Investigative Archive

Subscribe to the RSS Feed for my Portfolio

Amid Nashville’s housing boom, safety rules are ignored and more workers die

Posted on 14 November 2019 (0)
By Lacy Atkins / The Tennessean

By Lacy Atkins / The Tennessean

The two “tall skinny” homes looked like hundreds of others cropping up around Nashville. Wood framed, wrapped in white weatherproofing plastic, in a gentrifying neighborhood, with roofers laying asphalt.

Alfonso Dominguez, 60, climbed one of the North Nashville homes’ pitched roofs on a Wednesday last June. It was in the 80s, and the black asphalt was hot.

Dominguez was a runner for the three-man crew, and earned $10 an hour, his brother said. He carried shingles to his boss on one end of the roof, to a co-worker on the other, and he kept the roof tidy, a state safety inspector wrote in a report.

None of the men on the roof that day were wearing harnesses.

“I would tell him, ‘Don’t be working there. It’s not safe,’ ” said his brother Hermenegildo Dominguez, who also works in construction. “But it’s very difficult. We all need work.”

About 2:30 p.m., Alfonso Dominguez lost his balance and fell 24 feet into the neighbor’s yard. An ambulance took him to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he spent 11 days in a coma, with internal bleeding and head injuries, before dying.

Dominguez’s employer, subcontractor Alonso Luna, was also on the roof that day, but he didn’t report the death to the state, as required by law. Nor did the general contractor, Jimmy Brooks. Brooks didn’t have a building permit for the house on 14th Avenue North, either.

“They would tell him they needed to finish a house soon,” said Hermenegildo Dominguez, “but they’re working without any safety equipment.”

After the accident, Luna told the inspector from the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration that Alfonso Dominguez wasn’t authorized to work on the roof. He declined to talk with a reporter when reached by phone in March. Brooks didn’t return multiple messages seeking comment for this story.

Dominguez was one of 16 construction workers who died in the Nashville metropolitan area during 2016 and 2017 — the deadliest two-year stretch in more than three decades, according to a Tennessean analysis of state and federal OSHA data. More workers died here in 2016 than in Austin, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Memphis; and other areas with rapid growth or a similarly sized workforce, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

Read more…

Nashville tried to close the racial gap in suspensions. It only got worse

Posted on 14 November 2019 (0)
A pencil. The seventh grade teacher sent the 12-year-old boy to the principal’s office for taking a pencil from her desk.
It could have gone a different way — a discussion, a warning, a referral to a school counselor — but the boy’s mother said the principal at Haynes Middle School told her the pencil was the last straw. He’d already been written up for walking out of class, leaving his desk without permission and other misconduct.
The boy was suspended for a day.
African American youth like this student were three times more likely to be suspended than white students last year in Metro Nashville Public Schools. Haynes Middle, where enrollment is 96% black, had the highest suspension rate last year of all traditional public schools in Nashville: 1 out of every 3 students was sent home at least once for discipline.
District officials have spent five years trying to close the racial gap through an initiative called Passage, which launched teacher training on alternative forms of discipline and helped tighten guidelines on when administrators could suspend a child.
But after more than $2 million invested over the five years — through Passage and other reform efforts — the disparity increased, a Tennessean analysis of suspension data found.
By Larry McCormack / The Tennessean

By Larry McCormack / The Tennessean

A pencil. The seventh grade teacher sent the 12-year-old boy to the principal’s office for taking a pencil from her desk.

It could have gone a different way — a discussion, a warning, a referral to a school counselor — but the boy’s mother said the principal at Haynes Middle School told her the pencil was the last straw. He’d already been written up for walking out of class, leaving his desk without permission and other misconduct.

The boy was suspended for a day.

African American youth like this student were three times more likely to be suspended than white students last year in Metro Nashville Public Schools. Haynes Middle, where enrollment is 96% black, had the highest suspension rate last year of all traditional public schools in Nashville: 1 out of every 3 students was sent home at least once for discipline.

District officials have spent five years trying to close the racial gap through an initiative called Passage, which launched teacher training on alternative forms of discipline and helped tighten guidelines on when administrators could suspend a child.

But after more than $2 million invested over the five years — through Passage and other reform efforts — the disparity increased, a Tennessean analysis of suspension data found.

Read more…

Denied: How some Tennessee doctors earn big money denying disability

Posted on 14 November 2019 (0)
By the time Alan Chrisman was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer, he was too sick to work. The cancer had spread to his lungs. His doctors said he may never get better.
Chrisman, 59, applied for disability, the federal safety net program he contributed to with every paycheck during his 30 years working as a stonemason.
But a doctor hired by Tennessee’s Disability Determination Services to review applications quickly concluded Chrisman wasn’t sick enough to get the $804 monthly benefit.
That physician, Dr. Thomas Thrush, is one of about 50 doctors contracted to review applications for Tennesseans seeking disability.
By Caitie McMekin / News Sentinel

By Caitie McMekin / News Sentinel

By the time Alan Chrisman was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer, he was too sick to work. The cancer had spread to his lungs. His doctors said he may never get better.

