It’s that time of year again – time to look back on the biggest and best inewsource stories of 2018.
Our investigations this year took inewsource reporters on surveillance trips on San Diego Bay, late-night board meetings in San Ysidro and a horse ranch in Valley Center. They yielded calls for congressional inquiries, sparked resignations, changes in law and corporate dissolutions, and prompted funding for disadvantaged youth.
This was only possible because of public support, so thank you.
With that said, let’s take a look back.
Making business in San Diego more transparent
Two years, a dozen stories, a grand jury report. That’s what it took to get local officials to fix a long-ignored law that would make San Diego one of the most transparent places in the country when it comes to knowing who is behind billions of dollars in business with the city.
San Diego voters passed the law in 1992 after the city almost entered into a real estate deal with an alleged mobster. Yet as reporter Brad Racino discovered in 2016, that law was never followed.
Racino followed this story relentlessly after first breaking it in August 2016. He hounded City Council members and former politicians, and held them to their word throughout the reporting process that they would ask voters to clarify the 1992 law so it would finally be enforced. And this November, more than 85 percent of San Diegans who voted on Measure J – a transparency measure put on the ballot due to inewsource’s reporting – passed it.
A controversial diabetes treatment, charges of fraud and bribery
inewsource spent months investigating a California lawyer and his practices in promoting what he calls a “miraculous” procedure for reversing the complications of diabetes, a condition that affects 30.3 million Americans. Reporter Cheryl Clark began asking questions about the procedure after a Trina Health advertisement popped up on her Facebook page and learned it was being offered in San Diego.
Clark talked with scores of people from New York to Miami and from rural Mississippi to Montana — places with Trina Health clinics. She interviewed patients and clinic investors and executives, reviewed patient billing statements, and sought opinions from dozens of researchers and physicians who treat people with diabetes. And she interviewed Trina founder and CEO G. Ford Gilbert at his Sacramento headquarters.
Gilbert was charged with fraud and bribery in Alabama in a federal indictment unsealed in April.
Dangerous human research alleged at San Diego VA
Two whistleblowers say dangerous medical research was performed on veterans suffering from alcoholism and liver disease at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, which serves the nearly quarter-million veterans in San Diego and Imperial counties. The system has one of the largest research programs in the national VA network.
Reporter Brad Racino spent months earning the trust of the two whistleblowers, who eventually went public with their identity. The whistleblowers told government investigators that a former division chief at the San Diego VA, who also was a professor of medicine at UC San Diego, coerced patients into undergoing medically unnecessary liver biopsies through a catheter in their necks so he could obtain grant money and publish scientific articles.
Following our investigation, Rep. Scott Peters asked the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to investigate the allegations. The San Diego Democrat is a member of the committee and learned about the controversial research from inewsource. He hopes hearings will be held in early 2019.
State audit confirms questionable financial practices in San Ysidro School District
The San Ysidro School District is one of the poorest in San Diego County, with nearly 40 percent of its students classified as homeless. Yet it is a district that has been rife with superintendent turnover and financial mismanagement in recent years, including a near bankruptcy. When its superintendent resigned last year, inewsource investigated rumors that he and his top deputy had enriched themselves during the two years they ran the district.
Using public records, reporter Leonardo Castañeda uncovered questions about their compensation packages, with both receiving hefty payouts for vacation and leave days. Castañeda’s findings were confirmed a few months later in an “extraordinary audit” the state conducted that concluded the two men had engaged in possible financial fraud and misuse of district funds. The audit alleges they were overpaid $324,000 for life insurance and unearned vacation days, findings that have been turned over to the District Attorney’s Office. A second state audit is underway of the district’s contracts and payments to vendors connected to school construction projects.
Missing signature costs San Diego Unified funding for homeless students
An inewsource investigation found that the San Diego Unified School District, which had the third most homeless students in the state last year, missed out on up to $750,000 in federal funding for these students because of a missing signature from a finance official on a grant application.
A district official who oversaw the grant’s preparation told reporter Megan Wood the district has since put procedures in place to ensure grants don’t go unsigned.
inewsource’s reporting caught the attention of San Diego politicians who tried to help the district and its homeless students. First, Rep. Scott Peters appealed unsuccessfully to the state schools superintendent to reconsider San Diego Unified’s grant application. State Sen. Toni Atkins then helped secure $250,000 from the state’s general fund, with Gov. Jerry Brown’s help, to provide support for San Diego Unified’s homeless student programs.
HiCaliber Horse Rescue ensnared in allegations of animal cruelty, fraud
inewsource broke the story in February 2018 that nearly a dozen state and local authorities were looking into allegations of animal abuse and fraud at HiCaliber Horse Rescue, a Valley Center nonprofit that raises millions of dollars through donations and calls itself the nation’s “most active horse rescue.”
Days after reporter Brad Racino’s first story published, the state attorney general ordered the nonprofit to stop fundraising until it filed delinquent tax documents. Months of coverage by inewsource detailed allegations of an unreported equine disease outbreak on the ranch and that the group’s founder practiced veterinary medicine without a license. inewsource also obtained PayPal records that showed donor funds were spent on food and bar tabs, mobile phone spy technology and Weight Watchers.
After more than a dozen stories, HiCaliber announced it was closing in June. The owners of the Valley Center ranch where HiCaliber operated for four years sued the group in November for $4 million and evicted the rescue in December.
Claiming ‘hardship’ and getting paid for missed meetings is now harder for Sweetwater trustees
Reporter Megan Wood broke the story that a Sweetwater Union High School District trustee asked to be paid for a board meeting he missed because of a “hardship” when he was actually in Sacramento lobbying on behalf of his labor union and having dinner with then-Democratic governor candidate Gavin Newsom.
Our reporting found that claiming “hardship” for missed meetings because of vacations and other business was not uncommon among some of the Sweetwater trustees. Following our story, the school board voted unanimously to tighten the rules for when trustees can claim “hardship” and get paid for missing a meeting. One resident credited inewsource’s reporting with getting the school board to address the “hardship” payments.
“I have been challenging them on this for three years,” she said, without success. In an email to Wood, a school board member who supported the policy change wrote: “Doubt this will continue to be an issue now that you have ‘shed light’ on the shortcomings of the process. Thank you for taking the risks associated with good journalism.”
Security gaps at San Diego private shipyards
inewsource reporter Brad Racino found the private shipyards in San Diego responsible for protecting Navy warships have not been following security protocols meant to protect those billion-dollar assets, and the Navy was alerted to the lapses more than two years ago.
Multiple trips inewsource made to observe security procedures on San Diego Bay found the shipyards were either not providing the required number of patrol boats within 200 yards of ships – or weren’t providing any at all.
After learning about the security gaps from inewsource, Rep. Scott Peters reached out to two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee to get the maritime security issues addressed.
Following the Money in the 2018 election
Reporters Jill Castellano and Brad Racino embarked on a five-part election series about ballot measures San Diegans voted on in November. The series, told on radio, TV and the web, explored the money behind the measures in a fun and engaging way, and was also made available as a podcast.
The series explored six ballot measures:
- Prop. 6, the gas tax repeal measure.
- Measures E & G, SoccerCity and SDSU West.
- Measure D, deciding county elections in November.
- Measure YY, San Diego Unified’s $3.5 billion bond.
- Measure J, city business transparency.
Feedback on the series was overwhelmingly positive, with one reader writing, “I watched every evening and found this series to be great. Wonderful information done concisely and very professional. I referred many of my friends to this series and heard nothing but raves!!”
We’ll let you know when big things happen.