Category Archives: Government Accountability

Why holding ABQ Police accountable is difficult…..

One of the most powerful political groups in the great City of Albuquerque is the police union…at least during my time there several years ago.

Without that sweet police union endorsement, it’s actually difficult to get elected as mayor.

Spouses and families of police officers flood voting booths for the candidate who’s going to raise salaries.

Make those pay-raise promises & lay off the police discipline during your first term and you’ll have a good chance of keeping your seat the second term while keeping the police union happy.

Backing your chief 100% no matter what the citizenry says helps too.

This is perhaps why past mayors have been reluctant to even acknowledge an excessive force problem with the Albuquerque Police Department.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, as the old cliché goes.

While the union’s power may have slipped under Berry, their strength echoes in the current system that makes it difficult to fire an officer or administer discipline.

I could be completely wrong, but that’s just my analysis based on the 9 years I spent reporting in the city.

It’s taken boisterous protests in the streets and finally a Federal investigation for someone to acknowledge a problem.

“A disconnect exists between officers and residents about the perception of overly aggressive conduct by officers. We observed that many officers were dismissive of community concerns. For instance, many officers complained that the media generated the complaints about their perceived aggressiveness in citizen encounters. Some officers complained that citizens were the ones who were aggressive towards them” –DOJ Report on Albuquerque Police

It’s true the media are also sometimes at fault for not doing enough to hold the department accountable.

Sycophant reporters will not scrutinize the department because they need to have their calls returned by police sources on the next major crime story.

Crime stories win in local Albuquerque news as viewers drive this appetite.

People want to know whose mug shot is going to land on the six o’clock news.

People want the crime coverage and local TV gives it to them because that’s what the research tells them to do.

Do a bad story about APD and you won’t get information for your lead story.

That’s a de facto rule within APD and there’s no doubt department public information officers know the power they wield with some local media.

This is a toxic relationship that has curbed critical reporting.

It’s been said many times people get the government they deserve.

The same goes for their media.

But what’s next?

In the wake of today’s news, I saw people asking “So what’s City Hall gonna do? What’s the DOJ gonna do now?”

Those questions are fine, but I have my own question.

What are VOTERS going to do now?

A politician is often tone deaf to protest because they know the people who are spray painting buildings don’t vote.

The sound of a pen on a ballot makes more noise.

Secrecy in Berthoud breeds suspicion

As a mysterious scandal surrounds the Berthoud police department, town administrators are perhaps obliviously creating a whole different story in itself.

Or maybe they just don’t care about perception.

The story in Berthoud about its police department now becomes, at least partially, about a lack of transparency.

That’s never good for government business.

While I can respect the fact the town’s administrators are likely bound by ethical rules that prevent them from not to disclosing too much information for “personnel” reasons, the sweeping mantra of “no comment” we received yesterday doesn’t do anybody good.

“No comment,” is one of the worst things you can tell a reporter. The response usually raises more questions and makes it seem like somebody is hiding something.

At the very least, it would be nice if town administrators could explain WHY they can’t disclose any information. Reporters like myself are not going to say it for them.

So what’s going on in Berthoud?

Now that the story is partially about a lack of disclosure among public officials, they have placed themselves under a dark cloud of suspicion.

You can only wonder….are they protecting the public or themselves?

Who earns six-figures in state government? Here’s a list of Colorado’s $100,000+ Club

For the sake of transparency and watchdog journalism, I often request databases of government employee salaries.

Sometimes such databases can yield interesting stories and reveal who is working for us–the taxpayers.

Based on a database I obtained a few months ago, we can see who the top-earners are among Colorado state employees (aside from people who work at state colleges).

You can download the entire database I obtained by clicking on this link to a PDF document (hit Ctrl+f in the document to search for a name). 

According to the database, here are the top three members of the state’s $100,000+ Club (aside from state colleges).

