Five of the top PW Investigates stories of 2018

By: - December 26, 2018 6:48 am

1) Trove of emails provides a window into conflicts at UNC

The University of North Carolina system has for several years struggled with the increasing politicization of the UNC Board of Governors, the members of which are appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly.

This year that struggle came to a dramatic head after the toppling of the Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam,” mass protests against the proposed return of the statue to campus and the resignation of UNC System President Margaret Spellings after many public and private clashes with the board’s most conservative faction.

This story, written at the beginning of the year after months of frustrating back and forth with UNC over e-mails that were public record, presaged all that.

From the story:

On August 21, Spellings emailed the board a letter sent to Gov. Roy Cooper outlining concerns that the statue could pose a threat to students and could, in the charged environment, be in danger of being damaged or destroyed. The letter urged Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to ‘take up this matter and to consider what steps should be taken, consistent with the law.’ The letter was signed by Spellings, Folt, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette and UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochrane. It touched off a political firestorm.

The Confederate monument issue was hot enough on its own, with many on the political right arguing the statues must be left in place to honor Southern history and those on the left calling them monuments to white supremacy and an affront to Black citizens.

But there was another political element that made Spellings’ letter to the governor a controversy in itself. Cooper, a Democrat, had unseated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in a long, bruising and expensive election. The General Assembly, controlled by the same Republican majority that appoints members to the UNC Board of Governors, had then controversially stripped the incoming governor of many powers enjoyed by his GOP predecessor.

Many new members of the UNC Board of Governors are high-dollar GOP donors, party activists and even former GOP lawmakers themselves. Their opposition to Cooper had been fierce since he was Attorney General, lasted through the gubernatorial campaign and only intensified once he had defeated McCrory, breaking a full GOP lock on state government.

Spellings reaching across the aisle to Cooper on a divisive political issue incensed some board members and they began to let it be known.”

2) Veteran NC judges: State’s bail system is a “scam,” “immoral,” and in need of “massive change”

This year Policy Watch published a series on North Carolina’s troubled for-profit cash bail system and efforts to reform it, including examination of the state’s growing pre-trial release programs.

In this story retired judges Greg Weeks and Donald Stephens shared their personal experiences with and perspectives on what they described as a broken and immoral system.

From the story:

Presuming those accused to be innocent until proven guilty, the letter of North Carolina’s law leans toward allowing those not deemed a danger to the public or a flight risk to be released without having to post money to assure they will appear to face charges.

But Weeks, like many law enforcement officials, bail professionals and attorneys across the state, said that in reality it’s common for bail (or a secured bond) to be required for even minor charges. Those bails are regularly set regardless of whether the accused is shown to be dangerous or likely to flee, Weeks said.

“My sense of it is, whether it is conscious or not, it is an attitude of ‘this is the way it is, the way it’s been and we don’t expect there will be any significant change,’” Weeks said.

Weeks said he is now a bit ashamed to have contributed to that culture taking hold.

“From the perspective of the bench, being as candid as I possibly can be, there was a reluctance on the part of judges to release someone without bond or to reduce the bond,” Weeks said. “They knew they would run the risk that this individual would be the one who would come back to haunt them. Absent a strong showing, I think like many other judges I was reluctant to release someone or reduce the bond.”

Defense attorneys and public defenders are also unlikely to argue their clients should go free with no bail or reduced bail, Weeks said. Some of that is likely due to a heavy case loads (hundreds of clients at a time, in the case of some public defenders) and limited resources. Some of it, Weeks said, is just a “bail culture” that has taken hold.

“In my experience as a public defender and as a criminal defense lawyer, there was a disconnect between what we say we do and what we do,” Weeks said. “We were selective in following the law. We may know that what the statute says about bail, but we would rarely challenge bail with an argument predicated on the statute and an evidentiary showing.”

The result?

Those with the money to pay their own bail can return to their lives, families and jobs as they await their day in court. Or they can turn to the for-profit bail bond industry, which will allow them to pay a portion (no more than 15 percent) of the total bail, which is guaranteed by the bond company. Facing a $1,000 bail, a defendant could go home for no more than $150 to a bond agent.

But for many of the poorest North Carolinians, who can afford neither bail or a bond agent, a jail stay can lead to the loss of their jobs, their homes or even their children.”

3) NC officials order dozens of campaigns to forfeit illegal PAC contributions from pharma giant

This story, about a routine audit that turned into one of the largest campaign donation forfeitures in state history, allowed us to shed a light on the way in which deep pocketed multi-national corporations like Pfizer spread their money around without much care for partisan labels.

The improper contributions occurred while the legislature was in session and totaled $53,500 to 36 different committees. They went to both prominent Democrats like Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican leaders like Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.

From the story:

‘It’s surprising because Pfizer is fairly sophisticated,” said Denise Roth Barber, Managing Director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “A lot of states actually ban contributions while their legislatures are in session and usually PACs are aware of that.”

The contributions themselves were fairly standard — mostly in increments of $500 or $1,000 with some higher dollar contributions to high level Democratic and Republican leaders.

The campaigns of Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, each received $5,000 in 2017 — just shy of the $5,200 maximum contribution. Pfizer Inc. PAC records show a donation of $3,500 to Cooper’s Republican opponent, former Gov. Pat McCrory for the 2015-2016 period. The McCrory donation does not appear on the list of those that occurred on prohibited days.

The campaigns of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, each received $1,500 in 2016 and $2,000 in 2017.

“Most PACs of this side give to both parties and most favor incumbents,” Barber said. “It’s also very common to see that the further up you go in the legislature, if you’re a committee chairperson or you’re part of the leadership, there’s the expectation you’ll be favored more than your average lawmaker.”

While some PACs give for ideological reasons, Barber said, PACs representing large conglomerates like Pfizer generally give with an eye toward access.”

4) Update from Robeson County: Florence wreaks havoc on already struggling and neglected communities

This story, written in the wake of Hurricane Florence, allowed us to get out of the capital and out into the parts of the state most impacted.

It also allowed us to throw a light on the way in which natural disasters do not in fact touch everyone’s lives equally. Due to systemic inequity and historical racism, communities of color are hit much harder and take longer to recover – if they ever do manage it.

From the story:

For us two, three years they say,” Kennedy said. “Then you look at some people in the more well-off white neighborhoods and they’re back in their houses, they’re back to their lives already. For us, it definitely has to do with status and income.”

As reported this week by Brian Kennedy of the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center, minority communities in the eastern part of the state are often in the lowest lying areas and floodplains. That’s not historical coincidence. It’s the result of generations of housing discrimination like redlining, racial housing covenants and poorly executed public housing projects.

As Kennedy explained, much of eastern North Carolina lags behind the rest of the state in returning to pre-recession economic levels.

“The total number of North Carolinians living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods has skyrocketed,” Kennedy wrote. “Certain groups have been disproportionately affected by this trend of growing poverty and economic segregation. From 2012 to 2016, African American North Carolinians were 71 percent more likely than Latinx North Carolinians to live in concentrated-poverty neighborhoods and 434 percent more likely than white North Carolinians.”

“Even when income is not a factor, Black and brown North Carolinians are more likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty,” Kennedy wrote. “Between 2012 and 2016, 5.8 percent of poor white North Carolinians lived in concentrated poverty neighborhoods compared to 16.6 and 8.9 percent of poor African Americans and Latinx, respectively.

That’s not news to many living in the poorest parts of Robeson County, where there are five identified “extreme poverty neighborhoods” — census tracts in which the poverty rate is 40 percent or higher. Nearly 18,000 people live in those concentrated poverty areas in Robeson — up from just over 6,000 in 2000.”

5) North Carolina officials cut off benefits to transgender individuals

This was easily the story that was most personally meaningful to me in 2018.

It is exactly the sort of story I joined the staff of Policy Watch to tell: The very human story of the way government policy can upend the lives of people who, because their numbers or status don’t give them much leverage in the capitol, can be and are ignored by lawmakers.

Transgender North Carolinians are a minority even within the LGBTQ community. Their lives have, too often in the last few years, been subject to matches of political tug-of-war. And when the fireworks of something like the HB2 battle have dissipated, when the national media packs up and goes home, they have to quietly struggle with their own employers over coverage for life-changing, life saving medical procedures – including treatments that are widely available to cisgender people all around them.

From the story:

Any other medical diagnosis that had 40 years of research behind it showing there’s a treatment for it that works better than any other treatment, everyone would be behind it,” Adkins said.

Unfortunately, she said, this seems to be a case of politics failing to catch up to science — with dire consequences for transgender people of all ages.

Younger patients who began hormone therapy to prevent puberty while they transition but have now lost insurance coverage could now face manufacturer costs of $5,600 a treatment, four times a year. Those who can’t afford that may have to stop treatment — a dangerous proposition since puberty is the most likely time for transgender adolescents struggling with dysphoria to attempt suicide.

Last month, a study of transgender adolescent suicidal behavior in the journal Pediatrics found staggering percentages of transgender adolescents have attempted suicide.

“Female to male adolescents reported the highest rate of attempted suicide (50.8%),” the study said. “Followed by adolescents who identified as not exclusively male or female (41.8%), male to female adolescents (29.9%), questioning adolescents (27.9%), female adolescents (17.6%), and male adolescents (9.8%). Identifying as nonheterosexual exacerbated the risk for all adolescents except for those who did not exclusively identify as male or female (ie, nonbinary). For transgender adolescents, no other sociodemographic characteristic was associated with suicide attempts.”

But Adkins noted that such self-reporting studies have a major shortcoming. They only include the young people who survived to participate.

“We don’t know the real numbers,” Adkins said. “But they’re obviously higher.”

Older transgender people who have lost coverage while transitioning could face serious health consequences as well, Adkins said.

“For the adults, if you’ve already had your testes or ovaries removed and can’t afford your testosterone, you run the risk of changes in cognitive function, early menopause, lower bone density,” Adkins said. “Plus a lot of depressed mood can be exacerbated in people who are already struggling with depression and anxiety.”

If those trying to cut costs in medical plans believe they are doing so by excluding treatment of dysphoria, Adkins said, they are not doing the math properly. While maintenance doses of testosterone or estrogen may run to $30-$40 per month and double mastectomies may cost as much as $10,000, the consequences of untreated dysphoria are many times higher.

“One hospitalization after an attempted suicide is going to cost $10,000,” Adkins said. “Then there’s repeated treatment for self harm, therapy that can be $200 per visit several times a week, and continued medication to try to treat depression and anxiety that is not a bio-chemical but comes from dysphoria that you are not treating.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.