Learning to Play the Game

by Drew R. Hamilton

Every institution goes through growing pains.  Whether you’re the head of a non-profit organization or a Fortune 500 company, most endeavors require the ability to maintain a balance between change and tradition.  In an effort to adapt to new challenges, logistics and “consumer friendliness” suffer at the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

Unless you’re an attorney, a judge or a deputy, chances are you don’t spend much time at the courthouse.  That’s a good thing.  The courthouse can be an intimidating and confusing place.

Navigating your way to the right location at the courthouse can be a challenge, beginning with paying for parking using the newly installed computerized parking meters in downtown Tampa.

Visitors to the courthouse can usually be classified in one of three categories: victim, witness to a crime or accused of criminal or civil mischief.

Since the tragic events on September 11th and the creation of Homeland Security, county courthouses all over the country have been required to increase security.  The additions of front entrance screening and deputies in the courthouse have all been installed in order to “harden the target”.

However, the application of this new level of security comes at a cost to the courthouse’s ability to serve the public efficiently.

Master Deputy Michael Eastman, whose career in law enforcement spans over 29 years, serves as part of that increase in security.  However, he spends most of his time trying to help people, mostly those without lawyers, navigate the sometimes-confusing layout and procedures of the courthouse:

One common misconception is that the “clerk of court” is one destination at the courthouse.  However, as Eastman explains, each court (felony, misdemeanor, family/juvenile, traffic, civil) has its own clerk of court.

Eastman goes on to tell an anecdote of a law student who was looking for some trials to observe and sheds light on their limited ability to meet the public’s high expectations.

In fact, the main courthouse is only one of four buildings that actually serve as the court system for Hillsborough County and downtown Tampa.

Hillsborough County Courthouse in Downtown Tampa

Hillsborough County Courthouse in Downtown Tampa

Building #1 is the main courthouse that houses the clerk of court for Family/Juvenile Court, Traffic Court and Civil Court and also serves as the only public entrance, since September 11, 2001.

Building #2 is referred to as the Annex, where we found Deputy Eastman on the second floor.  It holds the Felony Clerk of Court and most all of the actual courtrooms for traffic court, felony court, misdemeanor court, family/juvenile court and civil court.

Building #3 is the Old Courthouse and houses the State Attorney’s local office.

Building #4 is the Public Defenders office and houses the Misdemeanor Clerk of Court.

Deputy Eastman lays out the court system landscape in downtown Tampa here:

One source of confusion is the fact that the courthouse serves as the only public entrance since the 2001 increase in security.  If an individual gets a traffic summons, it is addressed with the Annex’s address (401 Jefferson Street), where traffic court is located.  However they can’t enter that address from the street.  They have to enter the courthouse at 800 Twiggs Street and come across the bridge.  This can spell trouble for many people who have no clue about the ins and outs of the courthouse.

The courthouse system was designed to be navigated by an attorney, not the average citizen.  Thinking about saving money by not hiring an attorney can be a costly mistake.  Deputy Eastman explains the importance of having an attorney, even for a traffic ticket.

Here is a typical encounter for Deputy Eastman, where he goes above and beyond to help a middle-aged man find the right courtroom and his thoughts on the conflicting perspectives of the average citizen and law enforcement and the court system.

As society evolves and the court system has to adapt to new challenges, logistics and ease for citizens will continue to suffer.  However, with the help of civil servants like Deputy Eastman, going above and beyond their duty, the system will get by.

Published in: on April 21, 2011 at 6:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Farhad Manjoo’s Guide to the End of the World.

by Drew R. Hamilton

The world has been ending since the beginning of time.

We’ve all seen the proverbial street person donning a sandwich board, prophesying the on-coming apocalypse.   We’ve all shuffled by them, uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact at all costs.  Well now that guy has facebook., writes a highly followed blog and just quit the number-one comedy sitcom on American television to go on a cocaine-fueled nationwide stand-up comedy tour.

We use to be able to avoid these people.  You had to go out of your way to subscribe to their self-serving rhetoric.  But now, in our ever-connected world, we find ourselves at the mercy of these social media sycophants.

I remember the first time the world was ending.  It happened in the spring of 1989.  I had just turned seven.  My father, the son of an Eastern Airlines mechanic, left his job as a pilot for Eastern.  Frank Lorenzo, CEO of Eastern Airlines, had requested that Eastern’s workers take deep cuts from their pay and benefits.  The three separate unions representing the pilots, flight attendants and mechanics decided to strike.

