Corey J - California Watch is Watching _ CJR

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  • 8/6/2019 Corey J - California Watch is Watching _ CJR

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    Behind the News, The Observatory Apri l 15, 2011 10:30 AM

    California Watch is Watching

    Investigation reveals lax oversight of seismic standards in schoolsBy Curtis Brainard

    California Watchs Corey Johnson was scanning the website of the state architects office one

    evening in December 2009 when he noticed something strange. The state was changing the

    status of schools with building projects lacking seismic safety certification, downgrading the

    severity of the violations in bunches without ever visiting the schools, as Johnson tells it.

    It didnt take long to connect the dots. Johnson was three months into an investigation of

    earthquake safety at California schools and had recently asked for a previously undisclosed list

    of those with potentially unsafe buildings. A couple days after noticing the changes taking place

    at the state architects website, Johnson obtained minutes of an internal meeting in which statemanagers warned, Sensitivity has increased as to reporters digging deep into government

    business. People need to be mindful of what they put into emails. Elsewhere they urged, We

    need to figure out why Los Angeles has so many Type 4 letters, referring to the most serious

    violation of the Field Act, a 1933 law mandating strict oversight of earthquake resistant

    construction at K-12 schools and community colleges.

    Discovering the changes was an a-ha moment for Johnson, and just one of many

    breakthroughs in an meticulously documented investigation that revealed at least 20,000

    projects, from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms, that were

    completed without Field Act certification. What began for him as a quick turnaround storyabout the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco Bay Area

    ultimately turned into a nineteen-month project that involved nearly four dozen staff members

    and freelance contributors, as well as California Watchs partners at KQED Public Radio.

    California Watcha project of the Center for Investigative Reporting launched in the summer of

    2009began releasing the multimedia series, titled On Shaky Ground, on April 8 in

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    coordination with a suite of newspapers, public radio and television stations, ABC news

    affiliates, Patch.com sites, and foreign-language newspapers statewide. Three articles form the

    backbone. Part 1 describes the lax oversight of seismic safety at schools, the history of the

    regulatory system and how it broke down over time, and cases of specific schools lacking safety

    certification. Part 2 reveals that many special seismic safety inspectors, hired by school districts

    and trained in the Field Act, are still reviewing building projects despite histories of poor

    performance. And Part 3 explains how restrictive rules have kept California schools from

    accessing a $200 million fund approved by voters in 2006 to shore up seismically unsafe

    buildings.

    Its been a bear, Johnson said in an interview describing the effort. Its an incredibly

    complicated story with a lot of moving parts and technical details, and the government was not

    that interested in talking straight or clear, so there was a lot of worka lot of historical work,

    eventhat went into figuring out what the procedures and policies were, and what they really

    meant, so that I could appropriately interpret what was being said by state officials and school

    district people, because theres a lot of spinning that goes on in a story like this.

    Im trying to avoid the clichs you hear when reporters tell these kinds of stories, but it really

    was brick-and-mortar. Somebody tells you a piece of information, you try to verify it, and it goes

    from there. Ultimately, I started to work on multiple fronts, trying to pull together all of this

    information, understand it, and deal with the various agencies who, once it became apparent to

    them that they were the focus of an investigation, got really difficult to deal with. They started

    saying that things didnt exist, and I found that they did, and they started telling employees not

    to talk. It was just the whole gamut of things that happen in America when people think theyre

    under investigation, which they were.

    California Watch produced an excellent, step-by-step timeline of Johnsons investigation,complete with a rolling document counter that rises to over 30,000 by early 2010, but it is even

    more interesting to hear Johnson tell the story in his own words. After he learned of the states

    list of schools lacking seismic safety certification, which hadnt been released publically, a staffer

    on the state legislatures education committee said it would be hard to get details, but pointed

    him to the Division of the State Architect, which oversees compliance.

    Those two bits of informationthat there is a list that the state doesnt want anybody to have

    and that some schools might not comply with the Field Actwere the two things that got my

    juices flowing, Johnson said.

    Thats when the heavy lifting began, literally. In ablog post describing the evolution of the

    project, California Watchs editorial director, Mark Katches, explained that:

    [Johnsons] desk soon became cluttered with reams of documents, forming a

    fortress growing higher and higher. Tens of thousands of PDF files about

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    earthquake safety in Californias public schools soon taxed his laptop hard drive.

    The documents painted a disturbing picture of a system of oversight in disarray.

    For months, Johnson worked on the story alone in our Sacramento bureau under

    the supervision of his editor, Robert Salladay. He became a virtual embed at the

    Division of the State Architect. Routinely, Johnson hauled our 30-pound copy

    machine several blocks to make copies - cutting down on copying costs. He filedregular blog posts for us, but his first real story would need more time.

    The extra time would pay off. By early 2010 Johnson had revealed that the regulatory apparatus

    governing seismic safety in schools had clearly broken down, but that alone was not enough to

    satisfy him. He wanted to knowwhy it had broken down, so he kept digging.

    In June 2010 Johnson was working in the library of the Division of the State Architect when he

    noticed a binder marked policies and procedures. In it he discovered that California keeps

    confidential evaluation records for a network of 1,500 specially trained seismic safety inspectorshired by school districts to vet building projects. Johnson had to fight for months to get them,

    going back and forth with state officials and their lawyers, eventually convincing them that they

    had no right to keep the ratings confidential since the inspectors are not state employees. Once

    in hand, the records showed that nearly 300 inspectors had been cited by the state for

    work-related deficiencies, even though at least two-thirds were allowed to keep monitoring

    school construction jobs. Multiple inspectors had been accused of filing false reports with

    regulators and failing to show up at critical moments during construction jobs, yet the state had

    done little to nothing to reprimand them.

    These records had been very tightly held, and finding them was a result of being at the library,looking over my shoulder, and just happening to spot this dusty binder, said Johnson. But the

    discovery had consequences.

    Naturally, the day I asked to copy those policy documents was the last day they let me in the

    library. Once they saw that Id grabbed that off the shelf they said, We have to renovate the

    library, and ended up putting me right around the corner from a bathroom, totally away from

    anybody and anything. And thats when they assigned a person to watch me every day.

    Indeed, Johnson says the states minder was tasked with not letting him out of her sight, and

    officials at the Division of State Architect began making him jump through other hoops as well.They insisted, for instance, that he travel to its Los Angeles offices to view records that should

    have been easy to send north, and that the minder accompany him along the way. Thats kind

    of how it went for months, those kinds of games, Johnson said.

    Things really came to a head in the late summer and fall of 2010. In July, Johnson obtained

    names of state employees that were members of a lobbying group, the Coalition for Adequate

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    School Housing, which had repeatedly pushed for less regulation and oversight of school

    construction. State officials denied that any employees belonged to the group, but were forced to

    backpedal when Johnson pulled out a list at a meeting showing that several top managers at

    the Division of the State Architect were indeed members (other records showed that regulators

    were even told that taxpayers would reimburse their membership dues).

    Johnson pulled off his most impressive feat of reportorial prowess in November, however, whenhe convinced a source in the Division of the State Architect to give him a hard drive with years of

    e-mails, memos, reports, surveys, policy drafts and directions, and other confidential records

    relating to the regulation of seismic safety across various agencies. Katches, California Watchs

    editorial director, called it a treasure trove, which revealed that for years officials across state

    government had been aware of school construction problems, but failed to address them.

    Johnson had to follow a circuitous route to get the hard drive. By that point in his investigation

    the state and basically clammed up on him. They were aware that I was this bugaboo

    burrowing down for information, he said.

    In an effort to break the impasse, Johnson contacted someone whom he knew to be a friend of

    an official in the state architects office that he wanted to reach. Bluffing to a certain extent

    about already having some damning evidence in hand, he asked that person to arrange a

    meeting, pointing out that going through the front door would set off an awful lot of alarms and

    bells. The intermediary complied and the official in the state architects office agreed to talk to

    Johnson, who laid his request on the line.

    Over a couple lunches, I said, I need to know what I dont know because as it stands right now,

    you all are really screwing children. I said it just like that, and I said, I dont know of anybody

    thats going to take that, especially when voters approved all this money for seismic safety andyou turn around and give them a bad building. I just told him: Now, with what we have, regular

    media wouldve already run this story, but Im trying to get the other side, so if youve got

    something, you need to quit playing games and give me something. And that appeal worked. It

    worked. And he said, Okay, Ive got something, and this something proved our suspicions

    [about lax oversight], because when we looked through the documents, it was worse than what I

    could have ever imagined.

    The records showed that for years, various officials had complained that the state was neglecting

    its statutory responsibilities with regard to earthquake safety, that inspectors and field

    engineers did not have enough support, and that some projects had been completed withdangerous construction flaws.

    You name it, the hard drive had it, Johnson said. I mean, we got a lot of breaks along the way,

    but that was huge.

    Around the same time, he received a vastly expanded list of uncertified projects at schools based

    on the request hed made more than year before. Originally, the state had provided a list of some

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    9,000 projects. When the updated version arrived, it had more than twice that number (and

    wouldve been even larger had the state had not cleared thousands of other project violations in

    the intervening months).

    The result of all this probative toil was California Watchs ironclad series, which prompted state

    and school district officials tobegin changing their ways even before it was published. In

    addition to its three main articles, the package features a variety of shorter pieces, including onerevealing that, pressed by real estate agents, the state shrank its earthquake hazards zones on

    geological maps. There is also a searchable map and database that lays out schools located in

    those hazard zones and identifies more than 2,000 uncertified building projects (the data and

    methods California Watch used to create the map are explained in a separate post and useful

    FAQ). There are also photos andvideos, an interactive map of major California quakes since

    1861, safetyand action guidelines for parents, an earthquake safetycoloring book, and a

    myFault iPhone/iPad app that identifies seismic risks in a users area.

    We believe this is an important series of stories because it reveals problems and issues before a

    school is badly damaged in a quake and a child or teacher is hurt or killed, the Center forInvestigative Reportings executive director, Robert Rosenthal, wrote in ablog post discussing

    the value of proactive, gumshoe reporting:

    Johnson and the rest of the team of reporters have been asking the types of

    questions that other news organizations would be asking, after the fact, if a school

    had been damaged or collapsed in a quake.

    What we have done here is ask those questions and investigate before the

    potentially catastrophic event.

    We are not saying disasters are imminent. What we are saying is that now is the

    time to check and look at issues that might exist in schools and other buildings

    throughout California.

    Without appearing to be shrill or alarmist, these stories say, take action. They say

    to the public and officials this is the time to engage and understand what is safe and

    not in good shape or certified in your communities schools.

    Through a wide, varied and multi-platform distribution partnership this package of

    stories should reach millions of people.

    So far, the series, or parts of it, have run in almost a dozen newspapers. In addition, it has been

    translated into Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and two forms of Chinese and is being distributed

    to foreign language papers via New American Media. It has run in at least five of the states

    major television and radio markets. KQED, a public broadcaster in Northern California, worked

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