Thanks for joining what we hope will be monthly chats. Ask your questions and I'll get to as many of them as I can. I've had lots of questions in the past couple of days about my Sunday pieces on Dismas House and Gary Bess and his family, and so I thought I'd start with a discussion about that story, and then we'll go to questions.
The Dismas House story was a bit unusual for me in that it was purely a news investigative piece as compared to a metro column. When I discovered the massive transfer of funds from Dismas House to a separate nonprofit, and about $5 million in payments over five years going to the one family that controls the board, I thought the story required that approach. So far, it seems that people are really horrified by the situation and that it has been allowed to go on for such a long time.
The interesting thing is that it was happening in plain site, with the 990s from Forward Assist clearly showing the payments to John Flatley and Vivienne Bess, if only you know where to look. As happens in some news investigations, this is where I got lucky. I didn't know about Forward Assist when I started looking into the story. Neither did my original tipster ...
But frustrated by the fact that Dismas House didn't file 990s and I couldn't get any information from the Bureau of Prisons, I started doing various Google searches on the names of folks on the Dismas House board, and found a PDF of one of Forward Assist's IRS 990s archived. I don't know why it was there, or who put it in a place where Google would grab it, but once I found it, the story all came together rather quickly.
I'll be working on some follow ups, and am following more tips on the story, and fully expect the Bureau of Prisons, and perhaps a federal Office of Inspector General investigation into the Dismas House contract. It's really unfortunate because the work of prison re-entry is so important and affects our entire region.
Dan asked a question that is top of mind to every journalist I know, and many folks worried about the nature of our democracy. It's a constant struggle. The Post-Dispatch, and every Metro daily in the country, is a shadow of its former self, in terms of staff and resources. And there is no doubt that has an effect on our ability to do the watchdog work that our readers depend on.
It requires a constant shift of resources and focus. Take the Dismas House story: To get it finished, I had to take a week off of my normal Metro column. Part of that is just the nature of the sort of story that it was, but that's the nature of the business these days.
Think about the Steve Stenger story. On one hand, the Post-Dispatch, over several years, was all over that investigation. But how might it have played out differently, and more quickly, in a different era, with a newspaper with a more robust staff? And how much more resources would other, competing media, have also put in the story a decade or two ago? Sadly, the folks like Stenger, and similar politicians in state and federal government, know they aren't being watched like they used to be. And that's bad for taxpayers and citizens.
Every single day in a major city newspaper somewhere in this country there is really important watchdog work being done on politicians from the president on down. But every politician in the country knows there are fewer eyes on their work than there used to be. Those of us who do this work have to be cognizant of what time and resources we have and focus on the stories where we know we can make a difference.
It's a big deal. Will Ross, a member of the citizen task force that was appointed by Better Together to work on the proposal that has now been pulled from the statewide ballot, has quit his role on Better Together and called for its top leaders to be fired.
What's most telling about the story is that Ross is clear that Nancy Rice and other Better Together leaders aren't even communicating with him about the changes and improvements he is interested in making in response to community concerns. He makes several damning statements about the organization that suggest it simply can't be trusted.
So what will Better Together be remembered for? That story is still being told. The optimist in me says that for all of the organizations failings, it has at least jumpstarted the discussion of regionalization (merger, re-entry, or whatever it ends up being), in a serious way. Those discussions are much more real now than they were 6 months to a year from now. That's a good thing.
But Ross's suggestion that the Rex-Sinquefield funded group can not be trusted to be involved in ongoing discussions about such regionalization is really telling, and again highlights the group's inability to make any inroads in the African-American community in St. Louis. And that brings us to ... airport privatization ...
As I've written several times, I don't believe it's possible to separate the airport privatization talks, and its incredibly flawed process, from the Better Together collapse, and, also, the Stenger indictment and ongoing investigation. It's the same people, with the same motivations, all working behind the scenes to implement their future vision for the region without any serious collaboration, all being funded by one man, all running non-transparent operations. What happened to Better Together should doom the airport privatization process, as well. I don't know how any government official can look at that process and trust that the RFQ will be fair. The entire process has been corrupted from Day One.
A new topic: Jim asks about religion and politics, which has been very much in the news these days, particularly in the Missouri Legislature with the abortion ban bill that now sits on Gov. Mike Parson's desk ...
Regardless of one's particular religion (I grew up Catholic; am a Christian with a spotty church attendance record lately), I think this trend is really concerning. Combine the attacks on Muslims coming from our president and his supporters, and the clear push from the evangelical right to implement very specific religious proposals into state and federal law, and I think we're getting very far away from what our founders intended and wrote in the constitution.
This year in the Missouri Legislature there were several bills very specifically focused on Christian ideals, such as teaching from the Bible in public schools. This is a dangerous slippery slope, in my opinion ...
But that barely scratches the surface of what a problem this pay is. Locally, pay for nonprofit executive directors in that very field of prison re-entry, are significantly lower, as in $75,000 or less.
And there is some question what Flatley and Bess even did for those salaries. Employees and inmates I talked to said they rarely saw them at Dismas House. Same for those who work in the same nonprofit space in the St. Louis region.
Mr. P wants to know about whether my colleagues give me a hard time about my Pulitzer. Well, the reality is they've been wonderful about it. The entire newsroom is still celebrating the win. But my family is another matter ...
It's possible that at home I've tried to use my new status as a Pulitzer Prize winner to get out of doing the dishes, and other such mundane tasks. And it's equally possible that such pronouncements didn't go over very well at home. Alas, I'll learn.
I'd be interested in those participating in the chat answering a question: What do you think happens next with the Stenger investigation? How many more indictments will there be: Over/under?
An important question! I don't know. I would guess it will be on display in our new building when we move, next to the one won by the photographers. But that's a good question. I haven't been to our new building yet. Not sure what sort of award displays we're going to have.
A question on state Rep. Bruce Franks, who announced he is resigning his position in the Legislature to focus on mental health issues. Will I be writing about the story? Probably at some point. When Jason Kander, the former Missouri Secretary of State who ran for U.S. Senate and was running for mayor of Kansas City, stepped away from politics to focus on treating his PTSD I did write a column on that.
This idea of people who have been actively involved in community activism and protest, going back to the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown (5 year anniversary later this year) is one that has been discussed a lot in the community of folks I've gotten to know over the past several years who have played active roles in that movement. It's serious and real, and combined with the fact that many of those folks live in communities where there is high violence and the ongoing trauma that it takes to deal with that.
While Rep. Franks situation is compounded by the implication in news reports that his work for the SLATE nonprofit was compromised by some inaccurate time cards, I believe people who open up about their difficulties dealing with mental health issues should be taken very seriously. I will likely talk to Bruce about those issues at some point in the future.
We're going to wrap it up here. Remember, you can always send me your column ideas and news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at the office: 314-340-8518. I don't very often answer that phone, but I always check voice mails.
Thanks for the questions and the chat and for subscribing to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch!