November 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

November 2012

Halfway House Free-For-All in Florida

Asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton replied, “That’s where the money is.” There’s probably a corollary that applies to drug addicts running halfway houses in Florida.

Almost anyone can house recovering addicts at public expense in the state of Flordia, and according to the Tampa Bay Times, the darndest people get in on the action.

Convicted felon Troy Anthony Charles opened a halfway house to support his own drug habit. He’s currently charged with murder for shooting a resident in the head. And that’s not all:

• Several houses are run by felons with serious criminal records, including robbery, sexual assault and drug trafficking.One operator was permanently barred from a federal housing program because of improper billing, yet started a new halfway house that is getting thousands of dollars from the same program.

• Residents of some halfway houses say drug abuse is rampant, and records show at least three people have overdosed and died at unregulated homes. Though such deaths are not unusual among recovering addicts, they underscore the need for oversight, experts say.

• One halfway house that touted “sober living” bused recovering alcoholics to sell beer at Raymond James Stadium. Another required residents to get their prescriptions filled at a pharmacy in a store plastered with neon beer signs. [Tampa Bay Times]

Halfway houses can cash residents’ paychecks to cover their rent and kick them out at a moment’s notice. One resident found herself out on the street with her kids after she refused go to her house leader’s church. 

[Photo credit: Chris Yarzab, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Twinkies, Coal Miners, Sex Workers, and Pain

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Jina Moore Wins November Sidney Award for Inquiry Into American Poverty

What does it mean to be poor in the richest nation on earth? Jina Moore explores this question in her Sidney Award-winning Christian Science Monitor story, Below The Line: Poverty In AmericaMoore juxtaposes official poverty statistics and academic constructs with the stories of real people. Full-time daycare attendant Linda Criswell has to take fruit from the snack bowl at work because she can’t afford to buy her own, but her income wouldn’t necessarily qualify her for food stamps or Medicaid. 

How we measure poverty reveals a lot about our values. Is poverty an absolute measure of material deprivation, or is it something more complicated? Moore and I explore these questions in this month’s Backstory.

[Photo credit: Nicola Moore.]

Back to Black: The Battle for Walmart

 

Walmart workers and their allies are making history with their highly assymetrical fight for justice and dignity at work. A nationwide strike planned for Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, may be their most audacious action yet. Kathleen Miles of Huffington Post reports on this highly unorthodox, totally 21st Century campaign:

Labor organizers are working with social action nonprofit Engage Network as well as corporate watchdog nonprofit Corporate Action Network to pull off what they are calling a “viral” – meaning national and spreading online – strike.

Walmart workers interested in joining the day of action are directed to this website, either to find a store near them with an organized strike or to “adopt an event” at a store near them.

Brian Young, cofounder of the Corporate Action Network, said on a conference call coordinated by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union Thursday, that organizers cannot cover the roughly 4,000 Walmarts across the country, but enabling self-appointed leaders online has widened and decentralized the campaign. 

The organizers have even set up a web page where supporters can pledge to “sponsor” striking workers. They’ve already raised over $20,000 to offset the lost wages of Black Friday strikers with grocery gift cards. 

[Photo credit: Black Friday 2009 at Walmart; laurieofindy, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Dunes, Goons, and the NHL

  • The casinos of Atlantic City were shielded from Hurricane Sandy by artificial dunes, erected at taxpayers’ expense, while poor residents next door were left unprotected. 
  • Monozygotic murder? One identical twin is accused of killing another. So much for DNA evidence…
  • Shocker: “No one on either side of the NHL labor fight stormed out of the room, broke off negotiations, or made inflammatory remarks as they left the building,” the AP reports. 

 

 

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Unions Win Big on Ballot Measures

On election night, unions won key ballot measure battles, Matthew Cunningham-Cook reports for the Nation:

  • California voters approved Prop 30, a measure to raise $6 billion for education. The passage of Prop 30 is a repudiation of Prop 13, the notorious 1978 ballot measure that starved the California school system for decades.
  • Californians rejected Prop 32, which would have limited the ability of unions to participate in politics.
  • Idaho voters rejected a series of ballot measures that would have eliminated teacher tenure, established “merit pay,” and required all Idaho secondary students to take two for-profit online courses in order to graduate.
  • In Oregon, unions mobilized to help defeat a ballot measure that would have eliminated the inheritance tax.
  • Alabamians defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that could have eliminated the state’s guarantee of a free public education for all students.

