Posts Tagged ‘San Antonio Express-News’

Nickel and dimed: Find out which gas stations have faulty pumps that overcharge motorists

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Valero Station in San Antonio

If you’ve ever suspected your neighborhood gas station is stiffing you at the pump, you might already know you can file a complaint with the Weights and Measures Program at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The agency’s inspectors verify the accuracy of gas pumps.

But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?

The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.

So Express-News Data Editor Joe Yerardi downloaded a publicly available copy of the inspection data and took a look at it for himself.

The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.

Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.

Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.

Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.

“It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”

Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.

These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?

Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.

“If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.

(Photo credit: Derrich on Flickr)

Print ain’t dead: How an itty bitty news brief sparked dozens of phone calls from readers

Monday, May 28th, 2012
The historic Wesley Peacock House near Woodlawn Lake in San Antonio, Texas

The historic Wesley Peacock House near Woodlawn Lake

With all the talk about print being dead, you’d think no one actually picks up newspapers anymore to read the archaic things.

Tell that to Elaine Austin Palmer.

Palmer curates the Wesley Peacock House, a historic home built in 1890 near Woodlawn Lake that served as the headquarters of a military academy.

I wrote a brief about the house for the Express-News’ weekly Cityscapes feature. It ran with a photo of the house on the bottom corner of page 2B of the Metro Section — about as hard to find as you can get.

Yet after the little feature was published, the calls started pouring in at the Peacock House.

Palmer emailed me a few days ago and wrote:

For our corner of the paper in the Metro Section, the Peacock House has received over 50 calls, and some still coming in — with the comments ‘How nice to know it’s still in use, I attended the academy, or I remember coming to the House way back when for a tea, etc.!

It’s good to remember the decline of print is primarily an advertising problem, not a readership problem. People still read the newspaper — even itty bitty news briefs.

Shoddy repairs blamed for elevator death at Crockett Hotel in San Antonio

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Crockett Hotel in San Antonio Texas

How did a housekeeper at the Crockett Hotel fall six stories to her death down an elevator shaft?

A scathing report by a state inspector offers a theory.

Sometimes Plan B is better than Plan A

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

I shot some video over the weekend but it was so windy most of the audio was obliterated. So I ended up making a music video.

It wasn’t exactly what I planned. But maybe it was better.

Check out every insurance claim filed against the city of San Antonio

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

What happens when you’re hit by a city vehicle and file an insurance claim against San Antonio? Now you can find out by searching a database that tracks every claim filed against the city in the past decade.

I stumbled across this story by using Google’s advanced search options. Google lets you search specific websites for specific files and specific terms. So a way to find little-known databases and interesting stories is to search a government website for spreadsheets, pdf’s, and other type of documents.

For example, let’s say you want to focus on the city of San Antonio. In Google’s search box, you’d type site:sanantonio.gov, to limit the results to pages from the city’s website. Then use “filetype” to focus on specific types of files. The term filetype:xls searches for spreadsheets. Filetype:doc searches for Microsoft Word documents. Filetype:pdf searches for … you guessed it, pdf files.

You can do broad searches or get creative and add words you think might lead to interesting stuff. Check out this search with the term “injuries.”

Advanced Google search results for the city of San Antonio

One of the top results is a form for a vehicle accident report that is filled out by city employees whenever they’re involved in an accident. All the entries and check boxes in the form suggest this information is typed into a database of some kind. And if that’s the case, that means you can request the data, analyze it yourself, and see if there’s a story lurking in those numbers.

Using the Texas Public Information Act, I asked for any database the city had that tracked insurance claims from vehicle accidents. The process took awhile and there was a lot of back and forth. At first, the city’s Risk Management Office only sent me a pdf with two categories of information: case numbers and dates. The format and info was worthless.

But eventually they sent more complete spreadsheets that tracked the dollar amount of the claim, whether it was denied, and a brief description about what happened. It was interesting reading.

No one outside City Hall had ever looked at this data before. Thanks to a nifty Google search, now everybody can.

Life at a stock show: Winning is bittersweet

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

When you work the weekend shift at a newspaper, you never know what you’re going to cover.

Yesterday I witnessed a shy, hard-working girl named Caeley Cody win a record $112,000 at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo for her grand champion steer, Rabbit.

But winning can be bittersweet.

Attorney General Greg Abbott sues the Texas Highway Patrol Museum in San Antonio

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

The Texas attorney general’s office announced yesterday that it has sued the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, a nonprofit telemarketing organization based in San Antonio that raises millions of dollars in the name of helping state troopers.

