March 24, 2017

Best of the States

Under radar, Florida spent about $250M on private lawyers, fees

AP Tallahassee reporter Gary Fineout started noticing how often Florida under Republican Gov. Rick Scott was losing court cases over its policies and was forced to pay opposing attorney fees. He decided to start a tally. But those fees would be just the tip of a quarter-billion-dollar iceberg. The money the state spent on private law firms to defend itself dwarfed that initial amount.

Getting that overall tally was the hard part. When Gary asked what was spent on outside legal counsel during Scott’s half-dozen years in office, the state attorney general told him: “We do not have that information."

So, Gary set out to search through the documents himself, revealing the true cost to taxpayers. For bringing to light a huge chunk of opaque spending and hold state leaders to account, Gary wins this week’s Best of the States.

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May 11, 2018

Best of the States

Illinois coroner to poor: Pay $1000 or county keeps remains

The tip that led to an exclusive by Chicago reporter Sara Burnett seemed outlandish: When poor people couldn't afford to bury their loved ones, a western Illinois coroner was cremating the bodies and keeping the ashes until the family paid $1,000. He’s continued the policy even though the state has resumed a program to pay for the funerals.

Burnett reported on a woman whose ex-husband and father of their three children died. They were both on disability and she couldn’t come up with the money, leaving the family to hold a memorial service with just a photograph and an empty container. Wendy Smith said she felt the policy was unfair. "I just think they pick on the people that are poor."

The coroner told Burnett that the policy started after the state, which for years has faced billion-dollar deficits, announced it was too broke to pay for indigent funerals and burials – shifting the cost to funeral homes and county coroners. Further, the coroner claimed only one woman was unhappy. But Burnett tracked down other families, and had a back-and-forth with the state about how much money was appropriated for the burial program

Within days, the state comptroller, citing The Associated Press story, weighed in that the coroner's practice was "disgusting behavior" and called for a ramped-up campaign to alert local officials that state-funded burial is again available.

For illuminating a questionable practice and how the state’s budget crisis continues to cause pain for the poor and vulnerable, Burnett earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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April 12, 2019

Best of the States

AP analysis: Sports betting has not been the jackpot some states expected

When the Supreme Court allowed all states to offer betting on sports, some lawmakers across the country saw an opportunity: Here was a way to bolster state budgets with revenue from an activity that was already happening in the shadows. But an AP review showed that actual tax revenue has yet to match expectations in the majority of states that legalized sports gambling.

State government team reporter Geoff Mulvihill, based in New Jersey, and Rhode Island statehouse reporter Jennifer McDermott looked through monthly state revenue reports and then compared the tax revenue generated to the original estimates in the legislation that authorized sports betting. They found that in four of the six states that legalized it last year – Rhode Island, West Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania – tax revenue was far below what the state had projected it would be.

The revenue story was the latest in a string of distinctive stories from reporters working the sports betting beat. Many of the stories, including the state revenue piece, have been accompanied by a data set compiled by Mulvihill that tracks every piece of legislation related to sports gambling. It is being made available to all AP customers who subscribe to our data distribution platform and has been promoted to local reporters as a way to add context to their stories.

For revealing the difference between lawmakers’ promises on tax revenue and the reality, Mulvihill and McDermott win this week’s Best of the States prize.

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Feb. 28, 2020

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

Despite ‘infrastructure weeks,’ there’s no $1 trillion

for a story of national interest about President Donald Trump’s administration, reported not from Washington but from the nation’s heartland. After the president released his latest budget proposal, Lieb revealed that Trump has failed to deliver on his promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan. He has so far been unable to persuade Congress to pass anything like that, even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. https://bit.ly/2T38OrE

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July 10, 2020

Best of the States

Joint investigation details hollowed-out US public health departments

While it is widely understood that U.S. public health departments have suffered budget cuts over the years, a collaborative AP/Kaiser Health News team used data and deep reporting to show exactly how expansive those cuts have been.

The investigation by AP’s Michelle Smith, Meghan Hoyer and Mike Householder, teamed with KHN’s Lauren Weber, Laura Ungar, Hannah Recht and Anna Maria Barry-Jester, drew on data from disparate sources and interviews with more than 150 people to reveal a system starved of money and staff for years, and facing more cuts amid the worst health crisis in a century. 

The team’s all-formats package drew kudos and high-profile reaction from health officials, to the halls of Congress, to editorial pages.

For an ambitious story that laid bare the state of America’s public health system, the joint AP/KHN team of Smith, Hoyer, Householder, Weber, Ungar, Recht and Barry-Jester shares this week’s Best of the States award.

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April 13, 2018

Best of the Week — First Winner

AP Exclusive: EPA's Pruitt spent millions on security, travel

Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt’s lavish spending and deep concerns about security had put his future in the Trump Cabinet in jeopardy. But what was the cost to taxpayers?

AP beat reporter Michael Biesecker, whose aggressive coverage of Pruitt began more than a year ago when Trump nominated him for the EPA post, began working sources still at the agency and those who had left in search of the answer. His findings – that Pruitt spent about a whopping $3 million on security in the first year – win the Beat of the Week award.

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Nov. 25, 2016

Best of the Week — First Winner

Too quiet on the set: Filming accidents often go untold

The 2012 film “The Avengers” cemented Marvel’s dominance at the box office, but the movie had a secret: A man had died bringing the blockbuster to the big screen. John Suttles died after falling from his truck while preparing to drive it to a set, but his name was not listed in the film's credits. Outside the production and Suttles’ family, the only clue to his death and its connection to the movie was an 84-page investigative file by the workplace safety agency, Cal/OSHA.

That clue was uncovered by AP Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney, who began investigating set accidents in 2014. After diving into state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration records, he discovered that dozens of workers had been killed and more had been seriously hurt on big-name television and film properties. Set accidents remain largely hidden, and the consequences usually amount to mere thousands of dollars in fines paid out of multimillion-dollar budgets, he reported. McCartney also catalogued numerous fatal film-set accidents internationally. His painstaking work wins Beat of the Week.

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Jan. 17, 2020

Best of the States

AP reveals chronic problems, personal stories behind a deadly period in Mississippi prisons

The Associated Press began chronicling rising violence across Mississippi’s troubled prison system in late 2019, but after four deaths in four days it became clear that something bigger was going on.

Reporters Jeff Amy and Emily Wagster Pettus explored the history of underfunding and other problems in the state’s prison system. In addition to official documents describing understaffing, the pair obtained photos and video shot by a prisoner that showed the conditions inside the infamous penitentiary at Parchman. 

AP also published all-formats interviews with grieving mothers of prisoners killed, and reported on the state’s decision to house inmates at a private prison.

For bringing much-needed insight and context to a chaotic, evolving situation and giving voice to those affected by the deadly violence, Amy and Wagster Pettus receive this week’s Best of the States award.

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