Chris White Louisville Courier Journal
Published 1:54 PM EST Dec 28, 2018
The Courier Journal’s mission is simple: Report on what people care about. Make a difference — across Kentucky and Indiana, as well as in readers’ neighborhoods. And hold those in power accountable.
The Courier Journal’s reach has never been bigger than in 2018. We touched more than 2 million individual readers each month through our courierjournal.com digital site and apps. With that came the opportunity to inform more readers and effect more change on issues big and small than ever before.
Some of our stories came from unexpected places, like our investigation into deadly church vans or how a McDonald’s receipt took down an elite drug task force.
Read this: How Kentuckians rose up in response to tragedy and upheaval in 2018
You may like: Paying tribute to the notable Kentuckians we said goodbye to in 2018
Others sprang from our coverage of important institutions, like the $215,000 raise Gov. Matt Bevin gave to an old Army buddy he earlier hired as a state employee, or the ways the University of Louisville athletic department officials skirted its own nepotism rules.
“We take very seriously our role as Louisville’s storyteller and its investigative watchdog,” said Richard Green, the Courier Journal’s editor since late May.
“Public service journalism has defined this newspaper for 150 years, and as we enter 2019, our commitment will be even deeper and more visible to readers across Kentuckiana.”
If you missed some of our coverage, don’t worry: It’s still available and as important and relevant as the day it published. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the Courier Journal’s most-read and more relevant watchdog reporting in 2018:
Deadly vans still on the road
Courier Journal reporters compiled decades’ worth of data and spent months reporting on the safety record of 15-passenger vans prone to roll in a crash. They found more than 600 deaths in accidents involving the vans over 17 years. A Courier Journal analysis of thousands of crash records from 2004-2017 found the older models had a roughly 52 percent chance of rolling when fully loaded and driving at highway speeds.
Despite repeated federal safety warnings and bans on use by public schools in at least 28 states, the vans remain in use, particularly by churches looking for economical ways to transport parishioners.
Impact: Developing. Some church leaders were surprised to learn of the safety risks and told the Courier Journal that they are re-evaluating their transportation programs to minimize use or retire vans as a result of our reporting.
Links: Churches are putting faith in these old vans that could kill, Child’s death led family in a crusade for 15-passenger van safety
Reporters: Caitlin McGlade and Justin Price
Bevin’s tech czar is nation’s highest paid
Gov. Matt Bevin says the commonwealth has the best tech chief in the country. We could not verify that, but we do know this: Kentucky has the nation’s highest-paid state technology director — by a lot.
A Courier Journal investigation in August found the governor hired Charles E. Grindle at $160,000 a year in late 2017, then pushed through a whopping $215,000 raise this year, raising his salary to $375,000.
But Bevin and Grindle are more than employer and employee. Our reporting revealed that the two have been friends for decades, dating to their time as young military officers in the 1990s, and that Grindle often did IT work for Bevin’s political campaigns, businesses and charitable foundation.
Bevin’s largesse also extended to allowing Grindle to stay for free in the Governor’s Mansion cottage or the Lieutenant Governor’s Mansion for 64 nights in Frankfort.
Impact: Grindle paid the state $6,976 for his mansion stays nine months after the fact — 31 days after the Courier Journal asked about the arrangement.
Links: Bevin has a new highest-paid employee thanks to a $215,000 raise, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin gave $215K raise to an old Army buddy, Kentucky’s tech czar enjoyed free housing — until we asked about it
Reporters: Tom Loftus and Morgan Watkins
JCPS suspensions soaring in elementary schools
A Courier Journal analysis of Jefferson County Public School records in October found an alarming spike in suspensions of elementary school students, and that African-American and special-needs students were being suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their classmates.
JCPS officials said they couldn’t explain the 240 percent spike in elementary school suspensions from 2015 to 2018, but superintendent Marty Polio said the district had not been doing enough to provide intervention and support for children.
Impact: The Courier Journal’s reporting led several JCPS board members to call for a review of the district’s suspension policies.
Links: Elementary school suspensions are soaring and JCPS isn’t sure why, JCPS board members push to limit suspensions for the smallest students, JCPS board presses superintendent on spike in elementary suspensions
Reporters: Allison Ross and Mandy McLaren
Bourbon can kill you — even if you don’t drink it
Readers were captivated by our coverage of the collapse of the Barton 1792 bourbon warehouse in Bardstown — the helicopter video of the wreckage was one of our most-watched of the year — and it raised plenty of questions.
Courier Journal reporter Tom Novelly in September took a look at the safety regulations surrounding Kentucky’s bourbon warehouses and found that the hundreds of fish killed when barrels of bourbon leaked into nearby streams weren’t the only ones in danger. Loose regulations and infrequent inspections of buildings like the Barton 1792 warehouse put neighbors and the environment at risk. Some homes, just feet away from old warehouses, could be flattened by a collapse similar to the Barton 1792 failure or incinerated by the kind of warehouse fires experienced by other distilleries in the past.
While relatively few people live that close to a bourbon warehouse, the investigation struck a chord: More than 100,000 people across the USA TODAY Network read Novelly’s reporting.
Link: In Kentucky, bourbon could kill you even if you don’t drink it
Reporter: Tom Novelly
Medicaid cuts leave many without dental or vision care
After a judge struck down Gov. Matt Bevin’s attempt to overhaul Medicaid, his administration cut dental, vision and non-emergency transportation benefits for nearly half a million Kentuckians.
Courier Journal reporter Deborah Yetter in July told the story of people hit by the decision, including children and pregnant women.
She found dentists forced to turn away kids — ”I’m so tore up, I don’t have the words to describe it,” one said — and organizations such as the Kentucky Oral Health Coalition and Kentucky Youth Advocates calling on the governor to reverse the changes. Without dental care, emergency room visits would rise, more than offsetting any of the savings from cutting the benefits, they said.
And most important, Yetter found those whose health was being affected by the cuts, including people who were between appointments taking care of painful dental problems when they lost coverage, and a woman who needed vision checkups to monitor for signs of recurring cancer.
Impact: Bevin rescinded the cuts and benefits were reinstated for more than 400,000 Kentuckians.
Links: Bevin cuts dental, vision benefits to nearly 500K Medicaid recipients; Kids wrongly denied care under Bevin’s Medicaid cuts, dentists say; Reports of denied dental care mount after Bevin’s Medicaid cuts; Health law advocates ask US officials to reject Bevin’s Medicaid cuts; ’I want to have my teeth’: Bevin’s Medicaid cuts leave Kentuckians in pain; Bevin will reverse cuts to Medicaid dental, vision services, state says
Reporter: Deborah Yetter
‘Deadly deliveries’ brings maternal death rates to forefront
The Courier Journal’s Laura Ungar was part of a USA TODAY Network team that in July reported on disturbingly high maternal mortality rates in America, where 600 to 800 mothers die each year and another 50,000 suffer serious harm, largely from preventable conditions. Reporters examined state efforts to save lives and the challenges involved, and identified ways some hospitals fail their patients.
Ungar also put faces to those numbers, profiling Jessica Butler, who died after complications from an infection while pregnant, and Bekah Bischoff, who nearly died during childbirth. Each Louisville woman’s story was, tragically, all too familiar in the U.S., which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world.
Impact: The series was cited by the New England Journal of Medicine, it gained traction with Texas lawmakers, and the U.S. Congress passed the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act. The act, which in December cleared the Senate by a unanimous vote, will provide states with grants to create and expand committees that review maternal deaths and will require health care workers to report deaths and standardize reviews to better track them.
Links: Louisville mom hoped for a perfect birth but nearly died in delivery; Hospitals know how to protect mothers. They just aren’t doing it.; What states aren’t doing to save new mothers’ lives; Lessons lost: Pregnant mom’s death in Louisville among many not reviewed; Kentucky mom runs to fight maternal deaths after near-tragic pregnancy; USA TODAY Network’s investigation of maternal mortality gets results; ’A critical first step’: Maternal death-prevention bill passes the House; Senate passes a ‘landmark’ bill that aims to reduce maternal deaths
Reporter: Laura Ungar
We lifted the veil of secrecy around state-supported Braidy Industries
Who doesn’t want to know how public money is being spent? It’s at the core of watchdog journalism, and Courier Journal reporter Morgan Watkins has spent 18 months asking the important questions about Braidy Industries – a company partly owned by the the commonwealth through an unusual $15 million direct investment arranged by Bevin.
