Excerpts from recent minnesota editorials region mankatofreepress.com

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie doesn’t want any sunlight on his agency’s "shadow rulers." By blowing off a recent congressional document request, Wilkie is blocking the public from determining whether a secretive trio of outsiders is calling the shots at the VA.

Wilkie was just confirmed by the Senate in late July. His handling of the data request from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee raises serious questions about his judgment so early in his tenure. After the scandal involving clinic wait times, public faith in the VA is lagging. Yet Wilkie’s stunning refusal last month to turn over the documents undermines trust even further, creating the damning perception that his priority isn’t veterans but protecting the three outsiders, all of whom belong to President Donald Trump’s glitzy Mar-a-Lago club.


The Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica news organization first reported about the behind-the-scenes decision makers in a story published Aug. 7. Emails and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the three have "leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans." They weighed in on high-level staffing changes, meddled with a major software contract and pushed the agency to make a seismic and expensive push — outsourcing care to private providers.

One of the three also wanted the agency to bring in his son to develop an app. Despite this access to agency inner circles, none of three men ever served in the military. Nor is their expertise relevant. The three men are: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, attorney Marc Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz, a doctor who runs a company catering to wealthy medical patients.

The congressional request for additional documents, filed on Aug. 8 by Rep. Tim Walz, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s ranking member, is sensible. The documents obtained by the reporters may have been redacted. The congressional request would also go beyond the correspondence the reporters were able to obtain through the Freedom of Information law. A thorough review is a must, especially when veterans sense that "an ideological war is being waged within the VA below the radar of the media and of the public," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America advocacy group. "Veterans’ healthcare, benefits and general well-being are ending up as collateral damage."

Yet on Sept. 15, Wilkie tersely declined the House committee’s document request. His reasons do not hold up to scrutiny. He said the documents are the subject of ongoing litigation. Yet that lawsuit was filed after the congressional committee’s data request. And its existence does not exempt the agency from complying with the committee’s request.

Walz, who is also the Minnesota DFL gubernatorial candidate, gave a deadline extension — until Oct. 31 — in a forceful letter this month. It is Wilkie’s best interest to meet that. Failure will sour the VA’s relationship with a key oversight committee and will only accelerate the public trust deficit in him and the agency.

A noncommittal response this week from a VA spokesman about whether Wilkie will release the documents did not inspire confidence. Wilkie made a mistake saying no once. He owes it to his agency and more important, to the 9 million veterans served by VA medical facilities, to correct course.

Consider the following sentences: "Tom kicked Bill" and "Bill was kicked by Tom." Both communicate the same information, but one sentence does it more efficiently and creates a better picture in the reader’s mind through the use of an action verb — also known as the active voice.

Good writers employ the active voice whenever possible. In fact, writers of every age and skill level can improve their prose by re-thinking every passive sentence, often indicated by use of the "to be" verbs that include am, is, are, was, were, be, been and being.

A letter writer posed that question to us last week, stating: "Instead of treating women like passive statistics (women ‘were’ assaulted), we should hear how many men did these things to women, AND how many men were prosecuted for their behavior. These women were not assaulted or raped by statistics — they were raped by men."

We see more than a grain of truth in that statement, which probably should have ended with the phrase "men raped them" instead of "they were raped by men." For every victim of sexual assault, there is indeed a perpetrator, and passive-voice writing about the victim seems to leave the criminal out of the equation.

But sometimes, the need for accuracy and fairness trumps grammatical style. Journalists often must sacrifice brevity and artistic flair for the sake of clarity. And yes, sometimes we must use language to create intentional vagueness at times when readers would prefer black-and-white absolutes.

For example, if three women report sexual assaults in one week in a Rochester neighborhood, we can’t report, "Three men sexually assaulted three women," because it might have been the same man, or the assaults might not have happened at all. Indeed, the PB won’t even say "Three women were sexually assaulted" until the police confirm that the assaults took place. For the sake of accuracy, our report would be along the lines of "Three women told police they were sexually assaulted."

That same rationale applies to the PB’s policy of not identifying the suspect of a crime until he or she has been formally charged or at least until the police tell us that charges are expected. And, once the prosecutor files charges, we refer to suspects as "defendants" or "the accused," even if there’s no doubt that they fired the fatal shots or were driving drunk in a tragic accident. We treat criminal suspects as innocent until proven guilty, even though it makes writing more cumbersome.

For example, many of the political attack ads airing today from both sides of the aisle take an opponent’s words out of context and twist them into something utterly contrary to what they had intended. By leaving out information and context, these ads invite viewers to leap to easy, inaccurate conclusions.

A journalist’s goal is exactly the opposite. We seek to present the facts and the truth, and while we’d love to speak with absolute certainty about everything that happens in Rochester and southeastern Minnesota, more often than not the whole story takes time to reveal itself. Until we know all the facts and connect all of the dots, we rein in our urge to jump to conclusions.

The market rate for a two-bedroom rental in St. Cloud is $800, according to reporting this summer on findings by the National Low Income Housing Association. A worker needs to earn $15.38 an hour in a full-time position to afford it, which may not sound unreasonable.

And it’s not just renters, and it’s getting worse: Minnesota home prices have gone up 8.9 percent in the past year, according to the governor’s task force. Homes here are selling at prices 26 percent higher than surrounding states. And rents increased 4.1 percent Minnesota during the same time.

Redefining "affordable housing" to address availability across the market’s price range is a near-revolutionary addition to the discussion. Calling on the business community to stand up to its stakeholder role in housing issues as a primary tactic — not in the back seat to moral issues — is novel.

Lack of affordable housing hinders employers who are trying to relocate here or fill vacant jobs, from entry level to management. (And if you haven’t heard the local business community cry out in desperation for qualified workers recently, you just haven’t been paying attention.)

Lack of affordable housing hurts retail and service businesses, too. When workers are forced to pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing (whether it’s a worker making $11.60 an hour or a household pulling in $100,000 a year) those dollars can’t be spent on furniture, appliances, cars, home improvements, groceries, clothing, shoes, bikes or ATVs.

These experts who have dug into the issue did not produce a policy blueprint to be pushed along a specific legislative path. They put out a call to action to businesses and governments and Minnesotans to get creative in solving the problems.

Businesses in far-flung places (like Pennington County) can band together to provide the financial footing that would allow builders to establish housing developments where they’re needed. DigiKey, for instance, is running a 45-minute bus route to get workers from available homes to the buildings where they work.

And consumers who don’t want the expansive room provided by the ever-expanding new middle-class homes (who wants to clean it all or mow all that lawn?) can tell builders and realtors they’ll wait for a more appropriate size. Families who want or need the extra room can do the same. Then when each kind of family is ready to move, those housing options are available to the next folks climbing the property ladder.