8/14/14

Rick Perry Continues to Deny Wrongdoing in Cameron Todd Willingham Case

I'm not sure if another reporter's asked Rick Perry about this yet, but during his not-considering-running-for-president-again-wink-nod campaign stop near Ames Monday I probed the Texas governor on the latest developments casting doubt over Cameron Todd Willingham's guilt that were reported last week by the Marshall Project. Perry's response, as expected, was the denial of any wrongdoing by the Texas justice system and its "open and ... thoughtful process."

For the uninitiated: Cameron Todd Willingham was a man executed on Texas' death row in 2004 for allegedly setting fire to his home, killing his three children — but as many reporters have shown, none better than the New Yorker's brilliant David Grann in "Trial by Fire," he was almost certainly innocent.

Grann's story focused largely on the incompetent arson investigation that led to Willingham's conviction. But John Jackson, the prosecutor in the case, has argued that even if that investigation was flawed, the testimony of a jailhouse snitch still proved Willingham's guilt. Not quite: despite Jackson's denials, documents obtained by the Marshall Project (based on evidence reported earlier this year) revealed that he offered to reduce the informer's sentence for armed robbery and funnel him thousands of dollars if he kept in line.

Perry's response to my question about Jackson's misconduct, which, had it been revealed while Willingham was still alive, could have been grounds for a new trial: "I really don't have any quotes about any response to someone who thinks they may have found something. We have a very open and, I think, a thoughtful process."

12/15/13

Ames Embraces the Natural Gas Boom

My latest story, published in the Sunday edition of the Ames Tribune, takes a look at the city council's recent decision to satisfy new and anticipated Environmental Protection Agency regulations by converting its main power plant units so they burn natural gas instead of coal. Ames' electric department didn't get into the fracking debate, athough a few residents did, but both were generally on board with an "interim" switch to a less polluting fossil fuel, a departure from decades of dependence on coal:
In 1896, Ames residents voted 298-40 in favor of a $12,000 bond to establish a city-owned power plant. 
By the turn of the century, the plant served 175 customers. Now it serves around 28,000. 
Throughout those nearly 120 years, one thing has remained constant: The plant has always used coal as its primary fuel. 
But that’s all changing now, in Ames and cities confronted with similar dilemmas around the United States. Strict EPA standards proposed in September have coal producers worried that building new coal-fired plants will become cost-prohibitive, while new regulations for existing plants could lead to an increasing number of cities abandoning coal for natural gas, as Ames is doing. 
In a fight for survival, the once-dominant coal industry has aggressively lobbied against the EPA regulations. In coal-rich states such as Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky, many blue-collar workers see coal not as a climate antagonist but as a guarantor of their livelihoods.
Read the rest here.

12/12/13

No, Not All of Iowa's Legislators Are ALEC Members

There's a hyperbolic story floating around the internet this week repeating a false claim that every legislator in Iowa is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential political organization that drafts model legislation for state legislatures on a range of controversial conservative issues.

That claim originally came from ALEC itself, which the Guardian revealed last week by posting a leaked agenda from the organization's 40th annual board of directors meeting in August. The agenda mostly got attention for exposing schemes to woo back lapsed corporate members and create a 501(c)(4) lobbying arm, and for a so-called loyalty oath proposal for state chairs that ALEC said board members never adopted. But on page 39 there's a state-by-state breakdown of legislative membership that claims Iowa's is at 100 percent.

12/8/13

Another Cityview Conspiracy: Fluoride Is Poison

I wasn't going to touch this one but...can't help myself: Last Wednesday, Cityview published another classic conspiratorial story by Amber Williams, this time on the Des Moines Water Works' public forums on water fluoridation. Like in her past stories on 9/11 and vaccines, Williams extensively parrots the claims of someone with no expertise—in this case a "local artist and activist"—to give a veneer of legitimacy to junk science.

I'm not going to dissect the entire article this time, but to summarize, the activist makes a litany of serious claims, many of them misleading or false, that Williams only occasionally qualifies (mostly by lifting words from the American Cancer Society).

