From The Charlotte Observer:
It’s not surprising citizens have never won: The board has no independent power to investigate, and citizens must meet an unusually high standard of evidence for the board to even hold a formal hearing. Instead, the 11-member, volunteer board has met behind closed doors-first with citizens, then with police-and voted to dismiss almost every case.
The Observer’s courts reporter Gary L. Wright came up with the idea for the piece and brought in projects reporter Fred Clasen-Kelly to help out when Wright was in court, Clasen-Kelly tells CJR.
Together, their wide-ranging reporting on the shortcomings of the city’s Citizen Review Board—which only held four hearings in 15 years for citizens who complained about police—made for a persuasive story about the virtually unchecked power of Charlotte law enforcement. And it laid out the case for how the board could be one of the weakest of its kind in the nation. The web version came with a useful sidebar by Wright explaining how citizens can bring complaints, along with a list of high-profile cases that never led to a hearing.
Finally, in West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday, reporter Phil Kabler had a sharp, detailed look at some goings-on at the state’s ethics agency.
For instance, Kabler explained how since 2008 lobbyist spending on public officials has gone up in West Virginia, while the number of registered lobbyists has dropped significantly.
To explain the latter, Kabler offered this anecdote:
Take my friend, the late Les Milam, for example. Although registered as a lobbyist, he didn’t lobby legislators per se, but tracked bills for clients. (Prior to the legislative website, that required physically being at the Capitol to pick up paper copies of House and Senate journals, the bills themselves, and committee agendas.)
As the recession hit, and the legislative website approached near-real time updating, many businesses cut the expense of hiring bill trackers, since it could be done with in-house staff via the website.
As for the increased lobbyists’ spending, Kabler writes:
a key factor was the addition of first-dollar reporting in 2005 legislation to toughen the Ethics Act.
That was a simple, but significant change, eliminating the plausible deniability that went with the old $25 threshold before lobbyists had to report spending on any individual legislator or public official.
Among other things, that ended the endless tab at the Marriott bar, in which multiple lobbyists would split the legislators’ nightly bar tab, providing a cover so that there would be no way to verify that any one lobbyist had spent more than $25 on any one legislator.
It’s fair to say that lobbyists’ spending hasn’t nearly doubled since 2004—but they are more accurately reporting what they spend.
Nice trick there in West Virginia for wining and dining lawmakers while skirting lobbying regs. Unfortunately it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t typically get reported until after the jig is up. Government reporters might want to check that out in their home states.
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