Inside Public Integrity

Published — August 8, 2014 Updated — August 11, 2014 at 4:22 pm ET

Ten major findings from our investigations so far this year

Top investigations from 2014 that you may have missed


If you ask anyone at the Center for Public Integrity, they’ll tell you 2014 has so far been a busy year. Our staff continues to grow, we received one of the biggest single grants in our history and our reporting was recognized with more awards than in any year before. This year also marks the 25th Anniversary since our founder Charles Lewis started the Center from his guest bedroom.

But we still have a lot of work ahead. We have big investigations brewing on outside spending in state elections, the state of global nuclear security and municipal broadband. You can also expect more from our ongoing reporting on health effects of fracking, policy-making around at-risk youth and the many misleading ways special interests push an agenda in Washington.

Until then, we wanted to review some of the top findings from our investigations so far this year. They reveal shortcomings in all three branches of government, on the federal and state level.

1. Twelve universities took $100,000 or more in Koch foundation grants in 2012

Is your alma mater part of Koch Brothers Academy? Billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch may rank among the nation’s biggest bankrollers of conservative causes and Republican campaign vehicles. But Koch ideals of government deregulation and pro-business civics have been increasingly targeted not just at creatures of Capitol Hill, or people watching TV in swing states, but at the hearts and minds of American college students, as well.
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2. When financial lobbyists disagree with tougher rules, they turn to these 11 lawmakers

Meet the Banking Caucus. They’re all on the House Financial Services Committee, they get massive financial support from the industry and some have even been a part of the industry themselves — they’re the financial industry’s proxy voices on Capitol Hill.
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3. Japan has no urgent plutonium needs, but a new plant will soon make more than 17,000 pounds of it each year

Starting this October, a Japanese nuclear fuel plant 22 years in the making will begin churning out a nuclear chemical that will eventually become an energy source for the country. But the key word there is, eventually. Japan can’t currently convert the explosive nuclear component. With that kind of expected output, and a leak-detection system that is about 99 percent accurate, enough plutonium for 26 nuclear bombs could theoretically be removed without a trace.
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4. With no access to counsel, teens sent to jail for minor offenses like truancy, curfew violation, having tobacco

This is Judge Tim Irwin of Tennessee. As a juvenile court judge, he is admired for kind gestures like handing out stuffed animals to small children in court. Judge Irwin, however, doesn’t allow pro bono lawyers to offer free representation to teens accused of committing non-criminal offenses. Because these minor status offenses aren’t crimes, kids have no constitutional right to appointed legal counsel before they plead guilty. It’s a technicality that has proved life-changing for some teens, especially when coupled with Tennessee’s vigorous pattern of locking up status offenders immediately after proceedings. In one case, Judge Irwin abruptly detained a 15-year-old girl with crippling anxiety — for truancy. After her overnight lockup, her parents ignored orders to take her to school. She had become suicidal, and spent the following week in a psychiatric hospital.
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5. “I believe if you’re anti-oil and gas, you’re anti-Texas”

That’s what Texas State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran had to say in reference to one of America’s biggest energy booms, the Lone Star State’s Eagle Ford Shale. But as wells are drilled at an unprecedented rate, local residents fear for their health — not from the water, but from the air they breathe. We wanted to know what, if anything, Texas was doing to monitor the potential health effects of residents who live near drilling sites. What did we find? Thousands of Texas oil and gas facilities are allowed to self-audit emissions without reporting to the state.
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6. About a third of all people on Medicare are covered by health plans that are susceptible to billing abuse

Americans 65 and older are either sicker than medical experts can explain, or health insurance plans are simply claiming they are. Our investigation into Medicare Advantage found that billions of tax dollars are wasted every year through leakage of a Medicare payment tool called a “risk score.” The formula is supposed to pay health plans more for sicker patients and less for healthy people, but often it pays too much. Some experts and researchers believe rising risk scores are more likely to reflect aggressive billing than a rapid deterioration in patients’ health.
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7. Manhattan just another island haven for dirty money

Thanks to lax U.S. rules and real estate industry’s no-questions-asked approach, Manhattan has become America’s own island haven for shady characters from overseas looking to funnel their wealth through New York’s luxury real estate.
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8. Sixteen high court judges ruled in 26 cases despite having a financial conflict

More than half of federal appellate judges, arbiters of the second-highest court in the U.S., reported owning stock in 2012. We wondered how judges were keeping track of their holdings when cases involved a company they’d invested in — some weren’t keeping track. Four cases have been reopened in the time since this investigation was published.
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9. Only 12% of eligible households have signed up for Comcast’s affordable Internet program

Back in 2011, Comcast wanted to ease federal approval of its merger with NBC Universal, so it promised to offer Internet access at a rate affordable to low-income families. The program, called “Internet Essentials,” helped show regulators that Comcast’s corporate deal was in the public interest (and it made for good public relations, too). Now Comcast wants to buy Time Warner, and this new merger begs the question — what happened to Internet Essentials? There are 7.2 million low-income people in Comcast’s service area, of those, only 2.6 million have a child who is eligible for the federal school lunch program (one of the program’s many requirements). Of those, only 300,000 participants have signed up for the program.
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10. Arsenic is 17 times more potent than the EPA reports, and they’ve known it since 2008

It’s no secret that arsenic is bad for you. A person drinking the legal limit of arsenic daily (it occurs naturally in groundwater) has a much greater risk of developing cancer from arsenic than from any other toxin — 60 times greater, to be precise. So, why isn’t the EPA’s drinking-water standard for arsenic lower? For six years, the EPA has been prepared to say that arsenic is more carcinogenic than they currently report. The holdup comes from government backlog and industry sway, but ultimately, we connected the regulatory delay to a single paragraph inserted into a committee report by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson.
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