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Disability and desperation

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When federal prosecutors alleged that Kentucky attorney Eric Conn had funneled $600 million in fraudulent disability claims to Appalachia, Claire Galofaro saw a chance to tell a much bigger story.

Over a period of months, Galofaro, the AP’s administrative correspondent in Louisville, sat in on federal hearings and heard the anguish of Conn’s former clients, some severely disabled, others who seemed like they might be able-bodied enough to be working. She met with many who were being asked to prove their disability years after it had first been approved by the government, forced to go searching for old medical records in order to make a case they thought they had already made.

She learned about three people who killed themselves rather than face the prospect of demonstrating, once again, that they were disabled and unable to work.

With somber, artful photographs by David Stephenson, Galofaro told an important story unfolding in the Appalachian mountains, capturing the human dimension in a way that hadn’t been done before.

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Donna Dye plays with her two granddaughters, Lilly, left, and Chloe, at her home where she cares for them, in Minnie, Ky., Dec. 19, 2016

Galofaro’s efforts culminated in ‘Disability and Desperation,’ the heartbreaking story of vulnerable people in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia who had come to depend on monthly checks from the government in a part of the country where the economy is stagnant and jobs are scarce. Their tale as she told it went to the heart of how America treats its poorest citizens, how it distinguishes them from welfare cheats, and how its government interacts with the desperate and the disabled.

Galofaro’s deep reporting led her to Tim Dye, a former coal miner whose 26 years in the mines had taken their toll, and his wife, Donna Dye, whose efforts to preserve their dignity as well as their income led her to consider taking her own life. Galofaro listened as they described the letter that came from the government accusing them of fraud because they had trusted a flashy lawyer with a promise.

Conveying the battle over disability checks through their eyes, Galofaro seized on the offhand detail with an eye for what matters: the pawning of an engagement ring; the young women who appeared at events across the region on Conn’s behalf, a 1-800 phone number printed across their tank tops; the Papa John’s that adds delivery drivers to handle the rush every month when disability checks go out.

She listened as Dye described driving down a mountain road, weighted down by her own thoughts of suicide.

With somber, artful photographs by David Stephenson, Galofaro told an important story unfolding in the Appalachian mountains, capturing the human dimension in a way that hadn’t been done before. Members who had covered the Conn investigation extensively in Kentucky and West Virginia put it on their front pages and gave it prominent placement on their websites.

For her sensitive exploration of the government’s responsibility to take care of the vulnerable without benefiting the undeserving, Galofaro wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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