June 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

June 2012

A Professional Snitch Comes Clean

In “Alex White: Professional Snitch,” Ted Conver tells the story of a small time drug dealer and confidential informant from Atlanta who was forced to make a life-altering choice after the police killed a 92-year-old woman in a botched no-knock raid, and planted drugs on her bullet-riddled body to hide their mistake.

After the killing, the police called their snitch, Alex White, and asked him to say that he’d bought crack at 933 Neal Street. He saw on the news that an woman had been killed at that address and realized the police were pressuring him to cover for them.

White used his wits and his contacts in federal law enforcement to save himself, but at a terrible personal cost.

It’s a sad story, but not one devoid of humor:

White exited the restaurant through a different door, recrossed the street and did what any frightened citizen might do: he dialed 911. The police recording captures a panicked White telling a dispatcher that he is outside a gas station being pursued by cops “on the dirty side.” She responds, “So you’re calling the police, and the police are chasing you.” [NYT Mag]

Conover’s story sheds light on the use of confidential informants to do the dirty work of police in the drug war. It makes you wonder how many other people are locked up because the police orded CIs to lie.

[Photo credit: The Golden Snitch, by TinyApartmentCrafts, Creative Commons.]

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"Fortune" on Fast and Furious: No So Fast

A six-month investigation by Fortune magazine cuts to the heart of the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal. Fast and Furious was an ATF operation to staunch the flow of illegal guns from the U.S. to Mexico. American straw buyers working for the drug cartels buy guns in Phoenix and run them over the border.

By early 2010, the ATF agents had 20 Fast and Furious suspects in their crosshairs, but the suspects and their arsenal got away. Some of those guns resurfaced at crime scenes in Mexico. Another gun linked to a Fast and Furious suspect was linked to the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent. The question is: Did the ATF let those guns slip through on purpose, in order to see where they would go? Republicans like Daryl Issa (R-CA) insist that it was a deliberate tactic, citing allegations by some ATF agents involved in the operation.

However, five ATF agents told Fortune that they did everything they could to seize those guns, but federal prospecutors in Arizona refused to allow ATF to arrest the 20 suspects, who had forked over some $350,000 in cash for 650 weapons:

Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies. Fortune reviewed more than 2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviewed 39 people, including seven law-enforcement agents with direct knowledge of the case. Several, including [ATF supervisor Dave] Voth, are speaking out for the first time.

The federal prosecutors said the ATF had no proof that the guns, which had been legally–if suspiciously–purchased in the U.S., were destined for Mexico. Arizona prosecutors were equally unhelpful:

Prosecutors repeatedly rebuffed Voth’s requests. After examining one suspect’s garbage, agents learned he was on food stamps yet had plunked down more than $300,000 for 476 firearms in six months. Voth asked if the ATF could arrest him for fraudulently accepting public assistance when he was spending such huge sums. Prosecutor Hurley said no. In another instance, a young jobless suspect paid more than $10,000 for a 50-caliber tripod-mounted sniper rifle. According to Voth, Hurley told the agents they lacked proof that he hadn’t bought the gun for himself.

Prosecutors told the ATF they couldn’t seize the guns of suspected straw purchasers. The mere fact that a poor suspect was buying huge numbers of guns with cash and handing them off quickly wasn’t probable cause that he was a straw buyer. Maybe he was just an upstanding citizen exercising his Second Amendment rights.

So, the ATF changed course. Instead of seizing guns from straw purchases, piecemeal, they would gather wiretap evidence to prove that they were all part of a larger conspiracy. If they could get the buyers on the phone taking orders from Mexico, they would have probable cause.

Internal emails show that Phonenix Group VII was deeply divided about something during this period. Issa alleges that the group was split over gun walking, with ATF supervisor Dave Voth wanting to let the guns go, and Issa’s whistleblowers opposing gun walking. But there’s no smoking gun, as it were, just a paper trail of office bickering about an unspecified tactic. The agents could have been fighting about anything. Voth says they were arguing about who would get weekend wiretap duty.

Republican investigators have proof that an ATF agent in Phoenix Group VII, John Dodson, let three guns walk in a separate case. The straw buyer in question was also a Fast and Furious suspect. Voth says Dodson walked the three guns without his permission. Dodson went over Voth’s head and got permission from Voth’s supervisor to walk the guns, which were never recovered. The fact that Dodson got caught gun walking casts doubt on Issa’s theory the spat within Group VII was over gun walking with Voth in favor and Dodson and his allies against.

So, an ATF official approved gun-walking in at least one instance, but not for Operation Fast and Furious.

In summary, Fast and Furious agents wanted to arrest the suspects in Arizona and take their guns away before they could hand them off to drug lords, but prosecutors said no, that would be against the law. So, ATF gave up trying to arrest low-level purchasers and refocused their efforts on gathering wiretap evidence to bring down the entire network. In the meantime, the suspected straw purchasers–whom prosecutors had deemed untouchable–moved the guns over the border and into the hands of murderous drug lords, just like ATF predicted.

There is no evidence that ATF let the Fast and Furious guns walk to see where they ended up. If this was a grand experiement, where’s the paper trail that shows how they planned to track the guns in Mexico? 

ATF “let” suspected straw purchasers hand their weapons off to the drug lords because prosecutors told them they didn’t have the power to stop them. If there’s a scandal here, it’s that the law on straw purchasers is utterly toothless.

[Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lynnfriedman/6957385306/sizes/n/in/photostr… Friedman</a>, Creative Commons.]

