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Dozens of journalists devote their careers to uncovering facts and foibles in America’s eighth-largest city and fifth-largest county. In 2015, they exposed plenty of news about subjects ranging from dangerous dentists to water hogs. National publications dropped by our fair city too, digging into hot topics like a bizarre murder case, the lives of ex-cons and the bustling cross-border business in illicit cheese.
Here’s a look at the some of 2015’s most notable journalism about San Diego from other publications:
Accusations Rock a Powerful Attorney
The online watchdog journalism outlet inewsource devoted much of the year to a single investigative project: digging deep — very deep — into the career and conflicts of Cory Briggs, San Diego’s “most disruptive lawyer” and Public Enemy No. 1 of government agencies across Southern California.
A sampling of headlines tell the story: “Cory Briggs’ land deals raise ethical, legal questions,” “Briggs-associated nonprofits flout state, federal laws,” “Five major questions San Diego attorney Cory Briggs won’t answer,” “Briggs lawsuit, land deal ends badly for family; experts question attorney’s actions,” “San Diego attorney’s environmental lawsuits could be tainted by conflict of interest.” Much of the coverage focused on the woman that Briggs has called his wife (it’s complicated) and her work on projects linked to his litigation.
As the local journalism community debated whether inewsource had fallen victim to an unhealthy obsession, the outlet fought off retraction demands, a subpoena and a lawsuit aimed at crippling its ability to operate. A judge threw out the lawsuit, which the Union-Tribune called “an insult to the First Amendment,” and the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists condemned it.
Nuclear Power Struggles
In a series of damning stories for the Union-Tribune, reporter Jeff McDonald took a long look at the state’s powerful Public Utilities Commission.
Some of the reporting began back in 2014 and has been aided by former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who is involved in litigation that is turning up documents that McDonald is reporting on. Aguirre has been questioning the commission’s decision to stick ratepayers with a $3.3 billion bill related to Southern California Edison’s failure to safely operate its San Onofre nuclear plan.
But, oh, the things we learned this year from McDonald: The former head of the state commission secretly sketched out a deal with power company officials in a fancy Polish hotel. A judge involved in the case had backchannel communications with Edison, too. Some of the folks who supposedly stand up to the commission on behalf of you and me are dependent on money from the commission.
Expect the hits to keep coming: A judge is trying to decide right now whether the state has to release emails that might show what hand Gov. Jerry Brown’s office had in the San Onofre deal.
Death in the Dentist’s Chair
One patient was burned in the dentist’s chair when “when an oxygen line erupted in a fire in her face.” The Rancho Bernardo dentist didn’t lose his license. He kept on working under probation from the state dental board. Then a 15-year-old patient died in his care.
By 2012, five years after the boy died, the dentist’s career in California was finally finished after “the state dental board had spent more than a decade investigating reports of negligence, injury and death in his care,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The newspaper’s coverage raised questions about the board’s ability to protect patients from dangerous dentists.
The YMCA’s Dirty Laundry
KPBS revealed serious turmoil within the management of the local YMCA system — the seventh largest employer in the county — and found that its board “had hired a consultant to oversee an investigation into mismanagement allegations.” KPBS discovered that senior officials left with what appeared to be confidentiality agreements and hefty payouts, and it reported conflict within the organization over whether it should become a kind of “spa-fitness” outfit or focus on serving those in need.
Ultimately, the YMCA announced that the probe let it off the hook regarding major allegations.
Water Hogs at the Public Trough
First, the Center for Investigative Reporting exposed the gloriously excessive annual water use of a single home in L.A’s Bel Air neighborhood — 90 households’ worth — and found that a ZIP code in San Diego’s Carmel Valley neighborhood has more 1-million-gallons-plus users (36) than any other in the state, even topping the famous 92010 ZIP code in second place. A La Jolla ZIP code came in third.
Then, the U-T uncovered the soggiest of water hogs in our own Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood. One couple used about 57 million gallons — that’s not a misprint — in 2003, although they helpfully cut that to 28 million gallons by 2013.
Professional golfer Phil Mickelson made the list too for water use on his property, which includes a private golf course.
To the East, a Big Stink
The Atlantic traveled to the Salton Sea and returned with bad news: The toxic lake to the east of us is threatening to spawn even more air pollution in Southern California: “The window of time to do anything about it — and save the lake from ecological crisis — is rapidly closing.”
A Crippled Son, a Grim Future
The San Francisco Chronicle followed a San Diego mother who’s trying to buck the system and find good long-term care for her son, who suffered brain damage during a college drug binge. “I’m resigned to the fact that I am saying goodbye to my son and sad that I’m most likely sending him off to what may well be a fate worse than death,” the mother said. “I’m scared that he will suffer.”
Inside the Bizarre World of a ‘Weather Hoaxer’
Gawker uncovered the wild story of a “weather hoaxer” responsible for massive misinformation and his alleged threats against the local office of the National Weather Service.
A young California man named Kevin Martin has allegedly spread false but real-seeming information about hurricanes, severe weather warnings and more. The hoaxes, Gawker reports, have gone viral and sometimes seemed to be real because they spoof official reports.
“Martin used a variety of dummy accounts on Facebook to threaten the [weather service] building and its employees, going so far as to draw crosshairs on satellite snapshots of the office, accompanied by the ominous message ‘endanger the public and I endanger you,’” Gawker reports. “During the height of the situation in December, employees at NWS San Diego were informed that management had increased security at the building, and that local and federal authorities were actively investigating his threats against the agency.”
Murder, Lobbyists Galore and Illicit Cheese
• Pacific Standard explored the “reclusive and controversial religious sect known as the Twelve Tribes,” which has a major presence in San Diego County.
• KQED revealed how California government agencies spend millions of dollars on lobbyists whose job is to … lobby other government agencies.
• Buzzfeed pieced together a compelling story about how a young woman from Lakeside trying to protect herself from her stalker became an unlikely poster child for the gun-rights movement.
• The L.A. Times uncovered how a power struggle snuffed Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to protect the environment by cutting gasoline use.
• The New Yorker profiled San Diego attorney Judy Clarke, who defends the worst of the worst in high-profile death penalty cases like that of the surviving Boston Marathon bomber.
• San Diego native Lee Jenkins, a Sports Illustrated writer, eulogized the Chargers in a moving column that chronicled a “Beautiful Funeral” at what may be the team’s last home game here.
• The Atlantic explored one of the most bizarre murder investigations in San Diego history. The New York Times Magazine, meanwhile, went to San Diego to explore life for ex-cons.
• There’s a massive and illegal cross-border trade in cheese, Vice discovered. Yes, cheese. “American cheese companies should hire these highly-motivated vendors and make them heads of their international marketing divisions. They know the market better than anyone else does, and their sales numbers are off the charts.”
• Thrillist helpfully put together an “Oral History of the Great San Diego Fireworks Fail of 2012.”
• Audubon magazine profiled an East County “parrot rehabber” who nursed injured urban parrots back to health and then set them free in El Cajon — a technically illegal no-no.
From Our Own: Priests Run Amok, Water Wars and More
Voice of San Diego’s current and former journalists made a mark in news outlets outside VOSD this year.
In a story for The Washington Post, reporter Liam Dillon explored the opposition within San Diego to a Trump-style border wall. I mapped out California’s drought blame game in a post for Vanity Fair, while managing editor Sara Libby profiled high-profile local legislator Lorena Gonzalez — “The California Democrat Setting the National Agenda” — for The Atlantic.
And at GlobalPost, former VOSD reporter Will Carless uncovered how “South America has become a safe haven for the Catholic Church’s alleged child molesters.”
Ry Rivard contributed to this report.