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Dig Investigative nuggets from the staff of Reveal

‘Spotlight:’ A valentine to investigative reporting

Those of us who report and publish the news always notice that we rank somewhere south of head lice in public opinion polls. So only a journalist who’s delusional would spend Feb. 14 waiting for the inbox to fill with hearts, candy and flowers.

But this year, we’ve got “Spotlight,” a giant, ongoing Valentine’s Day gift to the power, efficacy and necessity in our society of investigative journalism. This is extra sweet at a time when that kind of expensive, hard reporting is seriously threatened by failing business models, failure of imagination and the media world’s obsession with substance-free, adrenalized news bursts.

The film is now well known as the story of The Boston Globe team that uncovered the scope and virulence of the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest problem and the accompanying massive cover-up.

What’s less known – despite the previously inconceivable fact that members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors sat down in Rome just last week and watched “Spotlight” before engaging in a panel on clerical sex abuse – is that this is a Valentine’s gift that keeps on giving.

The film came out in November. But since then, the church has released names of accused priests in Yakima, Washington, and files on delinquent clergy in Minneapolis. Well over a dozen dioceses and archdioceses from Chicago to Seattle; Albany, New York, to St. Petersburg, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, have issued statements citing “Spotlight” in recommitting themselves to vigilantly weeding out the... Read More >

New York police tracked cellphones across East Coast without warrants

The New York Police Department has used controversial cellphone tracking technology over a thousand times since 2008 and appears to have farmed out the devices to law enforcement agencies up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Massachusetts.

Documents obtained by the New York Civil Liberties Union through a state Freedom of Information Law request indicate New York City police have used cell-site simulators made by the Florida-based Harris Corp., better known through product-specific names such as Hailstorm and StingRay, to track down a wide range of people through their cellphone signals. A detective from the department’s Technical Assistance Response Unit also signed one of Harris’ nondisclosure agreements.

The records are notable for being the first documentation proving that the New York Police Department uses cell-site simulators. The next largest police departments in the country, in Chicago and Los Angeles, use cell-site simulators that can both track location and intercept phone calls and data transmissions. Furthermore, the New York Civil Liberties Union documents are the most detailed accounting of how a major police department uses cell-site simulators for criminal offenses ranging from homicide to prank calling 911.

Redactions made by the police department obscure the date, target and arrest location for each instance in which a cell-site simulator was used. Fields that were not redacted include the squad that used the devices, the results and the top charge filed against a suspect.

The documents make clear that cell-site simulators have been used to track down suspects in violent crimes. Two suspects in the... Read More >

Wyoming won’t legalize mountain lion trapping

With efforts underway across the country to restrict animal trapping, Wyoming was poised this week to take a step in the other direction with a plan to make the trapping of mountain lions legal.

The legalization bill, however, failed in the state Legislature on Tuesday amid a storm of opposition from wildlife advocates, scientists and sportsmen.

“It really is indiscriminate,” said Sam Krone, a Republican state representative who voted against the bill. “It not only could affect the lion population, but it could affect other animals and other wildlife.”

The vote occurred against a backdrop of growing concern about the grisly and unintended consequences of trapping, which has injured and killed dozens of species by mistake in recent years, as Reveal reported last month.

Trapping of mountain lions is legal in only two states: Texas and New Mexico, where a season opens this fall on private land. The bill to allow it in Wyoming was authored by state Rep. Jim Allen and others who pitched it as a way to help increase mule deer numbers.

But the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the largest and oldest pro-hunting group in the state, disagreed.

“There is no scientific basis to this argument,” Steve Kilpatrick, a field scientist for the federation, said on the group’s website. “Mule deer are in decline because of a lack of suitable habitat, development, and disease.”

More resistance came from wildlife advocacy groups, which gathered more than 8,500 signatures and comments opposing the bill in an online petition.

“This is a huge win for Wyoming’s people and mountain lions,” said Mark Elbroch,... Read More >

How America is failing at diversity just about everywhere

Diversity – or lack thereof – is all over the news these days. And the picture does not look good.

Diversity in corporate America: A new study says companies that have women executives are more profitable – and yet few companies do. Less than 5 percent of 21,980 firms surveyed had a female CEO. Also, the consulting firm Accenture is making waves by releasing internal data on company demographics (half of its employees are white, 64 percent are men) and announcing a plan to pay bonuses for helping recruit minorities.

Diversity in government: A new report criticizes the Federal Reserve for being too white and too male. It says 83 percent of the Fed’s board members are white. Current Chairwoman Janet Yellen is its first female leader.

Diversity in politics: The campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been sparring over female supporters, as controversial comments by Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem about female Sanders supporters made headlines. Now the race is “about to get racial,” as the candidates compete for nonwhite voters in primary states with a lot of them. That’s seen as Clinton’s strong suit, though Sanders just got a couple of endorsements from prominent black intellectuals.

Diversity in Hollywood: The #OscarsSoWhite controversy rages on, with a very white photo op and an offer to boycott the Academy Awards by nominee Sylvester Stallone. A new study found an increase in female characters in 2015 movies, to 22 percent (think “Star Wars,” “Mad Max” and “The Hunger Games”) but no bump up for women of color. Meanwhile, Samantha Bee takes on... Read More >

Beyoncé uses Super Bowl spotlight to help kids in Flint

Amid the many surprises Beyoncé dropped over the weekend, you might’ve missed this one: The superstar entertainer started a fund to aid children in Flint, Michigan, affected by their local water crisis.

Her interest in Flint’s current state of affairs isn’t too surprising. Flint is a working-class city of about 100,000 people – the majority of whom are black. And the water crisis is particularly harmful to young kids. Beyoncé is a known advocate for civil rights and children’s causes.

Last year, research scientists from Virginia Tech ran tests on Flint’s tap water and found high levels of lead. Exposure to lead can cause lower intelligence and attention problems – especially in kids under age 6. To make matters more concerning, the effects of lead exposure can’t be reversed.

So the singer says she is partnering with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to “create a fund that will address long-term developmental, education, nutrition and health needs of the children affected by the Flint Water Crisis.” The move is a part of her ongoing philanthropic efforts to team up with local charities in areas that sometimes coincide with tour stops

After releasing a politically charged new song and video Saturday and performing at the Super Bowl on Sunday, Beyoncé announced a world tour in a commercial that ran right after her performance. The tour is being promoted by Live Nation, and an announcement on its site touted the new fund. 

Reveal reached out to Beyoncé’s charity organization, #BeyGOOD, and Live Nation for more details about... Read More >

Luxembourg lines up to mine in outer space

Luxembourg is pioneering a new frontier: asteroid mining.

The tiny European nation announced last week that it will invest in research and development related to space mining and also directly in space mining companies, the Guardian reported.

“Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources, on lifeless rocks hurtling through space, without damaging natural habitats,” said Étienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister.

Scientists have discovered 13,715 near-Earth objects, including asteroids. While most are made of rock, some contain metals such as platinum, nickel and iron. They also contain water, which could be used to make rocket fuel.

Two U.S. firms, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, are racing to become the first to commercially mine asteroids. Planetary Resources is backed by some Google executives and Virgin’s Richard Branson.

Nobody has mined an asteroid yet, but last year, the U.S. passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which allows American companies to harvest, own and trade resources from outer space.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of near-Earth objects scientists have discovered. They have found 13,715.

What you need to know about America’s private prison industry

You may not know much about it, but America has a shadowy system of for-profit prisons that exclusively hold noncitizens – nearly 23,000 in total. And about 40 percent of those inmates are serving time for immigration crimes, mostly crossing back over the U.S.-Mexico border after being deported.

Our upcoming episode, a collaboration with The Investigative Fund, explores this little-known prison system – and the sometimes deadly conditions inside. Read reporter Seth Freed Wessler’s investigation into how cost cutting is causing medical disasters for inmates.

Ahead of our show, we collected some recent reporting and research for background on the private prison industry’s rise. Have other suggestions? Send us recommendations on Twitter: @reveal. And stay tuned for our new episode, which lands on our podcast Monday. 

The story: “Five myths of the private prison industry,” from MuckRock

The gist: Private prisons have been justified as a cost-saving solution to prison overcrowding. But these facilities do not seem to be saving money or solving the issue of overcrowding. MuckRock’s Beryl Lipton looks at other common myths and misconceptions about the industry.

Key quote: “If private prisons are meant to hold overflow, then the continued existence of private prisons is in some measure a sign that we’ve failed to manage our incarceration on our own.” – Beryl Lipton, MuckRock

The story: “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System,” from ACLU

The gist: According to this report by the ACLU, the criminalization of immigration has led to a boom in the private prison industry, and insufficient oversight and accountability in these private facilities allow for inhumane treatment of inmates.

Key quote: “(Our... Read More >

Temp workers get left out of Obama’s pay discrimination action

President Barack Obama’s new effort to combat pay discrimination won’t help one of the fastest-growing parts of the American workforce: temporary workers.

The administration is proposing a new requirement that all companies with more than 100 employees report what they pay workers by race, ethnicity and sex. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission already collects data on the workforce demographics of large companies, in order to spot hiring discrimination. The new rule would add pay information, which the EEOC then could use to investigate gender or racial pay gaps.

“Collecting this pay data will help fill a critical void in the information we need to ensure that American workers are not shortchanged for their hard work,” said EEOC chairwoman Jenny Yang as part of the announcement.

But government data has a big loophole: Companies aren’t required to report data on temp workers.

A recent Reveal investigation found a nationwide pattern of hiring discrimination in the industry, in which companies ask temp agencies to provide only white workers, for example, or only men. Some former temp agency recruiters say that extends to pay discrimination as well. Agencies sometimes relegate black workers to inferior positions with lower wages, some said. Women often are slotted into lower-paying positions as well, according to a report by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University and the advocacy group New Labor.

None of that will show up with the new regulations. The staffing industry pushed for an exemption to reporting temp workers back in the 1960s, which means temps won’t be counted in the pay data either.

With changes in the economy and growth of the temp workforce, the exclusion doesn’t make sense anymore,... Read More >

Jehovah’s Witnesses fight law on reporting child sex abuse to police

In 2013, 30-something Katheryn Harris Carmean White confessed to elders in her Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation that she had repeatedly had sex with a 14-year-old boy.

The two elders didn’t tell police. They, and the congregation, now face a lawsuit from the Delaware attorney general accusing them of violating the state’s mandated reporting laws. The defendants claim the elders were protected from having to report the abuse by a legal exemption for clergy.

The case highlights the struggle of courts to interpret a convoluted web of clergy reporting laws that stretches across U.S. Elevating the tension is the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses explicitly are instructed not to report child sexual abuse to secular authorities unless required by state law.

Clergy are mandated to report child abuse in 45 states, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But laws in 32 of those states contain some version of a loophole called a clergy-penitent privilege. Those exceptions allow clergy to withhold information from authorities if they receive it from members seeking spiritual advice.

Delaware law requires any individual or organization suspecting child abuse to report it. But then it gets confusing. The law allows an exemption for a priest who learns of abuse during a “sacramental confession,” wording that suggests a privilege specifically for clergy in the Catholic Church.

In the Delaware case, Jehovah’s Witnesses attorney Francis McNamara argued that the law must allow Witnesses the same protection and that Superior Court Judge Mary M. Johnston should dismiss the case.

In sworn affidavits, elders William Perkins... Read More >

Answers to your questions about the Flint water crisis

This week, we asked what you wanted to know about the situation in Flint, Michigan, where the drinking water for thousands of residents has been contaminated with dangerously high levels of iron and lead.

We then took your questions to Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith. Her radio documentary, “Not Safe to Drink,” tells the full story behind the water crisis in Flint and was the centerpiece of our latest radio episode.

Using the hashtag #AskFlint on Twitter, Smith offered an on-the-ground perspective about the events that brought the city to a state of emergency and the challenges it may face as officials work to address residents’ toxic water. Here’s a recap of her answers to the questions we received on social media:

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