11/10/13

Will Iowa Be the Next State to Legalize Medical Marijuana?

I asked that question in 2009, to open my comprehensive report on medical marijuana's history in Iowa. It popped up again a few days ago as the headline for this Iowa State Daily story. In 2009, 13 states had medical marijuana laws; now there are 20. But the answer's still almost certainly no.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Steve Jenison, a native of Ames, Iowa, and the former director of New Mexico's medical marijuana program, who spoke Sunday evening at Iowa State University. In 2007, after years of discussion, New Mexico became the seventh state to legalize medical marijuana through its legislature. That approach, Jenison said, allowed more time to implement the sort of tightly regulated program that states like California are so frequently criticized for lacking. (A common red herring used by Iowa foes of medical marijuana is that they don't want to see the state turn into California, where the streets in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco often reek of weed.)

11/6/13

Monsanto Helps Kill Washington's GMO Labeling Initiative

In my recent story for Al Jazeera America, on the Monsanto executive who won the World Food Prize, I took a look at the more than $5 million Monsanto has given the prize's foundation since 1999. But unfortunately, I didn't manage to find enough room to delve into the debate over efforts to mandate labeling genetically modified (GM) foods—so I didn't mention the ballot initiative to label GM foods in Washington state, which Monsanto helped defeat on Tuesday by spending nearly $5.4 million campaigning against it.

11/5/13

Same-Day Voter Registration Shenanigans at the Polls in Ankeny

If you're registering to vote at the polls today in Iowa, don't let a poll worker tell you that you can't register if you've got a photo ID with your current address.

That's what happened to me today at the Ankeny Free Church after I provided my driver's license to the man handling same-day registration. He asked for a second form of ID, like a utility bill, which by Iowa law is only required if your photo ID has an outdated address.

10/28/13

Vodka Samm and the Troubling Practice of Mugshot Journalism

I'm late to the most recent chapter of the Vodka Samm story, but I'm not alone so I'm going to finally write some thoughts about one of my biggest pet peeves in journalism: the irresponsible use of mugshots. In this story, it's just a small part of the mean-spirited harassment of an ordinary college student. In other situations, it creates the impression of guilt before convictions that often never come, and for that reason can also be a convenient intimidation tactic for police.

10/20/13

Occupying the World Food Prize

I spent last week traveling between Ames and Des Moines to take a closer look at the controversy over the naming of Monsanto executive Robert Fraley as a World Food Prize laureate. My story on that—my first byline since leaving Mother Jones in August—was published at Al Jazeera America on Friday.

As with the Occupy Iowa caucus protests, the Occupy the World Food Prize demonstrations, led by many of the same activists, were far more subdued than anything I witnessed covering Occupy Oakland, but things got fairly lively thanks to Jim Hightower:
"I don’t like what Monsanto does to foist themselves on other countries and on our farmers ... turning agriculture into just another get-rich scheme," said Janet Klaas, a retired reference librarian from Ames.
In a Des Moines Methodist church sanctuary on Wednesday, she listened to Texas populist Jim Hightower rail against corporate agriculture behind an Occupy banner with an image of a raised fist clenching a carrot and ear of corn.
Read the rest here.

10/8/13

Hacks and Outcasts in Iowa

It's been about a month since I departed the DC bureau of Mother Jones and landed back in Iowa, where I've taken a few weeks off to contemplate some harebrained Hawkeye State ideas that were gathering dust in my notebook. One of those ideas—if I stick around Iowa long enough—is relaunching the Ames Progressive, the politics and culture zine my friends and I wrote in college, with a co-authored book chronicling its history.

I've envisioned loosely modeling the book's layout after The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, the book by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi about the outlandish expat newspaper the pair used to publish together in Moscow. Ames and Taibbi authored alternate chapters detailing the paper's history. In the final chapter, "Hacks," Taibbi wrote about Wayne Barrett, the first boss I had after leaving Iowa for New York about three and a half years ago: