James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

An attack on the First Amendment in Alabama

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: September 19, 2014 - 5:34 PM

The landmark Near vs. Minnesota U.S. Supreme Court decision sets a very high bar for the government to stop a news organization from publishing a story. That didn't stop Jefferson County (Ala.) Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance from granting a gas company's request to block the Montgomery Advertiser from publishing details of safety plan that the newspaper had obtained through a public records request.

Alagasco trotted out the "terrorists will use this as a blueprint for mayhem" argument, the same excuse employed by all kinds of industries to prevent scrutiny of the dangers they pose to communities without any sabotage at all. What's disturbing is that a judge actually listened, and thought that concern trumped the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press, before the newspaper even had a chance to respond.

Back in 1931, the Near vs. Minnesota ruling established that "prior restraint" of the press was unconstitutional except in very limited circumstances, such as publishing troop movements at a time of war. The tradition of press freedom has served this country well, and has rightly made this aspect of American democracy an example for the world.

The Advertiser requested this information after a gas explosion destroyed an apartment house in Birmingham, Ala., killing one woman and injuring seven others. Federal investigators have said they suspect a gas leak, but the investigation continues. The Advertiser and its partner, USA Today, are doing their job, reporting on a subject of obvious public concern. Judge Vance has scheduled a hearing Monday on this issue, and if justice is served, this ruling should crawl back in the hole it came out of.

Photo from the AL.com shows the aftermath of the explosion in December 2013.

Map: Canada leading world in pristine forest destruction

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: September 18, 2014 - 3:49 PM

Our neighbor to the north possesses much of the world's remaining undisturbed woodlands, but Canada has degraded more of them in the past 14 years than any other nation, the CBC reported. That's the conclusion of researchers who studied satellite imagery to develop the map below.

The researchers, affiliated with the World Resources Institute, an environmental group, defined intact forest landscapes as "an unbroken expanse of natural ecosystems within areas of current forest extent, without signs of significant human activity, and having an area of at least 500 square kilometers." That's 193 square miles, or 124,000 acres. The largest remaining expanses are the boreal forests of Canada and Russia and tropical rainforest in Brazil. Canada accounted for 21 percent of the intact forests degraded since 2000. In that time, the world has lost 8 percent of these landscapes.

Relatively few places in the Lower 48 of the United States qualify as intact forest landscapes. You can zoom in on them worldwide in the map below. For a more comprehensive, and sobering, view of forest change worldwide (net loss of nearly 150 million hectares since 2000, or 371 million acres), check out the other maps at the Global Forest Watch.

Banks gird themselves for an online tongue-lashing

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: September 17, 2014 - 10:20 AM

My colleague Jim Spencer wrote today about the now-abandoned publicity campaign of the Financial Services Roundtable, led by our former governor Tim Pawlenty, to stop the posting of consumer complaints about banks on a federal web site. Banks wisely chose to distance themselves from this effort, knowing that they're no match for the power of an online consumer's righteous rage.

Now banks will have to endure the same forces that restaurants and hotels, makers of consumer products and every company or charity overseen by the Better Business Bureau have already learned to live with. I think they will survive. 

Back in the depths of the mortgage crisis, I got calls and emails almost daily from struggling homeowners who had tales of phenomenal incompetence or misconduct by their lenders. (Examples herehere and here). Their complaints had one thing in common: A feeling that no one was listening.

Outrage over financial institutions' role in triggering the Great Recession gave birth to a new federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That agency plans to do what the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already do: Publish complaints from regular people

Here's the Roundtable's view, as Spencer reported.

The Financial Services Roundtable’s director of consumer financial services, Anne Wallace, told the Star Tribune in August that posting narratives of consumer complaints could “mislead and confuse.” The government, she said, would be giving credence to information it does not verify.

Those words ring rather hollow, coming from an industry that wrecked the U.S. economy by misleading and confusing millions of people. The federal government deserves its share of blame for failing in its oversight of financial institutions and botching its response to the crisis. If one outcome is giving consumers a little bit of a louder voice, I have a suggestion for banks: Shut up and listen. You might learn something.

Where to call for Do Not Call, and more useful info

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: September 16, 2014 - 11:49 AM

By virtue of my six-year quest to hunt down Rachel from Cardholder Services, I have become the go-to guy on the Web for anyone trying to escape her. My Sunday column (pasted below) was inspired by Frank Adler, a political philosophy professor at Macalester who needs peace and quiet in his home in St. Paul in order to do his scholarship. Adler called a few weeks ago to declare that the Do Not Call Registry was an abject failure. I'll let you decide if that's true, but I am ready to clear up some items readers brought up after the story.

Wayne Nelson pointed out that I neglected to put the phone number to call to register your number. That's 888 382-1222.

Mary Ann Thoma, who works in market research, informed me that the Do Not Call Registry allows calls from organizations solely doing research, such as public opinion surveys. People are welcome to ask to be put on these organizations' internal do-not-call lists, but federal law allows these calls.

Many people have shared their strategies, none of which I'm endorsing. Some people try to waste the telemarketers' time by playing along with the pitch, and then leaving the phone off the hook, or pursuing some pretend filibuster.

Then there's Nomorobo, a technology to block known robocallers that emerged from the FTC's Robocall Challenge. The FTC describes it "as a cloud-based solution that would use 'simultaneous ringing,' which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. In the Nomorobo solution, this second line would identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to the user."

One reader, Steve Payne, says it works, and it's free so far. And Nomorobo says it has just expanded its service to do something reader Jenni Schnobrich wants: Blocking political calls, which are exempt from the Do Not Call Registry. 

