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#Muckleads: What really happened at Memorial Hospital?

The most disturbing tale I’ve heard about Hurricane Katrina (which hit New Orleans in 2005) comes from Memorial Medical Centre. Patients, from terminally ill to those needing minor treatment, were allegedly euthanized by medical staff. The doctor believed to have led it, Anna Pou, walked free after a grand jury refused to indict her, following negative public reaction against her arrest in 2006. Charles Foti, the New Orleans Attorney General who led the case, was not re-elected in 2007, with Pou’s prosecution said to have swayed voters away.

For the last four years, the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans and CNN have been fighting to release Foti’s investigation into Memorial. Earlier this month, the court ruled against them, siding with current Orleans Parish District Attorney [Leon Cannizzaro] by citing a “state law allowing prosecutors to keep secret records in criminal cases where prosecution is “pending or reasonably anticipated.”

Meaning: the prosecutor may “get lucky” (actual quote) and new evidence could emerge. Meaning they can’t release the file.

This argument could be applied to every criminal investigation in legal history.

It’s been well-documented in Pro Publica’s Sheri Fink’s chilling investigation into Memorial that public appetite for Pou’s prosecution was not high. As the Assistant DA, Michael Morales, told Fink:

“…he [Morales] and the Orleans Parish district attorney, Eddie Jordan, ‘‘weren’t gung-ho’’ about prosecuting the case. ‘‘We were going to give some deference to the defendant,’’ he said, because Pou wasn’t the usual career criminal accused of murder.”

Fink points out that, while the grand jury’s decision not to indict was fundamentally flawed because they were not presented with all evidence, few New Orlean natives desired a guilty verdict:

Rather than presenting the evidence to the jurors and seeking an indictment, as he typically did, he said he invited the jurors, in conjunction with the district attorney’s office, to act as investigators and decide what evidence they wanted to consider. This didn’t sit well with the attorney general [Foti] and his staff. Foti told me that he repeatedly asked the district attorney’s office to present all the evidence and the experts. Grand-jury hearings are conducted in secret, making it difficult to know exactly what jurors hear. Minyard [the city's elected coroner]  told me that in the end, he decided that four of the nine deaths on the seventh floor were homicides, including Emmett Everett and Rose Savoie. Until now, he has never publicly revealed that conclusion. He also said of Pou, ‘‘I strongly do not believe she planned to kill anybody, but it looks like she did.’’ The jury heard from Minyard but not from any of his forensic experts; nor from two family members who were present on the LifeCare floor during most of the ordeal; nor the main Justice Department investigator, who worked the case for a year and helped collect 50,000 pages of evidence…The grand jurors lived among the general public, which was firmly in Pou’s corner. Pou had one of New Orleans’s premier public-relations agencies representing her. A poll commissioned by her lawyer’s office to assess the potential jury pool found that few New Orleanians favored indictment.”

Why are Cannizzaro and Buddy Caldwell (New Orleans Attorney General) determined to keep the file from the public? Currently, Cannizzaro’s office is unpopular among New Orleanians. It is known for a string of “Brady violations” (when a prosecutor withholds evidence from the defence that could sway the trial’s eventual verdict i.e. proving a defendant’s innocence). Releasing the file to the public would mean reopening the debate about whether Pou should go on trial for homicide again. This would be an unpopular decision among all but Pou’s victims. For Cannizzaro, already struggling with his office’s image among the public, it would be opening Pandora’s box.

“In the four years since Katrina, Pou has helped write and pass three laws in Louisiana that offer immunity to health care professionals from most civil lawsuits — though not in cases of willful misconduct — for their work in future disasters, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks to pandemic influenza.”

Sheri Fink’s investigation is one of the most thorough I’ve ever read. It’s forensic in its detail. I’m willing to bet that it’s accurate. So why hasn’t Pou been properly prosecuted? Why have more questions not been asked? Has the groundswell of public sympathy stopped victims’ families from getting justice?

I haven’t verified if this relates to the same dossier that CNN/Time-Picayune were seeking (I’m pretty sure it is the same one but I need to check before I can confirm) but in her investigation, Fink says Pou filed a brief with the Louisiana Supreme Court “opposing the release of a 50,000-page file assembled by investigators on deaths at Memorial.” If it’s legitimate, this court document suggests it is. Note the first paragraph: “Several healthcare professionals, who worked at Tenet-Memorial during and after Hurricane Katrina and who referred to themselves only as Jane and John Does, filed petitions seeking a declaratory judgment that the AG and DA investigative files are not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. Named as defendants were the AG, the DA, the Orleans Parish Coroner, Rose Agnes Savoie (a LifeCare patient who died at Tenet-Memorial in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), CNN, Times-Picayune, and “all other persons or entities who have made requests under the Louisiana Public Records Act.” In response, CNN and Times-Picayune filed a cross-claim and a motion for a writ of mandamus and preliminary injunction seeking to compel the release of the investigative file. Several interested parties (including the Louisiana State Board of Nursing, Lori Budo, Cheri Landry, LifeCare Hospitals of New Orleans, LLC, Tenet-Memorial, and Dr. Anna Pou) were allowed to intervene.”

Why does Pou want to block the release of the file? What does she have to hide? What does she not want people to know?

I’m raising more questions than I’m answering here (that’s why I’m posting this as a #mucklead rather than a #muckread).

If you’re a journalist interested in following up this lead, you might consider doing a network analysis of all the key players in the case. By this, I mean identifying any connections between Pou and Leon Cannizzaro, Orleans Attorney General Buddy Caldwell (who has also opposed releasing the files) and the judges who ruled against CNN and Times-Picayune: Burrell Carter, Jimmy Gaidry, Toni Higgingbotham, Page McClendon. [Note: A fifth judge, Duke Welch, dissented]. Any local reporters in New Orleans who want to take up the cause? If you have any other suggestions for reporters researching this story, please add them in comments below.

Something doesn’t seem right here. May someone find out what it is.

Previous Posts


  • Investigating stories: Finding information on social networks

     

    I’m always surprised at how few journalists use Twitter and Facebook when investigating stories. A recent study found most use it as an RSS feed: http://mgzr.us/CIF2. They’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Ever complain about how you can’t leave your desk to go and find sources, develop relationships? Now you don’t have to; launch TweetDeck and search for them. Most of my sources are folks I’ve met through Twitter. I’ve verified their credibility through the web too. It’s been said for years that investigative journalism is “expensive”. In terms of time spent on stories, yes. In terms of acquisition of information, no; social networks have made that extraordinarily cheap. I’m not saying this applies to every investigation. It doesn’t. But for most stories, Twitter, Facebook, even Tumblr et al can help significantly.

    I use two tools for finding information on the social web: Storyful and RepKnight. (Disclosure: RepKnight’s CEO is a good friend of mine and I’m a massive Storyful fan). RepKnight is like a real-time search engine; create a search (such as “phone hacking”) and it will return matching results from across the web and social networks: Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Flickr, etc. Storyful’s more like a social newswire; it’s in-house journalists curate video, photos and Tweets around breaking news stories. I’m going to do a review of Storyful soon so for this post, I’m going to show you how I’ve used RepKnight to find stories.

    RepKnight does alot of things (you can add and manage your social networks on it) but I want to talk specifically about it’s search functionality. RepKnight is hooked up to the Twitter Firehose (Twitter’s stream of every Tweet ever published) as well as other data sources such as Facebook’s API, WordPress, etc. This is good; I know I won’t miss anything the way I might with Tweetdeck searches (the Twitter API can only deliver up to 2,000 results an hour). What I really like about it is that even if someone deletes a Tweet after, it’s already recorded within search results.

    Here’s an example of how it can be useful in reporting. Last night, the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the news that Conlin has been accused by four people, including his niece, of sexually abusing them in the 1970′s: http://mgzr.us/CRkb. I created a search for “Bill Conlin”.  Many of the results, for any search, will be folks sharing their opinion. Be patient; you need to wade through crap to get to gold. Very valuable information and links can be shared. Earlier, when the sports site Deadspin published a story saying the scandal was about to break, I was able to use RepKnight to track what local news media in Philadelphia (Conlin was a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News) were reporting. I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland; when a story like this breaks, I’d have no idea which local news sites to consult because I’m not from Philly. RepKnight solved that problem.

    Here’s other examples of how social networks have helped me with digging:

    -Hashtags: One story I’m working on was particularly difficult because most of the sources I needed to speak to were in London. They didn’t know me so would they trust me enough to talk to me? Where did I start? The story in question was regularly discussed on Twitter with an associated hashtag. I created a search for it on RepKnight and monitored the results. By doing this, I managed to identify a reputable source. I started engaging with him through Direct Message after a polite Tweet requesting a follow. DM’s transitioned to Skype calls. Soon, I had some very solid leads and information to follow up on.

    -Verifcation: After a tetchy night at Zuccotti Park, the Associated Press was reporting that 6 journalists had been arrested at Occupy Wall Street. Other major news orgs followed suit. There was only one problem: the number was actually 10. I  concluded that after sifting through reports on Twitter, crowdsourced information on Storify by JC Stearns (@jcstearns) and two blog posts written by eyewitnesses. The Atlantic later confirmed the number as did other media.

    Another example is a story we published on Mediagazer on Monday on how TIME magazine’s last black correspondent, Steven Gray, had left the company. http://mgzr.us/CRV=. I needed to confirm the story so I created a search for Gray’s Twitter ID on RepKnight. This meant I could monitor all of his Tweets as well as those Tweeting him. The Tweet below caught my eye. When I clicked on the person’s Twitter profile, their bio said they worked at TIME too. That was reasonable enough evidence to believe the story was true. As Gray confirmed himself later, it was.

    -Context: As Storyful’s Mark Little says, “There’s always someone closer to the story”. If you’re covering a story on a beat you’re not familiar with, monitoring related Twitter and Facebook conversations can prove very insightful. They can also lead to sources, as I point out above.

    -Tips: News organisations receive tips every day that they never follow-up on. One man’s tat is another’s gold. The public will often send tip-offs to journalists and news media via Twitter and Facebook. Creating a search for the BBC’s Twitter feed, for example, will allow you to see what stories they’re receiving. This can be a great way of developing story ideas or finding leads because most news orgs never check these tips out.

    I’d love to hear how you’ve used social networks to dig up stories in comments below.

  • How much does it cost to launch a newsroom? £265, please.

    Update 11:43am: Someone just asked me why I registered the site with a private WHOIS. In other words, what do I have to hide? I’m not trying to hide my identity but my personal address as some of the stories I do are of a sensitive nature.

    Ever wanted to launch your own news site? I know a few who have done it; check out The Newry Times, a news site started by three unemployed graduates. Unable to find work, they funded the site’s costs through their job seekers allowance. It’s even got a mobile UI. The Editor, Paul Malone, worked as a newspaper hack for several years before being made redundant recently. Reading their story made me laugh at people who say times are ‘too tough’ to start a business. (To find out more about Paul, Emma and Declan, read here: http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/12/05/newry-times-a-new-hyperlocal-online-paper-run-by-three-unemployed-graduates-the-future-of-journalism/).

    Reading their story made me think: how much does it cost to build a news site? The Muckraker is a side-project I’ve started; when I’m not Mediagazing, I’m sleuthing. It’s a beat blog covering investigative journalism (as well as an outlet for my own muckraking). I wondered how much it would cost to build a mini newsroom/studio and develop a mobile/tablet-optimised site with a web app for iOS devices.

    Here’s what it’s cost so far:

    -Domain & hosting: To purchase the muckraker.me domain and hosting with WordPress for one year was $32 (that included Private WHOIS registration as I often dig around sensitive stories). That’s £20. Without a private WHOIS, it would only have cost $24.

    -Design: I wasn’t happy with WordPress’ selection of free themes. I couldn’t find anything that “fitted” the site. I didn’t want to shell out hundreds or thousands of pounds for a design firm’s services; what’s the point for a personal side project? And with sites like Themeforest, a marketplace for site templates, there wasn’t any need to do that. Themes are priced from $1 but I was able to find an awesome template for $40 (£26). It will be on the site soon. Themeforest even has a section for blog/magazine-type sites: http://themeforest.net/category/wordpress/blog-magazine. I really like Orman Clark’s work: http://themeforest.net/user/ormanclark?ref=ormanclark.

    -Web app: I thought building a web app would be the most expensive part. It wasn’t. With WP Touch, a WordPress mobile plugin that costs $39 (£25), I can hack a web app together to deliver a native app experience for iOS devices and a mobile/tablet UI for Blackberry, Android, Samsung Touch and Palm OS.

    -Recording & editing: This surprised me. I can remember when a decent audio recording device cost at least £250 and an editing package around £800. That was just 4 years ago. I purchased a Skype subscription that allows me to call landlines across the world (40 countries) for just £9.19 a month. After that, I bought this awesome app: Call Recorder. It records video/audio Skype calls and cost just 20 dollars (£13). For field recordings, I bought Audionote. What I love about Audionote is that it allows me to annotate recordings with my notes and research. When you’re dealing with complex stories and investigations, this is important; it’s easy to forget things. It’s available on the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Mac and Android. I bought the Mac, iPhone and iPad apps for £2.99 each (£8.97 in total). I decided to buy an iPhone microphone too: this one looks pretty cool and costs $79 (£50): http://tascam.com/product/im2/buy_now/. While I could easily use my iPhone for video recordings, I’ve decided to shell out for the Flip camera before it disappears; it’s currently on sale at Argos for £89.99 ($140). Argos has slashed prices across all Flip models, I assume because Cisco isn’t making them anymore, so check your local retailers; they may have dropped the price too. For editing, I decided to stick with iMovie and Audacity (I’ve been using Audacity for years, even when I worked at a national radio station which had fancy editing equipment. Audacity has never let me down).

    -Photography: I had the option of spending £300 quid (or more) on a digital SLR camera. But I honestly believe I’d get better results using Instagram. So I paid $35 (£22) for a long lens for my iPhone instead: http://photojojo.com/store/awesomeness/iphone-telephoto-lens/.

    -Monitoring: I don’t know how any journalist can survive without tools like Tweetdeck, RepKnight and Storyful. I find most of my stories/sources by searching through Twitter hashtags. Tweetdeck is free while RepKnight’s and Storyful’s costs both vary. (Disclosure: RepKnight’s CEO John Reid is a really good friend of mine so I use the app for free. I would not recommend it or use it if it didn’t help me with investigations. John and I have a painfully honest relationship; if it was bad, I would tell him. Although, I did work for the company for 9 months in a product management/marketing role so maybe I’m biased. You decide. I’m a huge fan of Storyful and I’m currently testing the app for them and providing feedback. I love what they’re doing. I’m not paid to promote either app, however.  left RepKnight in August 2011. Feel free to check my tax return next year if you need proof).

    In total, building my mini newsroom-design revamp, development and equipment included-cost just £265.15 (with an running cost of £9.19 a month for Skype). What’s interesting about this is that I didn’t cut costs by buying crappy tools; with the exception of the iPhone mic and long lens (waiting on delivery), I’ve tested all tools and they work fine. (I’m hoping to post a review of Audionote soon). I shared the costs to show how cheap it is to get started. At a time when newspaper companies complain that journalism isn’t sustainable, I wanted to show how technology has made its production cheap. When you see guys with no journalism background running successful news sites (Gabe RiveraMichael Arrington), you know that journalism is thriving. (Disclosure: Gabe is my boss. He runs Techmeme; I edit Techmeme’s sister site, Mediagazer).

    Arguably, you don’t need any of the above (bar a blog) to get started . Buy a domain name for $24 and start writing. Or register a blog at WordPress with a “blog.wordpress.com” URL. Breaking news is what makes you a journalist, not tools. Go. Dig. Write.