The Idaho Statesman spent much of 2015 holding powerful people and organizations accountable. The newsroom dug through public records, built databases, and grilled public officials and power brokers.
Here is some of our best investigative work of the year:
Nuclear work likely killed 396 Idahoans
Statesman reporter Rocky Barker outlined complaints by workers at Idaho National Laboratory, and their families, about exposure to radiation and other hazards at work. The story ran in conjunction with a special report, “Irradiated,” by McClatchy, the Idaho Statesman’s parent company.
A federal compensation program has paid $53 million in health care costs for INL workers whose work likely contributed to or caused their illnesses. Another $188 million was paid to survivors of hundreds of dead INL workers.
The process of receiving compensation has been a struggle for former workers. More than 60 percent of claims filed by INL families are still awaiting a decision or were denied.
“Most of this work was done in a partial radiation suit that covered only part of his body,” Steve Bailey, son of a former INL worker, told Barker. “When his levels went too high, they would send him home for a day, reset his monitor, and have him come back to resume work the next day.”
Deputies shoot Idaho rancher Jack Yantis
Two sheriff’s deputies fatally shot Yantis (pictured above) in rural Adams County on Nov. 1.
The following week, Yantis family members talked to reporter Cynthia Sewell, giving their accounts of the night. Donna Yantis gave a video statement from her hospital bed, having suffered a heart attack after police threw her to the ground and handcuffed her following the shooting, she said. “I saw them murder my husband,” she said.
The family disputed reports that a shootout led to Yantis being killed by deputies. The story that resulted from their statements — the sheriff did not respond to requests for comment — was read about 1 million times within a few days of publication.
The shooting prompted an investigation by the FBI for possible federal criminal violations by the officers. Idaho State Police also is investigating the shooting, with the Idaho attorney general acting as special prosecutor.
Sewell later reported that a deputy involved in the shooting had left the McCall Police Department in 2011 a week after a 78-year-old man sued him and the department, alleging excessive force during a traffic stop.
The incident also led to stories by Sewell and reporters Katy Moeller and Bill Dentzer about Idaho’s open range law, the results of past investigations into Idaho fatal officer-involved shootings, the use of officer-worn video cameras and the lack of common standards for when the names of officers involved in a shooting are released.
St. Luke’s collects special taxes in hospital districts
The hospital system based in Boise made deals to acquire three small-town hospitals in recent years, under the condition that St. Luke’s could keep collecting special taxes that were put in place to support publicly-owned hospitals, Audrey Dutton reported in January. The revenues amount to about $3 million a year. At the time of the report, St. Luke’s was poised to take over the tax-supported Weiser hospital (pictured above).
Each hospital was a community medical center — a public facility supported by local property taxpayers and overseen by elected boards. But they were old and operating on slim margins, so their local boards approached St. Luke’s asking for the hospitals to be purchased.
In February, the Statesman reported that the Idaho attorney general would contest the taxing agreements and had created a draft lawsuit, calling the deals “unlawful and unconstitutional.”
Officers allege interference, retaliation at Idaho State Police
Three Idaho State Police crash investigators said the agency’s leadership retaliated against them when they refused to alter their conclusions about a crash in 2011 in which a Payette County deputy crashed into a Jeep, killing its driver.
The report concluded that the deputy was driving 115 mph on a two-lane 55-mph rural highway while responding with lights and sirens to a 911 call. The report said the deputy made an “unsafe pass” and was “operating an authorized emergency vehicle in an unsafe manner.” It also noted the Jeep’s driver had alcohol in his blood but could not determine whether it contributed to the crash.
ISP commanders allegedly tried to pressure investigators to change their opinions. One of the investigators later was fired.
The Gem County prosecutor who handled the case also voiced a number of concerns about ISP trooper Justin Klitch (pictured above) who allegedly interfered with the probe, saying he “lost my trust as a result of his conduct in this case.”
The agency was hit with three lawsuits stemming from the crash by the time reporter Cynthia Sewell’s story ran in May.
Low-income, refugee residents struggle in Boise’s rental market
As part of an ongoing look at the Treasure Valley’s tightening rental market, Zach Kyle reported in September on tenants forced to move out of an apartment complex. The Glenbrook Apartments tenants included a large number of low-income residents and refugees.
“I don’t know if ownership or management fully thought through the ramifications of what it means to release those people,” said John Thompson, pastor of Cornerstone Community Church. “Whether it’s legal or not, I think the impact of their decision should be taken into consideration.”
Those residents, Kyle reported in a follow-up story, were at risk of becoming homeless due to the short timeframe in which they had to vacate their apartments and the high costs of securing a new rental in Boise.
Despite vouchers, local veterans cannot find homes
The housing situation for local veterans also was grim, Anna Webb reported in April.
Southern Idaho veterans received 190 vouchers to help them pay rent. Most of those vouchers went to veterans in Boise.
Webb reported that 24 veterans in Boise had vouchers but can’t find apartments. Instead, they were living in shelters, on the streets or were “couch surfing,” living with friends.
There are a number of reasons those veterans are homeless, Webb reported. Those include the tight rental market, picky landlords who are put off by veterans’ sometimes troubled pasts, paperwork and other requirements landlords must complete to be eligible.
Firefighter charity draws criticism for management, fundraising
Families of firefighters who died battling wildfires told the Statesman’s Rocky Barker in February that the Wildland Firefighter Foundation once helped them through their loss. But, they said, the foundation in recent years became too interested in publicity.
The foundation raised a record $2 million in 2013 — a wildfire season during which dozens of firefighters died — which far exceeded its charitable spending of about $470,000. However, between 2002 and the most recent tax year, the charity reported spending about 65 percent of its revenues on charitable services.
Several former directors and volunteers raised questions about the foundation’s lax accountability over inventory, mileage and credit card practices.
Two months after the story ran, the foundation’s board received an independent review that confirmed problems pointed out in the story. Three board members quit in October over lack of adequate changes, citing among other things Minor’s decision to promote her assistant to chief financial officer instead of hiring an independent CFO.
Documents shed light on what happens behind the scenes of health care
After a lengthy battle, the Statesman obtained court documents from a federal antitrust trial that pitted Boise-based St. Luke’s Health System against its main competitor Saint Alphonsus Health System, the Federal Trade Commission and the Idaho attorney general.
Reporter Audrey Dutton dug through hundreds of documents from the trial. They revealed what goes into the business decisions made by Idaho’s largest and most powerful health care organizations.
The stories put a spotlight on the fiercely competitive relationship between local hospitals; the power struggles and battles over money between Idaho’s insurers and health care providers; how the business deal that prompted the lawsuit also had caused internal friction, factions and cost tens of millions of dollars; the emphasis hospitals place on where doctors send patients; and how one local patient’s medical costs rose 490 percent after her doctor joined St. Luke’s.
Officer shooting puts spotlight on Boise police watchdog
After a long search for someone to fill the position, with one candidate questioning the vetting process, Natalie Camacho Mendoza was named director of police oversight for Boise in August. Statesman reporter Sven Berg reported in November that after more than three months on the job, Camacho Mendoza hadn’t yet visited a scene in which officers were investigating an incident.
That included the scene of an Oct. 26 police shooting. The reason she gave for not being there was a desire not to interfere with the investigating officers. Camacho Mendoza’s predecessor said he went to the scene of every officer-involved shooting when he was ombudsman, even though he was not legally required to.
Local attorney Bruce Jones, who saw a Boise police officer shoot his son in 2004, questioned Camacho Mendoza’s approach.
“It is invaluable to be on the scene. It’s the primary source. There’s no substitute for actually seeing something rather than trying to re-create it later through photos or diagrams,” Jones said.
State public relations contractor paid thousands
Statesman reporter Bill Dentzer reported in August that Mike Tracy, a veteran political pitchman and well-connected Republican, held a $4,000-a-month contract to work part time for Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane.
Tracy worked about 10 hours per week, records showed. His total billings in the past five years exceeded $250,000.
He held public relations contracts with the state since 2007, including work for the Department of Lands from 2007 to 2011. Crane hired him in 2012 “initially to help manage a crisis for the office,” Dentzer reported. The contract is not subject to bidding or time limits.
Tracy previously was communications head for former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig.
Boise State students allege rape, sexual harassment
An anonymous email to the president of Boise State University in March 2013 alleged that university athletic staff knew a track athlete had “raped multiple former and current students.” The email prompted an internal investigation by the university, which found Boise State track coach J.W. Hardy (pictured above) was aware of, but did not report to university authorities, allegations that a female track athlete was sexually assaulted at an off-campus house party by “current or former members of the men’s track team.”
Hardy was put on administrative leave, told his contract wouldn’t be renewed, and the accused athlete was kicked off the track team and suspended from school, Katy Moeller reported in August. Allegations of sexual harassment within the school’s track program came to light after two former athletes filed lawsuits against Boise State in 2014, she reported.
Idaho instant racing regulator had second job
While Frank Lamb was working as director of the Idaho Racing Commission, he simultaneously was a consultant for Wyoming Downs LLC, a private company that operates live, simulcast and instant horse racing in Wyoming.
Lamb said he did not believe the dual roles were a conflict of interest. He also did not disclose his work for the private track operator when testifying before an Idaho legislative committee that was considering whether to repeal instant racing in Idaho.
Lamb was an unpaid consultant for Wyoming Downs since before he became Idaho Racing Commission director in 2012. Wyoming Downs began paying him for his services in mid-2014 — about the same time Lamb said he decided to retire from his Idaho job after the legislative session was over.
Lamb retired two days after the Statesman published the story by Cynthia Sewell.
Statesman reporter Bill Dentzer also investigated campaign donations and found that Idaho horse racing executives were among the top donors in 2014.
Boise boat maker accused of leaving customers high and dry
Christopher Bohnenkamp, a former Boise custom jet boat maker, left to start a new business in New York without fulfilling millions of dollars in prepaid orders for boats. The Statesman reported in July that Bohnenkamp had been sued multiple times by disgruntled customers and by companies looking to collect on unpaid bills.
Some customers, like the one pictured above, were told to pick up hulls and unfinished trailers.
Reporters Audrey Dutton and Zach Kyle found in court documents that Bohnenkamp had filed for bankruptcy in 2009 with nearly $5 million of debt, while running a different boat business, which also had been sued. Dutton and Kyle found the Idaho attorney general had received complaints but closed its review after corresponding with Bohnenkamp’s attorney and customers.
The week after the story ran, the Idaho attorney general opened an investigation into Bohnenkamp’s business dealings. In addition, the reporters obtained documents that show the FBI is investigating.