Chrisman, 59, applied for disability, the federal safety net program he contributed to with every paycheck during his 30 years working as a stonemason.

But a doctor hired by Tennessee’s Disability Determination Services to review applications quickly concluded Chrisman wasn’t sick enough to get the $804 monthly benefit.

That physician, Dr. Thomas Thrush, is one of about 50 doctors contracted to review applications for Tennesseans seeking disability.

The doctors are paid a flat rate for each application file they review. How much they earn depends on how fast they work.

Thrush, like many of the doctors who contract with the state, works very fast.

In fiscal year 2018, he reviewed — on average — one case every 12 minutes.

Thrush’s productivity has paid off. He earned $420,000 for reviewing the applications of 9,088 Tennesseans applying for disability during the year ending June 30. He has made more than $2.2 million since 2013.

On average, 80 percent of the cases he reviewed were denied.

Tennessee has among the highest denial rates for disability applicants in the nation, rejecting 72 percent of all claims in 2017. The national average for denials was 66 percent.

Read more…

Why LAPD officers escaped serious discipline after shootings

Posted on 07 April 2018 (0)
beck

By David Crane / Los Angeles Daily News

It was a spur-of-the-moment drug bust that went bad. Terribly bad.

With a marked $5 bill in hand, Los Angeles Police Department narcotics detective Arthur Gamboa leaned against a wall on a busy downtown sidewalk.

“Weed, Klonopin, weed, Klonopin …” That’s what Dale Garrett, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound black man was chanting that May day in 2011, the detective told investigators. He “snatched” the $5 bill from the officer and kept walking, Gamboa said. When the veteran detective protested, he said Garrett, 51, turned to face him and unfurled a long serrated knife. The detective fired two shots, fatally.

But the autopsy showed both shots entered Garrett’s back. And when another officer overturned Garrett’s body, he found a knife that was folded, not open. The civilian Police Commission found the evidence contradicted Gamboa’s version and ruled he violated department policy.

The two officers behind the sting operation were suspended for 22 days — a punishment rare for the LAPD, both for its length and that such discipline happened at all. Most shootings are deemed problem-free.

Read more…

Nashville pension fund leads U.S. in risky investments

Posted on 07 April 2018 (0)

pensionsNashville’s public pension system invested city workers’ retirement funds in the nation’s largest share of risky, high-priced investments among its peers. After eight years, the aggressive strategy shows promise, but it’s not clear if it’s worth the risk to retirees, or the millions paid to Wall Street managers.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, Nashville’s pension managers have been shifting taxpayer money into junk bonds, hedge funds, troubled mortgages, private equity funds and other alternatives to conservative stocks and bonds. If successful, these “alternative investments” can earn greater profits, but they also demand high fees and carry the risk of heavy losses.

Nashville’s investments have shown mixed results. After taking out fees, the city’s fund grew by 4.7 percent a year since 2008, on average, while the Standard & Poors 500 gained 6.6 percent.

Pension systems across the country, looking to improve their balance sheets, have moved into this once-rarefied realm of Wall Street financiers. But Nashville stands out for its large share of so-called alternatives.

The city has placed 57 percent of its $2.8 billion fund into alternative investments, including real estate. Among its peers, Nashville had the highest share in fiscal year 2015, according a Tennessean analysis of National Association of State Retirement Administrators data for funds with $1 billion to $5 billion in assets. The national average among all public funds, by contrast, is 17 percent.

Read more…

This is an ongoing series into Nashville’s pension fund. Here are two other stories:

How much does Wall Street make from Nashville’s pension fund? Nobody knows.

Nashville pension fund paying Wall Street 40% more than previously disclosed

LA charter school under review after principal charges $100K

Posted on 07 April 2018 (0)
Photo by Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News

Photo by Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News

Just a 10-minute drive from the school, the waiter brought the table a $95 bottle of fine Syrah wine. Dimly-lit Monty’s Prime Steaks & Seafood, with its red booths and white linen, doubled as a high school meeting room that Wednesday night, Principal David Fehte says. And on many other nights.

In 2014 and 2015, Fehte, who leads El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills, charged more than $15,500 at Monty’s to his school-issued American Express card.

“When we’re doing business, we’re doing business,” Fehte said recently as he walked to his BMW in the San Fernando Valley campus parking lot.

He also paid for first-class airfare and luxury hotel rooms with his school-funded credit card.

Fehte acknowledged charging El Camino for personal travel and, after the Daily News inquired, said he reimbursed the public school.

Over the two years, Fehte charged more than $100,000 to the card, according to a Los Angeles Daily News analysis. El Camino receives about $32 million in government funds annually, accounting for 94 percent of its revenue.
Read more…

This investigation prompted investigations by the district and led to the resignation of Fehte and other members of the school’s board of directors.