My father left Eastern Airlines, leaving 20 years of seniority behind, to start over again with Piedmont Airlines.  He was one of the few to do so.  Friends of his called him crazy.  There was plenty of misinformation making its way through Eastern’s work force.  Newsletters spreading falsely inflated expectations throughout the company, while the labor talks played out in the headlines of the morning paper.  Who to believe?

The union members got more than they bargained for when the airline declared bankruptcy.

At the time, our family had moved into a new house in Ocala, Florida, but we still owned a 50-acre horse farm that we had yet to sell.  It looked like our world was in danger.  It was an important lesson in how belief can determine your future.

Since that event there has been Y2K, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in South East Asia, the real estate market crash of 2008, the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan and the impending 2012 Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy.  The world has been ending for a long time.

One thing in our world really has ended: the way our society develops what we believe.

Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough, Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, takes an in-depth look at the splintering of modern society.  What information we choose to believe.

Manjoo sets out to explain why America is “splitting into niches,” by examining how “humans process information in the face of many choices; how we interpret documentary proof in a world now glutted with videos, photos, and audio recordings; how we decide whom to believe in an era in which “experts” of unknown quality dominate every news discussion; and how news media outlets react to all these changes, how they’re driven to pander to our preconceived ideas about society.”

Selective Exposure – the social phenomenon that explains how people, with the help of the connectivity afforded by the Internet and technology, choose to gravitate toward other individuals who “are close to [them] ideologically, psychically, emotionally, aesthetically.”

Our media diet has never been so malleable.  We can DVR what shows interest us, read niche blogs and listen to one of an infinite number of podcasts that all cater to a very specific target audience.  We encapsulate ourselves in our own self-designed media bubble.

During the recent budget crisis, there has been an overwhelming amount of misinformation flooding the avenues of mass meda.  In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has declared war on labor unions despite their agreement to requests for budget cuts.  Media is being used to manipulate many who subscribe to the right-wing media against unions, funding for NPR and PBS, and social programs like Planned Parenthood.

Recently, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl stood on the Senate floor and described abortion as “…90% of what Planned Parenthood does.”

However, 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact.org found Kyl’s statements to be grossly false, finding that abortion only accounted for roughly three percent of Planned Parenthood’s services.

How could the Senator be so wrong?  More importantly, how will we, the people, decide if Kyl is wrong or not?

Selective exposure will have the greatest effect on what we decide to believe.

If we tend to be left-leaning, we may watch networks like MSNBC who’s Rachel Maddow covered the Senator’s remarks with a guest appearance by political satirist Bill Maher.  Maher characterizes the right as being in a “Fox News bubble” at the four-minute mark.

The Daily Show, another left-leaning show, covered the fallout from Senator Kyl’s remarks here.  The Daily Show and Colbert Report are responsible for notorious response from Senator Kyl’s communications director that his remarks were “not intended to be a factual statement.”

Yet, Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, a right-leaning network, speaks with the Senator for 7 minutes without asking him to qualify his statements on Planned Parenthood, even when they discuss the subject.

But what about the real niche audience?  Here is an article from LifeNews.com, a pro-life news website, that actually makes sense of Kyl’s remarks.  Perhaps they should draft his next Senate speech?  Steven Ertelt of LifeNews.com claims, “But Planned parenthood’s own figures show Kyl was right in the sense that Planned parenthood is primarily an abortion business and, for pregnant women, abortion is the only option they essentially present.”

Further down this rabbit hole, googling the name Steven Ertelt leads to accusations of false reporting.

So who do we believe when the world is ending?  When everything is on the line?

Manjoo may leave many readers frustrated and overwhelmed with that question.  Our ability to decipher the truth in mass media may be shaken by the realizations he puts forth.  However, one practical lesson we can take from Manjoo, is to be aware of our own selective exposure and frame our “deeply held beliefs”  in the context that we ultimately seek out evidence that supports our own truths, so that we may become more understanding of opposing viewpoints and those who hold them so dear.

Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 3:34 am  Comments (18)  

What Happens When We Die?

by Drew R. Hamilton

It’s the question that we all face.  It’s what sets mankind apart, the realization that time does not stop when we do.  Billions of dollars of revenue is generated off this very question, this desire of ours to know “what happens when we die?”

Hillsborough County Chief Medical Examiner Vernard Adams, who is board-certified in anatomical, clinical and forensic pathology, and holds a faculty appointment as Associate Professor of Pathology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, knows the answers.

So what does happen when we die?  For an ill-fated fraction of the community, their bodies end up at the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office for examination.

Don’t get me wrong.  The M.E.’s office isn’t as bleak and depressing as one may think.  Aside from the dead bodies, the office is as aesthetically pleasing a work place as I have seen.  “If you notice, the building has a lot of natural light.  That is by design.  I think it’s important for our employees to work in natural light,” says Adams.

The recently constructed office is furnished with top of the line equipment and the facility is able to expand its body capacity with the ability to host up to 5 additional cold-storage trailers.

As Adams explained the office deals with 400 to 500 unclaimed bodies every year.  Bodies remain unclaimed when no next of kin can be found or the next of kin either can’t afford or prefers not to pay for the body’s remains.

The medical examiner’s office uses cremation as a means of disposal for unclaimed bodies.  Cremation reduces the cost of processing the body 75 percent.

The other type of bodies the office deals with is cases of instantaneous death.  According to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s website, a medical examiner is “a physician with particular expertise in investigating violent, sudden and unexpected, suspicious or unattended deaths.”

Here is a list of the Medical Examiner’s jurisdiction:
•    criminal violence
•    accident, suicide, or by poison
•    suddenly, when in apparent good health
•    unattended by a practicing physician or other recognized practitioner
•    any prison or penal institution
•    police custody
•    any suspicious or unusual circumstance
•    criminal abortion
•    disease constituting a threat to public health, and
•    disease, injury, or toxic agent resulting from employment.

One way that Adams and the M.E.’s office provides a service to the community is through their participation in the National Unidentified Persons System or NamUs, a national database designed to provide information for the identification of unidentified bodies.

Here’s the story of an Ohio man who met his demise in Florida and the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office was able to identify this body using networks like NamUs and The Doe Network, a volunteer group that searches the nation for online unidentified body information.

When lives fall through the deepest and most drastic of cracks, the county medical examiner is there to sift through the facts, hoping to piece together some closure for the community.

Investigative inquires may be made to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office by calling 813-914-4567 between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM daily.

Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm  Comments (1)  

The Return of the Tax Man: Preston Trigg

by Drew R. Hamilton

Preston Trigg, director of administration and special projects, of the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s Office returned to the Public Affairs Reporting class at the University of South Florida to discuss how to read a government entity’s budget.

It’s an age-old saying, “follow the money”.  To find corruption or abuse of power an investigative reporter can discover many story ideas from this time-tested expression.  But how do you follow the money?

Being able to sift through government budgets and understand what key numbers to look for, will empower investigative reporters and further the development of their craft.

Government balance sheets are divided into two areas: expenses and revenue.

Obviously, the expenses side of the sheet will list any and all monies spent by the department or office, while the revenue side will list any monies paid to the office or department.

Expenses are divided into three categories:
1) Personnel – this is the money used to pay salary and benefits such as health care costs.
2) Capital – this area covers one-time purchases of anything priced over $1,000.
3) Operating – this area contains all recurring costs that cover day-to-day operations.

The expense side of the balance sheet list decreases in parentheses and each expense is labeled with an object code, in order to analyze costs by grouping like costs.

Revenues include many different classifications:
– Taxes (property and sales tax)
– User Fees (tolls)
– Fines (speeding fines, parking fines)
– Occupational License Fee (occupations from hairdressers to contractors)
– Utility payments
– State & Federal Grants
– Fund Balance (money left over from the previous fiscal year)

Trigg explains that large increases and decreases in the budget should be a telling sign for reporters to look at.  Even small increases in fees and licensing can mean a great deal for the operating costs of the private sector and will surely attract the ire of the business community being affected.

Budget crises are occurring all over the United States as newly elected republican governors have been using the budget discussions to target unions and playing a game of political bait and switch.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has drawn criticism over his plans to cut $3 billion dollars from the state’s education funding, a move that would reduce the budget for the Hillsborough County School District by $100 million dollars.

All municipalities, no matter what the size, deal with a finite budget.  How the government decides to spend the public’s tax dollars and the rest of their revenue is a direct indication of what we, as a society, find important.  Government budgets are the key to finding where that discretionary fund is being spent or why the superintendent was taking a trip to Las Vegas.

Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Steve Andrews: Investigative Reporter

by Drew R. Hamilton

The USF Public Affairs Reporting class spent an afternoon with well-known Senior Investigative Reporter and Executive Producer of Investigations for WFLA News Channel 8, Steve Andrews.

Andrews took the class through a series of his own investigative reports that uncovered corruption at all levels of public service, which he confirmed or discovered through the use of public records.

