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2015: Statesman investigations led to new laws, resignations

At a rate of more than once a month, American-Statesman investigations led to concrete, specific and positive change in 2015.

Statesman investigations led to new state laws intended to make Texas’ most vulnerable children safer and save taxpayers from the cost of wasteful state contracts. Statesman investigations caused Travis County officials to suspend a questionable contract with a giant private insurer and forced the Pentagon to call for a review of juvenile prosecutions at Fort Hood and other military installations.

Statesman reporting led to the resignation of an assistant city manager and an examination of gender stereotypes within Austin city government. It led to other positive outcomes: An East Austin woman was given the long-promised opportunity to become a homeowner; Bell County finally hired a veterans service officer to help the county’s large veteran population access their rightful benefits; and a shady veterans charity was banned and hammered with huge fines.

What follows is a compilation of the Statesman’s most impactful watchdog reporting over the previous year. It’s just a sampling of the accountability journalism the newspaper practices on a daily basis.

CPS investigation spurs new child safety laws

In January, a six-month Statesman investigation, based on an unprecedented analysis of 800 child death reports, found that Texas is not publicly reporting hundreds of abuse and neglect-related deaths each year. Among other findings, the investigation revealed the large numbers of children dying while in the care of non-parent relatives or whose families had been visited numerous times by Child Protective Services.

During the legislative session that followed, lawmakers passed scores of new laws affecting the way the state handles vulnerable children, including a new law that requires the state to provide more detailed information on children who were killed or critically injured due to abuse and neglect.

State contracting laws get an overhaul

The Legislature also cracked down on state contracts after the American-Statesman exposed systemic failures in the state’s massive purchasing apparatus and, specifically, the Health and Human Services Commission’s questionable handling of a no-bid deal with Austin tech company 21CT to detect Medicaid fraud.

The reforms adopted in June added more oversight to how agencies dole out major contracts on everything from software purchases to highway projects. The reforms launched an unprecedented effort to track those lucrative deals after they’re awarded, monitoring how they are managed or allowed to grow.

Travis DA suspends insurance agreement

A joint investigation with the Texas Tribune in September revealed the unusual and cozy arrangement between the Travis County district attorney’s office and Texas Mutual Insurance, under which the company pays prosecutors to pursue its fraud cases.

After the outlets reported that Texas Mutual Insurance Company authorized payments of $4.7 million to the Travis County DA’s office to prosecute alleged crimes against the company since 2001, officials took aim at the conflict of interest. The contract was suspended in late September and in December the DA’s office dramatically restructured its workers’ compensation fraud unit and implemented new safeguards against potential abuse and conflicts of interest.

Pentagon pushes for solutions to juvenile justice gap

In November, a Statesman investigation found that numerous instances of serious sexual assault committed by teenagers at Fort Hood have gone unprosecuted since at least 2001, due to a jurisdictional gap that hinders justice not just in Texas, but at military installations throughout the nation.

In response, Fort Hood began the process of exploring an agreement among county, state and federal officials while the Pentagon asked installations to re-examine their handling of juvenile crime.

DPS to analyze racial profiling data

The Statesman first reported on inconsistencies and questionable conclusions in the Texas Department of Public Safety’s annual racial profiling reports in August, finding that the yearly numbers in fact showed black drivers were nearly twice as likely to be searched after a traffic stop as whites.

A subsequent Statesman analysis of 15 million traffic stop records found that that Hispanic motorists were 33 percent more likely to be searched than white drivers, but that those inspections were less likely to result in the discovery of drugs, weapons or illegal currency. The findings were in stark contrast to DPS annual reports, which used comparisons to population percentages to conclude there are no racial disparities in traffic stops and had been labeled by national experts as misleading.

After the Statesman asked DPS for comment on the analysis, officials said the agency would hire a contractor to review the way DPS officials collect and analyze traffic stop data to “determine if there are any recommendations for improving those efforts.”

‘Sexist’ training session leads to resignation

In May, the Statesman revealed that the City of Austin had quietly held a training session for city staff on how to work with a female-majority City Council in which speakers offered generalizations about working with female leaders, saying that women ask a lot of questions, don’t like financial-based arguments and can be more emotion-driven than men.

The report led to a wide-ranging discussion about gender bias at City Hall and ultimately resulted in the resignation of Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes, who organized the training session.

Veterans ‘charity’ banned, hit with hefty fine

A year and a half after a Statesman investigation exposed the inner workings of the Veterans Support Organization, the group was banned and ordered to pay $275,000 to needy veterans in an agreed order with the Texas attorney general’s office.

The Florida-based group had turned veterans in Austin, Dallas and Houston into “glorified panhandlers” seeking public donations in front of area supermarkets and stores, the investigation found. State officials said the group raised $2.5 million in Texas between 2010 and 2012 but funneled most of it out of state rather than helping local veterans as it had told the public.

Bell County hires veterans service officer

In May, Bell County hired Keeyawnia Hawkins as its county veterans service officer, a year and a half after the Statesman revealed that, despite its proximity to Fort Hood and large veteran population, Bell was the only county in Texas not following a state law requiring it to employ a full-time veterans service officer or fund a veterans service office.

County service officers help veterans file disability applications with the Department of Veterans Affairs and often serve as liaisons between veterans and local governments.

Austin honors promise to homeowner

In December 2014, a Statesman investigation showed how Pamela Franklin had been wrongly denied the chance to purchase her city-owned East Austin rental house after the city effectively reneged on its two-decade-old pledge. The original contract called for tenants who stayed the full 15 years to be given the opportunity to buy their homes at a “reasonable” price. Franklin was shocked when city officials told her no such program existed.

A year later, the city reversed course and let Franklin buy the property essentially free of charge and performed about $80,000 in deferred maintenance. A city official told the Statesman it was “the right thing to do.”

City plugs loopholes in lobbying laws

Months after the Statesman found that the city of Austin’s four-decade-old lobbying law was allowing development interests, community advocates and other influential residents to lobby city officials without publicly disclosing who they are working for, city officials pushed to close the loopholes.

In November, a city commission voted to strengthen enforcement of lobbying regulations, and a month later the Austin City Council approved a proposal requiring more people engaged in advocacy at City Hall to register.

Prosecutors now wait for lab tests

In 2014, a Statesman investigation found nearly two dozen cases statewide in which people were arrested and charged with possession of small amounts of drugs, then pleaded guilty before lab results declaring them innocent came back months or years later.

In response, Harris County, where nearly all the cases occurred, announced earlier this year it will no longer accept plea deals for narcotic possession cases before chemical lab tests are completed.

Judge’s no-bid contract canceled

In December, the Statesman reported that retired District Judge John Dietz, who had been hired by Travis County as a consultant to guide design of a planned civil courthouse, quietly received a contract extension after residents rejected a bond election for the project. Travis County commissioners who hadn’t been informed of the revised contract criticized the deal, and three days after the Statesman story Dietz canceled the $140,000 no-bid contract.

Judge’s conduct investigated

After the American-Statesman approached the Social Security Administration with allegations from a Gulf War veteran that a Houston-area administrative judge had belittled his Navy service during a hearing, the federal agency apologized and launched an investigation of its own.

Since then, however, the agency has refused to release any information about the outcome of the investigation into administrative law judge Gary Suttles. The Statesman has appealed the agency’s decision to deny the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request regarding Suttles and other administrative law judges in Texas.

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