Take That, Seattle – Part 2

by Categorized: Census, Data Date:

Last March, we published a map based on Census data showing migration in and out of Hartford County, including the curious finding that more people move every year from the Seattle area to Hartford County than from Hartford County to the Seattle area.

The Census Bureau this week came out with updated numbers, based on surveys conducted from 2007 to 2011, and that data again suggest the Nutmeg State has a strange lure for West Coast hipsters.

The Bureau estimates that 426 Connecticut residents load up the U-Haul and head to King County in Washington every year – while 885 people make the reverse move and leave King to set up house in our humble state.  (Of course, this data was captured before the Super Bowl.)

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Map of Minimum Wage Laws from Coast to Coast

by Categorized: Uncategorized Date:

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is proposing to boost the minimum wage in Connecticut to $10.10 in 2017, which could well make it the highest in the land, certainly topping Washington state’s current minimum of $9.32. (Connecticut’s current $8.70 minimum is the fourth-highest in the nation.)

The map below shows minimum wages from coast to coast. States in green have minimum wages that top the federal rate of $7.25. States in yellow match the federal rate. States in blue have minimums below the federal level (but are trumped by the feds). And states in red have no minimum-wage law.

Click on any state for details.

Governor Asks Connecticut: “What’s On Your Mind?” Answer: “Guns.”

by Categorized: Finance, Government, Politics, Public Safety Date:

Last fall, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy invited the public to chime in on state regulations that are “outdated, unnecessarily burdensome, insufficient or ineffective.” More than 2,000 comments came in to a special website.

And what was on people’s minds?

Guns. Specifically, handguns in state parks and forests.

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Charity Check: The National Football League

by Categorized: Charity Check Date:

You read that headline correctly.

The National Football League, the mega-moneyed organization behind this Sunday’s sports extravaganza, is eligible for The Scoop’s Charity Check feature as a bona fide, IRS-approved non-profit organization. It just happens to be one with a $30-million boss.

The NFL is not a traditional donor-funded 501(c)(3) charity – so no, your football tickets (and any other funds you might be inclined to give them) are not tax-deductible. But the organization with a $300 million budget – and that managed 32 team checkbooks that doled out more than $4 billion last year – is a tax-exempt non-profit, under 501(c)(6) of the tax code, which covers business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, boards of trade and, since 1966, “professional football leagues.”

Click the NFL logo below to read our report on the NFL’s latest tax filing, and the “Continue Reading” link to see the actual filing. And click here to view past Charity Checks.

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When Winning Equals Losing at the Freedom of Information Commission

by Categorized: Government, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

Wrenching a stack of public documents from a government agency that prefers to operate in secret can be a long and frustrating process, from the initial request for access, to the final hearing before the state’s Freedom of Information Commission.

But for requesters with the law on their side, the long trek typically ends with the satisfaction of finally holding that stack of documents.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But at a hearing Thursday, the FOI Commission considered three separate cases in which it found that agencies should have released a variety of requested records – while simultaneously ruling that the Commission was powerless to do anything about it.

The culprit in each case: time.

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Why the Hike in Postage Rates Isn’t as Bad as You Think

by Categorized: Data, Finance, Government Date:

The price of a first-class stamp jumps to 49 cents next week – a three-cent hike – and many mailers undoubtedly will grouse that the cost of sending a letter is bumping up against the half-dollar mark.

But take heart: You’re still in way better shape than your great-great-great-great-grandparents.

Adjusted for inflation, mail prices actually have moved in a fairly narrow band for the last 150 years, as the chart below shows. But in the first half of the 19th Century, sending a Mother’s Day card or paying a credit card bill – wait, neither of those existed in the 1800s – was a far pricier affair.

For all but one year from 1792 to 1850, the minimum cost to send a letter to the next town or beyond topped the current equivalent of a dollar. Then, at mid-century, 5c1847the government worked to modernize postal service, including the introduction of the first authorized national postage stamps in 1847. Putting a Benjamin Franklin on your envelope would set you back 5 cents that year – but that’s the equivalent of about $1.41 today. (And mail sent beyond 300 miles would have cost great-great-great-great-grandpa Jebidiah twice that.)

With that modernization effort – and a booming nation with the attendant economies of scale – the cost of postage plummeted, and by 1864 the cost of a stamp was less than 50 cents in current dollars. Since then, the inflation-adjusted price has fluctuated from about 35 to 70 cents, and has ranged from 40 to 50 cents for the last three decades.

Still grousing? Run out and buy forever stamps. Until Sunday, they’re still 46 cents – and valid for postage even after the rate increase.

PostageRates

 

Government Officials And The Urge To Tell Reporters To “Pound Sand”

by Categorized: Government, Politics, Transparency/FOI Date:

A few years ago, a Courant reporter emailed a routine Freedom-of-Information Act request to a certain large central-Connecticut municipality, and the reply that ended up back in her Inbox included – most definitely unintentionally – the entire string of emails that was created as the request bounced around various city departments.

The gem of that email string was a brief question posed by the city’s attorney, who asked one of his deputies: “Helen, take a look at this FOIA request. Any feelings re our capacity to tell [the reporter] to go pound sand?”

We got the records – this attorney was famously ill-informed on FOI matters and “Helen” was kind enough to explain the law to him – and we chalked this up as a one-in-a-million goof. But it turns out it’s not entirely uncommon for public employees to inadvertently reveal their plans to disregard transparency laws.

The latest case involves Washington, D.C., television reporter Scott MacFarlane, who asked the federal government for a variety of records related to last September’s attack at the Washington Navy Yard that left 12 dead. Instead of the records, the FOI officer last week sent him an email – intended for another Navy official – with a surprisingly detailed strategy for minimizing the amount of information the government would have to release to the public.

The email laid out a few scenarios for asserting that it would be impossible to fulfill MacFarlane’s request for photographs and memos, with ideas for turning MacFarlane down altogether or persuading him to narrow the scope of the records he wanted.The FOI officer discounted much of the request as a “fishing expedition,” but regarding a request for emails sent on the day of the shooting, she wrote: “this one is specific enough that we may be able to deny.”NavyTweets

MacFarlane promptly posted an image of the email – along with the Tweet: “EPIC FAILURE- U.S. Navy accidentally sends reporter its strategy memo for dodging his FOIA request.” In addition to 1,800 re-Tweets, that prompted an apology from the Navy, which also took to Twitter to insist the agency is thoroughly committed to transparency and the “vital role” of the Freedom of Information Act – the actions of its Freedom of Information officer notwithstanding.

The Navy episode got reporters on a Freedom of Information list-serv talking about similar email snafus. When a Florida reporter asked the IRS for information related to a problem with direct deposit of tax refunds, a tax official accidentally wrote back: “The reporter also wanted to know how many taxpayers are affected by this situation. I’m trying to avoid answering the question but I’ll bet someone knows the answer.”

A reporter in Washington state once emailed questions to the county sheriff, with a cc to the press officer. The sheriff hit “Reply All” and, thinking she was writing to her aide, simply asked “Who is this jerk?”

Government officials often find it more convenient to operate in secret. But that’s not how things are supposed to work in a Democracy. Have your own FOI horror story? Or having trouble accessing public records that you, after all, own? Let us know. Our contact form is always available.

A Journalist’s New Year’s Resolution: If You See Something, Say Something

by Categorized: Ethics, Government, Media, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

In these early days of the year, when we’re all vowing to hit the gym or give up smoking or call our mothers more often, I’m hoping there’s room for one more New Year’s resolution, one that’s as easy to execute as it is to remember.

For 2014, let’s all pledge: If you see something, say something.

No, I’m not talking about speed-dialing the Department of Homeland Security to report that suspicious Burger King bag you saw on Metro-North. I’m talking about building the partnership that exists between media outlets and the communities they reach. It’s a tenuous partnership at times, but it’s more important than ever.

News outlets have always depended on sources – from average citizens to the deeply connected – and for investigative reporters, that communication is critical. So when things are amiss in your community, when institutions are failing those they serve, when greed or bias gets the better of politicians, when injustice reigns, let us know.

Last month, the Courant reported that at least 15 college students awarded aid by the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation between 2005 and 2008 had received less money than they were promised. The students did their best to harangue scholarship officials, with little success, and years passed before someone thought to alert the paper and prompt the sort of action that transparency and publicity often brings. But by the time we were on the story, it appears the Foundation’s coffers were empty. Imagine if we had known about the problems years earlier.

The Courant breaks a lot of news and we have excellent sourcing. But it could always be better. And it could hardly be easier. Have a tip? Call me at 860-241-6741 or send an email to our investigative blog, at thescoop@courant.com, or use our online tip form.

Bob Woodward of the Washington Post once asked former Vice President Al Gore how much the press and the public really knew about what went on in the Clinton White House. Gore’s reply: “One percent.”

That doesn’t serve democracy. Sunlight does.

If you see something, say something.

Charity Check: Marine Toys for Tots Foundation

by Categorized: Charity Check Date:

They start cropping up in October, and by Thanksgiving, the landscape is awash in white-and-red cardboard boxes beckoning shoppers to drop off gifts for the Marine Toys for Tots program. Last year, nearly 17 million presents ended up in those boxes – a toy donated every half-second somewhere in America – with a combined value of nearly a quarter-billion dollars. 

Local volunteers collect, warehouse, categorize and distribute the gifts, and the whole operation is supported by the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, located not far from the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia.

The foundation, run entirely by ex-Marines, manages a  big logistical operation – and pays a few big salaries to match.

Click the chart below for our full Charity Check report on the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. And scroll down for the group’s most recent tax return.

Download (PDF, 1.89MB)

 

Santa Favors Government Transparency

by Categorized: Government, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

OpenTheGovernment.org, a pro-transparency coalition that promotes “less secrecy, more democracy,” is out with a naughty-and-nice list of politicians and government entities that have upheld or obstructed the notion that the people’s business is the people’s business.

NaughtyNiceGetting big presents under the tree this year are two members of Congress – California Republican Darrell Issa and Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings – who last March unveiled the “FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2013.”

The bill has several provisions designed to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, including a requirement that agencies process FOIA requests with a presumption of openness. “It places the burden on agencies to demonstrate why information may be withheld, instead of on the public to justify release,” the lawmakers said. The legislation would also require agencies to post frequently requested information online and would establish a central portal for requesting federal records.

And getting huge lumps of coal for 2013? No surprise: The National Security Agency, which relied on secret court rulings for its massive surveillance program.

See the entire list of winners and sinners here.