This Investigation Has Teeth

David Heath and Jill Rosenbaum continue the iWatch investigation of greedy corporate dental chains that cater to the uninsured and exploit vulnerable patients. An Aspen Dental outlet in Colorado charged an 87-year-old woman over $2500 for a cleaning at two fillings and tried to sign her up for thousands of dollars of additional work, all paid for with special credit card the dentist encouraged her to apply for. The office even billed her $129 per rinse for four swishes of antibacterial mouthwash.

Former employees at Aspen Dental, which is owned by a private equity firm, told iWatch that they are schooled in high pressure sales tactics and pressured to sign patients up for elaborate and expensive treatment plans for dental care they might need in the future:

People would come into the office maybe with a toothache and come out with a treatment plan that maybe the dentist said we need to extract all your teeth,” said Jenny Hayes, the former office manager in Illinois. “They were made to stop in the manager’s office and sit down for an intense consultative selling process that they really didn’t bargain for when they walked in the door. I had people literally breaking down and crying in my office. And it happened quite regularly.”

Most states barely regulate dental chains, per se. Regulators like Lili Reitz of the Ohio State Dental Board can crack down on individual dentists, but not the chains that systematically push unnecessary care. Reitz says a quarter of all the complaints she investigated last year came from corporate chains.

[Photo credit: Luccawithcheese, Creative Commons.]

Pfizer: “They swallowed our story, hook, line and sinker”

A federal judge has unsealed thousands of pages of damning internal documents showing how Pfizer scientists twisted scientific evidence to sell the painkiller Celebrex, Katie Thomas reports for the New York Times:

A research director for Pfizer was positively buoyant after reading that an important medical conference had just featured a study claiming that the new arthritis drug Celebrex was safer on the stomach than more established drugs.

They swallowed our story, hook, line and sinker,” he wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.

The truth was that Celebrex was no better at protecting the stomach from serious complications than other drugs. It appeared that way only because Pfizer and its partner, Pharmacia, presented the results from the first six months of a yearlong study rather than the whole thing.

The companies had a lot riding on the outcome of the study, given that Celebrex’s effect on the stomach was its principal selling point. Earlier studies had shown it was no better at relieving pain than common drugs — like ibuprofen — already on the market. [NYT]

“The documents suggest that officials made a strategic decision during the early trial to be less than forthcoming about the drug’s safety,” Thomas writes. 

The documents, which date to the early 2000s, were released persuant to a lawsuit by pension funds against Pfizer. The funds contend that, by promoting Celebrex based on incomplete data, Pfizer misled investors, thereby incurring responsibility for the drop in stock value when the truth came out.

It wasn’t just investors who paid for Pfizer’s deviousness. Based on misleading promotions, insurers shelled out billions of dollars for a drug with no proven benefit over cheaper alternatives. Taxpayers were fleeced when publicly-funded insurance programs bought into the Celebrex marketing craze. The biggest losers of all were Celebrex patients, who were exposed to unjustified risks because their doctors were sucked in by Pfizer’s blandishments.

[Photo credit: Kimberly Brown-Azzarello, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: SuperMax; Secularism; Seafood and Slavery

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]


The American Prospect Lives!

Great news from Kit Rachlis, editor of the American Prospect, a distinguished but cash-strapped journal of liberal ideas:

We made it! 

(As someone once said, woo-freaking-hoo!!) 

At the eleventh and a half hour on Monday, the Prospect received news of two big gifts that put us over the top of that once unreachable-sounding fundraising goal. Since word of our financial situation first became public—just seven weeks ago—the campaign to “Save the Prospect” has raised just under $1.3 million dollars. We are stunned, pleased, and enormously grateful. [TAP]

For several weeks, the fate of the Prospect hung in the balance. Thanks to the generosity of its donors, and the tenacity of its fundraisers, the liberal magazine will continue to produce the high quality reporting and policy analysis that its admirers have come to expect.

The Prospect, co-founded in 1990 by Hillman judge Harold Meyerson, has been an incubator for liberal talent. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nick Confessore got his start there before moving on to the New York Times. Hillman Prize-winners Ezra Klein and Jon Cohn are also Prospect alums. The magazine currently serves as a platform for such talented young writers as Amanda Marcotte, Scott Lemieux, and Monica Potts.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

A Portrait of Poverty in Appalachia

The American Prospect’s special poverty issue features a deeply reported and well-written profile of Sue Christian and her family. Monica Potts reports on the Christians’ struggles to achieve self-sufficiency and financial stability in Owsley County, Kentucky–one of the poorest in the nation.

Whistle-Blowing Miner Wins Reinstatement

A federal judge has ordered a Kentucky coal company to reinstate an outspoken miner who blew the whistle on safety violations, Dave Jamieson reports:

Kentucky miner Charles Scott Howard lost his job at Cumberland River Coal Co. last May, after years of butting heads with management over safety issues at the mine. Now, more than 13 months later, Howard may suit up and head back into the mine, whether his employer likes it or not.

A federal judge ordered Friday that Howard’s company immediately reinstate him at the mine and pay a $30,000 fine for discriminating against a whistleblower. The sharply worded decision said managers at Cumberland River, as well as its parent company, coal giant Arch Coal, went to great lengths to find a reason to fire Howard after he brought his mine to the attention of federal safety officials. [HuffPo]

Howard is famous in coal country for his willingness to challenge unsafe working conditions. His exploits have even inspired a folk song.

[Photo credit: Tiggy, Creative Commons.]

#IRE12: Sidney Winner Sara Ganim

Sara Ganim speaking at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in Boston. Ganim won the October 2011 Sidney Award for exposing the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Sandusky scandal.

IRE is the nation’s premiere professional association for investigative journalists. The Sidney Hillman Foundation salutes all of our past winners who presented at IRE 2012.