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Secret criminal trials in DC, cops ill on meth, bloody highways

SHOWCASE | March 17, 2006

Investigative reporting round-up: 18% of DC criminal trials are conducted in total secrecy; Utah officials show little sympathy for police who die or get very sick busting meth labs, and more.

By Alex Kingsbury

Watchdog reporting is often a thankless job. Long hours for stories that often fade as quickly as yesterday's newspaper. Fortunately, Investigative Reporters and Editors highlights some of the nation's best investigative reporting in their Extra!Extra! feature. Here is a sampling of those stories.

Secret docket in Washington, DC

The constitution guarantees defendants a fair and public trial. In many cases, however, the trial and many of the accompanying details are kept far from the public's view.

 "During the past five years, 469 cases in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., have been prosecuted and tried in complete secrecy, with no public knowledge even of the cases' existence and no way for the public to challenge the secrecy," write Kirsten B. Mitchell and Susan Burgess, reporters with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Burgess and Mitchell found the cases by "searching the court's entire civil and criminal docket for the past five years. During the five-year period ending Dec. 30, an average of 18 percent of nearly 3,000 criminal cases were not docketed in Washington's U.S. District Court — one of 94 federal courts nationwide. Undocketed civil cases were so few — 65 of more than 12,000 — as to be statistically insignificant."

The Burgess/Mitchell article said that “most off-the-docket criminal cases were kept off the public docket after prosecutors asked judges to seal the cases, according to those who handle such cases.

“While Justice Department guidelines recognize a strong presumption against closing criminal proceedings and outline limited reasons allowing for closure, they don't specifically address nonpublic docketing.

“Both the department's arguments for and the judge's approval of sealing an undocketed case are shielded from public view, making it impossible to know whether the guidelines are followed. What's more, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington does not monitor how many requests it makes to seal cases or how many requests are approved.

“Prosecutors seek to seal cases in part to protect ongoing investigations by the government with an eye toward nabbing more criminals and keeping informants and witnesses alive, said Stevan E. Bunnell, chief of the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Under the department's ‘Policy with Regard to Open Judicial Proceedings,’ requests to seal cases must be approved by a deputy attorney general, a sufficiently burdensome and time-consuming process that prosecutors are reluctant to do unless they really need to, Bunnell said.

“The guidelines say that proceedings may be closed if failure to close them will produce ‘a substantial likelihood and imminent danger to the safety of parties, witnesses, or other persons.’"

The investigation found, that "many, if not all, of the civil off-the-docket cases are believed to be whistle-blower suits filed under the federal False Claims Act, which allows private citizens to sue on behalf of the U.S. government charging fraud by government contractors and other entities receiving or using government money."

Methamphetamine kills cops

Reporter Debbie Dujanovic from KSL television, an NBC affiliate in Utah, found that former police officers were experiencing high rates of deaths, cancers, mysterious diseases at an alarming rate. Something was killing cops. Turns out that the common connection between all their illnesses and deaths was their duties busting meth labs while on the force.

Busting the homemade drug labs in the 1980s and 1990s seems to have had lasting health impacts on these officers. "We were able to locate 42 officers. We discovered 24 of the 42 are suffering with chronic health problems or have died," Dujanovic reported. "Ten under the age of 50 have or have had cancer. That's 177 times the rate of cancer for that age group. And that's just cancer. They also report asthmas, lung diseases, strokes, auto-immune diseases, and other mysterious problems."

Dujanovic continued her series with follow-up reports on the continuing health effects and efforts to compensate the ill officers. "So far the message to the meth lab officers is: Your medical bills are your problem. Utah lawmakers canned a proposal to compensate those with cancer," she found.

"Fifty-five are tangled in workers comp claims. Others have asked their local governments for help, with no reply. Now, they face a fight that could take years, and they are afraid no one is listening."

[Note: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this item incorrrectly referred to 'meth' as 'methadone.' A reader caught the mistake.]

Dangerous roads

"If it bleeds, it ledes" is an ageless adage of TV news. But that motto isn't always referring to mayhem and murder. WCBSTV in New York ran this investigative piece on the most dangerous roads in the region, concluding that statistically, some roads appear to be more dangerous than others. Sunrise Highway is one of the deadliest roads in our area. But those same statistics show that in three out of four crashes, the human element is the primary cause."

In 2004, reporter Brendan Keefe counted "21 fatalities on Interstate 80, 35 on the New Jersey Turnpike and 42 on the Garden State Parkway." Sgt. Bill Casey, a N.J. State Trooper showed Keefe "a two-mile section of the Garden State that has seen a cluster of 16 dead in four years -- 15 from hitting trees in the median.

Charities examined

Oregonian reporters Jeff Kosseff, Bryan Denson and Les Zaitz found that "nonprofits increasingly are hiring workers who are mildly disabled, if at all, with aching backs, substance-abuse problems and other maladies common in the American workplace. This new class of federally subsidized worker is getting the highest-paid jobs, while many of the most severely disabled toil for pennies an hour."

But the scandal only begins there. Executives are the ones making out like bandits. "Bosses are benefiting handsomely, with leaders at many of the program's biggest charities pulling in private sector-style compensation as the new money rolls in," the trio of investigative scribes reported. "At least a dozen earn $350,000 or more a year, and average pay and benefits for top executives at the program's largest nonprofits have grown more than three times faster than their workers' pay."

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