Case Study: <i>The Sacramento Bee</i> Tracks a Tip

By Rick Rodriguez (and colleagues)

It was the kind of tip many reporters would find overwhelming: sources within the California Highway Patrol alleging that high-ranking officers were making end-of-career injury claims to maximize their post-retirement income. They called it "Chief's Disease."


For Sacramento Bee reporters John Hill and Dorothy Korber, however, it was a reward for months of meticulous work covering the state's broken pension system.


Confirming the tip proved difficult. First, the state's retirement system refused to disclose any information about retirees except the amount of their pension.


Undeterred, John and Dorothy came at it from another angle. Such medical pensions tend to be preceded by workers' compensation claims, which the reporters learned were indeed considered public records. The Bee paid for an index of workers' compensation cases involving CHP workers and began to build a database.


Still, many of the chiefs and captains mentioned by the original tipsters were missing. After weeks of queries by the reporters, the workers' comp board acknowledged an error and released a second CD, containing more than 7,000 pages of additional case names.


That complete database allowed the reporters to request and examine worker comp case files at offices around the state. Those cases contained some of the most telling details and, in some cases, also the proof that workers had been granted a medical pension, and thus tax-free income. It also enabled the statistical analysis that proved the story's central allegation, that 80 percent of CHP chiefs made injury claims within two years of retiring.
  
An interesting twist occurred when the CHP's top administrator, Commissoner D.O. "Spike" Helmick, in early interviews, told Bee reporters that he would not come down with "Chief's Disease" when he retired. But an anonymous tipster said he was planning to do so and Helmick's spokesman confirmed that tip. The reporters examined Helmick's workers' comp files and discovered he had claimed injuries from falling out of his office chair and exercising on a stationary bicycle, among other things.
  
After that story ran, the CHP's general counsel sent a letter to Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez alleging that the workers' comp board had erred in releasing medical reports and other "confidential" information. The letter said that Helmick was considering legal action and threatened that several of the subjects of the then-upcoming report on "Chief's Disease" would "not hesitate to resort to litigation" if the investigation were published. The story ran the following day and to date no legal action has been taken. Helmick withdrew his special pension application.


The Bee's investigation spurred a number of reforms.


Just a week after "Chief's Disease" ran in The Bee, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a new chief of the California Highway Patrol. Citing our findings, Commissioner Mike Brown vowed to investigate the CHP's high rate of disability claims and medical pensions.


He reactivated the patrol's fraud unit and ordered the review of every single disability pension since 2000. The fraud unit's first arrest came in January and the second came two weeks ago.
 
Meanwhile, a state senator announced that she would convene a legislative hearing to probe the issue.


And the California Public Employees' Retirement System voted to sponsor legislation that would close the legal loopholes that permit phony disability claims.


Results were also quick after The Bee continued its investigation with a story about the propensity for worker's comp judges to file their own workers' comp claims. A week and a half after that story ran, the head of the California workers' comp system launched a review of judicial ethics. She also stepped up her department's efforts to ensure that the judges' cases weren't heard by their colleagues in their own judicial districts.


This series won a Polk award for state reporting earlier this year.

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed Poynter.org for 10 years.

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