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It’s time once again for VOSD’s journalists to dig into their memory banks and remember a year’s worth of revelations. We asked each of them to recall their favorite stories that they wrote for your perusal in 2015.
There’s a common theme: With the help of inside tips and revealing documents, we uncovered things hidden in not-so-plain sight. Like a district superintendent’s secret editing of a harsh internal report, an explosive allegation from the ex of an embattled school board member and Qualcomm’s icy reception to the city’s bid for help.
We exposed troubling trends in law enforcement like the prosecution of a man accused of having the wrong friends and a massive “pre-crime” enforcement effort targeting the poor. VOSD scribes also dug deep to find new details about captivating mysteries like a Mexican businessman’s alleged attempts to influence local politics.
There’s more: We revealed a builder’s bullying behavior, debunked a stunning myth about these need for more landfill space and called out the Chargers for a stadium-sized bogus claim. But we didn’t just turn up bad news: We found a man who turned a fence into a boundary-buster.
One more thing. While we’re proud of our best work, rumor has it that we’re not the only news outlet in town. Stay tuned next week for a look at 2015’s great journalism about San Diego from other media organizations.
Inside Qualcomm’s Squashing of City Hopes
Scott Lewis, editor in chief
What it’s about: City officials had a bright idea: Let’s enlist the biggest business in town to help solve the big Chargers stadium problem! Qualcomm, the idea went, could build offices galore on land near the site of the new stadium, and the rush of incoming money would support the stadium.
This didn’t go over well at all for the city, which — like lots of people — didn’t understand the true state of things at Qualcomm. A company rep lit into the city folks about various grudges.
Why the writer liked it: I liked it most just for how I got it. I heard one of the participants in the meeting was talking about how hostile a Qualcomm representative had been to their visit and how worried we should be about the company’s future in San Diego. When I ran into two of the folks who had also been at the meeting, I cornered them and was able to piece together what happened and ask the company and mayor for thoughts.
What’s happening now: Qualcomm just recently decided to leave the company intact after a tough year of layoffs, intense regulatory scrutiny and competition.
Meanwhile, the idea of selling or developing the land adjacent to a new stadium as a way to fund it — the city’s proposal to Qualcomm — vanished when the mayor realized it would vastly complicate and delay the proposal he was pitching to the NFL.
With Friends Like These … He Could Be Locked Up Forever
Sara Libby, managing editor
What it’s about: Aaron Harvey was part of a group of more than a dozen men facing possible life sentences in prison thanks to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s use of an obscure section of criminal code. It was the first time the code had been used any time anywhere in California.
Dumanis said the men were gang members, and tried to put them away in connection with a series of shootings her office admitted many of them didn’t have any involvement with. Much of the evidence against Harvey was Facebook postings.
Why the writer liked it: This case had already been in the news thanks to Tiny Doo, a San Diego rapper who was also charged in this case. But the opportunity to tell the story of Harvey, a normal guy, was new.
I honestly don’t know whether Harvey is a member of a gang. But the idea that someone can be charged with a crime prosecutors admit he didn’t commit is disturbing, and I was glad to get that message to the public.
One of the most important roles of a journalist is to humanize all kinds of people. Harvey presented a great chance to do that because he didn’t fit the mold for how you might picture someone being charged with gang conspiracy: He had no criminal record, won a college scholarship and came from a two-parent family.
If all you knew about him came from the DA, you’d be missing the complete picture of who he is and how he got in this position.
What’s happening now: Soon after our story ran, a judge tossed out the case against Harvey. He’s spent the rest of the year advocating against the DA and the section of criminal law that landed him in this mess. He appeared in the New York Times and shared a stage with prominent intellectual Cornel West. In late November, Dumanis said she’ll no longer be utilizing the charge she brought against Harvey.
For Once, a Fence Brings Down Boundaries
Kinsee Morlan, engagement editor
What it’s about: Someone building a new fence around their house isn’t news, but we were intrigued when a professional photographer in Logan Heights reached out to tell us about his fence.
Rather than build a boring fence to keep his neighbors out, he used it as a platform to get to know his neighbors. He took gorgeous, large format photos of Logan Heights residents and mounted them on his fence, transforming the sidewalk into an outdoor art gallery.
Why the writer liked it: Mireles’ project spoke to me for a few reasons. As someone who lived in Tijuana for a few years, fences probably piss me off a lot more than they do most folks. The border fence is an ugly embodiment of the us-versus-them mentality and, to me, its only redeeming quality has been artists who use it as a springboard for their work. Mireles’ use of his own personal fence reminded me of that urge to turn something typically used for privacy and security into a warm and inviting art project.
Also, when it comes to arts stories, I’m most interested in public art, especially public art that springs up outside of the city’s official process. I like how Mireles used his own time, money and resources to produce something his community can enjoy. Every time I happen to be in Logan Heights, I make it a point to drive by.
