Charleston, SC — Over the last year as a correspondent for CJR’s United States Project covering four states in the Southeast, I examined how local media outlets covered stories ranging from small-town public corruption in West Virginia to the roots of the government shutdown in North Carolina. In Virginia, the governor is leaving under a cloud of ethics woes that I hope, moving forward, can be an opportunity for in-depth coverage of ethics reform. In South Carolina, the newspaper The State embarked on an ambitious series it’s calling “State House for Sale.” But those are just a few.
As we move into 2014, here’s a look back at some of the issues we examined over the past year and an update on where they stand now.
Gambling and politics in North Carolina
Back in May, I interviewed Associated Press reporters Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, who were churning out enterprising tales about dubious Internet gambling operators flexing their political muscle―and donating more campaign money than anyone else in North Carolina―in an attempt to shape public policy. The news settled down after the spring, but on Dec. 27 Biesecker was back with a piece that offered new details about efforts to influence state politicians.
From “Oklahoma AG: Checks to NC politicians came from illegal gambling,” published in The Charlotte Observer:
A checking account used last year to make $235,000 in donations to the campaigns of dozens of North Carolina politicians contained the laundered proceeds of a criminal gambling enterprise, according to Oklahoma’s top law enforcement official.
The political donations were drawn from one of several accounts tied to sweepstakes game provider Chase E. Burns of Anadarko, Okla., who in September pleaded no contest in Florida to two criminal counts of assisting in the operation of a lottery. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped 205 felony counts against Burns, including racketeering and money laundering charges. He is awaiting sentencing.
Biesecker further reported that Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt, last month finished up an agreement that will lead Burns to forfeit up $3.5 million from bank accounts seized as part of the investigation. “According to Pruitt, the money came directly from the ‘laundered proceeds’ of Burns’ sweepstakes software company, International Internet Technologies,” Biesecker wrote, adding that an AP review of court filings show “$1 million of that forfeited money came from a checking account in the name of the Chase Burns Trust - the same account used to send political donations to the campaigns of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger, among others.”
Whatever happened in “Corruption County”?
Last spring I wrote about a small West Virginia newspaper’s spat with a TV station in Charleston, the state capital, after the station used anonymous sources to report on an a pending indictment of a powerful local judge in rural Mingo County. An editorial in the Williamson Daily News called the TV report “irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.”
Three months later, the TV station felt vindicated when the judge was indicted.
Where are the players now? Well, the indictment of judge Michael Thornsbury was just the beginning, as the saga unraveled throughout the summer into one of the most egregious examples of small-town public corruption in 2013. From an August story in The Charleston Gazette:
Prosecutors allege Thornsbury, the county’s only circuit judge, put his business partner in charge of a Mingo grand jury as foreman, plotted to plant drugs on Robert Woodruff and tried to get the man sent to jail.
Thornsbury, a Democrat, “persecuted his secretary’s husband, his romantic rival” and used the justice system for his own “nefarious purpose,” Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said in a Thursday news conference.
Corruption is something of a tradition in Mingo, a coal mining county that is home to less than 30,000 people and located along West Virginia’s border with Kentucky. In the late 1980s, more than 50 Mingo residents who held government jobs were arrested for various illegal activities, including bribery, arson, and drug dealing. Because of this unique history, the locals have a special term for the corrupt political machinery there. It’s a name investigators are using once again to describe Thornsbury and his associates—the “courthouse gang.”
Federal investigators say Thornsbury is now cooperating with them “and giving them information concerning other elected officials”—according to a late December article in the Williamson Daily News.
How did the “State House for Sale” series pan out?
In May we gave a hat tip to environmental reporter Sammy Fretwell for his standout inaugural piece in “State House for Sale,” an ongoing series from Columbia, SC-based newspaper The State. The series aims to examine loopholes in the state’s current Ethics Act as lawmakers move to overhaul the law in response to multiple investigations, resignations, violations, and convictions of elected officeholders.
We said in May we hoped the rest of the series would match the caliber of Fretwell’s opening salvo, and it’s produced some solid reporting that should be required reading for anyone interested in ethics reform in the Palmetto State. The series is likely to win at least one state press association award this winter.
The paper has delivered a dozen stories since last spring on topics ranging from the ways leadership positions pay off in the legislature to discrepancies in how the House and Senate ethics panels interpret potential violations to the gray areas in lobbying registration.
I especially enjoyed a June piece by Adam Beam, who combed through 179 financial disclosure forms to find “a wildly inconsistent system with little oversight, making it impossible to say definitively how much lawmakers earn from public sources.” This part was memorable:
State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, disclosed that he is a minority owner of the Florence Concrete Co., which he founded in 1955 and managed until 1994. But Leatherman did not report the state Department of Transportation awarded Florence Concrete Co. $735,000 in contracts in 2012, according to state procurement records.
“I don’t know anything about those,” Leatherman said. “I’m not the boss. I don’t know what they get or don’t get or when they get (it).”
As a result, Leatherman contends, disclosing his minority ownership stake—not the value of the company’s state business—meets the requirements of state law.
A bill before the state Legislature would require lawmakers, for the first time, to disclose all of their sources of income, both private and public. South Carolina is the only state that does not require such disclosures from its elected officials. But the proposed law would do little to clear up confusion about what lawmakers are supposed to report from public sources.
Another memorable piece by reporter Jeff Wilkinson examined political campaign donations by corporations—the practice is allowed in South Carolina but banned federally and in 21 states—and how big business also donates to political parties and caucuses to advance their agendas.
The fate of ethics reform in Virginia
Ethics reform has also been a hot issue in Virginia, where beginning in the spring a team of reporters at The Washington Post led the way in breaking news about a gift-giving scandal that embarrassed Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In July we urged reporters around the state to use the scandal as an opportunity for in-depth reporting on ethics issues. If current coverage is on the mark, it’s important that the press stay on this story if meaningful reform is going to happen.
The Newport News Daily Press had a solid Dec. 29 article about the political appetite for reform this year in the state’s General Assembly. Bottom line: it’s uncertain. Reporter Dave Ress quotes a Republican lawmaker who says, “I don’t think it’s going to be a major issue,” and another who says “I’m sure an ethics bill will be passed.”
Here’s Ress’ analysis of why moving ahead on the issue might prove difficult:
It can be tough to traffic-cop ethics bills through a legislature, basically because lawmakers don’t like voting against an ethics measure, but dislike voting for anything too restrictive. It tends to mean a lot of very quiet efforts to build a consensus, and to make sure there’s no one-up-manship that could embarrass legislators into voting for reforms they don’t really want.
That said, incoming Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe plans to issue an executive order banning gifts of more than $100 to officials in his administration. (He’s also said he will establish an independent ethics commission, which could be meaningful or could be a way to bury the issue.) And Patch.com’s Jason Spencer reported on New Year’s Day about a new legislative proposal that would “limit the amounts of gifts local and state officials could accept and require regular disclosure in a searchable, online database.”
If any ethics reforms do come about, they’re unlikely to carry criminal penalties, according to another Republican lawmaker quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, because of the possibility of unintentional violations. “This is a minefield for detonations,” Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, told the paper in December. “I would be shocked and surprised if criminal penalties were put on any of these things, again because of the pitfalls.”
What’s up with the wage theft problem?
In March we gave a laurel to In These Times for a solid expose by Spencer Woodman on a growing problem of state legislatures slashing budgets for agencies that enforce minimum wage laws. It was an issue that had gone largely undercovered in Virginia, where Woodman based his piece, following a worker named Anthony Van Buren’s fight to retrieve money owed to him by a contractor for a painting job. We urged other state-level government reporters to keep an eye on the story.
Some movement on the issue came about this week. In Florida, The Gainesville Sun writes that as of Jan. 1, new ordinances go into effect that allow workers duped out of pay to file a claim with the county; an independent officer will hear cases and rule on them. And the city of New Brunswick became the first municipality in New Jersey to adopt an ordinance banning wage theft, as the Star-Ledger reported.
Meanwhile, a contractor that operates warehouses for Walmart “agreed to pay $4.7 million to settle allegations that it cheated workers out of wages,” The Huffington Post reported early last month, and dozens of workers in San Francisco received $800,000 in unpaid wages from an assisted living service after the city attorney’s office prosecuted the case.
I caught up with Woodman this week, who said he thought coverage on the issue has improved, something he says might have to do with the rise of labor efforts like the fast-food workers’ movements.
“After my story came out, it was striking to hear anecdotes just from people I know personally—friends and family—who’d found themselves in situations where they weren’t paid for work and had found they had little viable recourse,” he told me.
And there are other angles on the issue still ripe for more reporting.
“One in-depth story that I’d like to see someone do is about systematic wage theft in large workplaces, like warehouses, that have computerized systems of clocking people in and out,” Woodman says. “In a lot of these situations, worker’s pay is inappropriately paired back each day by matters of minutes, even seconds, which might seem small, but adds up to huge sums of savings for the company in the aggregate. Think of it as micro wage theft. There are some interesting ‘donning and doffing’ class actions that have emerged over the past year, and my understanding is that some more of these larger distribution warehouses might be vulnerable to similar suits.”
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