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James Eli Shiffer

Topic Team Leader | Newsroom
Phone: 612-673-4116

James Eli Shiffer is the topics team leader for the Star Tribune, supervising coverage of climate and the environment as well as human services. Previously he was the cities team leader, watchdog and data editor and wrote the Full Disclosure and Whistleblower columns. 

Before coming to the Star Tribune in 2005, Shiffer worked at The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., where he was an editor and reporter. Shiffer is the author of "The King of Skid Row," a local history book. He lives in Minneapolis with his family.
Recent content from James Eli Shiffer
The Minneapolis Third Police Precinct state was set on fire during a third night of protests following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis

E-mails, public records reveal what happened before Third Precinct was abandoned

Three days of rage culminated in the burning of the Third Precinct, an event unprecedented in modern American history.
A Journal of the Plague Year

Bookmark: An old book resonates in these modern times

In times like these, I find myself turning to literature to remind me that people haven’t changed that much in 300 years or so. In…
Janet Lee Dahl and Mark Kozlak in a photo taken in 1955 by Janet’s mother, Gertrude.

64 years later, neighbor of mystery girl in haunting photos introduces himself

The revival of Janet Lee Dahl's memory sparked a flurry of e-mails and phone calls. A former neighbor remembers her life and death.
Snapshots from Janet Lee Dahl's brief life.

Discarded photos reveal the haunting story of a Minnesota girl

More than 200 snapshots discovered in a California flea market trace the life of a Minnesota child.
A herd of elephants made its way past a euphorbia tree in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, which has great wildlife diversity.

On an accidental safari, a park in Uganda boasts a wealth of wildlife

During a surprise safari, Queen Elizabeth National Park offered up a host of sights.
A Minneapolis Tribune cartoon from June 28, 1902, near the end of the political career of Minneapolis mayor A.A. “Doc” Ames, illustrates the grand

Review: 'Dirty Doc Ames and the Scandal That Shook Minneapolis,' by Erik Rivenes

NONFICTION: Minneapolis Mayor "Doc" Ames was known for his visits to brothels, rigged poker games, and free-flowing booze.
Cornfield patterns -- corn cirlcles -- are believed to be created by aliens.

UFOs and aliens thrive in the vacuum created by secrecy

Lack of government transparency plays a big role in propagating wild theories of alien landings and coverups.
A protest against sexual harassment was held last month at the Minnesota State Capitol. The Minnesota Legislature is one of only five in the nation th

Sexual harassment shielded by secrecy at Minnesota Capitol

The sexual harassment scandal has brought new attention to the different disclosure practices that apply to Minnesota institutions.

Minneapolis' posting of 'deleted' EPA pages is a bit overheated

One problem: The web pages in question are still on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website. You can find them linked from the EPA home page.

Mille Lacs County sues feds to get FOIA response

And since November 2016, county officials have been waiting.
Part of a web page showing the page from the National Archives showing a listing of records released on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, in Washington, relati

Opening the JFK files would have been a triumph of transparency. If only.

Instead it confirmed to the cynics and conspiracy theorists that the government can never come clean.
President Donald Trump’s actions are bringing new energy and focus to transparency advocates, who are filing numerous lawsuits to preserve the statu

Trump White House confounds, confuses transparency advocates

Data purges and secrecy confounding transparency advocates.
President John F. Kennedy.

Minnesota man appears in newly declassified JFK assassination files

A man living in Crystal in 1965 was repeatedly named as an FBI informant in the trove of documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy released by the National Archives on Thursday.
University of Minnesota Board of Regents Chair Dean Johnson addressed reporters in May regarding the unofficial inquiry into a reported leak of confid

University of Minnesota's hunt for leaker was a $74K red herring

In May, the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota learned that another high-ranking athletic department employee had been placed on leave for misconduct. This was supposed to stay secret.
Michael Weigel, 39, left, and William Eldridge, 27, right, both were sentenced under Minnesota's revenge porn statute.

