Government Accountability Office

Shocking air safety breaches emerge nationwide in data analysis

See related content: NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

By Brant Houston, Investigative News Network; Robert McClure, InvestigateWest; and Kevin Crowe, The Watchdog Institute

A commercial airline pilot en route to San Diego International Airport looks out a window at 10,800 feet and sees a Lockheed S-3 Viking Navy jet coming right at him. 

“The captain quickly pulled up on the control column to avoid hitting the S3,” the co-pilot wrote in a report filed with federal officials. “He turned his head to the right, which made me look out of my window on the right. And the window was full of the S3.” 

The two planes passed within about 100 feet of each other. 

This is just one of thousands of examples of near-misses, bad communications, equipment failures, wildlife hits and sometimes just silly but dangerous errors contained in an aviation safety database collected and analyzed by NASA. 

A six-month examination of more than 150,000 reports filed by pilots and others in the aviation industry over the past 20 years reveals surprising and sometimes shocking safety breaches and close calls at local, regional and major airports throughout the country. 

A consortium of journalists working at six nonprofit investigative centers across the U.S. reviewed the records with Investigative News Network, of which they are members, and National Public Radio. To put the confidential reports into context, the journalists did extensive data analysis of the reports and conducted scores of interviews with pilots, air traffic controllers and aviation safety experts. 

Byline: 

Northwest reps in Congress call for investigation into timber "slush fund"

Suppose an industry could profit by filing a lawsuit judged to be thoroughly without merit. That’s pretty much what critics say the Bush administration let the U.S. timber industry get away with. Now eight members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest are asking Congress's investigative arm,  the Government Accountability Office, to look into the deal.

It’s an enormously complicated story that I detailed for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But essentially it comes down to this:

The U.S. timber industry filed charges against the Canadian timber industry in international trade courts. The Americans alleged the Canadians were getting unfair government subsidies.  The Americans lost at nearly every turn. But the U.S. timber industry – as it increased costs to American consumers – was bleeding the Canadian timber-cutters dry. How? With tariffs that boosted the price of Canadian timber on this side of the border.

Then, facing the prospect of endless appeals by the Americans, the desperate Canadians -- who had seen mills go dark and were starved for cash -- agreed to a really unusual deal, as international trade pact settlements go: The Bush administration offered to send back to Canada the $5 billion in tariffs collected -- so long as the Canadians agreed to then send $1 billion back across the border, with most of it going to the U.S. timber industry or to non-profit groups with ties to the U.S. industry.

Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

Summer job program for youth gets mixed reviews

In an interesting twist on how unemployment is plaguing the West, the Associated Press took a look how the Obama administration's economic stimulus program has affected a younger demographic: teenagers.

As more laid-off professionals seek work, the low-wage job market has grown atypically slanted towards adults, writes AP's Garance Burke from Fresno, Calif.

The Obama administration set up a $1.2 billion federal summer job program for those ages 14 to 24 living below the poverty line, but AP results show it didn't really achieve much -- despite what the administration has said. Almost one-quarter of all enrolled teens didn't receive jobs, and in California, fewer than half the participants got work. It also didn't seem to tamp down youth unemployment rates, which reached peaks in July not seen since the Great Depression, with Oregon bearing some of the highest teen unemployment figures.

Some say bureaucratic holdups, missing paperwork or snags in eligibility rules are to blame for the program's shortfall. Said Rachel Gragg of the Workforce Alliance, a job training fund advocatcy group:

Things are still totally chaotic with this program... In many communities they will tell you that they are still struggling to understand where the money is and where it is coming from.

One problem may reside in misconceptions of program's mission: that participants be "workforce ready," not actually employed. It's a term states get to define, and measure, for themselves.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress's non-partisan auditing arm, said administration plans to measure the program's success are faulty and "may reveal little about what the program achieved."

-- Natasha Walker

Indian country and health care reform:Will 'grandma' redefine this debate?

 

By Mark Trahant
You hear a lot about grandma now that Congress is back to work on health care reform legislation.

"Poor old grandma" is a reason opponents say they will fight health care reform. Grandma will lose services, her Medicare will be less than it is, and some bureaucrat far away will decide when it's her time to die.

This is not the first time this debate has surfaced. In the 1960s opponents of Medicare used the phrase "poor old grandma" to warn that the legislation would rob elderly of their Social Security or provide insufficient care. They were wrong, of course. Medicare has probably become the most popular government program ever. These days it's common to speak as if Medicare is the universal coverage for American elderly. (Medicare is for the elderly and disabled, Medicaid is partnership with the states aimed at some people with low-income.)

And that's mostly true. Mostly. But Indian Country was largely left out of the original Medicare and Medicaid, plan, a problem that was fixed when President Ford signed the 1976 Indian Health Care Improvement Act into law.

Rick Lavis, a Republican, who was working for Arizona Sen. Paul Fannin, sent a memo to the Ford White House raising the question why it was even necessary to amend the law to include American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Then Lavis answered his own question by saying the act would "permit Indian Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to utilize their benefits in IHS facilities, which under present law is disallowed."

Lavis also argued that the IHS should be reimbursed at 100 percent rates in their facilities because "the federal government has obligations to provide services to Indians.