The weekly watchdog: Dec. 12 - Dec. 16

This week's top investigations from iWatch News

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Jesus Sosa Mancia, a CKD patient in Bajo Lempa, El Salvador, during a home visit by a medical team from the national health ministry.

Sasha Chavkin/ICIJ

Thousands of sugarcane workers die while authorities stall

In most of the world, chronic kidney disease — CKD — is a manageable illness that primarily affects the elderly. But in Central America the condition is instead devastating whole communities, according to a new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Between 2005 and 2009, about 2,800 people died each year — mostly manual laborers in harsh sugarcane fields of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. As the death toll rises, those in a position to fight the disease — the region's sugar industry, wealthier nations such as the U.S., and international development agencies — have largely resisted pleas to take action. Our reporters visit the “Island of the Widows.”

An epidemic of expulsions

K-12 school suspension and expulsion policies are disproportionately targeting minorities and putting many students on a fast track to failure, according to a new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. California’s Kern County is at the leading edge of the debate over where to draw the line in school discipline. The county is home to just 3 percent of California students, but last year was responsible for 14 percent of state expulsions. Those numbers hide a troubling racial element. In the county’s public schools, Latino students represent 55 percent of district enrollment but 60 percent of those expelled over a five-year period. White students represent 32 percent of enrollment and 22 percent of the expelled; blacks were less than 8 percent of enrollment but about 15 percent of expelled pupils.
 

Countrywide’s culture was top-down, fearful, intimidating

The Countrywide Financial postmortem continues — and the story just gets more sordid. Whistleblower Cynder Niemela was hired by the subprime lender in 2007 to help improve the astounding 45 percent turnover of the company’s mortgage sales force. She found a culture of top-down fear and intimidation, starting with CEO Angelo Mozilo and including most VP-level officers of the company. And the top brass didn’t like bad news. Niemela alleges that higher-ups revised and distorted one of her PowerPoint presentations in an effort to obscure the company’s problems with employee dissatisfaction. She also urged Countrywide executives to open a full-scale investigation of fraud within the company. “They just shut the whole thing down. They didn’t want to hear that,” she said. Niemela was ultimately fired.
 

Center website wins National Press Foundation award 

The Center for Public Integrity’s iWatchnews.org website received the Excellence in Online Journalism Award from the National Press Foundation. NPF said the site “effectively uses the capabilities of digital journalism in support of its investigative mission.” It’s the third major award for the Center in almost as many weeks. Late last month, the nonpartisan news organization won two 2011 EPPY awards from Editor & Publisher. The winning categories: Best Enterprise Feature on a Website and Best Investigative Website with Under 250,000 Monthly Visitors.
 
Until next week,
 
Bill Buzenberg
Executive Director