Two men sentenced for violating Minnesota's revenge-porn law

Michael Weigel and William Eldridge both had the same idea on how to inflict emotional pain on women in their lives. They created fake Facebook…
In September, researchers and visitors to the Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Suitland, Md., posed with the ancient sandstone jar given as a gift

Once-secret CIA records reveal gift of ancient stone jar

Earlier this year, a researcher at Concordia University in St. Paul was combing through declassified CIA records and discovered an intriguing stone legacy of the…
A lion guards the doorway of Duluth City Hall

A trip to Duluth proves City Hall isn't sinking under data requests

So back in July, when the Duluth city staff presented the idea of charging $35 an hour for any data request that takes more than 15 minutes, I decided to ask: How big a burden are these?
In the midst of a motion to select interim superintendent Michael Goar as the board’s preferred candidate, protestors shut down the school board mee

The fuzzy line between dissent and disruption, even for courts

Anyone doubting the power of protest should study the shutdown of the Minneapolis Board of Education meeting on Jan. 12. The board was poised to…
Former Minneapolis Police Chief JaneÈ Harteau. According to state law, any agreement that prohibits discussion or disclosure of otherwise public pers

Former police chief's hush clause stymies a needed public debate

There's something so Minnesotan about the idea of nondisparagement.

Search for father's birth parents runs into bureaucratic tangle

What's the public interest in hiding a court record created 108 years ago?
Hotel room bust of high-end prostitute leads to $20,000 windfall for Minn. police

Hotel room bust of high-end prostitute leads to $20,000 windfall for Minn. police

Adrienne Chapa was arrested and spent a few days in jail before she went home to Las Vegas. Her bag of $24,425 in cash was here to stay.
Sara, who found but was unable to establish a relationship with her birth mother, still hopes to locate her birth father. ] MARK VANCLEAVE �

How Minnesota law prevents many adoptees from learning about their roots

Despite a nationwide movement to open up access to adoption records, Minnesota's laws place the privacy of birth parents ahead of the desire of adoptees to know their origins.

History of gas line accidents in Minnesota since 1998

Before Wednesday’s explosion at Minnehaha Academy, gas distribution lines have experienced at least 41 major accidents in Minnesota since 2004, federal data show. The most…
On Thursday, Charlie Rodgers, government records specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society, loaded 12 boxes of records handed over by the Hugo Ci

Archive specialist rescues Minnesota history, page by yellowed page

Charlie Rodgers’ business card carries his bone-dry title: “Government records specialist.” The reality is more like this: Exploring dank basements and forgotten storage areas; opening…
Khao Insixiengmay held a photo of himself when he was 24 years old Wednesday at his home in July 5, 2017 in Brooklyn Park, MN. Col. Insixiengmay is a

Minnesota veterans of the CIA's 'secret war' seek an honorable burial

A Brooklyn Park veteran of the CIA's "secret war" has been stymied by the federal government's refusal to hand over classified documents about its proxy army, or even acknowledge that they exist.
Soon, a Stearns County judge will review about 168 pages that Patty and Jerry Wetterling have asked to keep out of the public eye.

Painful as it could be, some files must be made public

Some fear this case could mark the end of Minnesota's laudable openness about how its law officers investigate crime.

Big ideas for open government fall short at Legislature

Transparency advocates had grand plans for improving public access to government information in Minnesota this legislative session. One proposal would have stopped the mass…

At U.S. State Department, ground rules for official anonymity

WASHINGTON – The weather was sweltering on the sidewalks of the U.S. Capitol last week, so the State Department officials walked outside the massive…
Sheila Van Pelt has become one of the state's most effective citizen lobbyists, helping change state law to force the Minnesota Department of Health t

Inside one woman's fight to expose Minn. health care investigations

Sheila Van Pelt's yearslong campaign underscores the enormous challenges facing everyday citizens in an era when powerful interest groups push laws that ensure greater levels of secrecy.
More police departments are using body cameras, including Maplewood, where officer Parker Olding attached his to a magnetic plate inside his uniform.

Growing police tech arsenal watches criminals, citizens

Law enforcement agencies have more tools to gather information than ever before. Laws safeguarding that data and guaranteeing public access to it are failing to keep up.
Gary Gentz, 72, of Eustace, Texas, looked through photos from his time with Air America, the CIA-controlled airline used during the Vietnam War.

Survivors of CIA's secret airline gather in Twin Cities to reminisce, organize

Officials still say they were not affiliated with U.S. government during the Vietnam War.
Nat Finney, shown in 1938.

Newspaper's secrecy scoop of 1947 resonates today

The headline blared across the front page of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Big enough to stop a president: “U.S. CENSORSHIP PLAN REVEALED.” It was…
Super Bowl LII will be played in Minneapolis next February.

Minneapolis scrubs its records to hide site of Super Bowl command center

Mpls. scrubs info, leaving public in dark on landlord.
Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim of Minnesota, who led an effort to release JFK records, expects some insights, but no big revelations.

The final cache of secret JFK records set for release this year

Documents that show what the government knows about John F. Kennedy's 1963 trip to Dallas have been kept secret for more than 50 years. Now, these records are among the remaining sealed documents about the JFK assassination set for release in coming months.
Inside law enforcement's high-tech toolbox

Inside law enforcement's high-tech toolbox

New technologies are giving law enforcement in Minnesota and across the country broad access to data on criminals and everyday citizens alike.
President Donald Trump walks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House in Washington, Monday.

Public left on the street after White House visitor logs go dark

Last week, the Secret Service banished pedestrians from the south side of the White House after too many unauthorized visitors managed to leap…
David W. Pollard

Minn. burglar found addresses of victims online before committing crimes

There are 14 situations in which it is legal to view someone else’s driver’s license and motor vehicle registration data. Finding homes to ransack isn’t…
Growing web of laws keeps Minnesotans in the dark

Growing web of laws keeps Minnesotans in the dark

The state's public records law is riddled with hundreds of exceptions. Local governments and businesses are pushing to keep even more data secret.
Home child care provider Jennifer Parrish, center, shown in 2014 with Sens. David Senjem and Carla Nelson.

Lawmakers propose limiting access to day care enforcement records

Providers want to protect reputations, but families want enforcement data.

Gov. Walker embraces government sunshine, but it's cloudy in Minnesota

Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government and the First Amendment, was heralded by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with a March 8 proclamation…

USDA removes animal welfare records from website

Dogs with sores on their paws and missing fur. Sick rabbits living in a trashy building. A kennel two degrees hotter than the 85-degree legal…

Details about Trump ban detainees are hard to pry loose

Amid the scenes of tearful reunions and airport protests that followed President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order on immigration, so much is still unknown…

Fading voice of an access advocate

When Minnesotans suspect their elected leaders or civil servants are hiding something, they can turn to a tiny state agency for help. The Information Policy…

Minnesota goes after leakers, too

In one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama commuted the sentence of a high-profile government whistleblower and pardoned another. Obama’s actions last…

Minnesota tussles over e-mail, and so does everywhere else

“Is e-mail a public document that needs to be preserved?” That question appears in an April 1994 edition of the Star Tribune. A generation and…
The Minneapolis Police Department began rolling out body cameras in July. The footage offers a flood of new evidence for cases.

Hennepin County judge: Body-cam footage is off-limits to public

Ivy Bernhardson, the chief judge in Hennepin County, laid down the rules in December on how prosecutors and defense attorneys should handle video footage from…
At Mazza Vineyards on Dec. 15, 2016, Rick Mazza, 55, cousin of vineyard owner Bob Mazza, picks frozen Vidal grapes to make ice wine in North East Town

Feds processing 51 new grape varietals for wine; two are Minnesota made

At least two made-in-Minnesota, cold-weather-tolerant grapes made the cut: Petite Pearl and Chisago.
State agency calls anti-fraud law a 'nightmare waiting to happen'

State agency calls anti-fraud law a 'nightmare waiting to happen'

The fraud-fighting strategy was supposed to work like this: Someone walks into a money-wiring business asking to send a large amount of cash overseas. The…
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, held up a copy of a 1997 congressional report on excessive secrecy.

