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Updated 2018-08-18 09:19
St. Luke’s Heart Transplant Program to Lose Medicare Funding Today
by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle The heart transplant program at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center is set to lose federal funding today, a serious blow to a Houston hospital long regarded as one of the nation’s best for cardiac surgery.The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced in June that it would cut off funding for heart transplants this month after concluding that the hospital had not done enough to correct issues that led to a high rate of patient deaths in recent years. The federal action came weeks after an investigation by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle detailed the depth of the problems and revealed that several physicians had left the program in recent years after raising concerns.Barring a last-minute delay by the agency, which would be highly unusual, the hospital will no longer be allowed to bill Medicare and Medicaid for heart transplants, and experts say the termination could affect the hospital in more far-reaching ways.With the federal sanction looming, some patients awaiting heart transplants at St. Luke’s have transferred their care to neighboring Houston Methodist and Memorial Hermann hospitals, officials at both said; at least two patients have already received new hearts since switching to Methodist. Meanwhile, St. Luke’s spokeswoman Marilyn Gerry said in an email that the hospital “is continuing to communicate with CMS about possible options” to maintain federal approval. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email “We have taken steps to make sure all of the critically ill patients in our heart transplant program continue to receive the care they need,” Gerry wrote. “We have advised all of our Medicare and Medicaid patients on the heart transplant wait list of their options. Many of them have chosen to continue their care at Baylor St. Luke’s with the physicians and staff they have come to know.”Gerry downplayed the impact of federal termination, saying that it “only affects how Medicare pays for heart transplant costs” and that it won’t affect patients in need of lung, liver or kidney transplants.But experts say once Medicare refuses to cover heart transplants at a hospital, private insurance companies often follow suit. If that happens, most of the 87 patients on the program’s heart waiting list would have to either pay out of pocket for their surgeries, transfer to another hospital or hope that St. Luke’s is willing to perform the procedure at no cost.The transplant program has remained open since Medicare announced its intentions, but it performed no heart transplants in June or July, an unusual gap for a program that historically has done about 40 each year. St. Luke’s administrators suspended the program for two weeks in June to study what led to two patient deaths in May but then reopened it after saying they had made policy and staff changes.St. Luke’s officials declined to say if the program has performed any heart transplants in August.Hospital leaders also would not say if they intend to formally appeal the termination or whether they will seek recertification from Medicare, a costly process that can sometimes take several months or years. The deadline to appeal to an administrative law judge is Sept. 14.The federal termination could affect St. Luke’s in a number of ways beyond heart transplants. For example, federal rules require hospitals to have a written agreement with a Medicare-approved heart transplant program before implanting mechanical heart pumps in Medicare patients who would eventually require a new heart — a common treatment known as “bridge-to-transplant.” Without such an agreement, St. Luke’s much-celebrated left ventricular assist device program could suffer.In addition, private cardiologists might hesitate to send some advanced heart failure patients to a hospital that lacks a Medicare-approved transplant program. And St. Luke’s, along with its academic partner Baylor College of Medicine, could have a more difficult time recruiting top physicians, fellows or residents to staff its heart failure program. “This has far-reaching ramifications beyond just the heart transplant program,” said Alexander Aussi, a San Antonio-based transplant consultant who has closely followed the situation at St. Luke’s.Losing Medicare is not unprecedented, but rarely has such a severe sanction been levied against a transplant program of St. Luke’s prominence. Some of the world’s first heart transplants were performed at the hospital in the 1960s and ’70s. Since the heart transplant program was formally established in 1982, only a handful of hospitals in the nation have performed more. And, along with its research affiliate, the Texas Heart Institute, St. Luke’s has been credited with numerous advancements in the development of mechanical heart pumps now routinely used to keep patients alive until they can receive a transplant.“I hope they recover from this,” Aussi said. “This is one of those marquee programs that’s going to remain in the history books when it comes to innovation. ... We all have a vested interest in it succeeding.”Medicare first raised concerns about the heart transplant program during an inspection in December. At the time, an unidentified St. Luke’s transplant physician told a CMS inspector that the hospital had hired a consultant to determine what led to poor outcomes in 2015. The physician “explained that issues were identified with the major issue being surgical technique with one of the heart transplant surgeons, who was no longer practicing,” inspectors wrote.St. Luke’s officials have declined to say which surgeon was being blamed for poor outcomes.In a more detailed written response to regulators a few weeks later, the hospital’s CEO, Gay Nord, detailed actions the hospital was taking to improve outcomes. In 2015, Nord wrote, the hospital hired “an international leader in heart transplantation” as the heart program’s new surgical director. The new surgeon, she wrote, had “led another renowned heart transplant program to national prominence.”The physician St. Luke’s had hired, Dr. Jeffrey Morgan, came from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, whose heart program was smaller than St. Luke’s. Morgan was not its director and had only been the lead surgeon on 18 heart transplants in the previous five years.St. Luke’s officials say the heart transplant program’s one-year survival rate improved in 2016 and 2017 under Morgan’s leadership. But multiple heart transplant recipients have suffered unusual complications since 2016, the ProPublica and Chronicle investigation found, including two who had major veins stitched closed during surgery, according to numerous sources. Another patient’s heart transplant failed this year after operating-room equipment malfunctioned during a key stage of surgery. Once Medicare cuts off funding, the program could face an uphill fight if the hospital wishes to regain federal approval, said Laura Aguiar, an Arizona-based transplant consultant who has spent years helping programs navigate regulations.In most cases, Aguiar said, a program seeking Medicare approval must perform 10 transplants and follow those patients for a year to demonstrate it has the proper medical and administrative infrastructure in place to support a safe transplant program.“The challenge is going to be finding 10 patients they can transplant who have coverage,” Aguiar said, noting that Medicaid and most private insurance companies won’t pay for heart transplants at programs that don’t have Medicare approval. “Otherwise, the hospital will have to make a decision to absorb those costs.”
“Do Something, Please,” Doctors Testify at DCFS Hearing
by Duaa Eldeib I didn’t expect so many doctors. Usually, when I cover legislative hearings, a steady stream of state officials testify. But this was different because Illinois lawmakers wanted to hear from the doctors who had overseen the treatment of some of the children I’ve been writing about.Five of those doctors testified on Tuesday from behind the long witness table at the Senate Human Services Committee, and I was struck by a theme that emerged: Children in psychiatric hospitals who watch their discharge dates come and go suffer deeply as they wait to be released.State sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from north suburban Deerfield, called the hearing in response to a ProPublica Illinois investigation in June that found that hundreds of children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had spent weeks or even months at a time locked in psychiatric hospitals.Doctors — some of the very ones who testified Tuesday — had cleared the children for discharge, but DCFS had failed to find them appropriate homes. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. I walked over to the Michael A. Bilandic Building in the Loop on Tuesday afternoon knowing how critical it is for reporters to write about what happens after an investigation is published. We need to continue reporting as long as it takes to be sure our stories are not just words on a computer screen.One by one, the doctors recounted the damage that protracted hospitalizations inflict on these children. They became angry and isolated. They felt abandoned. They fell far behind in their education, sometimes going months with just 45 minutes a day of schoolwork. Some children even picked fights in hopes of being sent to jail because it seemed better than one more day trapped in a hospital.“They become suicidal, aggressive and self-harmful,” said Dr. Michael Naylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and medical director of UIC’s Comprehensive Assessment and Treatment Unit, which treats children in DCFS care.Dr. Peter Nierman, medical director at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital and a University of Chicago psychiatry professor, made an impassioned plea to lawmakers.“If I’m one of those kids today, I’m asking you guys to do something, please,” he said.He continued.“I’ve had them beg me to take them home with me.”Then he paused.“We do owe them more. We’re smart enough. We’re wealthy enough. It is unconscionable.” Read More Illinois Lawmakers Search for Solutions for Children Stuck in Psychiatric Hospitals Witnesses at legislative hearing criticize state child welfare agency, say some teens prefer jail to psychiatric facilities Like most complex problems, there is no quick fix. DCFS has pledged to do better, and officials said they’re seeking assistance from other state agencies and groups in search of a comprehensive solution.On our end, we’ll keep following the story and holding officials to their promises.Here are some other stories we continue to pursue:Since voters ousted Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios from office following the joint ProPublica Illinois–Chicago Tribune series “The Tax Divide,” ripples have been felt across the county. Berrios lost his chairmanship of the Cook County Democratic Party in April. In a unanimous decision, an Illinois appeals court ordered Berrios to release documents sought in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Tribune. The records are supposed to be released in early September and could provide more details of how the office values residential and commercial property. Depositions unsealed in that case show the office changed tens of thousands of values by hand — something Berrios had denied for months — and sometimes relied on Zillow or Trulia to evaluate homes. The assessor’s private contractor has developed a new residential assessment model that appears to be a major improvement, even if it has rattled some wealthier homeowners with higher values. Until the entire county is valued, however, it’s too early to tell if the system is on the path to improvement. And, until the county deals with deep flaws in commercial and industrial assessments, the system will never be fair.—Jason GrottoLawyers have started ordering court transcripts for several young men who are serving adult prison sentences after being convicted of assaulting staff at the Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg. A ProPublica Illinois investigation in October revealed some youths in Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice facilities received lengthy adult prison sentences for what were sometimes minor offenses, including shoving or spitting at guards.Following the story, the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, an Evanston-based nonprofit, received a grant from the Illinois Bar Foundation to recruit lawyers to represent young men from the youth facility after concerns grew over whether they had received adequate legal representation.Attorneys from the law firm Kirkland & Ellis volunteered to order court transcripts and review the cases, said Patrick Keenan-Devlin, the Moran Center’s executive director. The group sent letters to nearly a dozen of the young men and has heard back from eight so far.“These kids,” Keenan-Devlin said, “wrote us letters saying: ‘Yes, I want representation. Yes, this did feel like a shoddy process.’”—Duaa Eldeib
Bill Proposes Greater Accountability for New York Prosecutors Who Break the Law
by Joaquin Sapien In 2013, ProPublica published a series of reports finding that New York prosecutors are almost never punished for misconduct that can land innocent people in prison or let the guilty go free.That could change in the coming days.Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has a bill before him that would create a commission to bring a greater measure of accountability to prosecutors who withhold evidence, suborn perjury or commit other ethical violations that undermine justice. It would be the first of its kind in the country and conceivably create a model for other states to follow.The bill, passed overwhelmingly by the Senate and Assembly in June, authorizes the governor, the Legislature and the state’s chief judge to pick 11 people to investigate allegations of misconduct. The panel, when it sees fit, could issue warnings and recommend sanctions, or even firings, to the governor.Now, prosecutors are overseen like any other lawyer — by disciplinary committees attached to the state’s appellate courts. But ProPublica’s 2013 analysis found that even when convictions are thrown out as a result of harmful misconduct on the part of prosecutors, the appellate courts often fail to refer them to disciplinary committees. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email In the two dozen instances in which judges explicitly concluded that New York City prosecutors had committed misconduct, only one prosecutor was disciplined. That prosecutor flouted the law in three separate cases. Other prosecutors went on to earn promotions and get raises.Meanwhile, New York City and state taxpayers have had to dole out tens of millions of dollars in settlements for wrongfully convicted people who went on to successfully sue.The bill’s backers say that the commission will help remedy the situation both by punishing prosecutors who deserve it and forcing them to reconsider tactics that lead to such harm.But the bill has met staunch opposition from the district attorneys themselves who wield significant power in Albany.In a statement, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York said that existing systems should be strengthened, and that the commission will have unchecked, duplicative powers that will interfere with a prosecutor’s ability to fully enforce the law.Cuomo has until Monday to veto or approve the bill.