What’s happening now: Mireles has added a few more photos to his fence since I first published the story. He also recently contacted me to tell me about a project he’s working on with a group called Culture Runners, which is bringing artists from the Middle East to tour across the United States in an RV. I’ll likely be joining Mireles as he takes some of the artists around San Diego and across the border to Tijuana, so stay tuned.
A Cross-Border Clash of the Titans
Liam Dillon, senior reporter and assistant editor
The story: In four parts — The Mexican Businessman Who Drives Lambos, Peddles Spy Gear and Started a War With Sempra, Sempra’s Shady Road to Dominance in Mexico, The Politician Who Gave Sempra Mexico and The Fall of José Susumo Azano Matsura.
What it’s about: This series covered espionage, political corruption, drug trafficking, bribery, extortion on both sides of the border. It provides the backstory for why a wealthy and connected Mexican businessman would want to involve himself in San Diego politics and the role of one of San Diego’s largest companies in the scandal.
Why the writer liked it: The series has everything a reporter dreams about: Shadowy rich guys. Big companies with shady overseas dealings. Dirty cops. Clandestine political meetings.
It’s a tale too crazy to be believed, but the documents back it up. Also, I was able to answer a question we’ve had since federal political corruption charges came down against Mexican businessman Susumo Azano in early 2014. It turns out Azano wanted to woo San Diego politicians to help him gain allies in his long-running war against Sempra Energy, the parent company of SDG&E.
What’s happening now: Azano’s criminal trial is finally set to begin next year. If there’s no deal beforehand, it stands to be an explosive case with numerous high-profile local politicians, businesspeople and attorneys all likely having to take the stand as witnesses.
Exposing a Big Chargers Fake-Out
Lisa Halverstadt, staff writer
The story: The Plume Makes a Plum Red Herring
What it’s about: We were still in the early days of San Diego’s stadium saga, and Chargers point man Mark Fabiani was throwing out all the reasons the current Qualcomm Stadium site wouldn’t work for the team. One of them, Fabiani claimed, was a massive gas plume underneath the stadium that would create uncertainty and perhaps force a lengthy cleanup. Except there wasn’t really a plume anymore.
After I wrote an in-depth story explaining the clean-up had already happened, Fabiani again claimed the site was polluted. I ended up fact-checking Fabiani and handing him a “Huckster Propaganda” ruling.
Why the writer liked it: Then and now, Fabiani has cited countless reasons San Diego can’t make a stadium deal work. This story was an early indication that the Chargers were truly looking for the door and that Fabiani was throwing up road blocks to make the case for a move. And I really enjoyed learning about the history of the plume and the science behind the cleanup.
What’s happening now: The Chargers’ move to Los Angeles is looking increasingly likely and the plume Fabiani raised as a potential concern had little to do with that.
Pre-Crime, Predictions and a Price Paid
Andrew Keatts, staff writer
What it’s about: I didn’t need to explain much to the Lemon Grove and nearby Encanto residents about the story I was working on. Immediately, they each shared their own stories of the heavy police presence they endured at trolley stations near their homes.
But Operation Lemon Drop was more than the show of force with which they had learned to live. It was an attempt to arrest people for petty crimes because a complex algorithm indicated they were likely to commit major crimes in the future. It was the Sheriff’s Department’s foray into pre-crime enforcement.
The targeted population, it turned out, were specifically those who had been released from incarceration without parole or probation due to state attempts to cut its prison population.
Why the writer liked it: Our investigation not only uncovered a novel form of policing that many find unsettling, but one that directly affected residents of specific communities while the rest of the city remained comfortably unaware.
What’s happening now: The state passed a new law requiring local agencies to collect data on the racial makeup of the people they interact with. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber invoked our coverage of Operation Lemon Drop in her support of the new law.
Ex’s Claims Challenge a Politician’s Perch
Mario Koran, staff writer
What it’s about: It was a turning point in the saga of San Diego Unified trustee Marne Foster.
In 2014, owing to a less-than-flattering college recommendation letter that a school counselor wrote on behalf of Foster’s son, the student’s father filed a legal claim with the district seeking $250,000 in compensation. The district dismissed the claim and awarded no money. But the story didn’t end there.
The father, John Marsh, told VOSD in September that he didn’t actually write the claim. According to him, Foster did. Foster brought him a blank claim form and told him to sign it, he recalled. He went along with the plan because he was homeless and staying with Foster at the time.
Drama had followed Foster long before this story came out, but this was the first time allegations about Foster dealt with potentially criminal behavior.
Why the writer liked it: As a reporter, I’d be hard pressed to identify a more exciting moment than working for months on a story, grinding it out, breaking news in trickles – then being completely surprised by what shakes loose.
When I first called Marsh, my intention was simply to check my facts: That is, “Your name is on this form, I have some questions about its accuracy,” etc. I never expected him to tell me he played a role in Foster’s alleged scheme.
The story itself was nothing fancy. Just the facts, ma’am. But public response exploded. Since then, more facts have come to light, and the story shows no signs of slowing.
What’s happening now: On Dec. 10, the the district attorney’s office served a warrant against San Diego Unified. Prosecutors are conducting an investigation into Foster.
At the moment, the DA hasn’t filed any criminal charges against Foster, who is seeking re-election next year. A lot could happen between now and November.
Sanitized for His Protection
Ashly McGlone, staff writer
What it’s about: Poway Unified School District leaders got more than they bargained for when they hired an IT consultant to assess their technology programs and management. The unflattering report released to the public and the board, however, turned out to be the superintendent’s edited version. Gone were descriptors like “arrogance” and “reckless and wasteful,” replaced with “overconfidence” and “problematic.”
Why the writer liked it: While the report was presented as an independent analysis, it took this story to expose the superintendent’s editing work. The revelation shed light on Collins’ reluctance to face criticism and the larger issue of public agencies that may not want the truth to be told.
What’s happening now: This was one of several stories in 2015 that showed questionable judgement by top leadership at the highly respected Poway Unified district, which serves the city of Poway and a large chunk of the northern stretches of the city of San Diego.
Collins faced rising public rancor calling for his resignation this year. He now appears to be on his way out. Powegians — yes, that’s what Poway residents are called — could see the last of him in 2016.
Burying the Myth of a Landfill Crisis
Ry Rivard, staff writer
The story: Running Out of Landfill Space? That’s Garbage.
What it’s about: For a quarter century, all sorts of officials have repeatedly told San Diegans we’re going to run out of space for our trash. The trash catastrophe never happened, and it’s now not even really based in reality. Yet, developers of big landfills keep repeating some of the same questionable claims.
This story also has something to do with water. A proposed landfill in North County would be built near some pretty significant pipes that carry water into San Diego County. During construction, blasting near the pipes could cause them to fail, imperiling the county’s access to water. There’s also worry that a stew of pollution from the trash heap could somehow infiltrate the drinking water supply once the landfill is open.
Why the writer liked it: The story is mainly about examining claims repeated over and over again every few years that went largely unchecked each time — claims that San Diego is in danger of running out of space to stash our trash. Some of these claims were first made when I was in elementary school and long before I moved to California. It was surprising to see they were still being made, even though they were contradicted by new developments, and it was startling to see they had gone largely unchallenged in public.
What’s happening now: Two proposed landfills — the one in North County, which is also near a mountain sacred to Indians in the area, and the other at East Otay Mesa — are still winding their way through a lengthy regulatory process.
This Builder’s a Big Bully
Maya Srikrishnan, staff writer
What it’s about: This story digs into the Lilac Hills Ranch development proposed up in Valley Center. It looks at the various ways the developer has tried to bully and buy his way through the process, though the project doesn’t meet several requirements laid out in the county’s major planning document for the region.
Why the writer liked it: This story was great to report but also incredibly difficult because it had a little piece of everything: regional housing affordability, fire safety, eminent domain, campaign finance, land use, politics, business strategies and more.
What’s happening now: After our story came out, the county Planning Commission voted to recommend the project, but they included a few caveats that reflected issues we highlighted, including the possible use of eminent domain and fire safety issues.
The state’s political watchdogs also ruled that County Supervisor Bill Horn would have to recuse himself from voting on the project because of a conflict of interest that we reported out in the story. Horn has appealed the decision, and the county is waiting to hear back before setting a date for the final vote on the project. The vote will likely be early next year.
Why So Many Blacks Are Slain on the Street
Randy Dotinga, freelance contributor
What it’s about: L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy has covered homicide for more than a decade, and she chronicles life and death on the urban streets in her extraordinary new book “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America.” I interviewed her about the lessons she’s learned.
Among other thing, she suggests that liberals (focusing on police misconduct) and conservatives (emphasizing personal responsibility) miss the big picture of society’s failure to take homicides among blacks seriously. It doesn’t help, she believes, to focus on minor crimes when major ones are ignored and unsolved.
“If that teacher returns from time to time and doesn’t do anything to rein in the bullies who are hurting people, and just raps the knuckles of the kids who are chewing gum, it will have no effect. And it probably poisons the attitudes toward authority even more. When there’s a perception that there’s inordinate punishment for minor crimes, it’s a recipe for cynicism and creates the conditions for self-policing.”
Why the writer liked it: The truth usually lurks between political and ideological extremes, so Leovy’s rejection of both left and right strikes me as especially believable. Leovy’s seriousness and extensive experience give her credibility, and her commitment to fairness and openness insulates her from coming across as a scold.
What’s happening now: Leovy’s book is now out in paperback. San Diego continues to have a remarkably low crime rate compared to large cities, but blacks still bear more than their share of homicides.