U.S. House hearing finds federal government overdosing on secrecy

The number of new classified records fell to a record low in 2014, before rising somewhat last year.
Sen. Ted Cruz was criticized in January after his campaign sent “voter shaming” letters.

Creepy but legal: 'Voter shaming' letters showed up in Minnetonka mailbox

The letter arrived at the Guetschow house before Election Day.It included the names and addresses of three of their neighbors in Minnetonka, and a chart…
Mary Vanderwert, left, Steve Marchese, Zuki Ellis and Jon Schumacher ran for school board under a Caucus for Change banner.

State gives St. Paul school board blessing for secret meetings

The members of the St. Paul school board realized they had a problem, starting with themselves. So as they search for a new superintendent to…
President-elect Donald Trump has said little about how he would approach the issue of transparency as a public official.

Hopes, fears for transparency in Trump White House

Given that Donald Trump has described journalists as “scum,” “sleaze” and “horrible people,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the president-elect refrained from inviting the…
Late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled 2-1 that Central Lakes College had the authority to toss Craig Keefe out of it

Shiffer: Ex-nursing student suffers legal setback over Facebook posts

It’s a weird coincidence. Two major First Amendment rulings centered on Facebook rants by university students about plunging sharp objects into other people. And in…
Minneapolis makes it easier to get information about police misconduct, while trying to “weigh the privacy of police officers.”

Minneapolis shines a (partial) light on police misconduct

The mayor called it “exciting” and “an important day for the city of Minneapolis.” The civil rights director said it fulfilled a promise made four…
Gov. Mark Dayton

E-mail policy in Gov. Dayton's office? Delete them at will

The policy of the office calls for keeping only those e-mail messages that are "records of official transactions." Everything outside of that narrow category can be deleted at will.
Pastor Clyde Reed, of Gilbert, Ariz., who prevailed in his 2015 fight over signs directing people to his church.

Signs can go wild during election season

If you were waiting to put up 50-foot billboards in your yard proclaiming the imminent arrival of extraterrestrials, your moment has arrived. Election season means…
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced in June that no civil rights charges would be filed in the shooting death of Jamar Clark.

Months after Jamar Clark case closed, FBI still won't cough up its file

Show us the files. That’s what the Star Tribune said to the FBI immediately after U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced that no federal charges would…
At least 49 large military drones have crashed in the U.S. since 2001, the Washington Post has reported thanks to FOIA.

Shame on Congress if it grants even more secrecy to Pentagon

An inspector general report at the Pentagon concluded in 2013 that its computer systems were dangerously vulnerable to hackers. At least 49 large military drones…
Minnesota’s elections have several security steps, including paper and machine tallies. Both were key in the 2008 Senate recount.

Paper trail is a cornerstone of state's election integrity

As more and more of our world goes digital, what important system relies on paper records any more? Democracy, for one. The heart of Minnesota’s…
Anthony Darst holds the six realistic-looking but definitely phony bank notes that a thief gave him in June.

Twin Cities man loses iPad, gains $520 in 'movie money'

What happened to Anthony Darst was a sorry mix of robbery and fraud. Someone ran off with his iPad, and left him holding an envelope…
During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama and John McCain both pledged to set high standards for transparency.

Transparency takes center stage in campaign for White House

  The last time the White House put out a vacancy sign, both major party presidential candidates talked about transparency so much you’d think they…
Members of the special Senate Committee created to investigate U.S. intelligence gathering agencies met at the Capitol in 1975.

Set up to keep leash on spies, U.S.'s most secret court has lost its way

You can be forgiven if you've never heard of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It's America's most secretive court, and it convenes behind closed, guarded doors in a federal courthouse in Washington.
The Vadnais Sports Center was the subject of a $12,000 city audit, which has been shielded under attorney-client privilege.

Concerned about bad PR, Vadnais Heights keeps $12,000 audit confidential

In an interview Friday, the mayor said that he had never seen the audit but that he nevertheless is convinced there's nothing new in it.
A worker filed mug shots in Hennepin County in 1938. A federal appeals court in Ohio ruled mug shots shouldn’t be public.

Mug shot sleaze doesn't justify keeping them secret

The mug shot is the star of the voyeur’s internet. Any web search turns up thousands of images of people booked and photographed by police,…
Unidentified musicians

Minneapolis photo trove found in garage sparks hunt for IDs

On Tuesday, the Hosmer Library is inviting the public to visit between 10 a.m. and noon to view the pictures and help identify who's in them.
While incarcerated, Daniel McGowan faced extra punishments for his writings.

Eco-radical punished twice for his jailhouse writings

Daniel McGowan was returning to his cell in the Sandstone, Minn., federal prison when he learned he was shipping out. At first he didn’t know…
An upgrade of the FOIA had rare bipartisan support, including from Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Congress modernizes Freedom of Information Act

Last week, Congress sent the White House a bill to revamp the Freedom of Information Act for the 21st century. In a bitterly divided Washington, support for the bill united Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Rep. Darrell Issa of California with Democrats such as Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
The Silver Dollar Bar and one of its habitues in 1950. In a previous time, Washington Avenue was all bars, pawnshops and flophouses.

Living in downtown Minneapolis was badge of shame in days of Skid Row

Through the early 1960s, the heart of Minneapolis was home to nearly 2,500 men who lived in some of the city's oldest and most decrepit buildings.
As the Minneapolis Police Department began outfitting officers with bodycams, a state bill on video access was still not signed.

Body camera video: In Minnesota, for police eyes only

Police across the nation are going Hollywood, but in Minnesota, don’t expect to get invited to a screening any time soon. A bill setting policy…
Joe Stoebner, chairman of Avi Systems, has spent months trying to find out if his data was stolen from a government computer.

After federal data breach, red tape snarls victim's search for answers

In order to work on a U.S. Department of Energy contract, Joe Stoebner had to obtain top-secret, Q-level security clearance. If he or anyone in…
Revenge porn victim Chrissy Chambers of Los Angeles testified during a working group on revenge porn law in St. Paul.

The fight against 'revenge porn'

Three Gopher basketball players were benched for the rest of the season last week because a video of a sex act, featuring at least one…
Nancy Vernon and Eugene Monnig own Cadenza Music in St. Paul.

Phishing scam pits Intuit against St. Paul's Cadenza Music

The collection letter sent to Cadenza Music in St. Paul resembled what shows up in your mailbox when you forget to pay a phone or…
Beyond Minnesota, a company claiming to be in Sun City, Ariz., created a phony Google Street View image of its headquarters that users would find when

Minnesota attorney general appeals to Google to stop deceptive locksmith ads

In the latest chapter of “seeing isn’t believing,” brought to you by Google, meet your “local locksmith.” That’s what plenty of Twin Cities residents thought…
The National Restaurant Association has gone to court to stop a little salt shaker from taking over chain restaurant menus in New York City.

Salt shaker emoji sparks a menu fight over free speech

These days, you can always spot emojis on the menu. A hot pepper warns you of a spice hazard. A leafy sprout heralds a vegetarian…

Hunting mishap in Meeker County clouded by secrecy

Dale Fenrich keeps a shotgun slug on the desk of his insurance office in Litchfield, Minn. It's the one doctors took out of his upper leg after a hunting accident last fall, in which a friend shot him with a 12-gauge round intended for a deer.