Presidential Conflicts of Interest

This ongoing project is published by the Sunlight Foundation.  

I have been working since May 2017 with the DC-based Sunlight Foundation to track all of Pres. Donald Trump and his family’s potential conflicts of interest. It’s a systematic research project with a data-driven approach to catalogue and maintain a structured inventory of every instance where the presidential family’s personal and business interests may conflict with their obligations in public service — esp. Pres. Trump himself, and his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both of whom have taken senior advisor roles in the White House.

This document-driven research is funded in part by support from the Lodestar Foundation. As we build out the database, the project also will include reporting based on the data it contains.

Visit the project’s home page, jump straight to the database, or check out my related writing.

Huge Money, Small Oversight: State IT Spending In Vermont

$1 Billion+ ... The most accurate available information shows that the state could spend this amount on IT projects over the next five years.
$1 Billion+ ... The most accurate available information shows that the state could spend this amount on IT projects over the next five years.
Illustration: Amanda Shepard/VPR. Data source: Vermont Department of Information and Innovation.

story by Taylor Dobbs, data by Hilary Niles / Vermont Public Radio

The use of technology in Vermont state government went from a background concern to a political flashpoint throughout the troubled rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance exchange. None of the state’s IT projects receive the same level of public scrutiny, but information technology in state government is ubiquitous and makes up a significant — yet unknown — portion of the state’s budget every year.

A Vermont Public Radio investigation has found that it’s nearly impossible for Vermonters to know how much of their tax money goes toward IT operations in the state, how successful IT projects are in meeting state needs, or how well state agencies follow defined protocols for state contracts.

Using available records, interviews and dozens of documents released in response to multiple records requests, VPR built a comprehensive data base of IT projects across state government. The documents and interviews showed:

  • Despite efforts to improve transparency, there is no way for state officials or the public to track the total amount of money spent by the state government on information technology. The most accurate available information shows that the state could spend nearly $1 billion or more on IT projects over the next five years.
  • The state has increased oversight for IT projects in recent years, allowing the Department of Information and Innovation (DII) to monitor and even cancel projects from the time a department launches the procurement process to the finished product.
  • Although increased oversight provides more opportunities for DII officials to identify problems with an IT project, there’s still no way to know how successful these projects are in meeting their stated goals.
  • Specific protocols for state purchasing have been in place since 2008. Yet the state agencies tasked with ensuring those protocols are followed have never used their authority to audit compliance, making it difficult to know if agencies are following best practices as defined by the state itself.

// Listen Here and Read More

Vermont Mulls Pros & Cons of Privatizing Liquor Sales

story by Ken Picard, data by Hilary Niles / Seven Days

Graphics by Seven Days staff.
Graphics by Seven Days staff.

“Anyone who’s ever had a margarita, Manhattan or mai tai in the Green Mountain State has drunk from the river of booze that flows through Vermont’s Department of Liquor Control warehouse, the only one of its kind in the state. Vermont is one of 17 ‘control states’ in which unelected state officials direct the distribution and sale of all high-proof spirits — vodka, gin, rum, whisky, tequila, etc.” -Ken Picard

As part of Ken Picard’s investigation into the byzantine business of state liquor control, the alt-weekly Seven Days hired me to find out which types of alcohol the state’s liquor outlets sell the most of, and how much cash they rake in each year.

I sliced and diced five years worth of monthly inventory and sales data for 80 liquor outlets — 359,534 records in all — and folded in additional fields to determine the top-selling brands, locations and seasons throughout the year. Subsequent analysis revealed the meteoric ascendance of Vermont distilleries, among other insights. Data wrangling involved transfer of text to structured data files for analysis in MySQL using a Navicat database manager. I then exported queries for upload to a Google spreadsheet for shared access, and produced memos to summarize and explain my analyses for the editorial and graphics teams.

// Check it out

Vermont’s Shadow Budget: How The State Forgoes $1 Billion In Taxes Each Year

1302 words, 7 charts / Vermont Public Radio

Data-driven exploration and explanation of Vermont’s $1 billion annual tax expenditures that remain on the books with little scrutiny.

By Taylor Dobbs (Vermont Public Radio) and Hilary Niles (Niles Media), with web production by Angela Evancie (Vermont Public Radio). Illustration by Aaron Shrewsbury. Graphics by Hilary Niles, based on data from Vermont Tax Expenditures Reports, 2006-2015. 

As the Vermont Legislature works to overcome a $100 million budget gap for fiscal year 2016, one of its largest fiscal liabilities remains outside the reach of the annual budget bill. The state gives up about $1 billion in tax breaks annually through policies that have remained largely unchanged in recent years, even as lawmakers struggle to balance budgets.

Vermont isn’t alone on that front. Robert Zahradnik is the director of state fiscal health for the Pew Charitable Trust, and he says the majority of states don’t tend to keep close track of these tax breaks or measure their efficacy.

Additional related reporting:

Vermont’s Shadow Budget: State Tax Breaks Get Little Scrutiny // Feb. 9, 2015 // by Taylor Dobbs

Vermont’s Shadow Budget: It’s Hard To Know If Tax Breaks Are Working // Feb. 12, 2015 // by Taylor Dobbs and Hilary Niles

Known as “tax expenditures,” the impact of these tax breaks is the same as money spent. Think of it like an instant rebate: Instead of accepting the revenue and then handing it back out in the form of subsidies or payments, the state simply never collects certain revenues. The effect is the same.

A special commission in 2011 referred to this foregone revenue as a “shadow budget” that lacks sufficient transparency. And Zahradnik says tax expenditures don’t typically get the same level of scrutiny as the annual budget.

“We looked at this issue back in 2012 and released a report called Evidence Counts that found that most states really weren’t producing the kind of information that can ensure tax incentives – those tax expenditures focused on economic development … And since that time, we’ve been working with states to put in better practices,” he said.

Tax expenditures come in the form of policies and programs such as tax credits, exemptions, deductions or modified tax rates. Common at both the state and federal levels, they’re designed to encourage certain activities or lower the tax burden for certain populations. Such tax breaks are available for individuals and businesses, and virtually everyone in Vermont enjoys at least a few.

Common at both the state and federal levels, tax expenditures are designed to encourage certain activities or lower the tax burden for certain populations. Virtually everyone in Vermont enjoys at least a few. (Data: Vermont Tax Expenditures Reports, 2006-2015. Graphics: Niles Media.)
Common at both the state and federal levels, tax expenditures are designed to encourage certain activities or lower the tax burden for certain populations. Virtually everyone in Vermont enjoys at least a few.

Vermont is one of many states, Zahradnik says, that has taken a renewed interest in tax expenditures in recent years.

“There wasn’t always an opportunity for them to be reviewed in the same way that other programs are,” he said. “And I think on top of that, when you had the Great Recession and the fiscal crisis, our sense is there was just much more attention being paid to every dollar that state governments spend, and how do you make sure you’re making decisions that are based on evidence and that are based on an actual review of which programs are working and which ones are not?”

Vermont is ahead of some other states, he said, in that the state has defined measurable goals for all of its expenditures. But the state has not yet put significant effort into measuring progress against those goals or modifying policy to better reach them.

These tax “preferences,” as they’re also sometimes called, are divided into five broad categories based on which tax revenues are foregone: sales and use, income, property, motor fuel and vehicle and banking and insurance.

And unlike state spending, most of the tax breaks are permanent – unless they’re amended. They’re not voted up or down annually like the budget. But every two years, the state tallies how much money it’s not collecting. Here’s the latest glimpse of who gets to keep it.

Sales and Use

Vermont manufacturers don't have to pay taxes on their input materials or equipment. For individuals, there's no tax on most groceries, residential energy purchases or clothing.
Vermont manufacturers don’t have to pay taxes on their input materials or equipment. For individuals, there’s no tax on most groceries, residential energy purchases or clothing.

Sales and use taxes are the most visible form of taxation in the state. Virtually every time someone pays for goods or services, the state gets a small piece of that money. This category is also where the state gives up the most revenue in tax breaks each year, most of it (an estimated $339.1 million* in FY 2014) to manufacturers and other producers.

Manufacturers, including just about any company that produces tangible goods, don’t have to pay taxes on their input materials or equipment. So if a sock manufacturer is expanding its factory, it won’t have to pay for taxes on all the new fabrics or machines it buys. Manufacturers also don’t pay taxes on the energy they use in the manufacturing process.

The state does this to make it easier for manufacturers, which employ about 31,700 Vermonters, according to most recent estimates, to operate in the state by reducing overhead costs.

Tax breaks for individuals make up a significant portion of the sales and use expenditures as well. There’s no tax on most groceries, residential energy purchases or clothing, and those tax breaks make up $174.7 million of FY 2014’s foregone revenue from sales and use taxes.

Property

  • Total Expenditure (FY 2013): $281,080,500*
  • Portion of overall tax xxpenditures: 28 percent
  • Largest tax break: property tax adjustments for income sensitivity ($146,850,000*)
Including land such as church grounds, parcels in Current Use, and government-owned properties, property tax expenditures total about a quarter of the state's tax breaks.
Including land such as church grounds, parcels in Current Use, and government-owned properties, property tax expenditures total about a quarter of the state’s tax breaks.

Income sensitivity adjustments on statewide property tax bills also save Vermont taxpayers big, lately to the tune of about $145 million* a year — and that’s not counting tax breaks for public, religious and charitable organizations, or for landowners whose farm or forestland is enrolled in the state’s Current Use.

