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Public records aces Schulte
and Bergal leave mark on Florida
Journalists Fred Schulte and Jenni Bergal inspired more state legislative reforms than some Florida lawmakers themselves.
Their two decades of reporting with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale prompted various law changes while representing some of the best journalism in Florida - and the nation. They earned loads of awards and honors, with Schulte making finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times and Bergal twice.
Tapping public records of all kinds, they championed the cause of everyday people, taxpayers and consumers with a wide range of stories. They exposed dangerous doctors and faulty health care systems, pinpointed government waste, outed corrupt public officials and uncovered scams. Not only did they dig for answers, they offered solutions. (For more on this married couple and their reporting philosophies, see this profile from the Columbia Journalism Review.)
Their efforts - sometimes solo, sometimes with other reporters and sometimes as a duo - exemplify how public records use and investigative reporting can make a positive difference in our society.
As they embark on new adventures in a new place, iDigAnswers spotlights some of their favorite - and most significant - stories from the Sunshine State. Some of the stories involved other Sun-Sentinel reporters. The role of public records is noted in most cases.
Drugging The Poor, 2003
The series found that fewer than 3 percent of the state's medical professionals prescribed more than two-thirds of the narcotics and other dangerous drugs dispensed to Medicaid patients and that many of the state's top prescribers had numerous patients die from overdoses. The investigation also traced Medicaid billings to doctors who were dead or otherwise ineligible to write prescriptions and uncovered other fraud schemes that are bleeding Medicaid's coffers. In response, the Florida Legislature enacted a number of new laws to tighten oversight. The series won first prize for investigative reporting from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and a Gerald Loeb award. This story was made possible after Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist released to Schulte all prescriptions for narcotics paid for by the Florida Medicaid program for 2000-2002, about $346 million worth of painkillers and other often abused drugs. The data had the name of the doctor who prescribed the drugs, the pharmacy that filled it for each drug. Schulte used the data to identify the system's top prescribers as well as find doctors who were writing prescriptions even though they were dead. This project also made use of medical examiner autopsy reports collected from all of the state's two-dozen morgues showing more than 2,000 deaths from overdoses of pills. Schulte created a database with the names of hundreds of doctors whose patients had died from overdoses and found that a number of them were also top Medicaid prescribers.
Rx For Death, 2002
The series documented nearly 400 deaths in South Florida from abuse of prescription drugs, many of them dispensed by doctors specializing in the rapidly growing field of pain management. The investigation found that unregulated pain clinics willing to dispense large quantities of narcotics to patients, some of whom have histories of drug abuse, play a major role in pill deaths, which have become more common in Florida than deaths from heroin and cocaine. Key records used for this series were autopsy and police reports of drug overdoses.
Dishonor on the Badge: The Rise in Police Misconduct, 1996
This four-part series documented for the first time that as police misconduct has been rising, penalties imposed on errant officers by Florida's police regulatory commission have gotten far more lenient. The series, which required setting up and analyzing a huge data base of police disciplinary files dating back to the mid 1970s, detailed hundreds of cases of violent misconduct which were settled with little or no penalty by the state police commission. Essential records for this series included the Florida Department of Law Enforcement database of the police standards and training commission containing the disciplinary histories and work experience of more than 100,000 current and former police officers.
The HMO Maze: How Medicare Fails Seniors, 1993
This five-part series exposed scores of patient deaths and injuries allegedly caused by HMOs for the elderly that scrimped on providing health care to members; it also disclosed financial irregularities that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars. The series won the 1993 George Polk Award for medical writing and the 1994 Gerald Loeb Award, a top business journalism award. Schulte put U.S. Department of Health and Human Services HMO complaint data to good use for this series.
Phone Pirates: Hustling the Public, 1992
This five-part series revealed that thousands of telemarketing scams nationwide have bilked Americans out of billions of dollars and that many of these con artists have operated for years because of lax consumer protection laws. Using public records obtained from dozens of attorneys general across the country and other state and federal law enforcement agencies, the newspaper built a data base of more than 6,000 companies embroiled in allegations of telemarketing fraud, and determined that most of them paid no penalty for cheating the public. The series won a John Hancock Award for business and financial journalism. The series also became the basis for a book, Fleeced! Telemarketing Ripoffs and How to Avoid Them, (Prometheus Books, 1995) by Schulte. He created a database listing more than 6,000 companies based upon enforcement actions collected from state attorneys general and other consumer fraud agencies from across the country.
Destination in Doubt: Florida's Travel Trap, 1992
A three-part examination of telephone boiler rooms that peddle cheap tropical vacations and often fail to deliver, leaving passengers stranded. The series won a Lowell Thomas Award from the American Travel Writers Foundation.