3.  Keith Owen – Deputy Commissioner, Department of Education – $180,000.00

Keith Owen - Photo: Colorado Department of Education

Keith Owen – Photo: Colorado Department of Education

From his bio (scroll to bottom of page): 

Owen oversees the state’s special education programs, federal programs including Title I, support for local school districts, and accountability systems.

Owen comes to the state department from Durango School District where he served as the superintendent for three years. During his tenure in Durango, he is credited with initiating a principal professional development program for principals in the southwest portion of the state and leading a comprehensive community strategic plan that has resulted in many improvements to the school system.

 

2. Dr. Christopher Urbina – Agency Director, Department of Public Health & Environment – $215,004.00

Christopher Urbina - Photo: CDPHE

Christopher Urbina – Photo: CDPHE

From his bio:

Chris Urbina, M.D., MPH, is the executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He is an associate professor of the Colorado School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Outside of the department, Dr. Urbina is a member of the Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the Center for Public Health Practice Advisory Committee.

At the Department of Public Health and Environment, in addition to his role as the executive director, Dr. Urbina also is responsible for the supervision of the health-related divisions, including the Disease Control and Environmental Epidemiology Division, the Prevention Services Division, the Health Facilities and Emergency Medical Services Division, the Laboratory Services Division, the Center for Health and Environmental Information and Statistics, and the Emergency Preparedness and Response Division. He also supervises the Office of Health Disparities.

1. Robert Hammond – Colorado’s Commissioner of Education – $235,000.00

Robert Hammond - Photo: Colorado Department of Education

Robert Hammond – Photo: Colorado Department of Education

From his bio:

Robert came to be the top leader in Colorado’s K-12 public education system by demonstrating success in city management and the banking industry. It was from there that the Wichita Public Schools in Kansas tapped him to head its administration and operations division and later serve as associate superintendent.

In 2001, he moved to the Rocky Mountain state and was the chief operations officer for the Boulder Valley School District. About five years ago, he was successfully recruited to apply his leadership talents to the state level when he was named the Colorado Department of Education’s Deputy Commissioner. Robert was then recruited as the Commissioner of Education and was officially sworn into office in May 2011.

If you see anything suspicious or concerning in the database of salaries, please send me an email to jeremy@9news.com, or you can contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

Who failed Michael Harris?

michel_harris

Michael Harris was killed two months before what would have been his second birthday. Prosecutors say it’s one of the worst child abuse cases they’ve seen.

Last week I walked around a cemetery in Adams County to pay a visit to the grave marker of Michael Harris.

It wasn’t too hard to find.

Someone left some small plastic toys on his gravestone.   I wonder who’s still thinking about him.

Not many people cared for Michael when he was alive.

His mother and grandparents were meth users, according to court documents. Michael’s mom smoked pot while pregnant and he was born with marijuana in his system.

Michael’s biological father knew of his existence, but didn’t ever meet the little guy.

Prosecutors say Michael’s case is one of the worst they’ve seen when it comes to child abuse.

Judge Chris Melonakis unleashed on caseworkers and accused them of blatantly ignoring abuse and neglect in his home.

It’s important to point out caseworkers are not the ones who killed Michael, even though Judge Melonakis says they are also directly responsible.

The man who was convicted of killing Michael is serving a 42 year prison term.  Michael’s mom is serving 16 years for knowing about the abuse, but doing nothing to stop it.

Many of the caseworker documents and investigative documents are not accessible by the public because of confidentiality laws, so it’s impossible for us to hold them accountable.

While there is oversight in place, as I reporter I’ve learned over the years you can’t count on the government to watch itself.

Agencies need public and media scrutiny, especially when a child dies while under the radar of government employees who should be protecting them.

I’m not sure if the judge’s call for a grand jury investigation will prompt a serious investigation into the Adams County child welfare office.

Perhaps an investigation will find caseworkers did everything they could, as their supervisor tells us.

At Michael’s grave site, there were several other children I recognized from our Failed to Death series who were grouped together in the kids’ area of the cemetery.

I couldn’t help but notice there was plenty of space for more.

Silence over the death of a little boy

Andres Estrada was 6 years old when he was killed. Documents say he wasn’t potty trained.

There is something suspicious going on in Federal Heights.

Or at least that’s what I’m lead to believe given the lack of transparency and the silence in the horrible case of Andres Estrada.

Before he was killed while riding his tricycle in the street, there were numerous calls to police by neighbors who complained about seeing Andres constantly riding his bike, sometimes in diapers, in the busy road.

The Adams County Human Services Department also sent caseworkers to the home based on complaints regarding neglect and no supervision.   That agency isn’t talking either as it cites privacy laws.

The silence does not mean mistakes were made in the handling of Estrada’s case before he was killed……but it certainly increases suspicion that the two agencies may be hiding something.

Tonight at 9 and 10, we’ll show you how a lack of transparency in child welfare cases makes it easy for agencies to escape accountability.

 

The top 3 quotes I hate to hear

Image

3. “That’s a personnel matter and not subject to disclosure.”

Very, very often government agencies like to protect their own to avoid embarrassment.

Often when we request information about a particular public servant who may be abusing his/her position, I’m told “Oh you can’t have that, because that’s a personnel matter.”

I’ve initially been denied expense reports and disciplinary documents based on “personnel matters.”

Scrutinizing an agency’s written policy on “personnel matters” can sometimes prompt disclosures.     Call out the bluff.

 2. “For security reasons, we can’t tell you.”

There are many circumstances in which sensitive information shouldn’t be disclosed to protect the integrity of a criminal investigation (such as a suspect’s mug shot that needs to be used in a photo-line up for witnesses).

I get that.

But some public safety agencies LOVE to use this excuse to avoid doing work.

Or they really think even the most mundane details can cause the earth to fall out of orbit.

I often hear this quote when I request video footage recorded in a public area that may contain wrongdoing.

1.  “There’s no story here.” 

Often when I’m calling on something to find out during the early stages if there really is a story behind a tip, I’ll be told by a government agency spokesperson “There’s no story here.”

Oh really?   Thanks for letting me know.  I really believe you, government spokesperson.  I guess I’ll hang up now and move on.

In MANY cases when I hear “There’s no story here,” there’s a good chance there is something worth looking at.   I’ll bypass the spokesperson and work other sources and documents to make sure.

And sometimes the quote “There’s no story here,” could be a great quote when something is eventually uncovered.

BLOG: On Parker Water Spending

Taxpayers and people who pay a public utility often struggle when writing out checks they have no choice to write-out.

This is why looking at government spending, even on the micro level, is crucial.  Budgets in homes across the country are tight, so we expect the government to tighten its spending.  The small things, like numerous lunch meetings, can add up.

One dollar may be a drop in the bucket for agencies like Parker Water District, but for those who’ve been hit hard by this economy, that one dollar means so much.

This is why I chose to look at credit card expenses within the Parker Water District.   Often credit card spending can reflect the attitude within a public agency of how well public dollars are treated.

It’s easy to swipe a credit card without thought, but when it comes to public money, public officials should be thinking long and hard about how their constituents would feel about the purchase, no matter how big or small.

If most of us in this country can’t afford a $560 detail job on our cars, should a government official get that perk?

In my Monday night story, you heard District Manger Frank Jaeger refer to Parker Water as a “multimillion dollar corporation.”   It’s easy to say that when your customers have no choice but to pay the “corporation” or have their services cut-off.

In reality Parker Water is not a technically a business.  It’s a government agency created by the state legislature years ago and is considered a political subdivision of Colorado.  It’s beholden to the rate-payers and to the tax-payers.

As water rates rise and homeowners see their taxes go up at the discretion of the “corporation,” the questions must be raised…..is Parker Water a business, a government agency or a monopoly?  Is this good business/government sense?

While some may view my report on Parker Water spending nit picky, often among many struggling taxpayers, principle has a value far grater than price.

Thanks for watching.

Forest Service Censors information on Prescribed Burn

Names blacked out. Names Colorado State Forestry doesn't want you to see.