Watkins’ reporting shed light on the company’s plans to finance and build a $1.68 billion aluminum rolling mill near Ashland and on the mixed track record of entrepreneur Craig T. Bouchard, Braidy Industries’ chairman and CEO, who has promised his business will help revive Eastern Kentucky’s economy and create hundreds of desperately needed jobs.
The Courier Journal also continues to seek the public release of state records that identify investors in Braidy Industries.
Impact: Attorney General Andy Beshear found in October 2017 that the state was wrong to withhold Braidy investors’ names from the public, and after an appeal by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, a judge ruled in March that the information must be released. The state has appealed that ruling, and the court case is still ongoing. Braidy publicly named several shareholders in December 2017, months after the Courier Journal began seeking access to records identifying its owners.
Links: Kentucky sank $15 million in Braidy Industries, but Gov. Bevin doesn’t know its other owners; Louisville businessman named as an investor in taxpayer-backed Braidy Industries; Braidy Industries breaks silence to name investors in state-subsidized company; Bevin ‘unbelievably confident’ in state-funded Braidy Industries CEO with mixed record; Braidy Industries says state-subsidized mill is on track but questions remain; Braidy Industries targets growth market by making aluminum for cars and planes; Judge rules Bevin administration must name owners of publicly subsidized Braidy Industries; Braidy Industries breaks ground on Bevin-backed, $1.5B aluminum mill; Braidy Industries needs $1.5B from government for Kentucky aluminum mill; Gov. Matt Bevin backs Braidy Industries as company pitches investors; Braidy Industries mill scores another $4 million in government support; Regulators want assurance Braidy Industries has money for aluminum mill
Reporter: Morgan Watkins
Trump allows woman to reach Louisville for life-saving care
Crippling headaches, dizziness and blackouts plagued 61-year-old Marzieh Taheri for months. She could barely walk and was losing vision in her left eye when she was diagnosed with radiation necrosis. The condition was caused by radiation therapy she received for a tumor on her ear, and if left untreated, would likely kill her.
Louisville’s Dr. Shervin Dashti, who has developed a still-experimental treatment free of side effects for the condition, said Taheri’s case was the worst he’d seen. Though he agreed to treat Taheri, international politics proved a barrier.
The problem: Taheri is Iranian and U.S. after President Donald Trump ordered travel restrictions on seven countries, including Iran. Though the order allows for exceptions, the wait list is long and State Department data showed just two people from the countries affected by the ban had been cleared for waivers.
The situation looked dire for Taheri, until the Courier Journal wrote about her in August.
Impact: Taheri’s son sent U.S. officials a link to the Courier Journal’s article on his mother’s plight, and just hours later they granted her a waiver to visit the U.S. for treatment. Three months after her procedure, she got remarkably better. Her brain swelling dramatically reduced and the impaired area of her brain improved. The doctor said her response exceeded his expectations.
Links: Trump travel ban keeps Iranian woman from life-saving medical care in Louisville; Iranian woman given rare waiver to get medical treatment in Louisville; Rare waiver allows Iranian life-saving medical treatment in Louisville
Reporter: Caitlin McGlade
McDonald’s receipt cripples elite drug-fighting team
This is the story of how a well-respected Louisville narcotics detective’s love for McDonald’s cheeseburgers brought down an entire squad.
Tasked with intercepting drug shipments at the UPS global shipping hub, he instead swiped about $40,000 in cash from one box and sent it back on its way to California, where unbeknownst to the detective, another unit was secretly waiting to intercept the same package. Instead of drug money, they found a broken safe and a crumpled McDonald’s bag with the receipt bearing the detective’s partial credit card number.
What happened next is worthy of its own true-crime spinoff: Agents monitoring the Louisville detective found more evidence of him raiding packages and something they didn’t expect: video of other detectives conducting illegal searches. The Courier Journal reported the story in June.
Link: How a McDonald’s receipt crippled an elite Louisville drug-fighting team
Reporter: Beth Warren
Louisville athletics keeps it in the family
Nearly a decade of work left little in the way of a paper trail showing how Mark Jurich, the son of former University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, climbed from an entry-level job to the department’s top fundraising position, becoming one of the department’s highest-paid employees.
Courier Journal reporter Danielle Lerner in March reported that records supporting big donations attributed to Mark Jurich were vague or non-existent. She revealed that safeguards set in place to avoid having him report directly to his father eroded.
