Tribune watchdog investigations spur changes

Marquette University, where officials acknowledged missteps in reporting sex crimes to police following a Tribune report in 2011. (William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune)

Campus sex assaults

A 14-month examination into the handling of sexual assault cases on Midwestern campuses prompted two federal investigations and sweeping changes to how universities and prosecutors respond to reports.

In November, the U.S. Department of Education opened an inquiry at Marquette University after Tribune stories involving sexual assault allegations leveled against several athletes last school year. The investigation, whose findings are expected to be released early this year, will examine whether the school violated the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges to be transparent in reporting alleged crimes on campus.

The Tribune reported in June that the university violated Wisconsin law for at least a decade by failing to notify Milwaukee police of reported sex crimes on campus. Marquette acknowledged missteps and instituted several initiatives that administrators say will bring them into compliance with the law and make it easier for victims to weigh their options.

In July, the University of Notre Dame announced reforms to improve its response to sexual assault reports after a seven-month investigation by the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights. The inquiry came after a November 2010 Tribune story about Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg, a Northbrook teen who committed suicide shortly after accusing a football player of sexually attacking her.

The Tribune investigations also prompted changes to law enforcement's response, as Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez implemented new policies after a story in which some schools questioned whether her office was unwilling to prosecute campus sex crimes. In September, the office began tracking all campus assaults considered for felony charges, in an effort to provide more specialized attention. Victim advocates and campus security experts said the initiative could be the first of its kind in the country.

Fugitives from justice

This series documented a lack of coordination among federal, county and local authorities that has allowed criminal suspects who flee across U.S. borders to evade trial for murder, rape and other serious felonies. On an 18-day trip through Mexico, where more than half of America's border-crossing fugitives seek haven, Tribune reporters confirmed the whereabouts of eight of the nine suspects from northern Illinois they had sought to find. Two agreed to on-camera interviews.

After the stories ran, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed in a letter to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to redouble Justice Department efforts to bring violent border-crossing fugitives back to face justice in Illinois and said he had launched an inquiry to "set about identifying any gaps in communication on fugitive issues and ... formulate a plan of action that will include effective information sharing, education and training." Durbin said he plans to convene top officials for a meeting this month in Chicago.

At the same time, Illinois lawmakers introduced legislation to make it possible to prosecute close family members for aiding or harboring a fugitive, a loophole highlighted by one article in the series.

In the case of one fugitive, gang member Oscar Hernandez, located in Mexico by reporters, U.S. authorities said they would take steps to confirm his whereabouts in hopes of seeking his extradition. When reporters returned to Hernandez's town two months after their first visit, they found he was still at large.

Pension games

A Tribune/WGN-TV series that unfolded over four months began with the shocking disclosure that Chicago-area union officials were allowed to receive six-figure public pensions based on their fat union paychecks, even as they continued making big money running the unions. After establishing how lawmakers had rigged the pension code to benefit the chosen few, later stories demonstrated how the system as a whole had been abused time and again for short-term political gains, leaving the state's pension funds in the worst shape by far in the country.

The stories led one top-ranking union leader, Tim Foley, to resign. It triggered new legislation that, if signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, would stop the practice of basing public pensions on heftier union salaries, prevent union leaders from double-dipping on union and public pensions, and cut off the benefits of two teachers union lobbyists who were able to join the pension system after one day of substitute teaching work. Quinn also has called for a pension committee to look for ways to solve the state's broader pension crisis.

Meanwhile, federal authorities have begun a criminal investigation into how nearly a dozen union officials became eligible for inflated city pensions, with the Chicago municipal employees and laborers pension funds each receiving subpoenas from a federal grand jury.

Taxi troubles

A Chicago cabdriver skidded across several lanes of rain-slicked Illinois Street in July, crashing into a man walking on the sidewalk and killing him instantly. After his death and a later fatal crash involving a pedestrian and taxi, the Tribune launched an investigation into how the city regulates cabdrivers.

The resulting stories exposed gaping flaws in the system: Cook County judges dismissed a far higher percentage of traffic tickets for cabbies on average than for regular drivers. Even when taxi drivers were convicted of serious or repeat traffic offenses, the city didn't always move to take them off the road. Cabdrivers who racked up multiple customer complaints were almost always hit with fines instead of losing their licenses to drive a taxi.

After the Tribune series, the city acknowledged in December that Chicago falls short in regulating the safety of taxis and proposed a list of reforms that include closer monitoring of tickets issued to cabdrivers and a 12-hour limit on a driver's workday.

Crib safety

Bumper pads that tie around the inside of cribs are a staple of nurseries. They make cribs look cozy and help prevent babies from bumping their heads or getting their limbs caught in the slats. But as the Tribune reported last year, the popular products also pose a suffocation risk to infants, who can die if their faces become pressed into something soft that stops their breathing.

The newspaper's inquiries prodded the Consumer Product Safety Commission to re-examine the safety of the products. That inquiry continues. In the meantime, Chicago became the first city in the country to ban the sale of crib bumper pads, over objections from manufacturers. The state of Maryland also passed a ban, and the American Academy of Pediatrics modified its "safe sleep" policies to state that bumper pads should not be used in cribs.

Meanwhile, in June it became illegal in the U.S. to sell or donate a crib that fails to meet the toughest crib-safety rules in the world. Tribune investigations during four years have found the cribs had become a deathtrap for some babies thanks to bad designs, defective hardware and flimsy parts.

Those stories prompted congressional hearings and recalls, and ultimately led to the new standards that address all of the major hazards that have killed infants in recent years, including "drop sides" that too often broke, creating deadly gaps in which babies got trapped.

Deadly neglect

State authorities moved in March to shutter Alden Village North nursing home in Chicago, subject of a 2010 Tribune investigation that documented a 10-year pattern of death and neglect at the facility. The home, which houses children and adults with severe disabilities, remains open on appeal, and the Illinois Department of Public Health said it expects further action on the case this month.

In June, Quinn signed into law sweeping reforms intended to safeguard thousands of children and adults with developmental disabilities who live in nursing facilities. The new laws, sparked by the Tribune investigation, call for stiffer fines for poor care, fewer roadblocks to closing facilities, stricter rules on the use of psychotropic medicines and increased reporting requirements in cases of death. State officials and some advocates described the legislation as the most significant effort in a generation to help the developmentally disabled in Illinois nursing homes.

Doctor licensing

Two new Illinois laws recently took effect in response to a Tribune series that revealed lax state discipline for doctors who preyed on patients, even for physicians convicted of sex crimes.

The investigation found that at least 16 registered sex offenders held physician or chiropractor licenses within the last 15 years, and not one had his license permanently revoked. A doctor convicted of sexual abuse of a patient was not disciplined by the state in any way.

Under a sweeping new law, doctors and other health care workers convicted of sex crimes, forcible felonies or battery of a patient will be permanently stripped of their medical licenses.

And under the Patients' Right to Know Act, consumers have online access at idfpr.com to detailed histories, including whether a physician has been fired, convicted of a crime or made a medical malpractice payment in the last five years.

"After the Tribune series, we realized it was more important than ever for patients to have access to this information," said state Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago.