Latest Work

Seth Williams distracted from freeing innocent prisoners?

Philadelphia City Paper

Concern about the credibility of Philadelphia’s conviction review unit deepened last week when District Attorney Seth Williams tapped the unit’s newly minted director to also oversee a high-profile political-corruption probe.

Williams named prosecutor Mark Gilson to supervise a grand jury investigation into four state legislators and a Traffic Court judge who allegedly received cash and gifts without reporting them. 

In April, after lengthy resistance, Williams created the conviction review unit to review possible false convictions and appointed Gilson as its leader and sole member.

Pennsylvania Innocence Project legal director Marissa Boyers Bluestine says the DA’s move has prompted new concerns. “As there are still no other staff members assigned to reviewing cases of innocence, we have new reservations about the District Attorney’s commitment to this endeavor,” she says.

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How Philly's most powerful ed reform group broke the law

Philadelphia City Paper

The Philadelphia Board of Ethics yesterday announced that the city’s most powerful school reform group, campaigning against teacher seniority and for closing what they describe as low-performing public schools, broke the city lobbying law.

"In consultation with the Ethics Board, we came to better understand the requirements of the new law and worked with the Board to bring our filings into full compliance," according to a statement issued by the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP). The group said that it aims "to be open and transparent about its work."

The Ethics Board found that PSP Executive Director Mark Gleason and Managing Director Mike Wang failed to register as lobbyists, and that PSP failed to register as a principal (an entity that hires a lobbyist), failed to file certain expense reports in 2012 and 2013, and made “material omissions” in the their 2013 third quarter expense report.

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Philly School District blocks a federal study after health risks are exposed

Philadelphia City Paper

The crisis-wracked School District of Philadelphia has quietly abandoned a federal agency’s plans for further study of environmental-health risks in its aging school buildings. An initial review found pervasive dampness, mold or water damage — conditions that may aggravate asthma and other respiratory ailments — but the District has refused to make the complete findings public.

The limited results obtained by City Paper raise questions, including at Bryant Elementary School in West Philadelphia, where a visual inspection conducted during the first study found signs of water-related deterioration in 95.2 percent of the school’s rooms. Bryant was where a sixth-grade girl, Laporshia Massey, suffered what her father described as an asthma attack last fall when no nurse was on duty, and died later that day. 

In fact, Bryant had the greatest prevalence of such conditions among 36 schools described in a summary dated March 20, 2012. Of that group of school buildings, more than 60 percent— 23 schools — had dampness, mold or water damage in more than a third of their rooms. A far smaller number of rooms were cited only for mold or mold odor. 

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What does the fight over Philly.com mean for the future of Philly journalism?

Philadelphia City Paper

“Two writers say stuffed Bigfoot is legit” and “I’ve never had sex with my husband” are the sort of headlines on Philly.com that fill Philadelphia Inquirer reporters with dread and despair. 

The website, created as the web portal for the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, is at the center of a spectacular ownership meltdown at Interstate General Media (IGM), which owns the three media properties.

Lexie Norcross, daughter of owner and powerful South Jersey Democratic political boss George Norcross, has become a lightning rod for newsroom criticism in her role as vice president of digital operations and corporate services.  The long-troubled website now competes against the two papers that it was created to support — and uses gossipy content to drive traffic. 

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Welcome to Comcast Country

New York Times

Comcast’s executive vice president, David L. Cohen, did not seem fazed when Senator Al Franken warned at a recent Judiciary Committee hearing that the company’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable would “result in fewer choices, higher prices and even worse service for my constituents.” Comcast argues that the merger will not decrease competition among cable television or broadband Internet providers because the two companies do not directly compete — though the reason for that is that they already maintain virtual monopolies in many of their service areas.

In Comcast’s case, that monopoly is predicated upon exerting overwhelming political control. Just ask anyone who lives in Philadelphia, where the shiny 975-foot Comcast Center looms over the skyline. As buttons at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia proclaimed: “Welcome to Comcast Country.”

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Riding the trolley with SEPTA’s resident poet

Philadelphia City Paper

“Here, like a bat, we dive,” SEPTA driver Mike Fuller informs passengers as a Route 13 trolley noses into the dark tunnel at 40th Street, heading toward Center City. 

On another trip, at the same spot, he might announce: “Now, from this 40th Street portal, like a reverse trampoline, we drop down to 37th and Spruce — next stop.”

Fuller, 49, speaks in the slow-paced and even voice common to most trolley drivers, yet says things that are fantastically poetic, funny and sometimes deeply strange. 

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Rebellion against standardized testing spreads to Philly

Philadelphia City Paper

The No. 2 pencils have been sharpened, but teaching has stopped: It is standardized-testing time again in Philadelphia public schools. But, this year, some local parents are rebelling against the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams and opting their kids out of the tests.

“There’s just no way that I can allow the School District to not educate my child effectively and then tie this albatross around her neck,” LaTonia Lee, the mother of a seventh-grade special-education student at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, says of the standardized test. Lee was distressed to learn that no accommodations would be made for her daughter’s language-based disability.

Lee and other parents echo widespread complaints by teachers that the high-stakes tests distort the curriculum and stress out students — at a time when schools have suffered mass layoffs.

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Why I can't donate to WHYY

Philadelphia City Paper

It’s pledge time again at WHYY because the public radio station fell a few hundred thousand dollars short during its winter membership drive. I won’t donate, but I do know where they can find that money they want: WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo’s $538,412 compensation package.

That’s per their 2012 990 filing with the IRS. WHYY declined to make more recent information available.

I listen to WHYY every day. But many listeners, myself included, refuse to dip into our measly checking accounts to subsidize a rich man’s excessive salary. Here’s what is at the heart of things: Rich people have too much money, the rest of us have too little and there are far too few reporters employed in this city.

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Philly public school students campaign for tastier and healthier lunches

Philadelphia City Paper

Philadelphia students are campaigning to dump the company that provides many of the city’s public schools with frozen, pre-plated lunches, contending that the food provided by Maramont, a subsidiary of Illinois-based Preferred Meal Systems, Inc., tastes bad and is bad for their health.

The contract, which has been awarded solely to Maramont for the past decade, includes pre-plated lunches, breakfasts and after-school meals. It will expire in July, and the District has issued a Request for Proposals that has attracted bids from two rival food-service companies. Youth United for Change (YUC) student activists, who worked with the District to rewrite the RFP, say that providing better food is a simple thing that cash-strapped public schools can do to improve student health and learning.   

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Meet Smitty: armed robber, jailhouse rocker and casualty of the war on crime

Philadelphia City Paper

William Smith scrutinizes many things. For one, prison food only gets worse; the instant mashed potatoes have grown so watery that they resemble wallpaper paste. The chicken? “It don’t taste like chicken; there’s no chicken that you can see.”

Fish, bread and string beans likewise flout all known definition. 

These are the mundane concerns that make up a prisoner’s life; a focus on a world that, over the decades, continues to shrink within an institution’s walls. Smith, 72, has been confined at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford for nearly 50 years for his part in an armed robbery in Philadelphia that ended in murder. During that time, he has witnessed spectacular reforms — including one that allowed him to become a guitarist in a high-profile prison funk band — and he has watched most of them get rolled back. A model prisoner, he has come within a hair’s breadth of freedom — the commutation of his life sentence — only to see a deranged lifer, freed under dubious circumstances, embark on a violent rampage that set off a conservative political revolution. 

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