The first two cases discussed involved a drug bust involving the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

A representative of Michael Difalco, of Lakeland, contacted Andrews to discuss a video tape surveillance tape shot at his home.  The individual was feeling disrespected by a competitor of News Channel 8 and wanted to discuss the tape with someone else.  After an hour-long conversation with the contact, Andrews only offered one promise, that the story will be big.

Andrews tells the class that the most important thing in his line of work is, “always be respectful.”  He credits this mantra and his handling of Difalco’s confidant for getting this story.

The video tape captured Polk County Sheriff’s Officers playing a video game in the Difalco residence during a 9-hour execution of a search warrant for the house.  Young sheriff’s deputies and supervisors alike, at the house, participated in the extra curricular activities.

Andrews contacted Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to request an interview.  Judd who is no stranger to the public eye granted Andrews’ request.  It is at this point where Andrews reminds the class again, that his ability to respectfully ask the tough questions allows him the chance to break these high-profile cases.  Sheriff Judd faced Andrews’ hard questions with tact and accountability.  Admitting that there was no explanation for the actions of his deputies, Judd was able to somewhat contain the media firestorm that this video tape had started.

Public records were used in many facets of this case.  Andrews executed a criminal background check on Mike Difalco to find out he had a lengthy arrest record.  Next, he acquired the arrest affidavit from the Polk County Courthouse to discover what the police were looking for at the Difalco residence.  By contacting the State Attorney’s office, he was able to get a copy of the search warrant.

Once Andrews had the surveillance tape, the interview with Sheriff Judd, the interview with the defense attorney and the documented public records which supported the entire story, the investigative team was able to turn this story in 24 hours.

However, the public records aspect of this story led Andrews into the second story discussed which involved requesting all the e-mails regarding the Difalco case from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Andrews explained to the class that a great tactic for chasing stories was to access all e-mails from public entities in the wake of a scandal.  Once a public office is under the cloud of bad news, their officers will likely be tightening the ship and reinforcing protocol that may be lacking, in order to avoid future publicity.  However, what Andrews discovered was quite the opposite.

Notes from the lead officer on the case to Sheriff Judd, lined out a very well-thought through plan that reduced the chance of violence from occurring.  The notes brought to light the fact that very good police work had been overshadowed by the surveillance tape that caught the officers in the act of the slip in judgement.

This story undoubtedly helped Andrews’ future working relationship with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.  A public office and it’s employees who were just recently embarrassed on the national stage, will likely appreciate Andrews’ tip of the hat for their hard work.

In the next story, Andrews was contacted by the spurned lover of former Florida Judge Thomas Stringer.  The judge and his mistress, an exotic dancer, had been hiding money earned by his mistress from her creditors.  She had accrued roughly 300 thousand dollars in credit card debt and was depositing her cash tips into bank accounts in Judge Stringer’s name.

The mistress had contacted Andrews after a falling out with the judge.  She supplied him with copies of all her deposits and information on a house in Hawaii that she and the judge had purchased together and photos of the judge being put up at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, paid for by his mistress.

Public records, in this case, were used in reverse.  Instead of Andrews using public records to discover the crime, he used the records to verify the crime.  Andrews compared the records kept by the mistress to the judge’s state disclosure funds, after already confirming that the judge had accepted these financial gifts from this woman.  He also looked up the mortgage on the house in Hawaii that the mistress told him about.

Going after a high-level judge with the word of his stripper mistress is a daunting task, but the use of public records allowed Andrews the nerve and proof to go forward with this story.

In the final story that involved public records, Andrews used the e-mails and records of Lowry Park Zoo, a tampa-owned and operated zoo, to discover that the CEO of the zoo, Lex Salisbury was funneling funds and special deals to his own for-profit exotic animal attraction, Safari Wild, in a neighboring county.

Salisbury had set up deals where Safari Wild would house to rare white rhinos and in exchange they would get to keep the offspring, a deal that would send the value of Salisbury’s rare animal collection through the roof.

Andrews went further into the story to discover that Salisbury had not sought out the proper zoning for such an attraction and that the neighbors of the park had no idea what was being built in their backyard.  The zoning commission had little to say for the mix up.

In all of these stories public records were used as a vehicle for bringing unfair and unprofessional practices to light.  Fighting the powers at be can be difficult and overwhelming, but with the use of public records, investigative reporting will have the necessary backbone to speak up for those who can not.

Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 7:09 pm  Comments (3)