[Photo credit: quinn.anya, Creative Commons.

512 Paths to the White House

512 Paths to the White House“ is a groundbreaking New York Times infographic that shows which states each presidential candidate must win in order to win the electoral college.

For example, if Obama wins Ohio and Florida he wins the electoral college. Or, if Obama wins Florida and North Carolina, but not Ohio, he will also win. If Romney wins Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin, he wins the race. 

There are 431 ways for Obama to win and only 76 ways that Romney could win. 

Romney's CRUT Tax Dodge

Mitt Romney reduced his tax bill using a loophole called the Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT), Jesse Drucker of Bloomberg revealed last week. Congress cracked down on the CRUT in 1997, but those who had already created these structures were allowed to keep using them. Romney set his up in 1996 and used the shady trust to defer taxes for over 15 years:

“The main benefit from a charitable remainder trust is the renting from your favorite charity of its exemption from taxation,” Blattmachr said. Despite the name, giving a gift or getting a charitable deduction “is just a throwaway,” he said. “I used to structure them so the value dedicated to charity was as close to zero as possible without being zero.”

When individuals fund a charitable remainder unitrust, or “CRUT,” they defer capital gains taxes on any profit from the sale of the assets, and receive a small upfront charitable deduction and a stream of yearly cash payments. Like an individual retirement account, the trust allows money to grow tax deferred, while like an annuity it also pays Romney a steady income. After the funder’s death, the trust’s remaining assets go to a designated charity. 

As Drucker explains, the tax-free payouts from the trust account for only a small percentage of Romney’s $250 million net worth. 

The Mormon Church benefits little from this arrangement. As money from the trust has been paid out to the Romneys, the amount available for donation upon their deaths has already declined from $750,000 in 2001 to $421,203 at the end of 2011. Usually, there isn’t much left over by the time the trust holder spends his last tax-sheltered buck. 

[Photo credit: Austen Hufford, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Hurricane Sandy Edition

 

  • Let’s get one thing straight. Global warming causes hurricanes the way smoking causes lung cancer: systemically. You can’t say for sure that any particular tumor is caused by any particular cigarette, and some cases of lung cancer aren’t caused by smoking at all. Still, in the population at large, we know that higher rates of smoking cause higher rates of cancer. By the same token, hurricanes are–by definition–powered by warm sea water. By raising water temperatures, global warming systemically causes more and more powerful storms. 
  • Occupy Wall Street has teamed up with other non-profits to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.
  • As of Wednesday, residents of the Red Hook Homes, one of New York’s largest public housing projects, were still without water and power. Many residents feel abandoned by the city; some say they feel like they can’t even ask for help because the police are so dismissive. 
  • Without electricity, New Yorkers on food stamps can’t pay for food.
  • Why do hospital generators keep failing? ProPublica investigates.
  • The storm has cut economic activity in New York City to just 20% of normal, the comptroller’s office estimates.
  • Gothamist readers submit chilling photos of hurricane damage in the Rockaways.
  • Staten Island is reeling from a direct hit by Sandy.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Dark Money Docs Found In Meth House

My prediction for the final half-season of Breaking Bad: Walter White becomes a Republican operative. Scary, right? Plus this one is ripped from the headlines:

The boxes landed in the office of Montana investigators in March 2011.

Found in a meth house in Colorado, they were somewhat of a mystery, holding files on 23 conservative candidates in state races in Montana. They were filled with candidate surveys and mailers that said they were paid for by campaigns, and fliers and bank records from outside spending groups. One folder was labeled “Montana $ Bomb.” 

The documents pointed to one outside group pulling the candidates’ strings: a social welfare nonprofit called Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP [Frontline/ProPublica]

“Montana $ Bomb” takes on a whole new meaning on premises that could literally explode at any minute. 

The documents suggest that the Western Tradition Partnership (now the American Tradition Partnership), a tax-exempt non-profit, may have illegally coordinated with political campaigns in 2008 and 2010. WTP is also famous for mounting a successful lawsuit to abolish Montana’s ban on corporate political spending and extend the provisions of Citizens United to state politics. 

[Photo credit: bjhale, Creative Commons.]

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