OPINION

After USA TODAY investigation exposed wrongdoing, university official thanks reporter, praises free press

A USA TODAY investigation revealed then-Fresno State President Joseph Castro mishandled of six years of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints against then-Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas.

I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

When we talk about the goal of investigative journalism, we talk about holding the powerful accountable and being watchdogs for the vulnerable. 

Two stories in the past two weeks did exactly that.

Tuesday, the California State University's Board of Trustees voted unanimously to adopt a series of reforms in response to our reporting that revealed its chancellor mishandled six years of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints against then-Fresno State Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas.

Joseph Castro resigned as CSU chancellor on Feb. 17, two weeks after reporter Kenny Jacoby's investigation into his time as president of Fresno State sparked outrage and pressure from lawmakers, students, faculty and the public. 

Jacoby reported that "Castro repeatedly declined to discipline Lamas, even after an outside investigator found Lamas responsible in 2020 for sexually harassing an subordinate and engaging in 'abusive workplace conduct.' Instead, Castro authorized a settlement with Lamas that gave him $260,000 and a clean record in exchange for his retirement. Although the agreement banned Lamas from working at CSU again, it promised him a letter of recommendation from Castro to help him find work elsewhere."

Trustee Douglas Faigin thanked USA TODAY for its investigation

Faigin started by saying, “I also want to maybe make a statement that's not going to be somewhat popular with some people in the system."

Then he said it anyway. It's extraordinary:

"We are here today, going through this catharsis and great change for the better because of a free press in America and specifically USA TODAY and Kenny Jacoby. Now, a lot of people have been offended that – I've been told that they don't like the idea that this guy is writing stories, exposing things and showing that there are negative things about the CSU. We would not have known about any of this stuff because ... all these facts were withheld from us. And obviously, we would have done something about it if we'd known. But we didn't. 

"But here comes USA TODAY, Kenny Jacoby, and six months of hard work, effort that's not easy. Believe me, investigative reporting is not easy. And he was able to develop that story. And look at all the changes that have occurred because of that. Of course, the LA Times, the Fresno Bee, and numerous others have taken it from there, and building on those known facts. But thank you, USA TODAY, for doing such a great job and showing us the way forward. 

"What I also think is so important out of this is the idea of what kind of danger America faces as media faces strong winds economically and institutionally against it. And how many papers and investigative reporting are going downhill because it's an expensive, difficult proposition. This alone is a great example of why we need a free press in America. I would hope that his stories and investigative reporting is up for journalism awards. And in a lot of journalism awards, it's not just how good the story is, how the exposé is there. But it is also a measure of what change the story brought about. And from this meeting today, I hope people realize we're changing. We recognize the problem. We're taking action. We're not going to put up with it until we find solutions all because of Kenny Jacoby and USA TODAY."

I asked Jacoby what he thought when he heard the remarks. 

"It was a heartwarming moment for me," he said. "He certainly didn’t need to say those things – it’s clear not everyone at the CSU appreciated USA TODAY bringing these issues to light, and he even said he thought his statement would be unpopular with some at the CSU.

"I felt honored that he not only credited us for our reporting but used his platform to recognize the value of investigative journalism."

More than 140,000 people died in US nursing homes from COVID-19

In a separate investigation, USA TODAY compiled data filed by more than 15,000 homes and, for the first time, published a report card on how each fared during a five-month surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths that started in October 2020.

Reporters Letitia Stein, Jayme Fraser and Nick Penzenstadler and reporting partner Jeff Kelly Lowenstein analyzed the data and interviewed industry experts, government overseers, nursing home workers and families of the dead for the series.

"We had all the ingredients for strong investigative reporting," Stein said. "Robust data, public documents such as health inspection reports to reveal errors that facilities may not otherwise disclose, and people who had suffered from corporate and regulatory failures. Reporters from across the USA TODAY Network helped us to collect their stories."

The team scored the performance of every nursing home in America during the worst COVID outbreak and created a searchable database that published March 10.

The next day, the White House contacted our reporters.

"Health policy advisers to President Joe Biden cited a USA TODAY investigation into nursing home care during the pandemic as evidence of a troubled industry urgently in need of reform to crack down on poor performers and profiteering," Penzenstadler reported

The topic was personal for Stein. Early in the pandemic, her 84-year-old father went from living independently at home to being bed bound in the span of a few weeks.

"My family at the time didn’t have a high-quality nursing home option," she said. "Paramedics brought him home from the hospital in a stretcher, depositing him on a bed newly installed in the living room. A feeding tube was still in its box. It fell to me to coordinate for him at home the level of care that typically would be provided at a nursing home. I came to appreciate how nursing homes are essential infrastructure in a rapidly aging nation.

"We need these institutions to work."

Holding the powerful accountable. Looking out for the vulnerable. That's the power of investigative reporting. 

“There is so much anger directed at journalists right now, most of it manufactured and unfair. But let me tell you, these reporters are still out there trying to uncover wrongs and trying to change people’s lives for the better," said Chris Davis, executive editor for investigations. "At this moment, as much as at any other in our history, we need these investigative reporters.

"We need them to be fearless and interminable and to speak truth to power.”

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our investigative reporting. You can subscribe here.