Veterans Group Sues to Block VA Shadow Rulers
by Isaac Arnsdorf A liberal veterans group is suing to block the influence of three outside advisers who have been secretly influencing the Department of Veterans Affairs from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida.ProPublica reported last week that the advisers — Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and Washington lawyer Marc Sherman — have been shaping VA personnel and policy decisions despite having no official role or relevant expertise.The trio, sometimes referred to as the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” is failing to disclose its activities as required by federal law, according to a lawsuit filed today in federal court in Washington, D.C., by VoteVets, a liberal activist group that says it represents 500,000 supporters.The Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, is a Watergate-era sunshine law that requires federal agencies to inform the public when they consult outside experts. VoteVets wants a judge to order the Mar-a-Lago Crowd to disclose records of its activities and cease influencing the VA until it complies with the law. The suit also asks that future meetings of the group be opened to public participation and that minutes of its meetings be kept.“This group has been operating in the dark,” said Will Fischer, VoteVets’ director of government relations. “Our goal in bringing this lawsuit is to bring these activities to light and make sure our members, veterans and military families are able to see what’s going on with our VA and the people directing the activities of our VA.” Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. The VA referred questions about the lawsuit to the Justice Department, which didn’t answer a request for comment. In a statement, a spokeswoman for Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz responded: “We have watched with concern as media outlets — including ProPublica — have misrepresented our actions and used selective emails to paint a distorted picture of our efforts to help the VA and America’s veterans.” The statement asserted that none of the group’s “volunteer efforts,” which it characterized as “recommendations” made in response to requests from the VA, were conducted in secret and that the group didn’t attempt to develop policy or influence personnel decisions.VoteVets is represented by Democracy Forward, an activist group that challenges actions by the Trump administration. The group has brought similar lawsuits against a hunting council at the Interior Department and an infrastructure panel at the departments of Transportation and Commerce. In the latter case, a judge granted initial discovery.“It looks like what was happening here was a group of people giving collective advice to the VA, which is precisely the kind of case where FACA should apply,” said John Bies, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the Obama administration. Courts, he added, have deemed similar government committees to be subject to FACA in the past.FACA claims have been extensively litigated for decades, with occasional successes for plaintiffs. For example, in 1994, a court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service not to use a scientific report that was prepared without conforming to FACA, and in 2006, a court found that a panel doing an assessment for the Forest Service did amount to an advisory committee under FACA and had to disclose documents. But the two best-known cases brought under the law were ultimately unsuccessful: challenges to first lady Hillary Clinton’s health care task force in 1993 and Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force in 2002. VoteVets’ complaint cites ProPublica’s investigation and documents that the news organization obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to show how Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman met regularly and weighed in on VA decisions from negotiating a contract for electronic health records to outsourcing medical services to private providers.“Their statement to ProPublica confirms they saw themselves as operating as a group to provide advice and recommendations to the VA,” said Adam Grogg, the lead lawyer on the case. “The publicly available material puts this squarely within the kinds of cases where courts have acknowledged this is a de facto federal advisory committee.”ProPublica’s reporting also prompted congressional Democrats to open an investigation, call for hearings, request a probe by the VA’s internal watchdog and call on the VA secretary to cut ties with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.
A Free Press Works for All of Us
by Stephen Engelberg ProPublica does not have an editorial page, and we have never advocated for a particular policy to address the wrongs our journalism exposes. But from the very beginning of our work more than a decade ago, we have benefited enormously from the traditions and laws that protect free speech. And so today, as the nation’s news organizations remind readers of the value of robust journalism, it seems fitting to add our voice.ProPublica specializes in investigative reporting — telling stories with “moral force” that hold government, businesses and revered institutions to account. There are few forms of journalism more vulnerable to pressure from the powerful. What we publish can change the outcome of elections, reverse policies, embarrass police or prosecutors and cost companies boatloads of money. The main subjects of our work, in most cases, would much prefer that our reporting never appear or be substantially watered down.The framers of our Constitution fully understood the importance of protecting a robust, sometimes raucous press. It is no coincidence that the very first amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” They had lived under a system in which a powerful monarch could use the law of seditious libel to accomplish the 18th-century version of “lock her up.” They wanted no part of it.In the 21st century, journalism — at least as practiced on cable television — is becoming a craft in which partisans put forth or omit facts to advance their preferred political perspective. Those who bring to light uncomfortable truths are dismissed as “fake news” or, in our case, the work of the “Soros-funded” ProPublica, the all-purpose, vaguely anti-Semitic epithet meant to connote left-wing bias. (For the record, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations fund less than 2 percent of our operations.) Read More 10 Years of Impact Sparking Real-World Change We have covered Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. We’re proud to say that we’ve annoyed them all with journalism that revealed serious shortcomings. We revealed that Bush had granted pardons to nearly four times as many white applicants as blacks; we ceaselessly hammered Obama for his failure to provide mortgage relief he’d promised ordinary homeowners; and we’ve vigorously covered Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, notably disclosing an audio recording of wailing children in a shelter. Democrats and Republicans have come under our scrutiny. We disclosed how California’s Democrats had manipulated the state’s redistricting process; however, we also reported that Republicans had used dark money and redistricting in other states to win the House in 2012, even though GOP congressional candidates won far fewer votes in aggregate than Democrats.Journalists inevitably make mistakes along the way, and we’ve had our share at ProPublica. But the argument advanced by Trump and his allies — that journalists are the “enemy of the people” who sit around making up fake stories to undermine his administration — is palpably false. In fact, to use a word we have shied away from in our coverage, it’s a lie. And the president knows it.For our part, we’re both proud and pleased to live in a country where one can still say that.
Video: For Trans People, It’s Difficult and Costly to Update an ID. But It Can Also Be Dangerous Not To.
by Ranjani Chakraborty, Lucas Waldron and Ken Schwencke Voting. Boarding a plane. Driving. Buying a drink. Filling out paperwork for a new job. These are all situations where showing a driver’s license or state-issued ID can be nerve-wracking or even dangerous for transgender people.If a person’s picture, name or sex listed on an ID don’t match the way they present themselves, they may be denied services, harassed and even attacked. A new investigation by ProPublica found that when many transgender people are killed, local law enforcement often only use the name and sex listed on that person’s ID while investigating the murder. Across the nation, we found, some 65 different law enforcement agencies have investigated murders of transgender people since Jan. 1, 2015. And in 74 of 85 cases, victims were identified by names or genders they had abandoned in their daily lives.This is called deadnaming and becomes a problem when police investigate these crimes. Many people who may know the victim will only know the name they used in their daily life.But updating a name or gender marker — that little M or F on an ID — can be incredibly complicated. The laws across the United States that determine how a transgender person can update their IDs are confusing and often contain onerous requirements. In some states, trans people are required to have expensive and irreversible surgeries just to make that change on their ID. Read More Deadnamed The way cops in Jacksonville and other jurisdictions investigate the murders of transgender women adds insult to injury and may be delaying justice. These obstacles can be debilitating — and costly — for people who experience discrimination simply for being transgender. And these obstacles can delay justice.For those that do get their gender marker updated, it can be life-changing. Trystlynn Barber, a trans woman in Reidsville, Georgia, told us she collapsed by her mailbox and cried when she got her updated birth certificate in the mail. “It’s the most amazing feeling,” she said.In our latest Vox and ProPublica collaboration, we see how burdensome requirements for updating IDs have affected two transgender women in the South.This story is the 12th installment in Vox’s collaboration with ProPublica. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And sign up here for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to get more stories like this right in your inbox as soon as they are published.