Including land such as church grounds, parcels in Current Use, and government-owned properties, property tax expenditures total about a quarter of the state’s tax breaks.

It’s also one of the few categories of tax breaks that’s made its way into the latest round of budget discussions. In Gov. Peter Shumlin’s third inaugural address in January, he proposed revoking farmers’ Current Use status if they repeatedly fail to comply with state water quality standards.

Income

  • Total expenditure (FY 2013): $59,744,000
  • Portion of overall tax expenditures: 6 percent
  • Largest tax break: earned income tax credit ($26,884,000)
The personal exemptions and standard deductions individuals claim on their annual income tax returns add up to more than half of all income tax breaks in Vermont. Note: Income tax expenditures from one tax year are reported for the following fiscal year.
The personal exemptions and standard deductions individuals claim on their annual income tax returns add up to more than half of all income tax breaks in Vermont. Note: Income tax expenditures from one tax year are reported for the following fiscal year.

It’s people, not companies, who find the most savings from income tax expenditures. The personal exemptions and standard deductions individuals claim on their annual income tax returns add up to more than half of all income tax breaks in Vermont.

Vermonters get income tax breaks for a wide range of things, from low income families’ spending on daycare ($61,000 in FY 2013) to saving for college ($1,777,000 in FY 2013).

Corporate tax breaks make up a much smaller portion of this category, though they vary dramatically year to year. Note: Income tax expenditures from one tax year are reported for the following fiscal year.
Corporate tax breaks make up a much smaller portion of this category – just $5,238,000 in FY 2013, though they vary dramatically year to year (they totaled less than half a million dollars in FY 2009). Note: Income tax expenditures from one tax year are reported for the following fiscal year.

Corporate tax breaks make up a much smaller portion of this category, though they vary dramatically year to year.

Lately, most savings for corporations comes from either the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive (a cash incentive for high-paying job creation) or the Research and Development Tax Credit (designed to encourage innovation in Vermont).

Banking and Insurance

  • Total expenditure (FY 2013): $29,231,800
  • Portion of overall tax expenditures: 3 percent
  • Largest tax break: hospital and medical service organizations ($14,070,800)
Most tax savings available for the banking and insurance industry go to hospital and medical service organizations in an effort to keep down the cost of health care in Vermont.
Most tax savings available for the banking and insurance industry go to hospital and medical service organizations in an effort to keep down the cost of health care in Vermont.

Most tax savings available for the banking and insurance industry go to hospital and medical service organizations in an effort to keep down the cost of health care in Vermont. And for about $10 million, some annuity considerations are exempted for insurance companies.

Banks pick up less than $4 million through other tax policies, including an incentive to invest in affordable housing.

While tax breaks in this category are expected to top $30 million in the coming fiscal year, overall they account for a small portion of total tax expenditures in the state.

 

Motor Fuel and Vehicle

  • Total expenditure (FY 2013): $28,420,000*
  • Portion of overall tax eexpenditures: 3 percent
  • Largest tax break: trade-in allowance ($24,700,000)
The vehicle trade-in allowance ensures vehicles are only taxed once (when they're bought) rather than twice (if they're traded in). Note: Diesel tax expenditures for FY2009-12 are excluded from these calculations due to unreliability of previously reported data.
The vehicle trade-in allowance ensures vehicles are only taxed once (when they’re bought) rather than twice (if they’re traded in). Note: Diesel tax expenditures for FY2009-12 are excluded from these calculations due to unreliability of previously reported data.

The vehicle trade-in allowance ensures vehicles are only taxed once (when they’re bought) rather than twice (if they’re traded in). This accounts for virtually all of the tax breaks in the motor vehicle and fuel category. Other tax breaks limit the costs of certain vehicles for religious and charitable organizations, veterans and people with disabilities.

There is also a tax break for diesel fuel used for farm equipment and other off-road uses. That tax break has been inaccurately reported in past years, but the accurate figure came in around $333,000 in FY 2013.

Editor’s note: The data presented here reflect state estimates reported by Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office and Department of Taxes in annual or biennial tax expenditure reports since 2006. Some tax expenditures are not estimated due to unavailable data. Additionally, methodologies for estimating these values have evolved, and the details of several tax expenditures have been amended in the intervening years. As a result, the comparison over time cannot be exact, but is presented here as accurately and fairly as possible with the best available data.

* Beginning with the state’s 2015 Tax Expenditures Report, certain items are no longer reported as tax expenditures. Some FY2013 values have been estimated as an average of prior projections for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2014.

The art, science and mystery of nonprofit news assessment

This grant-funded research on measuring the impact of nonprofit journalism won the Society for Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for excellence in research in 2013. / Investigative Reporting Workshop

by Charles Lewis and Hilary Niles

Abstract

This report seeks to answer the two-pronged question, “What is ‘impact,’ and how can it be measured consistently across nonprofit newsrooms?”

A review of recent, relevant literature and our informal conversations with experts in the field reveal growing ambitions toward the goal of developing a common framework for assessing journalism’s impact, yet few definitive conclusions about how exactly to reach that framework.

IRW-measuring-impact-graphic-2This is especially the case when journalism’s “impact” is defined by its ultimate social outcomes — not merely the familiar metrics of audience reach and website traffic.

As with all journalism, the frame defines the story, and audience is all-important. Defining “impact” as a social outcome proves a complicated proposition that generally evolves according to the constituency attempting to define it. Because various stakeholders have their own reasons for wanting to measure the impact of news, understanding those interests is an essential step in crafting measurement tools and interpreting the metrics they produce.

Limitations of impact assessment arise from several sources: the assumptions invariably made about the product and its outcome; the divergent and overlapping categories into which nonprofit journalism falls in the digital age; and the intractable problem of attempting to quantify “quality.”

These formidable challenges, though, don’t seem to deter people from posing and attempting to find answers to the impact question.

Various models for assessing impact are continually being tinkered with, and lessons from similar efforts in other fields offer useful insight for this journalistic endeavor. And past research has pointed to specific needs and suggestions for ways to advance the effort. From all of this collective wisdom, several principles emerge as the cornerstones upon which to build a common framework for impact assessment.

// Read the full report.

Related press

  • The Foundation Center // July 23, 2013 // Read More
  • “The mystery and measurement of nonprofit-news impacts” // by Josh Wilson, Investigative News Network // July 23, 2013 // Read More
  • “Journalists and their funders: Whose job is it to measure impact, and how should it be done?” // by Caroline O’Donovan, Nieman Journalism Lab // July 24, 2013 // Read More
  • “Why it’s time to stop romanticizing & begin measuring investigative journalism’s impact” // by Rick Edmonds, The Poynter Institute // August 19, 2013 // Read More
  • “Measuring the impact of journalism: 10 questions with Charles Lewis and Hilary Niles” // by Millie Tran, American Press Institute // August 19, 2013 // Read More
  • “Can Journalism’s Impact Be Measured?” // by Kevin Davis, NetNewsCheck // September 5, 2013 // Read More

Toxic Taps: Lead is still the problem

Long-form and video investigation of water pipe replacements that can cause a spike in water lead levels / 4503 words and 6+ minute video / Investigative Reporting Workshop and nbcnews.com’s Open Channel

By Sheila Kaplan and Corbin Hiar, with contributions from Hilary Niles* and Julie Stein 

* In addition to fact-checking and light copyediting on this article, I worked with a videographer on location in Providence, R.I., to interview local residents for an accompanying video.

Millions of Americans may be drinking water that is contaminated with dangerous doses of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows it; state governments know it; local utilities know it. The only people who usually don’t know it are those who are actually drinking the toxic water.

The problem stems from a common practice in which water utilities replace sections of deteriorating lead service lines rather than the entire lines, commonly known as partial pipe replacements. It is a course of action that can do more harm than good.

“It’s scary and the magnitude of this problem is huge,” said Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a Tufts University professor of medicine and public health, who recently chaired an expert panel advising the EPA on the problem.  “I didn’t realize how extensive the lead exposure still remained. … EPA is really deeply concerned about this …. This was not something they expected.”

Since the 1970s, lead has emerged as the most dangerous neurotoxin known to man, potentially damaging the developing brain and nervous system, causing life-long learning disabilities and other serious problems. It has been taken out of gasoline, removed from paint and banned from children’s toys. Yet practices developed to keep lead out of water, under an EPA rule, have backfired and can actually increase the hazard, a fact that led the agency to create Griffith’s group to study the latest science on the issue.

The problem stems from the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, a regulation designed to protect Americans from the nation’s network of aging lead water service lines, which connect water mains to customers’ taps. Most of these lead service lines were installed before the devastating effects of this heavy metal were fully accepted. Seeking to reduce the amount of this poisonous metal leaching into drinking water from old lead pipes, the regulation required utilities to test water from local homes for lead. If 10 percent of the samples exceeded 15 parts per billion, the utility was then ordered to try to reduce the lead contamination through chemical corrosion control techniques. If that failed, water utilities had to replace 7 percent of their lead service lines each year, or until follow-up samples showed the lead levels were reduced.

But after a review of recent studies and interviews with dozens of scientists as well as state and federal water officials, the Investigative Reporting Workshop found that the regulation has become a case study in unintended consequences.

“EPA tried to do something good and was thwarted. We should recognize that,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a preeminent lead researcher and professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, who served with Griffiths on the EPA Science Advisory Board’s Drinking Water Committee.

Full story online at Investigative Reporting Workshop.