Lerner and fellow Courier Journal reporter Jake Lourim found other instances of potential nepotism across the department, including on the football staff. Then-coach Bobby Petrino employed three relatives, and records showed the athletic department waited nearly a month after he promoted son-in-law Ryan Beard to square the move with its own nepotism policy. Under the previous nepotism policy Petrino was allowed to bypass a job search to promote his son, Nick. The department said it must have lost a similar waiver that allowed him to hire his other son-in-law, L.D. Scott.
Impact: Four months after the Courier Journal’s report, the University of Louisville added new language to its football coaching contracts to protect against nepotism.
Links: Huge raises for Tom Jurich’s son show how Louisville ignored its own rule; New policy, same results when it comes to hiring relatives in Louisville athletics
Reporters: Danielle Lerner and Jake Lourim
Marsy’s Law explainer answers questions before election
Marsy’s Law, approved by voters in Kentucky and other states in November, sounded like a good idea: Guaranteeing the rights of crime victims.
But Courier Journal reporter Andy Wolfson provided the only in-depth look at problems with the law experienced by states where it has been adopted. His reporting raised red flags about unforeseen consequences and his article became the Courier Journal’s most-read election story, reaching about 150,000 readers — or about half of all the people who voted in Jefferson County.
Impact: Voters passed Marsy’s Law, but a court battle remains over what a judge said was vague language.
Link: Marsy’s Law could have unintended consequences for crime victims
Reporter: Andy Wolfson
College basketball trap: How agents and shoe companies exploit athletes
Who was to blame for the state of college basketball after the FBI exposed its seedy underbelly?
How were shoe companies, sports agents and coaches at all levels able to collaborate? Did the athletes know what they were getting into, and were they even the victims?
Courier Journal reporter Gentry Estes in February dug in to give you the dirt on how athletes fell into a trap so dirty you’ll want to shower after reading about it.
“Everybody is involved in this scandal. There’s nobody left out,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a retired shoe company executive. “… The most important person in the transaction is that high school kid … and he’s the poorest of all of them. And they’re all bidding on his ability to play basketball — to win championships, go to the Final Four, to sell shoes, to sell suits, to put money in investments.”
If you want to sound like the smartest person at the water cooler, this is a must-read story. (And with another potential NCAA infractions case looming for Louisville, this will come up at your water cooler again.)
Link: College basketball’s trap: How agents and shoe companies team up to exploit athletes
Reporter: Gentry Estes
Hepatitis C stalks Kentucky children; CJ finds deficiencies in disease control
A Courier Journal investigation in March found hepatitis C has skyrocketed among Kentucky births amid the state’s raging drug epidemic, but attempts to prevent, track and control the infectious, curable disease have fallen short. That means many kids don’t get the care they need, risking cirrhosis and liver cancer in adulthood — or even early death.
State statistics obtained through a public records request show one in 56 Kentucky births from 2014-2016 were to moms with a history of hep C. The latest national rate, from 2014, was one in 308.
But as the numbers surge, Courier Journal found deficiencies in key areas of disease control, including tracking, testing and prevention.
This story was part of ongoing coverage of infectious diseases spread by intravenous drug use.
Impact: The week after the story ran, lawmakers approved mandatory hepatitis C tests for all pregnant women. In February 2018, an earlier story on drug-fueled infections spurred a foundation to donate enough money to start a syringe services program in Wolfe County, which federal officials deemed the most vulnerable in the nation to a drug-fueled outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C.
Link: A serious liver ailment is stalking Kentucky’s children. But they aren’t getting care
Reporter: Laura Ungar
CJ finds that families lived in fear of doctor charged as drug dealer
A U.S. Marine Corps veteran was one of at least 13 of Dr. Peter Steiner’s patients to die during a two-year period that federal investigators reviewed as part of the nation’s largest crackdown on health care fraud, according to documents obtained by the Courier Journal and reported in October.
Steiner, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, isn’t charged in any of the deaths. However, he is charged with drug dealing, accused of recklessly keeping some vulnerable patients on medicines that can be addictive and lethal.
A pharmacist who reviewed several patients’ files in 2014 found that “5 deaths were potentially related to negative outcomes of stimulants” that Steiner prescribed.
Link: Patients died, families lived in fear of doctor charged as drug dealer
Reporter: Beth Warren
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