When you are a government official who makes decisions that may affect the health and safety of the public, part of your job is being held accountable.  That comes with the territory of your job.

Too bad the public won’t know who is responsible for the prescribed burn that got out of control.

The Colorado State Forestry Service has blacked-out the names of government supervisors on documents relating to the prescribed burn.

Here’s the document.  On page one you’ll see the names blacked out.

The reason for the redacted names is “for security and safety reasons,” according to a spokesperson for the agency.  I have written the agency back demanding it cites specific state statute on why they are blacking out names of the supervisors.

The people who lost their homes, their property and their lives in this fire had their safety and security compromised.   They deserve to know who’s responsible for that prescribed burn.  I hope eventually Colorado State Forestry agrees.

Welfare Abuse Reaction & Blocking ATM Transactions

These state-issued welfare debit cards can be used at ATMs to withdraw cash....even in strip clubs.

Often when covering polarizing issues like welfare abuse, I’ll get emails from people who feel passionately about the subject.

I like to think my report proved to be objective when I get criticized by people who would disagree with each other:

One viewer said I didn’t focus enough on welfare recipients while another said I was too tough.

I’m glad my report has people talking.

In the mean time, I want to share with you this letter (see below) that was sent out to “prohibited” businesses.

Colorado’s Health and Human Services Department asked Chase Bank (which handles welfare Colorado Quest cards) to send letters to all liquor stores, casinos and bingo halls asking them to block welfare transactions on their property.

The letters were not sent to strip clubs because under Colorado law, strip clubs are NOT considered prohibited businesses.

It’s quite clear the technology exists to block Colorado Quest cards at specific cash machines.  This example is the letter sent to liquor stores:

 

Subject:           Restriction on the use of the State of Colorado Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Card at Automated Teller Machines (ATM) located in Retail Establishments Licensed to Sell Malt, Vinous, or Spirituous Liquors

Dear Business Owner:

This letter is to request your cooperation in restricting the use of Colorado EBT Cards to withdraw cash from ATMs located in liquor stores within the state of Colorado. This effort is mandated by Colorado State Law. The Colorado Department of Human Services has requested that J.P. Morgan, as its EBT provider, work with liquor stores to restrict this access.

The State of Colorado Human Services Code 26-2-104 prohibits clients from accessing EBT cash benefits from ATMs in liquor stores:

“Clients shall not be allowed to access cash benefits through electronic benefits transfer service from automated teller machines in this state located in licensed gaming establishments as defined in section 12-47.1-103 (15), C.R.S. , in-state simulcast facilities as defined in section 12-60-102 (14), C.R.S., tracks for racing as defined in section 12-60-102 (26),C.R.S., commercial bingo facilities as defined in section 12-9-102 (2.3),C.R.S., stores or establishments in which the principal business is the sale of firearms, or retail establishments licensed  to sell malt, vinous, or spirituous liquors pursuant to part 3 of article 47 of title 12,C.R.S.”

J.P. Morgan has assigned a Project Manager, Mr. Todd McEwan, to assist you in the steps to take to block the Colorado EBT Card Bank Identification Number (BIN) on your ATM(s).

Please provide the following information to Mr. McEwan to enable him to take action with your ATM processor:

  • Number of ATMs physically located in your business location(s).
  • All ATM terminal Identification Numbers.
  • Name of the ATM owner/operator.
  • Contact information (phone number and address) of the ATM owner/operator.

 

If you would prefer to work with your ATM processor, please take the following steps:

  1. Contact your ATM processor.
  2. Provide your processor with the Terminal Identification Numbers for all ATMs physically located in your business.
    1. Request that your processor block Colorado EBT BIN (507681) from each ATM.
    2. Report the following information that the ATM has been blocked to Mr. McEwan for State reporting purposes:
      1. Number of ATMs physically located in your business location(s) that have been blocked.
      2. Name of the ATM owner/operator
      3. Contact information (phone number and address) of the ATM owner/operator.

 

(Note: I redacted the email and contact phone number of Todd McEwan to spare him from spam).