I had always been curious about the museum, which is housed in a brick building at St. Mary’s and Alamo streets but attracts few visitors. In October, we examined the museum’s tax records and found that only a fraction of the nearly $12 million in revenue raised by the museum’s telemarketers actually went towards the charitable causes it touted. For every dollar raised, less than a penny was spent on Department of Public Safety troopers and their families.

Attorney General Greg Abbott’s lawsuit reveals new details about what, exactly, donors’ money was spent on. State investigators obtained financial information and credit card statements from the museum, and found employees had paid for cigars, liquor, vacations, meals and “exorbitant” vet bills for an “office cat.” The lawsuit describes an organization with few controls over how money was spent, and an absentee board that seldom asked questions.

Here’s an annotated copy of the lawsuit:


In our last story, I interviewed Scott Henson at the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, who had received a telemarketing call from the museum in August. Scott wasn’t happy that the caller initially claimed to be with the Texas Highway Patrol — as if the caller were really with the Department of Public Safety. “This group is about as much about helping troopers as buzzards are about helping roadkill,” Scott wrote at the time. He called yesterday’s lawsuit “way past time.”

The museum’s assets have been frozen and it’s been closed since Friday. Its lawyer, Kim Brown, called the lawsuit “heavy handed” and said the expenses were justified.

What about the cigars?

Prizes for telemarketers, he said.

Liquor?

Drinks for office parties.

The office cat?

The vet bills for the cat were unavoidable.

The lawsuit lays out more expenses for trips, meals and cars that the state describes as wasteful spending. But Brown said the museum is hardly a fly-by-night organization that defrauds people. The small museum has operated in San Antonio for years, he said, and while it has high overhead costs, it does spend money on charitable causes.

The attorney general is seeking to dissolve the nonprofit museum and its related entities. The next step is a hearing for a temporary injunction that has yet to be scheduled.

Here’s a searchable library of all primary documents we’ve obtained about the museum. If you’ve had any experiences with the museum or its telemarketers, feel free to contact us.


Impact of the recession: Google map shows Texas food stamp recipients, by neighborhood

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

One of the golden rules of writing is show, don’t tell. The same holds true for stories based on public data. Check out this cool interactive map by Nolan Hicks and Yang Wang showing food stamp recipients by Zip code for the whole state of Texas.

Texas Highway Patrol Museum raises millions — but spends little money on DPS troopers

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

The Texas Highway Patrol Museum sits on a prime piece of property near downtown San Antonio, across the street from Rosario’s Café y Cantina. Business is booming at Rosario’s, but not so much at the museum. It usually looks empty every time I drive by or hang out in King William. I’ve been kind of curious what their deal is.

After I wrote about delays and conflicts at the Briscoe Western Art Museum last month, Express-News police reporter Michelle Mondo suggested I take a look at the highway patrol museum. It sounded interesting.

A quick Google search showed that others had asked similar questions about the museum over the years and discovered red flags. Amy Davis, a TV reporter who used to work in San Antonio and now works in Houston, investigated the museum in April 2008 and produced this in-depth report. Davis found that the museum was actually a telemarketing operation, and she interviewed a former employee who said the group spent little money on troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The KSAT Defenders produced a similar report later that year.

More recently, Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast blogged about a phone call he received from a telemarketer who said he worked for the “Texas Highway Patrol.” Henson asked if he meant DPS — and the caller said yes. It’s a big no-no to falsely claim to be affiliated with a law enforcement agency.

What does DPS, the government agency that employs state troopers, think about the museum? Not much. The agency’s website has a general warning about giving money to telemarketers — but it also has a web page that focuses on the highway patrol museum in San Antonio. DPS criticizes the exhibits, puts “museum” in quotes and warns the public not to give it money.

All this adds up to a good story that people need to know about.

The museum is a nonprofit organization, so its tax records are open to the public. Guidestar offers free access to the three most recent years of tax returns for most nonprofit organizations. The Express-News has an account with Guidestar that gives us access to even more tax returns, which offers a treasure trove of historical information about charities.


Database Editor Kelly Guckian logged into Guidestar and got me copies of everything available for the Texas Highway Patrol Museum and a related entity, the Texas Highway Patrol Association. The two organizations share the same board members, and both were founded by Lane Denton, a former state representative from Waco who was found guilty of stealing money from a different law enforcement charity.