Here’s the other main story from the investigation:
El Camino High principal moonlighted as NBA scout, billed travel to school

And here’s some of the aftermath:
El Camino Real’s principal to resign under agreement with LAUSD

The Cost of Jobs: What do taxpayers get for Tennessee business subsidies?

Posted on 06 April 2018 (0)

amazonClarksville, a military hub north of Nashville with 150,000 residents, has awarded multimillion-dollar property tax breaks to large corporations, including Google, without publicly disclosing the value of the subsidies or tracking hiring at those companies.

“It’s a verbal check,” said Mike Evans, executive director of the Clarksville-Montgomery County Industrial Development Board. “Do we have a piece of paper or a form filled out? We don’t. But it’s a system.”

More than $2.5 billion in subsidies such as grants, tax breaks and tax credits are given to businesses in the state each year, according to an analysis by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

An investigation by the largest four media organizations in Tennessee — The Tennessean, The Commercial Appeal, Knoxville News Sentinel and (Chattanooga) Times Free Press — found statewide that many officials and agencies do not track or disclose the number of jobs created by subsidy deals.

That lack of accountability means taxpayers and leaders can’t effectively decide whether individual subsidy deals are a good investment or if the money would be better spent on education, infrastructure or another jobs program.

Read more…

Water enforcement dropped in business-friendly Haslam administration

Posted on 06 April 2018 (0)
Mike Brown / USAT Network

Mike Brown / USAT Network

Year after year, the inspectors found the same violations. Norfolk Southern Railway, they noted, allowed construction dirt to wash into tributaries of the Wolf River, a hunting source for bald eagles that flows from northern Mississippi to Memphis.

The railroad had graded much of 380 acres of farmland, exposing tan earth before paving the way for the Memphis Regional Intermodal Facility. With state-of-the-art cranes, the terminal would allow Norfolk Southern to rapidly transfer cargo containers from trains to trucks. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, shovel in hand, posed at the 2011 groundbreaking and hailed the potential transportation jobs.

That same year — Haslam’s first in office — his administration began reshaping the state Department of Environment and Conservation to be more “customer focused.” Haslam’s hand-picked commissioner merged the three water protection divisions into one, shed a quarter of their positions, and nearly stopped penalizing polluters. The agency prided itself on helping companies comply with the law before resorting to fines.

Read more…

Mesa Water’s $500,000 rebranding

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Orange County Register

Native American musicians blessed the “ancestral waters,” valets parked cars for 150 “VIP” guests and $50,000 event planners passed out catered custom cookies shaped like water drops and redwood trees – $1,500 worth of cookies.

Last month’s unveiling of a revamped water filtration facility is just a small example of Mesa Water District’s lavish spending on marketing and communications.

While raising rates, the public provider of Costa Mesa’s drinking water has increased its communications spending by 300 percent in four years. It now wields a $1.25 million annual budget that dwarfs those at similar water districts. The district serves just 110,000 customers.

People don’t have a choice in their water provider, yet district officials want to pump up their reputation. They say not enough ratepayers know their name, which could be a problem during natural disasters, or when officials need to pass a bond measure. But an underlying motivation, board meeting minutes show, may be their desire to remain an independent agency in the face of criticism. To raise their profile, Mesa officials have paid six figures to public relations consultants and staff.

Read more…

ALSO READ: Mesa Water drops branding campaign after backlash

ALSO READ: Mesa Water denied copyright for pricey logo

Could supervisor’s votes be conflicts?

Posted on 31 March 2014 (0)
Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Jebb Harris, Orange County Register

Orange County Register

It was a cozy affair – a gathering of high-powered Orange County hospital leaders paying tribute to county Supervisor Janet Nguyen.

About 15 executives huddled with Nguyen on Feb. 28, 2012, in the Lemon Heights home of Dan Brothman, CEO of Western Medical Center Santa Ana and senior vice president of operations for Integrated Healthcare Holdings Inc. They noshed on meatballs in Brothman’s family room and inked $5,000 worth of checks for Nguyen’s summer re-election.

Brothman would later describe the fundraiser as a “meet and greet” with Nguyen.

Two days later, Nguyen voted as a trustee for Orange County’s health network for the poor – Cal-Optima – to pay $750,000 to IHHI-owned hospitals to settle a lawsuit over unpaid bills. A unanimous vote March 1, 2012, by five members of CalOptima’s board of directors was held in closed session and has still not been disclosed by CalOptima.

The 2009 breach-of-contract lawsuit by IHHI alleged CalOptima failed to pay Integrated Healthcare hospitals for $2 million worth of services to Medi-Cal patients covered by CalOptima. Court records show it is one of a number of similar suits filed by hospitals against the agency.

The Orange County Register confirmed the vote and the settlement through court documents and interviews with officials involved in the case.

Read more…