When Sarah Sanders and the ACLU Teamed Up for Voting Rights
by Blake Paterson As the midterm elections approach, Republican state officials and lawmakers have stepped up efforts to block students from voting in their college towns. Republicans in Texas pushed through a law last year requiring voters to carry one of seven forms of photo identification, including handgun licenses but excluding student IDs. In June, the GOP-controlled legislature in North Carolina approved early voting guidelines that have already resulted in closing of polling locations at several colleges. And last month, New Hampshire’s Republican governor signed a law that requires students who vote in the state to also register their cars and obtain driver's licenses there.One nationally prominent Republican, however, once took the opposite stance on student voting. As an undergraduate at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee — now White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — sued to allow students to vote after being one of more than 900 purged from the county’s rolls.“It’s almost like taxation without representation,” she said at the time. “They thought that because we were young that they could walk all over us, but obviously that’s not the case.”Illustrating the adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, the 2002 lawsuit paired a then-20-year-old Sanders with the American Civil Liberties Union. It began, as disputes over student voting often do, with a town-and-gown conflict. Reversing the usual pattern, a Democrat rather than a Republican instigated the student disenfranchisement.For Sanders, the daughter of Arkansas’ then-governor Mike Huckabee, the little-known episode helped her carve out a niche as a political activist in her own right. It remains relevant today both because of her influential post in the Trump administration and because it suggests that Republican efforts to restrict student voting are largely pragmatic — intended to maximize the party’s electoral chances — and could change as circumstances warrant. It also indicates that Democratic support for on-campus voting may similarly hinge on the expectation that most students lean to the left.While the Trump administration hasn’t weighed in specifically on student voting rights, it has supported states that impose voter identification requirements or purge voter rolls. By contrast, the Obama administration pushed to expand access to the polls. Contacted by ProPublica, Sanders requested a list of written questions, but then did not respond to them.“It’s not lost on us that Sanders has joined an administration that is actively defending unlawful voter purges and voter disenfranchisement,” said Rita Sklar, who was executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas when it represented Sanders, and holds the same position today. “Maybe she can talk to her boss about it.” The events that cast Sanders as a voting rights advocate stemmed from an election in Clark County, Arkansas, where Ouachita Baptist is located. In 1998, before Sanders enrolled there, an Ouachita junior named Jonathan Huber, who grew up in Louisiana, was elected to the county governing board.While the student body at OBU, a small, religious college in southwest Arkansas, favored Republicans, the surrounding county historically voted Democratic. Huber, who told ProPublica he was the first Republican to win an election in the county since Reconstruction, credited his victory to the hundreds of college students he helped register to vote.The students’ electoral muscle angered Floyd Thomas Curry, a Democratic attorney who lived in Huber’s district. In 2002, when Huber — who by then had graduated from Ouachita and settled in the area — was up for re-election to the governing board, Curry sued the county. He argued that, as temporary residents, students did not qualify to vote there.“It became clear that my right to vote was just going down the drain,” Curry said at the time. “Even if these students voted the way I do, it’s still diluting my vote.”A circuit court judge agreed. Just two weeks before the election, past the voter registration deadline and with early voting underway, Judge John A. Thomas ordered the county clerk to purge from the voter rolls anyone other than faculty or staff who registered using on-campus addresses, thus disenfranchising Sanders and 911 other students from OBU and neighboring Henderson State University. Thomas’s ruling cited an Arkansas law that temporary residents, including students, should vote in their hometowns — which, for Sanders, was Little Rock.Sanders’ father, Gov. Mike Huckabee, assailed the decision. In the midst of a successful bid for re-election, he denounced the court order as an “absolute outrage,” “one of the worst things that’s happened in Arkansas politics in a long time,” and an example of the perils of “one-party fiefdom.” Shortly thereafter, he phoned Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “Well, Rita,” Sklar recalled the governor saying. “I guess there’s something else we agree on beyond not executing juveniles.” Huckabee did not respond to requests for comment.Days later, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit in federal district court in Little Rock on behalf of the disenfranchised students, with Sanders and four others named as plaintiffs. “It was an opportunity to bring a fairly standard student voting rights case about residency but in the reverse context where the victims, if you will, were conservative rather than liberal,” said Bryan Sells, then a staff attorney on the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, who represented the students.The ACLU’s involvement demonstrated its willingness to represent groups on both sides of the political spectrum. “It’s the kind of thing you wish people remembered when they start accusing the ACLU of being the legal arm of the Democratic Party,” Sklar said.The ACLU contended that the constitutional guarantee of the right to vote overrode the Arkansas statute. While a state may impose reasonable residency restrictions, Sells argued, it cannot presume an entire class of voters — in this case students — are not residents without presenting a compelling reason. The lead plaintiff, Adam Copeland, grew up in foster care and had no home other than his on-campus housing.Another plaintiff, J.D. Hays Jr., grew up a half-mile away from campus but had registered to vote using his college address. His father taught at OBU. Thomas’ ruling “meant that I couldn’t vote in the county that I grew up in. I didn’t have some other county,” Hays recalled recently. “I couldn’t go home to vote. I was home already.”Sanders, who had served in high school as secretary of the Arkansas Federation of Teenage Republicans, became the students’ de facto spokesperson with the media, foreshadowing her White House role. A week before the election, U.S. District Court Judge George Howard Jr. ordered the county clerk to restore all purged individuals onto the voter rolls. “I am very excited and very pleased,” Sanders told the press after her father called her in class to tell her about the ruling. “There’s still a lot to be done.”Benefiting from the student vote, Huber was re-elected and went on to serve in the position for eight more years; he’s now a lawyer and licensed real estate broker in Clark County. Sanders graduated from Ouachita in 2004.Republican efforts to suppress student voting became more prevalent after college-age turnout spiked in the 2008 election, contributing to Obama’s victory, said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. In 2014, Florida’s division of elections under a Republican secretary of state barred counties from placing early voting locations on college campuses. Saying that this policy created “a stark pattern of discrimination,” a federal judge last month ruled that campus buildings in Florida can be open for early voting this fall.Sells, Sanders’ former ACLU attorney, said he hopes that her views haven’t changed and that she could be a voice within the Trump administration for broadening access to the ballot box. “If the occasion ever comes up in her job where she’s asked about voting rights, I hope she recognizes how important it was to her and to her fellow plaintiffs at the time, how important it is to other people who are seeking to vindicate their voting rights,” he said.Sixteen years later, Floyd Thomas Curry now regrets seeking to suppress student votes. “When I realized I was opposed by the ACLU, I thought, ‘Gee, maybe I’m not right,’” Curry said in a recent interview. “In retrospect, I was dead wrong. It was not my proudest moment.”The voting rights that Sanders helped Ouachita and Henderson students regain may still be paying dividends for Republicans. In 2016, Trump carried the once reliably Democratic county by 9 percentage points.
What’s Your Experience With the Americans With Disabilities Act? We Want to Know.
by Ian MacDougall and Claire Perlman We know that the rules protecting people with disabilities are facing government scrutiny. Late last year, for example, the Justice Department scrapped guidelines that help builders, architects and business owners keep compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.What we don’t know is what that’s meant for people. What has it meant for people with disabilities whose rights the ADA guarantees? What has it meant for the small business owners who risk costly lawsuits and Justice Department scrutiny if their establishments aren’t accessible to people with disabilities? What has it meant for commercial architects and construction contractors? What has it meant for caregivers?We’re asking for your help to understand that part of the story.It’s a story that’s gone under-examined, we think, in part because it doesn’t fit the simple, predictable narrative — Republicans rolling back laws to benefit business interests. House Democrats co-sponsored legislation earlier this year meant to curb ADA lawsuits, and several of the guidelines scuttled by the Justice Department benefited business owners as much as they did people with disabilities.We’re also interested in hearing from folks who have seen firsthand how disability rights issues are being handled on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and at the Justice Department.You can help us make sense of what these policy changes mean in the real world by answering the questions below and sharing your stories and experiences. We won’t publish any information you share without your permission. If you’d rather talk on Signal or WhatsApp, which are more secure, send a message to 202-714-3777. And if you have any questions, you can email us at ada@propublica.org. Fill out this form.
Illinois Lawmakers Search for Solutions for Children Stuck in Psychiatric Hospitals
by Duaa Eldeib and Jerrel Floyd Illinois lawmakers Tuesday heard testimony from nearly a dozen doctors and child welfare advocates describing circumstances facing children who languish in psychiatric hospitals even after they had been cleared for discharge — circumstances so harrowing that some children chose jail over another night at a psychiatric facility.State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield, called for the Senate Human Services Committee hearing following a ProPublica Illinois investigation that revealed that hundreds of children in care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spent weeks or months at a time locked in psychiatric hospitals after doctors had cleared them for release.The investigation, published in June, found that children in DCFS care were trapped inside psychiatric hospitals between 2015 and 2017 for a total of more than 27,000 days beyond what was medically necessary. During that time, the state spent nearly $7 million on unnecessary psychiatric care for children as young as 4.And the problem, ProPublica Illinois found, has only been getting worse. In 2014, only 88 psychiatric admissions were not medically needed compared with 301 last year. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Children who stay in psychiatric hospitals after they have been cleared to leave is a symptom of a larger problem, said Danielle Gomez, a supervising attorney at the Cook County Public Guardian’s office.“There is an urgent and unmet need for therapeutic homes and placements for children,” she said.DCFS officials in recent years dramatically reduced the number of residential treatment beds across the state before they had added alternatives outside of hospitals — a decision made before DCFS Acting Director Beverly “B.J.” Walker took over a year ago. She has said that losing those beds has made the problem worse.Several witnesses admonished the child welfare agency for its failure to find placements for children who could not leave because DCFS had no place for them to go. Walker said the agency is seeking solutions.“At some point, we become the one-stop shop that is accountable for getting children out of the hospital and on to community and family settings.” Walker said in her testimony. “It’s part of our mission, so we’re not stepping back from it. But we understand where we stand in the continuum.”Walker offered few concrete measures to ease the problem but said the agency is working to ensure that every child has a discharge plan within 10 days of admission to a hospital. DCFS also has increased the number of beds it can send children to at residential treatment centers and at specialized foster care homes around the state.Heidi Dalenberg, the general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which monitors DCFS as part of a decades-old consent decree, told lawmakers that keeping children in a psychiatric hospital beyond medical necessity runs counter to an Illinois law that requires the state to place children in the “least restrictive (most family-like) setting.”“I’m a plain speaker. That’s illegal,” she said. “We’re abusing our own children.”Five doctors testified the psychological symptoms of children in their care worsened as they waited for DCFS to find them a foster home or residential treatment center. Dr. Peter Nierman, medical director at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, said he had seen patients who had waited so long to be released they deliberately assaulted staff members or patients in hopes of getting arrested and being jailed.“And they said that was a good deal because they knew they could get out of jail quicker than they could get out of the hospital,” Nierman said. Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief medical officer at Advocate Children’s Hospital, said the case of one 17-year-old moved him both as a pediatrician and as a father of two daughters. He said he and his staff watched as the teenager suffered for almost a year in the hospital though only a few weeks were medically necessary.The young woman, he testified, spent 305 days in a hospital, compared with a 5-day average length of stay, “not because she needed to, but because there was nowhere else for her to go.”“After almost four months on the closed unit, not seeing sunlight or being outside, her state started to deteriorate,” he added. “The 17-year-old had no freedom, no interactions with patients dealing with her condition and many restrictions.”Heather O’Donnell, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at the social service agency Thresholds, said the issue extends beyond DCFS to a statewide mental health system that doesn’t have enough placement options in the community and doesn’t pay its workers enough.“We know what the problems are and we know what the solutions are, but it takes spending to get there,” O’Donnell said. “And there is no other way around it.”Morrison said after the hearing she is considering legislative options to provide relief to children who remain in psychiatric hospitals beyond when it is medically necessary, though she didn’t provide any details.State Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, echoed the need for real solutions.“It’s not hard to understand there really is a crisis here,” Steans said.
ProPublica Named Finalist for 10 ONA Awards
by ProPublica The Online News Association has named ProPublica a finalist for 10 Online Journalism Awards. The ONA Awards honor excellence in digital storytelling and distribution. The finalists are:
Defense Inspector General to Investigate Military’s Toxic Open Burning
by Abrahm Lustgarten The Department of Defense’s internal watchdog is launching an investigation into the military’s heavily polluting practice of open burning and detonating hazardous explosive materials on its properties, as well as its frequent reliance on federal contractors to carry out that work.The inquiry, announced Aug. 10 on the website of the department’s Office of Inspector General, will examine whether the department’s practices are legal, and whether the contractors charged with handling dangerous materials — often close to the public — have proper oversight.“Robust oversight of these contractors is essential for protecting the health and well-being of all who work and live near these installations,” Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire wrote to ProPublica in an email. “But it is clear that this oversight did not take place.” Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. Last year, a ProPublica investigation into military pollution revealed that the Department of Defense continues to burn hazardous explosives at more than 60 sites across the country despite readily available alternatives, longstanding environmental laws banning the practice for most other industries and a pattern of concern in communities that the pollution from the burning was connected to myriad health problems.In one case in Virginia, the burning occurred on a near-daily basis several thousand feet upwind from an elementary school. At that site, ProPublica found that the military contractors hired to manage its waste disposal had relied on faulty scientific modeling to demonstrate that their practices were safe and frequently violated federal and state laws meant to control the spread of toxic waste.At another burn ground in central Louisiana, residents experienced frequent earthshaking explosions and environmental testing revealed contaminants in nearby soil and streams. And at a third, an Army contractor in Louisiana illegally accumulated millions of pounds of explosives while telling the military that it had already properly disposed of the material. The stockpile blew up, sending a plume of debris 7,000 feet into the air, and is now the focus of an ongoing environmental cleanup.The Pentagon has defended its use of open burns, saying they are legal, safe and conducted at far fewer sites than they used to be. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Pentagon said, has drawn up acceptable emissions levels and has issued permits to the military and its contractors accordingly. In Virginia, some of those involved in the disposal of munitions at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant — officials with the Army and state regulators — said they were unconvinced the burning posed a health threat. A private contractor declined to comment.Similarly in Louisiana, state officials and the contractor handling the munition burns said the process was safe.Shea-Porter, whose district includes several defense facilities with persistent pollution concerns, requested the investigation and said it was spurred in part by ProPublica’s reporting. Shea-Porter also wrote language in this year’s annual defense funding bill requiring that the military present a plan to phase out its open-burning practice.
Trusted Health Sites Spread Myths About a Deadly Pregnancy Complication
by Nina Martin Preeclampsia, a dangerous form of hypertension that can develop during pregnancy or in the days and weeks after childbirth, is one of the most common causes of maternal death and severe complications in the U.S. The large majority of deaths occur after delivery, often from strokes.But you’d never know it from the incomplete, imprecise, outdated and sometimes misleading information published by some of the most trusted consumer health sites in the country.Instead, you might come away with the impression that, as Harvard Health Publishing says, preeclampsia “occurs only during pregnancy.”
A Fatal Accident Leads to Broader Questions About NYC Trash Hauler’s Operations
by Kiera Feldman Shortly after a wheel came loose from a Century Waste garbage truck in Brooklyn, killing a motorist in an oncoming car, the New York City agency that oversees the private sanitation industry announced it would help the police investigate the crash.There would seem to be much to investigate, for Century Waste trucks have routinely failed safety inspections in recent years. Federal records show that 65 percent of the company’s 32 trucks subjected to government inspection were pulled off the road for safety violations over the past two years.But ProPublica has discovered something else the city agency, known as the Business Integrity Commission, could look into as well: Records show that Century Waste’s headquarters sit on land owned by a man the city had run out of New York’s private sanitation industry years ago during a crackdown on mob influence and corruption. The Business Integrity Commission, which oversees New York City’s trash collection industry, bars companies from doing business of any kind with such individuals. In fact, the agency was created with the express purpose of keeping such people out of the garbage industry. Read More A Truck’s Flying Wheel Kills a Motorist, and the Sanitation Industry’s Safety Record Is Again an Issue The company whose truck was involved in the fatal accident in Brooklyn has repeatedly been cited for safety violations. A review of New Jersey corporate and property records show that the man who owns the land through an LLC — an industrial property in Elizabeth, New Jersey — is Frank Savino, who along with other members of his family ran several trash hauling companies in New York City two decades ago. In the late 1990s, as part of a racketeering case brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, prosecutors charged Savino with conspiracy to form a monopoly. Savino eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor — criminal facilitation. In order to sell the family companies, he agreed to a lifetime ban from the private trash industry.The ban, issued in 1998 and formally called a debarment, came with a very specific prohibition for anyone still working in the industry: No garbage company in New York City could do business with Savino.Century Waste was started in 2005, and is today owned by Marc Savino, Frank’s son. It is not clear if any financial relationship exists between Marc Savino and his father — paying rent for the land, for instance. Frank Savino bought the land in 2001 and then transferred it in 2004 to an LLC that lists him as a principal: Dowd Ave Associates, the owner of the property at 623 Dowd Avenue, Century Waste’s headquarters.ProPublica sent a list of questions about Century Waste’s operations, including any dealings with Frank Savino, to the company’s spokesman, Ara Chekmayan. He did not address the questions about Marc Savino’s dealings with his father, but issued a statement regarding the fatal Aug. 1 accident in Brooklyn. Efforts to reach Frank Savino in recent days were not successful, and an initial online search did not yield any instances of Frank Savino discussing his lifetime ban or his current association with his son’s trash business. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email “Century Waste has always and will continue to take the safety of its employees, customers and the public at large as a primary objective during the course of doing business,” said Chekmayan. “Since 2005, Century Waste Services has been fully licensed, and has dutifully responded to and/or complied with any BIC inquiry.”ProPublica also asked BIC whether Century Waste operating from land owned by someone on the debarment list was a source of concern.“This decision was made over a decade ago by a prior administration and all aspects of Century Waste’s operations are under review as part of our investigation,” Dan Brownell, the BIC commissioner, said in a statement. A spokesperson declined to comment further and did not explain what decision the commissioner was referring to. BIC did not respond to questions asking if they had been aware that Frank Savino owned the land, as well as the agency’s general safeguards for assuring that debarred individuals are kept out of the industry. Read More Hell on Wheels Fatal accidents, off-the-books workers, a union once run by a mobster. The rogue world of one of New York’s major trash haulers. In the late 1990s, New York City set about cleaning up the private sanitation industry, purging it of the mobsters who’d controlled the lucrative business for four decades. Under this system, each customer was considered the “property” of their carter. An undercover investigation led to sweeping prosecutions and the creation of BIC’s predecessor, the Trade Waste Commission. The targets of prosecutors were many: the Genovese and Gambino crime family members who had enforced a cartel that jacked up prices and carved up the city into territories; the industry associations that policed the territorial lines; and the carting companies that profited from the arrangement. Several trash companies owned by the Savino family secured contracts through a top employee’s friendship with a made member of the Gambino crime family, according to a 2015 BIC document.Bruce Berger was one of the Manhattan prosecutors who made those cases, and he later went on to run the Solid Waste Commission in Westchester County. Berger said he was surprised to learn that Frank Savino owned the land beneath a trash company licensed in New York City. The Business Integrity Commission has great power, he said, and it has often used it to eliminate business ties between licensed companies and those on the debarment list.Indeed, BIC’s rules regarding those on the debarment list are very explicit: Companies licensed in New York City “are prohibited, as an agreed condition of licensure, from employing, retaining the services of, or doing business with any person (or any entity employing or retaining the services of such person)” on the list. “The city required people to sell property or threatened to deny licenses for that,” Berger said of the seeming arrangement involving Century Waste. “I don’t know why they haven’t gotten around to doing it in this case unless this is new information.”News of this month’s fatality in Brooklyn prompted one client of Century Waste to open its own investigation. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, with close to half a million dollars in contracts with Century Waste, released a statement saying their independent inspector general “will investigate the recent safety record of Century Waste Services, and we will determine whether to keep doing business with the company. In addition, the Inspector General will review the vetting process of Century Waste Services that was undertaken by the Port Authority, and make recommendations as to whether there are any needed changes to our vetting process.”
ProPublica Hires Data Reporter Jeff Ernsthausen
by ProPublica ProPublica announced today that Jeff Ernsthausen will be joining its staff as a data reporter.Ernsthausen comes to ProPublica from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, where he has worked since 2013 as a data reporter on the investigative team. Along with colleagues, Ernsthausen helped conduct the most comprehensive review of police shootings in Georgia history, as well as flaws in how the state handles them. The investigation led to grand jury reform that was signed into law in 2016.He was also on the reporting team that exposed widespread sexual abuse among the nation’s doctors, with perpetrators only marginally punished and often allowed to keep practicing medicine. The series was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting, and won a Philip Meyer Award, Scripps Howard Award and IRE Award.With degrees in economics and history, Ernsthausen worked as a financial and economic analyst prior to his journalism career.“Jeff is a motivated reporter who has innovated new data strategies in his newsroom for uncovering documents, and he has deftly used his data skills to tell stories that hold the powerful accountable,” said Ryann Grochowski Jones, ProPublica deputy data editor. “We are thrilled to have him join our team.”“I chose to become a journalist in no small part because I was inspired by the work coming out of ProPublica,” said Ernsthausen. “I’m excited to join an institution and staff with a track record of exposing hard truths about our society and holding accountable those who abuse their power over others.”
Did You Go to a Washington Nationals Game With Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh?
by Ariana Tobin and Justin Elliott Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh accrued as much as $200,000 in debt buying tickets to Washington Nationals baseball games.White House spokesman Raj Shah told The Washington Post that Kavanaugh would go to games with a “handful” of friends. These friends then reimbursed him for the tickets, the White House says, and the debts have been paid off.But the White House and Kavanaugh are not answering questions about what happened. Who did Kavanaugh buy tickets for? How did they reimburse him? Was this properly disclosed? And how was all of this treated for tax purposes?Kavanaugh is up for one of the most powerful positions in the land. A lifelong position.We think it’s important to figure out as much as we can about a nominee’s background before he is confirmed. So we’re turning to you.Figuring out who Kavanaugh brought to games could be relevant to his confirmation. It would help:
What Happens When a Pipeline Runs Afoul of Government Rules? Authorities Change the Rules.
by Kate Mishkin and Ken Ward Jr., The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Beena Raghavendran, ProPublica A week ago, the federal government halted work on a massive pipeline project that runs from Northern West Virginia through Southern Virginia.The government said it had no choice but to order work on the multibillion-dollar Mountain Valley Pipeline stopped after a federal appeals court ruled that two federal agencies had neglected to follow important environmental protections when they approved the project.The court had found that the U.S. Forest Service had suddenly dropped — without any explanation — its longstanding concerns that soil erosion from the pipeline would harm rivers, streams and aquatic life. It also found that the Bureau of Land Management approved a new construction path through the Jefferson National Forest, ignoring rules that favor sticking to existing utility rights-of-way.“American citizens understandably place their trust in the Forest Service to protect and preserve this country’s forests, and they deserve more than silent acquiescence to a pipeline company’s justification for upending large swaths of national forestlands,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for a unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Citizens also trust the Bureau of Land Management to prevent undue degradation to public lands by following the dictates” of federal law.It turns out, those weren’t the only times state and federal regulators bent environmental standards for the project, which began construction in February. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email A review by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in collaboration with ProPublica, shows that, over the past two years, federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws have moved repeatedly to clear roadblocks and expedite the pipeline, even changing the rules at times to ease the project’s approvals.Projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, known as MVP, require a variety of approvals before being built. Developers and regulators must study various alternatives, describe a clear need for the project, and show that steps will be taken to minimize damage to the environment and reduce negative effects on valuable resources like public lands and the water supply.But in numerous instances, officials greenlit the pipeline despite serious unanswered questions, records show.For example:— After citizen groups brought a lawsuit challenging how West Virginia regulators concluded that the pipeline would not violate state water quality standards, the state Department of Environmental Protection dropped its review and instead waived its authority to decide if the project complied with its rules. This effectively ended the legal challenge and paved the way for construction to begin.— Confronted with a similar lawsuit filed by the same citizen groups, the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved to rewrite their rules for how long pipeline construction could block the flow of rivers. Environmentalists fear that, under the plan approved by the Corps, four West Virginia rivers could be left dry for long periods of time, potentially harming aquatic life during construction.— Developers persuaded judges to speed court proceedings and grant them access to private property along the route to cut down trees, saying they needed to do so before protected bats came out of hibernation. But then, despite guidelines saying no logging could take place after March 31, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission twice extended the company’s deadline.Regulatory agencies waiving standards and rewriting rules to pave the way for economic projects isn’t new. West Virginians have watched it happen for decades with the coal industry, as mine operators used variances to avoid strict land reclamation standards or fill streams with waste rock and dirt. That pattern is continuing with the natural gas boom.“I’ve seen this kind of behavior from agencies before,” said Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental law at the Vermont Law School. “They start out being strong, but they roll over, especially for these big energy projects that have this national interest, energy security push behind them.”In its “stop work” order last week, FERC said, “there is no reason to believe” that the federal agencies involved would not “ultimately issue” new permits that would withstand the court’s scrutiny. But until then, FERC ordered that “construction activity along all portions of the project and in all work areas must cease immediately.”A news release from Mountain Valley Pipeline echoed FERC’s statement that the pipeline permits would be easily reissued. Developers said they would work closely with the agencies involved to resolve the challenges to their work and “we look forward to continuing the safe construction of this important infrastructure project.”When it is built, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will transport natural gas from Wetzel County, near West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia, crossing about 200 miles in West Virginia and 100 miles in Virginia. It is one of several large transmission pipelines in the works across the Appalachians, part of the ongoing rush to market natural gas from the boom in drilling and production in the sprawling Marcellus Shale formation.In another ruling that exposed flaws in the government’s pipeline review process, the 4th Circuit earlier this week threw out two permits for a pipeline even bigger than the MVP: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5.5 billion effort to transport gas more than 600 miles, from central West Virginia to the eastern portions of Virginia and North Carolina. Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the project without setting any real limits on damage to endangered species, and the National Park Service granted permission for pipeline developers to drill under the Blue Ridge Parkway without determining if doing so was consistent with the road’s protection as a unit of the Park Service.Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the Park Service, said the agency is reviewing the ruling.Because different permits for pipelines cover different parts and types of construction work, it’s not entirely clear how one court ruling that overturns one permit ultimately affects other parts of the construction. Eventually, such decisions are made by FERC, which is the lead agency for gas infrastructure projects.So far, FERC has not decided if it will issue a broad stop-work order aimed at the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, also known as ACP. Project developers argue that it shouldn’t. They say the ruling affects only a small part of the route and that the “court’s concerns can be promptly addressed through additional review by the agencies without causing unnecessary delay to the project,” which is scheduled to go online in late 2019.Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for the ACP and its lead developer, Dominion Energy, said the project has been under review for nearly four years by more than a dozen state and federal agencies.“The courts have found some errors in the process, and they’ve given the agencies the opportunity to correct them,” Ruby said in an email this week.Pipeline project opponents say the court rulings are evidence of something else entirely.“This is an example of what happens when dangerous projects are pushed through based on politics, rather than science,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney D.J. Gerken, who represented citizen groups in the ACP case.‘This Is What They’re Taking From Me’On a spring morning earlier this year, Mark Jarrell got in his all-terrain vehicle and drove up the hill to the top of his Summers County property.“This is what they’re taking from me,” Jarrell said, looking out onto the Greenbrier River and Keeney Mountain.That day, Summers County was quiet. But Jarrell knew it wouldn’t last. About a month later, he heard machines whirring outside. He drove up the hill behind his house and found three machines clearing trees to make way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline — leaving behind a barren, 3,000-foot-long and 125-foot-wide swatch running down Jarrell’s property.He’d dreaded that day for three years, “but when you see it for the first time, that’s the real punch in the gut.”As West Virginia’s natural gas industry continues to grow, business boosters and state political leaders portray it as the key to a bright future filled with jobs, tax revenue and prosperity. Some residents in communities along the Mountain Valley Pipeline route see the project as part of that hopeful future.“This is an infrastructure project putting money into the state,” said Bill Shiflet, an insurance agent in Union, West Virginia.But others are wary that West Virginia has been too quick to embrace the natural gas rush and projects like the pipelines. They fear this movement is taking the state down the same path as the coal industry. And as construction proceeds this summer, some of their fears are starting to come true.For Jarrell, the Mountain Valley Pipeline means a swath of brown, barren path snaking up the hillside. The pipeline itself will be buried, and the hillside along the pipeline’s 50-foot-wide operational right-of-way will be reclaimed with grass. But it won’t be the same.“Now it’s real, it’s not talking about it and worrying about it and thinking about it, it’s happening,” Jarrell said. “And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”Water PollutionJarrell and many of his neighbors have tried to stop the pipeline, and they have been joined in their quest by state and national environmental groups.While FERC is generally the lead agency for interstate pipeline proposals, permits and approvals are needed from a variety of other agencies. Environmental groups opposed to the pipelines have challenged the projects at nearly every possible turn, raising issues about local environmental damage, questioning the need for the pipelines and warning of the global warming implications of increased use of another fossil fuel.Among the many permits they’ve challenged is one called a “401 Certification,” issued under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act.That section was intended to give states a bit of a check on federal authority. It was passed when federal agencies were pushing through large hydroelectric projects that included dams that often upset local officials.If a state wanted to step in and block such a project, it could refuse certification. States also may attach additional conditions to their certifications. Or they can waive their authority altogether, if they want to.West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its 401 certification for Mountain Valley Pipeline in March 2017, issuing a news release that touted the project’s potential to “transport West Virginia’s abundant natural gas to meet the growing need for power generation” in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions. The DEP directed reporters to the pipeline developer’s own website for information about the “potential economic benefit” of the project. Local citizens and state environmental groups urged DEP Secretary Austin Caperton to reconsider the permit approval. Caperton refused, and he provided no explanation for his decision. The citizens sued in the 4th Circuit, the federal appeals court that covers West Virginia. (Under the Natural Gas Act, appeals of permits for pipelines bypass local federal district courts and go directly to appeals circuits.)The lawsuit alleged that the DEP had not really done a required study to determine if the pipeline would harm state waterways. It also said the agency had not required pipeline developers to determine how streams along the route were being used, what the baseline water quality was prior to construction or if the pipeline would “significantly degrade” those waters.A week before state lawyers were due to explain the DEP’s actions in legal pleadings, the agency said it needed to study whether the information used to issue the water quality certification was adequate or needed to be enhanced. Citizen groups went along with a DEP request that the court send the 401 certification back to the state agency and expressed hope the agency was going to do a better job this time.Weeks went by, though, and the DEP said little about how this evaluation was being conducted or when it might be finished.Then, on Nov. 1, Caperton went on statewide talk radio and announced that his agency would not do an additional review. Instead, he said, DEP officials were going to waive their legal authority to decide if the pipeline complied with West Virginia pollution limits.Waivers are not the normal practice for the DEP, and West Virginia political leaders and regulators usually are staunch advocates of states, not the federal government, calling the shots on environmental matters. Caperton said a separate state permitting process aimed at controlling stormwater runoff from the pipeline was sufficient and defended the decision to waive the certification authority. He said the DEP would “use all of our resources” to ensure the pipeline would be built safely.“We feel very comfortable that this pipeline can be installed in an environmentally sound manner and that the environmental impacts ultimately will be zero,” Caperton said on the West Virginia MetroNews program, “Talkline.”Months later, Caperton’s own inspectors have started identifying problems that belie Caperton’s statement.Since April, state water quality inspectors have issued citations along the pipeline route in West Virginia: sediment-laden water leaving the construction site; missing or improperly installed runoff controls; failure to add more pollution protections when existing ones were shown to be inadequate. So far, the MVP has not paid any fines for those violations.Jake Glance, a spokesman for the DEP, defended his agency’s handling of pipeline issues.“To suggest that we are not performing our statutory duty, or ‘putting our thumb on the scale,’ is simply not true,” Glance said in an email this week. “We remain committed to our mission of protecting the health of West Virginians and our environment, enforcing the regulations passed by our legislature, and ensuring the permits we issue are being adhered to.”But Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said her group warned about the water quality violations that DEP inspectors are now finding.“There are smart people working at [the] DEP who I believe knew these shortcuts would be a problem down the line,” Rosser said. “They knew these pipelines would be a problem for water quality. But my sense is those people aren’t making the decisions. There’s a culture in this state and within our agencies that this is just what we have to deal with as a state reliant on an extractive industry economy.”Crossing the RiversAs it winds from West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle to the Virginia-North Carolina border, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will cross four West Virginia rivers: the Elk, the Gauley, the Greenbrier and the Meadow.For the pipeline to be constructed, each river needs to be dammed and excavated — sometimes with blasting — so that the 42-inch-diameter pipeline may be buried beneath the streambed.For this work, the Mountain Valley Pipeline needs another type of permit, a Clean Water Act “dredge-and-fill” permit. If the construction is not handled correctly, sediment can increase in the water, oxygen can decrease and aquatic habitats can be harmed. And, of course, while each river is dammed, there is no stream for aquatic life there to live in.Because of those effects, state officials, working with the Corps of Engineers, put a 72-hour time limit for completing these kinds of stream crossings in West Virginia. That time limit applies to all projects that seek approval under a streamlined Corps of Engineers review process, as Mountain Valley Pipeline did.The problem is, Mountain Valley Pipeline says each of its stream crossings will take four to six weeks to complete. And despite the 72-hour time limit, the Corps approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline permit anyway, using the streamlined process that saved the developers time, money and scrutiny.In May, the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and other groups sued again in federal court. On June 21, the 4th Circuit issued a stay of the Corps-approved permit until the appeals court could hold an oral argument this fall.The court order prompted a late-night news release from Gov. Jim Justice. “This project represents thousands of jobs and millions of dollars being spent to benefit this state, not to mention the long-term stability and boost the energy economy of this country will see as a result of this project’s completion,” the governor said.Justice said he had talked with DEP officials and “they report that the builders of each segment of this pipeline work hard to protect the waters of this state, and they are doing a good job.”“While there have been violations that have resulted from the WVDEP’s inspection of this pipeline, these violations have been corrected quickly,” Justice said.The governor said his administration would “continue to monitor these proceedings closely to determine what role the state may play expediting the construction of this pipeline.”In early July, the Corps of Engineers rewrote its approval of the pipeline to essentially waive the 72-hour time limit on the river crossing construction. In a court filing, Corps lawyers defended the move, saying the alternative of digging a trench for the pipeline without diverting water flow would cause more environmental damage.And just this Wednesday, the DEP released a proposal to exempt the stream-crossing method Mountain Valley Pipeline proposed from the 72-hour limit. Environmental groups said the agencies could instead push MVP to use a more conventional method to bore under the rivers, perhaps reducing the effects.All sides are now waiting for the court to decide if the new Corps approval, revised to meet MVP’s needs, is enough to lift the stay of the Clean Water Act permit.Extending Time to Cut TreesWhen MVP developers told three federal judges in early 2018 that they needed access to private property to build the pipeline, their lawyers argued that they needed it quickly.They were up against a strict March 31 deadline — the day federally protected, threatened or endangered bats come out of hibernation in certain areas along the pipeline route, and roost in the trees.If developers didn’t start cutting down trees quickly, they’d miss that deadline, and they’d have to wait to clear trees until November, MVP developers said in court.That would have pushed the project’s finish date past the end of 2018, its goal, costing the company hundreds of millions in lost revenue and termination clauses, the project’s senior vice president of engineering and construction testified in court hearings when the pipeline developers sued landowners to secure easements through eminent domain. The landowners were not willing to sell on their own, forcing developers to go to court. The landowners urged MVP to slow down, but within weeks of each hearing, judges granted possession of the land, allowing developers to start clearing trees. Two of three judges mentioned the bats in their decisions to allow construction on private property.But March 31 came and went, and MVP hadn’t cut down all the trees it needed along the route. So lawyers asked FERC to extend that March 31 deadline by two months, to allow them to cut down trees on a small portion of the Jefferson National Forest. Tree-sitting protesters had delayed the company’s logging, MVP lawyers told FERC, and the small area of the national forest they wanted to work in was not believed to be home to any of the threatened or endangered bats.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose job is to protect threatened or endangered species, signed off on an extension for MVP to cut trees in the national forest, so long as it was finished by May 31.“If there is a desire to extend tree clearing past May 31, that answer would change,” Troy Andersen, a supervisory Fish & Wildlife biologist, wrote in an email to the Forest Service, which MVP later filed with FERC.FERC granted that extension.In June, MVP asked FERC for another extension, complaining that “obstructionists continued to prohibit Mountain Valley from felling the trees” by the deadline, and asking to keep working through July 31. FERC approved the request. The 4th circuit decision on July 27 put a halt to construction in the Jefferson National Forest, four days before the deadline. At that point, trees had mostly been cut down but hadn’t been cleared from the road. According to the most recent construction status report filed with FERC on July 26, tree-cutting was still in progress, but not entirely finished. As of Friday morning, MVP hadn’t asked for an extension.“This may seem to be just a minor adjustment allowing them to tree cut until the end of July,” said Bill Price, field organizing manager for the Sierra Club, “but the impact of that to the habitat in the area, I don’t know anyone knows for sure.”The federal agency also has approved other requests by the MVP developers that residents along the route say affect their quality of life in more straightforward ways.In recent weeks, residents fought a request for FERC to extend the construction day until as late as 9 p.m. Letters poured in from residents, organizations and county governments, urging FERC to turn it down. Extending construction would create more noise and more workers on the road while commuters try to get to and from work, they said. Longer hours would mean tired, and careless, workers. And, residents said, it was just another example of developers rewriting the rules to make things more convenient for them. It’s enough that crews have to work during the day, said David Werner, who lives on the pipeline’s route in neighboring Virginia. He was one of the dozens who wrote to FERC, urging the commission to reject the proposal. If construction continues until dark, it disrupts his ability to play ball with his four grandkids or keeps him from sitting on his porch and enjoying the quiet.FERC approved the request over the residents’ objections.“They’re already working weekends,” Werner said in an interview. “Now they want to expand well beyond that. They’re violating what they said they were going to do.”On Wednesday, Jarrell was back on his all-terrain vehicle, weaving through the construction area, which has been mostly abandoned since FERC’s stop-work order. Other than a few workers stabilizing the construction sites — per FERC’s order — Summers County was quiet again.Jarrell doesn’t think it’ll last.“They just don’t care, because there’s so much money at stake,” he said. “It’ll get built, no matter what.”
“Walking While Black” Wins 3 Awards in Florida Society of News Editors Contest
by ProPublica The Florida Society of News Editors honored “Walking While Black,” a collaboration between ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union, with three first-place awards in its annual journalism contest. The series was recognized in the categories of public service, community leadership and beat reporting.Led by ProPublica reporter Topher Sanders and the Florida Times-Union’s Ben Conarck, the series showed that police use pedestrian tickets in a racially disproportionate way in Jacksonville, Florida.The story was conceived after a viral video last summer showed a young African-American man in Jacksonville being ticketed and threatened with arrest for jaywalking, as well as failing to carry an ID card. Seeing potential for a larger story, the two newsrooms teamed up for a project that confirmed a systemic problem.Pedestrians can be ticketed for 28 different infractions in Jacksonville, including failing to cross a street at a right angle and not walking on the left side of a road when there are no sidewalks. Sanders and Conarck found that black residents were overrepresented in every category, receiving 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville while accounting for only 29 percent of the population.The investigation prompted the sheriff to seek guidance from the local state attorney on whether his officers were properly interpreting the statutes, and he ordered officers to cease writing erroneous tickets for pedestrians who did not have ID on them. The sheriff’s office also initiated bias training for officers who work in Jacksonville’s predominantly black communities, and state transit experts said the articles armed them with additional evidence for rewriting Florida’s pedestrian statutes.Learn more about the Florida Society of News Editors contest here.
ProPublica Wins Two NABJ Salute to Excellence Awards
by ProPublica Two ProPublica projects have been honored with the National Association of Black Journalists’ 2018 Salute to Excellence Awards.“Lost Mothers,” a collaboration with NPR on the maternal mortality crisis in the U.S., won in the Digital Interactive News Story category. ProPublica reporters Nina Martin, Adriana Gallardo and Annie Waldman, along with NPR special correspondent Renee Montagne, explored the myriad reasons behind this crisis. Their body of work included an analysis of the social inequities that contribute to African-American women’s disproportionate rates of maternal mortality, as well as how unconscious biases throughout the medical system affect quality of medical care. Another piece used patient discharge data to document racial disparities at the hospital level, acquiring and analyzing inpatient records in New York, Illinois and Florida.Another element of the series was a callout, asking people who knew someone who died or nearly died from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes to tell ProPublica their stories. Almost 4,500 readers responded, including 3,862 who said they had almost died themselves. These responses helped the reporters create a first-of-its kind database of mothers who died from pregnancy-related complications. NYU journalism graduate students Emma Cillekens and Alessandra Freita also contributed to the series.Citing “Lost Mothers,” state and local lawmakers around the country have adopted a flurry of bills aimed at reforming how maternal deaths are identified and investigated. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which sets standards of care for obstetrician-gynecologists, also released sweeping new recommendations for improving maternal care, including guidelines for doctors to see new mothers sooner and more frequently and for insurers to cover the increased visits.“Walking While Black,” a joint investigation with the Florida Times-Union, won in the Online News Project category. Led by ProPublica reporter Topher Sanders and Florida Times Union reporter Ben Conarck, the story examined Jacksonville, Florida’s enforcement of pedestrian violations in showing sharp racial disparities in who gets stopped and penalized. ProPublica’s Lucas Waldron, Ranjani Chakraborty and Kate Rabinowitz also contributed to the series.Sanders and Conarck found that black residents were overrepresented, receiving 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville while accounting for only 29 percent of the population. They also staked out downtown locations to witness dozens of uniformed officers violating the same pedestrian laws for which their agency issued citations.The investigation prompted the sheriff to seek guidance from the local state attorney on whether his officers were properly interpreting the statutes, and he ordered officers to cease writing erroneous tickets for pedestrians who did not have ID on them. The sheriff’s office also initiated bias training for officers who work in Jacksonville’s predominantly black communities, and state transit experts said the articles armed them with additional evidence for rewriting Florida’s pedestrian statutes.A full list of NABJ Salute to Excellence Award winners can be found here.
Famed Houston Surgeon Updates Conflict-of-Interest Disclosures
by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle When Houston surgeon O.H. “Bud” Frazier co-authored a research paper about mechanical heart pumps in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, he reported that his only potential conflict of interest was a fellowship in his name established by the maker of one of the devices tested in the study.“Dr. Frazier does not receive any financial gain from this,” his disclosure said of the fellowship.In June, Frazier submitted an updated disclosure listing more potential conflicts, including lecture fees and travel reimbursements he received from three medical device makers; one of those was from HeartWare, the company that established the fellowship in his name. The updated disclosure also included travel expenses from a fourth company and a patent granted in 2012 for a pulseless artificial heart system.The updated disclosures followed an investigation in May by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle that found, among other things, that Frazier had often failed to fully report potential conflicts of interest related to his research in the field of mechanical heart pumps. Most medical journals require such disclosure so that other scientists and the public can judge whether personal interests may have influenced research findings. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email Over the years, the ProPublica and Chronicle investigation found, companies have reimbursed Frazier for travel and paid him consulting and lecture fees; others supported his research with grants. One device maker rewarded him with stock options, corporate filings show, which he later gave to his son.ProPublica and the Chronicle reviewed the past 100 papers on which Frazier was listed as an author, dating to 2010, and found that he disclosed industry relationships in less than 10 percent. Those disclosures often were inconsistent and incomplete.Before the story was published, reporters asked the New England Journal about Frazier’s omissions in two specific studies — one from 2009 and one from 2017 — as well as a 2014 letter about a mechanical heart pump. In response to reporters’ questions, editors at the Journal contacted Frazier, and Journal spokeswoman Jennifer Zeis said that Frazier agreed to submit revised disclosure forms.After the ProPublica and Chronicle story ran, Frazier formally submitted the updated conflict disclosures for both studies and for the 2014 letter. Two of the amended disclosures were posted online last week; the other was posted this week.For the 2009 article, a clinical trial of the HeartMate II left ventricular assist device, Frazier initially only disclosed reimbursements for travel expenses from Thoratec, the maker of the device. His updated disclosure now also lists consulting and lecture fees from Thoratec and from device companies Terumo Heart and Jarvik Heart, as well as serving on an advisory board for HeartWare and receiving stock options from HeartWare that he subsequently gave to his son.Frazier also disclosed the patent for a pulseless artificial heart system, which he initially filed in 2008 with another surgeon, Dr. Billy Cohn.In the case of the 2017 study, Frazier initially reported the fellowship in his name established by HeartWare, the maker of one of the pumps being studied. His updated disclosure form said he had also received lecture fees and travel expenses from HeartWare. In addition, he reported receiving lecture fees and travel expenses from Thoratec and St. Jude, makers of other cardiac devices, and travel expenses from Syncardia, maker of an artificial heart. He also disclosed the patent.In the letter published in 2014 about his experience with the HeartMate II device, Frazier originally noted that he had no potential conflict of interest relevant to the letter. In the new disclosure, he reported that he had received “consulting fees, lecture fees, and travel support from Thoratec, lecture fees and travel support from HeartWare, and grant support from Thoratec and HeartWare.” He also reported his patent and being a member of the medical advisory board for HeartWare. Frazier, 78, has received international acclaim for his work developing mechanical heart pumps during the past four decades. Devices he tested over the years at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and its research partner, the Texas Heart Institute, are credited with extending the lives of thousands of people worldwide each year.In response to questions from reporters in May, prior to publication of the ProPublica/Chronicle investigation, Frazier said he never made money from his work on behalf of device makers.“My efforts have never been for personal financial gain,” Frazier wrote in response to written questions, adding that he “freely shared the mechanics of my heart flow pump with all comers, including two companies that later sold for billions of dollars.”Frazier also said he didn’t know which companies paid him consulting fees or reimbursed him for his travel.“I have personally never sent a bill,” he wrote, “and don’t know what is charged for anything I do.”A representative for Frazier did not answer questions about Frazier’s decision to update his disclosure forms, but rather referred reporters to a deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. In an email to reporters, the Journal said the updated disclosures were prompted by the ProPublica reporting. Asked why Frazier had not disclosed the relationships when he initially submitted the papers for publication, the journal wrote, “We do not know; this answer must come from Dr. Frazier.”Frazier is suing ProPublica and the Chronicle, as well as the authors of this article, in Harris County District Court for libel. Among other things, the lawsuit accuses the publications of misleading readers regarding the nature of Frazier’s relationships with device makers. The lawsuit alleges that reporters tried to create the impression that “Dr. Frazier could be bought off” by device makers.The suit says that “industry standards for reporting conflicts of interest in medical journals vary; some journals do not even publish conflict of interest statements.”The lawsuit also notes that Frazier was only listed as the first author of five of the 100 papers reviewed by ProPublica and the Chronicle. “The rest were drafted by other authors who were responsible for obtaining conflicts of interest from the coauthors.” The suit also said that many of the 100 articles were about general heart surgery, transplants and devices other than HeartWare, “none of which would even require a statement of conflict of interest.”According to guidelines set by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, all study authors, not just the first author, should broadly report all industry relationships, financial or otherwise, that might be perceived as a conflict of interest.
When Mapping the Many Disparities in Chicago, It Can Feel Like It’s the Same Story Being Told
by David Eads There’s a saying among data nerds that every map is the same map.That’s not literally true, of course, but plenty of social phenomena display similar geographic patterns.That’s what you’ve seen if you’ve been following our reporting with WBEZ on parking tickets driving poor, black Chicagoans into debt — and even into bankruptcy. This fact makes maps a double-edged sword. Maps can help us understand the invisible geographies of the world around us and, at the same time, show us what we think we already know, confirming our suspicions without deepening our understanding.Often, these maps mainly tell us where people live rather than actually showing a geographic trend other than population density. Crime maps can be particularly problematic — police crime statistics don’t represent all crime, and any individual’s chances of being a crime victim are affected by factors such as age, gender, race and pure circumstance. Yet even the most carefully made crime maps can’t help but say to readers, “Avoid these places,” even when the risks are relatively low.But just because social problems aren’t surprising doesn’t mean they aren’t worth mapping. Just because maps are similar doesn’t mean they’re actually the same. And just because you’ve seen it many times doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reminded again of Chicago’s segregation and inequality. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Maps of large-scale phenomena such as the per-household rate of parking tickets issued by the City of Chicago and their outcomes show something new, even if the patterns resemble many others. The almost 16x difference per-household ticketing rates between the most- and least-ticketed Chicago community areas looks a lot like a map of violent crime. But seeing them together helps us ask better questions about those two issues. Seeing the scale in a map beyond an individual case turns personal anecdotes into evidence. It helps us, as both readers and journalists, understand the magnitude of disparities and how they play out across cities, states and the entire country. Even if you think you’re looking at the same map, keep looking.
by Lucas Waldron and Ken Schwencke Aea Celestice, a black transgender woman living in Jacksonville, Florida, has the most basic of plans for the next chapter of her life: She hopes to get out of town before someone kills her.Celestice, 32, has good reason to worry. Over the past six months, four black trans women in the city have been shot, three of them fatally.Celine Walker, 36, was shot to death in her room at an Extended Stay America hotel near the University of North Florida on the night of the Super Bowl, Feb. 4. On June 1, Antonia “Antash’a” English, 38, was killed outside an abandoned home north of downtown. And on June 24, Cathalina James, 24, was gunned down in a room at a Quality Inn on the city’s south side.The cases have left Celestice and others in Jacksonville’s transgender community rattled but it’s been the handling of the investigations by authorities that’s stirred outrage. In public statements and official documents, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly identified the victims as men, refusing to call them by the names they chose to use in their lives. While an arrest has been made in the shooting of a 23-year-old trans woman, all three murders remain unsolved, and the insistence on referring to transgender women as men has left Celestice wondering just how much effort is being made to find the killer or killers. She wonders whether anyone outside of her community cares.“There doesn’t seem to be a concern for anybody,” Celestice said. “I guess other people have other things going on in their lives than being concerned about a trans woman getting murdered.”Studies show that transgender women are disproportionately likely to be victims of violent crime, not just in Jacksonville, but nationwide. Yet most local law enforcement agencies persist in handling these cases much like the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, or JSO.The transgender community has a word for calling a trans person by the name they no longer use, one that conveys a double meaning when it involves murder. It’s known as “deadnaming.”Across the nation, ProPublica found, some 65 different law enforcement agencies have investigated murders of transgender people since Jan. 1, 2015. And in 74 of 85 cases, victims were identified by names or genders they had abandoned in their daily lives. Our survey found that arrests have been made in 55 percent of the killings of transgender people nationwide in the last three and a half years. The overall clearance rate for murders in the U.S. is only slightly higher, at 59 percent.Advocates say that not using the name and pronoun a person was known by can slow down an investigation during its most critical hours. People who knew the victim or who saw them in the hours before they were murdered might only have known them by their preferred name and gender. “If Susie is murdered, don’t use ‘Sam,’” said Monica Roberts, an activist and journalist who tracks murders of transgender people. Roberts worries that deadnaming both prevents the community from identifying victims and fosters mistrust of police.Police at the handful of agencies that routinely use victims’ preferred names and pronouns say not doing so can damage the agency’s relationship with the transgender community, or alienate friends and family.“That might lose the cooperation of the friends and family — the people we need to solve the case,” said Detective Orlando Martinez of the Los Angeles Police Department.In investigating the murders of Walker, English and James, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office says it has just followed its policy, which is to identify people based on a medical examiner’s report and whatever name and sex are listed on their state identification.After Walker’s death, the sheriff’s office referred to her in reports and public statements as a man and released a male name to the media, one she hadn’t used in years. Friends and activists called the agency, asking officers to respect Walker and use her chosen name, but say they were told that wasn’t how the agency handled such cases. Bailey Bolden, a transgender woman and friend of Walker’s, said JSO told her the agency can’t assume that a man with breast implants identifies as a woman. Bolden said she viewed both JSO’s refusal to call her friend “she” and her interaction with the agency as deeply disrespectful.When ProPublica reporters emailed JSO to ask for press releases sent out about James’ murder and referred to her as a transgender woman, public information officer Melissa Bujeda corrected us. “The victim is listed as a male,” she said.Members of Jacksonville’s LGBT community say investigators have taken a low-key attitude towards a series of murders that should trigger alarm in any city.Jacksonville is the 12th most populous in the country, with one of the largest police forces. And yet, it is not doing what smaller cities with far fewer resources have done. For example, the New Orleans Police Department sent a liaison to a town hall with the LGBT community within two weeks of two murders of transgender women last year.It took more than a month after the third murder for the sheriff’s office to hold a public meeting and that gathering came only after sustained pressure from advocates and trans women, including rallies, phone calls, vigils and meetings.Investigators say they have no evidence the shootings are related. To many in Jacksonville, that misses the point, which is that the attacks have been targeted against a vulnerable group with few defenders.For Celestice, simply being a black trans woman in the city right now feels unbearable.“I have to get out of here,” she said. “I have a lot to offer, and it would be a shame if my life was cut short because someone decided that they wanted to kill me.” Jacksonville is not unique. Transgender people are routinely misidentified by law enforcement officials in cities across the country.If you watch a 2016 video on her Facebook page, you can see Amia Tyrae swaying to the tune of Beyoncé’s “Freedom.” Her eyelashes are meticulously sculpted and her lips, coated in light pink gloss, shimmer as she looks directly into the camera.Earlier this year, Tyrae was shot to death at a motel in Baton Rouge. In reports provided to the media, police described Tyrae as a “transvestite” — an anachronistic term now widely considered a slur — and a man.“It’s like a slap in my face,” said Alexis White, a transgender woman who described herself as Tyrae’s mother. In the transgender community, “mother” is a term of respect and devotion used for elders in the community, who often fill a familial role when people have been estranged from their birth families.White said that hearing Tyrae described as a man was hurtful.