The museum is the telemarketing arm of the partnership. It employed more than 380 people in 2009, most of whom worked at call centers in El Paso, Austin and Houston. The association provides benefits to state troopers.

A brochure states the group gives the “finest benefits possible” to troopers. But looking at a five-year span of tax returns showed that while benefits were indeed paid to troopers and their families, they were only a fraction of the total revenues raked in by the museum’s telemarketers.

I typed all the financial information into a spreadsheet. Here are the numbers:

Donors gave nearly $12 million to the museum, but the association gave only $65,300 to DPS troopers and their families. That’s half a penny for every dollar raised.

Yet when telemarketers call potential donors, they often refer to recently killed troopers by name, pull heart-strings, and lead people to believe that most of their money is actually going to help the people who need it. That happened to the friend of David Slaton, a trooper who died last year in a car accident. The telemarketing call hit her hard.

My story about the museum ran Sunday and many outraged readers responded that they had received telemarketing calls from this organization and others.

What do people with the museum have to say about all this? The employees I spoke with were friendly, and the director of marketing who oversees the telemarketing operation basically described it as a necessary evil. There’s overhead, he said, but without the telemarketing calls, no money would be coming in at all.

But there are more effective ways to help peace officers. Slaton’s friend told me she was impressed by the 100 Club of Houston, which does not raise money through telemarketers. It relies on membership donations, and according to its tax returns, it gave about $1 million in survivor benefits last year.

Rick Hartley, executive director of the 100 Club, said the group has no plans whatsoever to try telemarketing.

It’s not worth the blow to their credibility.

Remembering the Alamo — and the media’s role in its fate

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Reading Scott Huddleston’s latest update about the turmoil at the Alamo, I wondered how many people remember the roots of the problem and why the state of Texas got involved in the first place. I doubt casual readers know Scott deserves some of the credit for the changes — or the blame, depending on how you view the Alamo’s caretakers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Scott Huddleston, reporter for the San Antonio Express-News

Huddleston

Newspapers are very good at producing something we all know: the news article. But Scott has been writing article after article about the problems at the Alamo. In fact, his first story was published two years ago. Like many newspapers, we haven’t done a very good job tying those stories together online to give readers the context and history of the controversy. We’re not answering a basic question about the issue: How did we get here?

Scott got involved when a tipster told him that some members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas questioned the group’s leadership, and were forming their own splinter group to raise money for the Alamo.

“I wanted the story to be more than ‘she said, she said,’” Scott told me. He began obtaining copies of contracts, emails, letters — anything that would shed light on what was going on at the Alamo. He found examples of questionable spending and a lack of focus. “Their biggest challenge was an inability to raise money for capital improvements,” Scott said.

Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article

Before his first article was published, Scott heard that the Dallas Morning News was working on its own story about troubles at the Alamo. Nothing gets a reporter’s heart pumping like another reporter chasing down the same story. He kept digging, partly because he didn’t want to get scooped by the Morning News.

“I felt like I needed to be shaking the bushes just to keep up with them,” Scott said.

After his first story about the rift was published, he filed an open records request with the state of Texas to find out how the Daughters were spending funds raised from license plates with Alamo themes. It turned out the Alamo only received a portion of the funds for upkeep.

As more members of the Daughters publicly criticized the group’s leadership, some were expelled for speaking with the media, which led to more follow-up stories.

Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker.

“They deserve a lot of credit,” Scott said of the outspoken critics. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, also took a keen interest in the issue and eventually wrote a bill that shifted more oversight of the Alamo to the state. The bill became law on Sept. 1 and significantly altered the role of the Daughters. The Texas General Land Office now oversees the Alamo, and will determine what role the Daughters will play as a contractor of the state. If a contract between the state and the Daughters isn’t signed by Jan. 1, control of the Alamo and the site’s equipment and property acquired with state funds must be transferred to the Land Office.

Scott wrote at least 60 articles in the past two years that mentioned the Alamo and its troubled caretaker. Most stories were about the turmoil within the organization and its track record at the Alamo. For long, seemingly never-ending sagas like this, newspapers really need to devise a way to help readers see the whole picture.

Google’s Living Stories project tried to address this problem. It’s no longer supported but it inspired ProPublica to generate a similar design that gives readers a timeline and easy access to past posts about the topic they’re interested in.

Dipity is also cool — I made this timeline compiling most of Scott’s stories.

It’d be great if newspapers came up with something like Living Stories. Sometimes a story is bigger than a single article. We ought to figure out a way to systematically tell that story in a compelling way.