Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: A year of reporting with impact

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Darlene King would not have found her late husband's wedding ring, lost five or six years ago.

Politicians running for office would have had license to make false claims about their opponent with no accountability.

Bee journalists reported news as it happened in 2012. And then we did more. Our newsroom mission is not just to reflect events but also to investigate problems and watch out for the community, whether the story is about holding someone accountable for a nursing home death or the misspending of public money.

Sometimes our impact is substantial, such as the results of our state parks and Caltrans investigations this past year and the public attention we've brought to the untested surgical procedures used by two neurosurgeons at UC Davis Medical Center, where three terminally ill patients later died.

Sometimes it is small but heartfelt. In the case of the missing wedding ring, summer intern Jing Cao gets credit for tracking down Darlene King, who with her husband was the original owner of the car in which their lost ring was found.

And, sometimes, it's hard to measure. We continued our commitment this year to journalism that supports our democratic form of government, publishing voter guides in print and online for the primary and the general elections.

Here's a look back at some of our work.

Matt Weiser uncovered a secret vacation buyout program at state parks headquarters that cost $271,000, enough money to keep several parks off a closure list. Then Weiser's reporting forced public disclosure of $54 million in hidden funds – enough to protect all state parks from closure.

Kevin Yamamura and Jon Ortiz joined the reporting team. Results? The director quit and the deputy director was fired; three investigations are ongoing; state legislation allocated $20 million for a parks matching-grant program; and greater oversight was established.

Stories by Charles Piller raised questions about the structural integrity of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, set to open next year, as well as revealing other problems in Caltrans work.

Two Caltrans employees were fired as a result, though one later was allowed to retire with his pension. A special Caltrans team assembled after the initial story found 1,000 more suspect tests of structures statewide. Caltrans agreed to reform its "peer review" process for assessing seismic issues after The Bee reported conflicts of interest; it now will be open to the public. The state Senate launched an evaluation of construction and testing of the foundation for the new Bay Bridge, to be coordinated by the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Marjie Lundstrom reported that UC Davis Medical Center neurosurgeons J. Paul Muizelaar and Rudolph J. Schrot were banned from performing medical research on humans after a university investigation into unauthorized experimental treatment of three terminally ill patients who later died.

The hospital reported this to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration but kept the ban quiet and then honored Muizelaar with a new endowed chair position.

After The Bee's story, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi ordered another investigation and within a week Muizelaar stepped down as chair of the neurology department. Federal and state regulators also launched investigations.

Amid the controversy, longtime Dean Dr. Claire Pomeroy said she will leave the university. This month federal regulators released a scathing report criticizing hospital administrators, and Muizelaar took a leave of absence. Our coverage is ongoing.

The Bee's Capitol Bureau fact-checked political campaign advertisements to keep everyone honest. For instance, Democrat John Garamendi accused his Republican congressional opponent, Colusa County Supervisor Kim Vann, of spending $4,000 in county money for a chair while a local veterans hall remained shuttered. Reporter Torey Van Oot's research showed that was false and forced Garamendi to pull the ad.

Johnnie Esco died almost five years ago after a short stay at a Placerville nursing home. Despite her husband's concern about neglect, the attorney general and county district attorney declined to press charges until Lundstrom's coverage. Last month a judge ruled the former head nurse will stand trial for felony elder abuse. A second nurse pleaded no contest to felony elder abuse to obtain a possible suspended jail sentence and to help the prosecution.

Ryan Lillis reported that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson solicited millions of dollars in donations for nonprofits but failed to report them as required. Most significant were donations to his task force working on a financing plan for a new basketball arena.

That story spurred an investigation by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, which fined Johnson $37,500.

"Baby Dwight" was missing almost a year before anyone filed a missing-person report and his mother was released from jail without revealing where he might be. Initially, Juvenile Court officials and Sacramento County Child Protective Services refused to answer Bee questions, citing confidentiality laws. We petitioned the court to release his confidential dependency court records because of the overwhelming public interest in the case.

The reporting by Lundstrom and Sam Stanton has allowed rare public scrutiny of agencies charged with protecting our most vulnerable children. The district attorney is working on a possible criminal case connected to the baby's disappearance.

On the 70th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's order to intern about 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, we published ongoing work by Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. to find and photograph survivors and family members.

Kitagaki focused his search on those whose lives were documented by photographers, including Dorothea Lange, for the War Relocation Authority. While it took seven years to find 31 people from 20 historic photos, since publication in The Bee he's found more than a dozen more and will be publishing photographs of six of them at this week. All may become part of a book.

When I polled the newsroom earlier this week for suggestions for this column I had many more, including reporting by Phillip Reese and Diana Lambert revealing outrageous interest rates paid on school bonds; Anita Creamer's advice-filled coverage of end-of-life issues; and Tom Knudson's investigation into the indiscriminate and sometimes illegal killing of protected animals by the U.S. Wildlife Services agency.

The breadth of suggestions is what is most important to me – it reflects a widespread commitment in The Bee's newsroom to watching out for you.