Questionable adoptions, lobbying rewards, and dubious “work therapy”: the best investigative reporting of the past week.

 #Muckreads: The Week’s Best Investigative Journalism

 #Muckreads: The Week’s Best Investigative Journalism

Journalism in the public interest.
Dec. 5 2014 5:02 PM

Lobbying Pays Off. Handsomely.

#MuckReads: A weekly roundup of investigative reporting from ProPublica

Here are this week's top must-read stories from #MuckReads, ProPublica's ongoing collection of the best watchdog journalism. Anyone can contribute by tweeting a link to a story and with the hashtag #MuckReads or by sending an email to MuckReads@ProPublica.org. Sign up here to get this digest delivered to your inbox weekly. 

Now that's what you'd call a good return on one's investment: America’s most politically active corporations pumped $5.8 billion into federal lobbying and campaign contributions between 2007 and 2012. An analysis of 14 million records by the Sunlight Foundation found that in return, these companies received $4.4 trillion in federal business and support, or $760 for every $1 spent To put that in context, the federal government paid $4.3 trillion in Social Security benefits over the same period to 50 million Americans. — Sunlight Foundation via @jake_bernstein

"Work therapy”? Or exploitation? Tom Atchison is founder and CEO of New Beginnings, one of Tampa’s largest homeless programs. For years, “Pastor Tom” has supplied a homeless labor force to work concessions at major sporting events, for local construction jobs and even grant writing for the center itself. While these workers get food and shelter, they remain as penniless as when they arrived. Employing this population in for-profit work for no pay may violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, experts say. And, Atchison is applying to run a new multimillion dollar homeless shelter, potentially entrusting him with an even larger homeless population.—Tampa Bay Times via @Rachael_Bale

“They put poison on his skin and in the air he breathed.” Benzene is a key ingredient in gas and cigarettes. It’s a component for producing plastics, adhesives, lubricants, and pesticides. And chronic exposure is linked to leukemia and other cancers. But as one of the most produced chemical in the U.S., it has a powerful industry behind it. An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that a $36 million study funded by America’s oil and chemical titans was “designed to protect member company interests” against lawsuits by those with leukemia or other diseases that have been correlated with benzene exposure. Industry reps say research is sound. Authors of the work claim no bias. But experts say the research, and the strategy the industry employs, shields companies from workers compensation claims. — Center for Public Integrity via @Smaczni

Adopted or kidnapped? Right now, Americans cannot adopt Guatemalan children. But at one point it was a big business. From 1996 to 2006, the number of adopted children from Guatemala increased 663 percent, and agency fees for adopting parents ranged from $20,000 to $50,000. But that business, in some cases, boiled down to human trafficking. Such are the claims surrounding Karen Abigail López García, a child adopted by a Missouri couple. Her Guatemalan parents claim she was kidnapped and essentially sold to an American adoption agency. An investigation by Guernica tells Karen’s story, taking you into the world of adoption in Guatemala. — Guernica Magazine via @ErinSiegal

Celebrities get preferential treatment in ... NTSB investigations? Yes, the National Transportation Safety Board cites the prominence of the crash victims in in a manual that determines how many officials  are sent to investigate crash sites. A USA Today analysis of 600 recent NTSB investigations found that the agency’s typical response is to send out four or five people. But high-profile incidents, like the fatal crash involving John F. Kennedy Jr., often draw outsized responses (the agency dispatched 56 people to investigate Kennedy’s crash). Officials say they use these high profile cases to address a wide audience of pilots and the public, to quell speculation and to deal with the media. But some of the most extensive investigations revealed very little about what actually led to the crashes. — USA Today via @rlocker12

Terry Parris Jr. is ProPublica's community editor.