Here's the column:

People who put their phone numbers on the Do Not Call list reported a staggering 3.7 million violations last year. That doesn’t include the zillions who never file complaints about the nightly interruptions by Rachel from Cardholder Services and her prerecorded cronies.

Yet the man at the helm of the Do Not Call registry says that’s not a sign that the decade-old list is failing. When was the last time you got a telemarketing call from an actual human, asks Mitch Katz, spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission.

True, the Do Not Call list has mostly put an end to telemarketing calls from people you can personally scream at. But they have been replaced by robocalls, dialed by the billions from unscrupulous companies in distant “boiler rooms,” their originating numbers easily masked with spoofing software.

Most folks in the world would gladly trade malaria, hyperinflation and death squads for unwanted telephone calls. Yet those calls evoke a peculiar rage among Americans, because it’s a problem that should be so easy to solve.

The Do Not Call list is a victim of its own deceptive simplicity. Go todonotcall.gov, type in your phone number and blissful tranquillity will be yours. The registry now includes more than 223 million numbers, 4.2 million of them in Minnesota alone.

It doesn’t cost taxpayers any money because it’s funded by the fees law-abiding companies pay to download the registry, Katz said. For a time, after it debuted in 2003, everybody could tell that Do Not Call made a difference.

But in 2012, the number of complaints of violation hit a record 3.8 million, more than double what it was in 2010. These days, plenty of folks feel betrayed. One of them is Frank Adler. He’s a Macalester College professor whose land line in St. Paul is besieged every night with offers of medical alert systems and credit card rate reductions, despite its Do Not Call registration. “From a public policy perspective, I wonder why they continue to exist,” Adler said.

Bikram Bandy has talked to people like Adler, and he understands their feelings. A Washington lawyer, Bandy serves in the FTC’s rotating position of Do Not Call Program Coordinator with a focus on enforcing the law. The FTC can point to evidence that it’s taking the problem seriously.

A rule adopted in 2009 makes most robocalls illegal on every line. In its war against Rachel from Cardholder Services, that elusive pitchwoman for dubious debt relief, the FTC has shut down companies responsible for 2.5 billion robocalls. Last year, the FTC slapped its largest Do Not Call fine ever, $7.5 million, on a mortgage company accused of calling 5.4 million prohibited numbers and making deceptive pitches, to boot.

As soon as one Rachel company is shut down, another pops up, hydralike. So the FTC also is putting its effort into finding a technical solution by sponsoring “Robocall summits” and encouraging the spread of call-filtering and spoof-killing technology.

“We feel that call-blocking solutions that get embraced and rolled out to more and more Americans, plus the ability to end spoofing — those two technological innovations will be game changers,” Bandy said.

Bandy said that people have slain this kind of beast before. Not along ago, inboxes got so much spam about organ enlargement, prescription painkillers and get-rich pitches from the widow of Mobutu Sese Seko that some thought e-mail would collapse. Spam filters came to the rescue, at least enough that e-mail became safe for work again.

The FTC says it’s working with phone companies to make the technical changes happen. But telephone companies say Federal Communications Commission rules may make it illegal for them to use call-blocking software.

Last week, attorneys general from 37 states, including Minnesota, as well as Puerto Rico and Guam requested an opinion from the FCC about whether that’s really true. “Hopefully, we can all work cooperatively to find a solution to the unwanted telemarketing problem in the United States,” they wrote.

When that happens, please don’t call to let us know.

After losing caseload, Richfield rep payee placed under investigation

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: September 12, 2014 - 9:30 AM

When someone who receives Social Security is unable to handle their own money, the government can appoint a third party to do it for them. Typically it's a family member. If no one can be found to do it gratis, a non-profit organization can get the job in exchange for a monthly fee charged to the beneficiary.

For the second time in recent months, one of these organizations - called representative payees - has lost its contract with the Social Security Administration. Richfield-based Greenleaf Payment Services handled the benefits of 290 vulnerable recipients when it was terminated in July, and it's now the subject of an investigation by Social Security's Office of Inspector General, an agency spokeswoman said Thursday.

"It's inappropriate to discuss it further because there is an open investigation," said Carmen Moreno, a Social Security spokeswoman in Chicago.

When I interviewed her a few weeks ago, Moreno did not mention any similar investigation of the now-defunct J.T. Kitt Society, also of Minneapolis, and she said there was no question of any misuse of money.

At least two cases of Social Security benefit fraud have resulted in criminal convictions in the past year and a half. 

Like J.T. Kitt, Greenleaf Payment Services is a non-profit organization permitted to charge Social Security recipients about $40 per month to collect their checks and pay their bills. I have called and emailed the head of Greenleaf Payment Services, Edward Leaf, and will update this post with any response I get. When I called Greenleaf on Thursday, I got this recorded message:

Today is Monday, September 8, 2014. As of today, Greenleaf has not received any Social Security funds for this month for any of our clients. We apologize for this and are sorry that we are unable to help you with any of your bills. If your payee has already changed, please check with your new payee. Otherwise you need to contact Social Security and ask them what they are going to do with your funds for this month and ongoing. Also, if you have any uncashed checks with Bremer Bank, the account has been closed, and Bremer has advised they are not going to honor any of the checks. They will return them marked, "Account closed." Thank you.

According to Greenleaf's most recent tax form, for 2012 (below), the company took in about $138,000 in revenue, and had about the same in expenses. But it has carried more than $200,000 in liabilities for the past three years, and attributes the current total of $232,000 to "credit cards, lines of credit, loans and payroll tax liabilities." The only paid employee, Leaf, earned a $65,000 salary. 



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