Above the Law: Cops Who Betray the Badge, 1991
This four-part series tracked hundreds of corrupt and incompetent police officers as they moved from job to job and led to a tightening of police hiring and credentialing by Florida's police standards commission. This series won the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award.
Risky Rx: The Gold Plus Plan for the Elderly, 1990
An expose of sales abuses and other problems involving one of the nation's largest health plans for the elderly, this four-part series prompted a Congressional investigation and new laws to improve regulations of the health care plans. The series was one of the first newspaper projects to closely examine the effects of encouraging HMOs to enroll Medicare patients.
The Titans of Trash, 1987
This five-part series traced the history of environmental infractions and suspect business dealings of the nation's two largest trash haulers, noting that the firms had become so big that government couldn't live without them. The series has been widely cited by environmental groups as a warning of the problems with disposing of garbage and toxic waste. The series relied on the extensive use of the federal Freedom of Information Act to obtain enforcement histories of environmental infractions from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice anti-trust division.
VA Hospitals: A Question of Quality, 1986
A four part series, this project used a computer to analyze thousands of patient deaths and injuries at the nation's 172 Veterans Administration hospitals. The series disclosed thousands of examples of unexpected patient deaths and injuries in VA facilities ranging from out of the way general hospitals to psychiatric units. The series also used the federal Freedom of Information Act to uncover evidence that VA officials had largely ignored years of warnings to enforce patient safety standards. The series attracted national attention, prompting several Congressional hearings and a decision by the VA to close down some substandard programs. The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. On the records front, Schulte obtained a computer database showing all reported medical errors, from wrong medication to patient falls at all 172 VA hospitals.
VA Heart Surgery: Concealed Casualties, 1984
Based largely on computerized documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, this four-part series exposed more than a dozen Veterans Administration hospitals that had years of high mortality rates for cardiac surgery. The series was awarded the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award.
Methadone: The Deadly Cure, 1983
In seven parts, this computer-assisted series revealed that more people had been dying from methadone than the heroin it was supposed to replace. The series also disclosed illicit sales of the heroin substitute and fetal deaths tied to mother's using the drug. It was one of the first computer-assisted investigative reporting projects, using computer data obtained from several federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, through the Freedom of Information Act. The series took the ''Best of Show Green Eyeshade Award" from the Sigma Delta Chi Atlanta regional chapter.
Florida Medical Center: Dollars and Dauers, 1980
This three-part series showed how one health care entrepreneur manipulated the Medicare program to build a $50 million hospital complex. The series triggered a federal grand jury probe of the hospital and was one of the first newspaper series' to expose large-scale abuse of the Medicare payment system for hospitals.
Fraud Outruns the Feds, 2003
A 3 1/2-month investigation by Bergal and reporter Purva Patel found that scam artists have ripped off tens of thousands of investors across the United States, working out of telemarketing boiler rooms in South Florida, and that while federal officials had promised to crack down, enforcement has been largely ineffective. The reporters examined five years of cases filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Southeastern office and found that federal watchdogs, including the U.S. Attorney's Office, failed to combat securities fraud, either by sending violators to prison or helping victims recover their money. The reporters created a database of more than 260 violators and their backgrounds, using public records from federal and state regulatory agencies, civil and criminal courts in several states, police reports and disciplinary records from groups such as the National Association of Securities Dealers and the National Futures Association. They found that at least a quarter of violators were repeat offenders, some with two or more previous fraud cases. Only one in five cases resulted in criminal prosecution, and while $176 million in fines and penalties were levied, the scammers actually paid less than 5 percent.
Profile of a South Florida Developer: Yesterday and Today, 2003
An investigative story by Bergal about a well-known, controversial South Florida developer who built multi-million dollar houses in North Broward. Bergal found that unbeknownst to the public or city officials, the man had an extensive criminal history over a 20-year period. He had pleaded guilty in six felony cases in three other states, most of which had involved fraud and white-collar crime. He also had filed for bankruptcy twice in another state and had worked as an undercover agent for the federal government.
Scandal Rocks Housing Authority, 2003
Bergal and reporter Lisa Huriash spent nearly two months tracing the flow of money spent by the Pompano Beach Housing Authority, and finding a pattern of alleged misuse of federal taxpayer funds involving several housing authority ex-staffers and landlords. They uncovered the abuses after reviewing thousands of pages of landlord payment documents, personnel files, court cases, federal housing inspection reports and other documents. They successfully matched the names of landlords with phantom tenants and were able to follow where taxpayers' money had gone and how the alleged fraud was perpetrated.
Legal Accounting: Lawyers, Government and Your Money, 1998
An investigation by Bergal and reporter Jay Weaver of legal costs in 49 South Florida cities and county agencies revealed that many local governments don't review attorneys' bills to ensure that work is done and charges are accurate, that cities and county agencies rarely require private law firms to bid for specialty work such as defending officials against lawsuits. Much is at stake - at least $20.3 million in services for a year. It also found that some in-house attorneys have a monopoly over clusters of cities or an exclusive deal with one county agency. In some instances, they not only approve outside firms' bills but their own as well.
