge wrote. The excellent package includes Coolidge’s profile of a family that can’t afford to escape its lead-filled home and Glenn Hartong’s photos of children who have been poisoned by lead. Full story.

Transplant Troubles

The Los Angeles Times produced a troubling series of investigations about the nation’s medical transplant system. For example, the June 29 story “20% of U.S. Transplant Centers Are Found to Be Substandard” by Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein disclosed that 48 of 236 federally funded heart, lung and liver transplant programs kept operating despite failing to meet minimum standards or not performing enough operations to ensure competency. According to the records analysis by Weber and Ornstein, 71 more people died from 2002 to 2004 because of the failings. Full story.

Tow to Nowhere

Patrick Lakamp of the Buffalo News looked at police records to show that Buffalo residents are being charged towing fees even when their cars aren’t towed. For his “Towing-Fee Abuse” special report on July 9, Lakamp did a computer analysis of more than 38,000 parking tickets to discover that a police officer was assessing $40 towing charges on 80 percent of the parking tickets he wrote for illegally parked cars. Lakamp then went out in the neighborhoods to learn that none of these 242 ticketed cars actually was towed. After Lakamp’s story appeared, the Erie County district attorney and Buffalo police launched investigations into the phantom towing.

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