The Price of Protection: Guardianship and the Elderly, 1997
This investigative series by Bergal and reporter Nancy McVicar examined the state's guardianship program for the elderly and revealed how the judicial system had failed to ensure that elderly people were protected from abuses by court-appointed guardians. The series resulted in passage of a new law that subjected professional guardians for the elderly to greater state scrutiny and limited their access to wards' money.
By Schulte and Bergal:
Crashing For Cash, 2000
This series exposes an underworld of traffic accident stagers and their allies: corrupt chiropractors and pain clinic owners, ambulance chasing lawyers and some medical testing brokers, who band together to bilk auto insurance companies. The investigation identified more than 4,000 Florida residents who played roles at least 1,400 suspicious auto accidents statewide during the 1990s, most of whom faced little threat of arrest. The series helped spur passage of two new laws that tighten penalties for auto insurance fraud. It also won a National Press Club Consumer Journalism Award. The reporters visited Florida Division of Insurance fraud offices around the state and reviewed thousands of complaints of insurance fraud. They also used driver's license records to identify hundreds of drivers with multiple accidents, who were believed to be participants in fraud rings.
The New Medicine, 1999
An investigation of Florida's booming vanity medicine and anti-aging industry found that hundreds of doctors with histories of disciplinary action, little training, excessive numbers of medical malpractice suits - even criminal convictions in a few instances - have flocked to the field in search of quick cash. Most work from private offices, where state oversight is minimal. The series also exposed an underground of unlicensed physicians who target minorities and recent immigrants by offering them medical services such as liposuction, sometimes with tragic results. The series won a National Press Club Consumer Journalism Award. State medical licensing files provided important documentation for this series.
Cosmetic Surgery: The Hidden Dangers, 1998
This four-part series uncovered 34 deaths from seemingly routine plastic surgery in Florida, 13 of them since 1997. The series also established a pattern among the deaths, showing that many were aging people with health problems who underwent lengthy sets of cosmetic operations in private medical offices. Florida's Board of Medicine, which is considering tighter safety standards to crack down on office surgery, has cited the newspaper's series as a major catalyst for reform. The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won a Gerald Loeb Award and the Clark Mollenhoff Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting. Primary records included medical examiner reports and closed medical malpractice claims data from the state Department of Insurance.
The HMO Game: Poor Care, Big Profits, 1995
This four-part series is the newspaper's fourth investigative series to expose quality problems in tax-funded Florida HMOs and the state's inability to enact and enforce laws to crack down on patient care abuses and other violations of states standards. The project capped nearly five years of reporting; it used computer-assisted reporting techniques to uncover several disturbing trends unknown to state regulators - notably that HMOs for the poor often fail to deliver medical care the state paid them to provide and that some of the plans report extremely low use of vital health services such as physician and hospital care. The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Worth Bingham Prize. State Agency for Health Care medical quality data provided valuable information for this series.
Profits From Pain: Florida's Medicaid HMOs, 1994
This five-part series uncovered medical care of poor or questionable quality, HMO enrollment fraud and abuse, extravagant administrative costs and other problems in the $650 million-a-year health care plan to treat the poor. The series has attracted national attention for sounding a warning about state efforts to shift welfare patients into for-profit HMOs. The series won a Unity Award from Lincoln University, the 1st Annual Health Care Journalism Award from the National Institute for Health Care Management and 10 other state or regional journalism awards.
Crisis in Care: How HRS Fails Florida, 1989
This three-part series revealed that hundreds of clients placed in the hands of state social workers had died violent deaths, as well as exposing cronyism in the award of millions of dollars in state social welfare contracts. The series won the Worth Bingham Prize for Distinguished Investigative Reporting.
Deadly Refuge: The Hidden Peril in Old Age Homes, 1998
The four-part series exposed health and safety violations in retirement homes as well as revealing that state officials had placed violent mental patients in boarding homes with the frail elderly, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. The Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers cited the series for a special award.
Suffer the Children: Killings the State Didn't Stop, 1986
This three-part series was one of the first to probe the reasons why parents beat their children. It uncovered statistics showing hundreds of examples in which state welfare officials took no action against parents repeatedly accused of abusing their children, sometimes fatally. The series was the first to use confidential state child abuse records and computer data obtained from Florida's massive child abuse registry to identify trends and played a role in the state legislature's decision to overall child protection systems. The series was awarded a Robert F. Kennedy Award. Schulte and Bergal obtained confidential child abuse records from inside sources as well as suing the Broward State Attorney for access to records of people arrested from killing children. The records showed that many of the children had been in and out of HRS care for years before they died from abuse.
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