“Her name was Amia. She was a trans woman,” said White, “She was very sweet. She was loved by many.”Don Coppola, a spokesperson for the Baton Rouge Police Department, said the department does not have a formal policy on how to identify transgender victims of crimes.Pushed to explain how the department would refer to a transgender person, Coppola said police would use the person’s sex assigned at birth, noting “if it’s a male, it’s a male.”Despite her close relationship with Tyrae, White said that the Baton Rouge Police Department never contacted her or other people she knows in the trans community to verify Tyrae’s identity. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. When 24-year-old Ty Underwood was gunned down by a football player at Texas College in 2015, police reports initially noted that Underwood, who in Facebook photos has long dark hair and manicured nails, appeared to be female. Despite her appearance, and despite the fact that she had identified as a woman for years, the Tyler Police Department described her as a man throughout police records and in interviews with ProPublica.In a supplemental police report, a detective noted that “there were no female breast (sic)” on Underwood, and later wrote that “the victim was a male dressed as a woman.” Records also show the Tyler Police Department referred to both Underwood and her friends as transvestites in internal documents describing the murder investigation.The Dallas Police Department is one of the few local agencies that makes an effort to use preferred names and pronouns in order to build trust with the transgender community.When Carla Flores-Pavon was found strangled to death in her apartment in Dallas in May 2018, Deputy Chief Thomas Castro of the Dallas police said the department made an effort to refer to her as “she” and “Carla” during their investigation.“When we go out to the community and talk about somebody, we have to identify them by the way they identified,” Castro said, adding that it wouldn’t do the department any good to use a name that nobody knew her by.Police who incorrectly describe the gender of murder victims often don’t have internal policies that account for transgender people. Tyler Police Department spokesperson Don Martin defended his department’s decision to call Ty Underwood a man, saying that the department uses whatever sex is listed on a victim’s government-issued ID.But something as simple and critical as having the correct name and gender on a driver’s license or voter registration card can prove unattainable for many transgender people. A person who is carrying an ID that does not match their outward appearance faces a higher risk of violence or harassment.Transgender women told ProPublica that common interactions like showing IDs at a bar, or to vote, can identify them as transgender to others — a process known as “getting clocked.” According to a 2015 survey of transgender people, nearly one-third of people who presented an ID that did not match their appearance reported being harassed, denied services or attacked.Several women told ProPublica about job opportunities that disappeared after potential employers discovered they were transgender. Without a job, transgender people start falling through society’s cracks. They can lose access to medical care, become homeless, or be forced into sex work.For those reasons, one of the biggest steps people take when they’re transitioning is to legally change their name and gender marker — the “M” or “F” on identity documents. But a patchwork of state and federal regulations can make those changes complicated and expensive — and for some, impossible. “Job-wise, [changing your name] helps,” said Savannah Bowens, a 30-year-old transgender woman in Jacksonville. “I think one of the root causes to why we deal with so much in our community is jobs.”Bowens changed her name in 2017, after an employer noticed her old name on her driver’s license and called her into the office to question her about it. She decided then that she needed to legally update her identification.“I don’t want to become a statistic,” Bowens said about potentially losing a job. “I don’t want to have to be that girl that people see walking the streets or prostituting.”The consequences of getting clocked range from derogatory comments to death. In 2016, Dwanya Hickerson, a former sailor in the U.S. Navy, killed Dee Whigham, a 25-year-old nurse, by stabbing her 190 times in a hotel room in St. Martin, Mississippi. Hickerson, who admitted he had been chatting with Whigham online for several months before meeting in person, claimed he “lost it” after discovering she was transgender during sex.Name and gender changes to official documents can sometimes require court orders or come with onerous restrictions. In some states, such changes are not available to those with felony convictions, or require genital surgery that people may not want or be able to afford. For transgender people who move to states other than the ones they were born in, changing official records can be a bureaucratic nightmare.About half the states bar felons or other people with criminal histories from changing their names. Cost can also be a factor. Name changes run from $25 to $400, though many courts will also waive those fees for people who can’t afford them.Those who go through the court process are by no means guaranteed the desired outcome. Judges have broad discretion to deny name and gender marker changes, and it’s not uncommon for them to do so. The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments this year from attorneys representing two transgender people who were not allowed to change their gender on official documents.“It’s a very frustrating, disjointed legal system right now for gender marker changes,” said Arli Christian, the state policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, or NCTE.The NCTE rates 11 states — Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming — as the hardest places for changing a gender marker on state IDs. In those states, doing so requires body-altering surgery or a court order from a judge. The process for getting a court order can often require proof of surgery, too.According to Christian, judges more frequently deny requests to change genders on IDs than names.“This is not a process that should be in the courts,” Christian said. “Judges are not experts in gender identity.”In Jacksonville, one of the victims, Antash’a English, was described by police with her correct name, but was also described as a man. That’s because English had legally changed her name, but not her gender identification on official documents. Her fiancé, Robert Johnson, said that English had wanted to change her gender ID but she didn’t know it was possible without having genital surgery.Just last month, a transgender woman was found dead in a parking lot in Orlando, Florida. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office press release described the victim as a man “wearing a wig” and “dressed as a female.” Local news outlets soon started publishing and broadcasting stories describing the victim as a “man dressed as a woman.” The trans community responded with anger.Monica Roberts, the Texas journalist who has been chronicling the murders of trans women for years, was the first reporter to identify the name the victim lived by, Sasha Garden. In a post published on her blog, she condemned the local media coverage.“As you probably guessed,” Roberts wrote, “Sasha was deadnamed and horribly disrespected by the local Orlando media.”When ProPublica first contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, spokesperson Jane Watrel said that the agency uses the name and sex listed on the victim’s state-issued identification when describing homicide cases. Watrel later clarified that, after speaking to Garden’s family, the department would begin using female pronouns to describe Garden during their investigation.In a subsequent press release, Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings wrote that the department did not intend to be insensitive and apologized.In contrast, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has not publicly acknowledged or apologized for misgendering and misnaming transgender victims, though in a recent interview with a local news station, Sheriff Mike Williams acknowledged that there had been a “lack of sensitivity” when referring to the victims.In June, a few days after Cathalina James’ slaying, local activists and representatives from statewide advocacy organizations, gathered in Jacksonville City Hall to demand the city council do more to protect transgender women. “Every day I wake up, I put on my clothes, I step outside, I don’t know if I’m going to make it home safe. And if I make it home safe, I don’t know if I’m going to be in one piece or not,” said Paige Mahogany Parks, a local activist, imploring the city council to investigate why so many trans women had been murdered.“There’s no relationship with the JSO and the trans community as a whole,” she added.Chloie Kensington, an activist and personal friend of English, said the city was mistreating trans women.Pointing directly at the council members, Kensington vowed during the meeting, “I for one will march in every pair of damn stilettos I have to hold each and every one of you accountable.”On June 27, JSO’s Twitter account put out a video of the car they said was driven by James’ killer. The post referred to her by the male name she was given at birth. It also said she was transgender and that she went by the name Cathalina.A JSO spokesperson told ProPublica that the tweet was not a sign of a new policy. Using the victim’s gender and chosen name, according to the sheriff’s office, fell under the category of “additional details.”But the pressure the trans community is putting on JSO may be having some effect. On Aug. 2, JSO announced the creation of a group of officers that will serve as liaisons to the LGBT community.For Jacksonville resident Savannah Bowens, the transgender woman who changed her name after an employer questioned her about it, respect is worth the fight.“There has to be somebody that says ‘I have had enough,’” she said.“When I die? I don’t want to be called a male,” she went on. “That is not who I lived my life as, that is not my legacy, and I want to be respected as who I am. People knew me as Savannah. They knew me as she.”
Have You Had Problems Changing Your Name or Gender Marker?
by Lucas Waldron and Ken Schwencke If you’ve been unable to obtain a name or gender marker change on a state-issued ID, passport, birth certificate or other document, we want to hear from you. Fill out our form.
Congress Works for You. Here’s How to Be a Better Boss.
by ProPublica
Election 2016 Gets a Report Card
by Lilia Chang and Ally J. Levine A new report out today by researchers at MIT contains some good news about America’s election process. States seem to have fixed the long lines and sky-high wait times that plagued voters in 2012. Overall, it’s getting easier to vote, the research shows.The report, called the Election Performance Index, also found evidence of a large group of voters who cast a protest vote in 2016.The index is based on a variety of sources, including public surveys and census data. It grades each state on 17 factors that are designed to measure how well they administered the 2016 elections, from voter turnout to provisional ballot rates to the quality of a state’s public data.Here are a few key takeaways:“None of the Above”A large number of Americans, perhaps a million or more, handed in incomplete ballots in the 2016 election, leaving their choice for president blank. This sizable protest vote, invisible to election observers, was detected by one of the EPI’s statistics called the “residual vote rate.”The rate is defined as the percentage of all ballots cast that include either an “overvote” — meaning the voter selected too many candidates in a race — or an “undervote” — which for the EPI means ballots that left the top of the ticket blank.The measure rose nationwide from 0.967 percent in 2012 to 1.395 percent in 2016 according to Charles Stewart and Claire DeSoi of the MIT Election Lab: a 44 percent increase. The rate was meant to detect problems with ballots themselves. However, experts think the increase in the rate for 2016 is an indication of something else. The upward trend, they say, amounts to voters abstaining from voting for president — “more specifically, abstention among Republicans,” says a paper published earlier this year.Thus the residual vote rate “was measuring dissatisfaction with the top of the ticket,” said Judd Choate, Director of Elections in Colorado.The survey behind the EPI report does not ask states to distinguish between overvotes or undervotes. However experts say the unexpected spike in the residual vote in 2016 is best explained by voters unwilling to choose either candidate. Based on their research and collection of opinion polls, Stewart et al. say this phenomenon was more widespread among Republicans reluctant to vote for Donald Trump. Be a More Informed Voter Congress Works for You. Here’s How to Be a Better Boss. Sign up to get eight personalized emails that teach you how to make a difference. “If we were to pick a single cause in this uptick in the residual vote rate,” writes Stewart and his colleagues, “it would be abstention due to alienation from the candidates.”Most states leave voters no option for picking no candidates in a race. In Nevada, on the other hand, voters can choose “none of the candidates.” The state has had this option since the 1970s.“Nevada has a way of letting voters signal that they don’t care about any of the choices in front of them,” says Stewart.Nevada’s residual vote rate in the 2016 presidential race was an infinitesimal 0.0039 percent, down from 0.17 percent in 2012.Long Wait Times Much ImprovedIn 2012, news footage of long lines — especially in states like Florida — filled the evening newscasts. Hundreds of thousands failed to vote because they faced problems like long lines. One paper estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 votes were lost.But according to the 2016 EPI report, long wait times at the polls on Election Day and early voting days have improved markedly.In Florida the average wait time decreased from 45 minutes in 2012 to 5.5 minutes in 2016. South Carolina, which had the longest average wait time in 2016, still saw a drop, from 25.2 minutes in 2012 to 18.7 minutes in 2016.DeSoi credits the improvement to the work of a bipartisan commission created by the Obama administration in 2013 called the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which had been tasked with figuring out why wait times in the 2012 election were so severe and drafting possible solutions. Genya Coulter, a Florida election administrator in the 2016 election, agrees that the PCEA’s work helped local election officials understand and tackle the problem. “The committee came up with some amazing ideas,” said Coulter.She said that the state focused on training poll workers on line management, sufficiently staffing polling locations, increasing early voting locations and providing a sufficient number of voting booths at each location. Based on the PCEA’s recommendation, Florida also started using electronic poll-books to process voters more efficiently.“The increased understanding of why lines form in the first place puts election officials in a much better place to put in policies that address the problems,” DeSoi said. Looking forward to this fall’s 2018 midterm elections, Coulter says they will continue the efforts that shortened wait times in 2016.“People have never forgiven Florida for 2000,” Coulter said. “I try to stress to my team that I want us to be the most pleasant and efficient government experience anybody is going to have all day.”Voting Meets the InternetAlthough it is considered the most comprehensive analysis of election performance, the EPI lacks a measure that tracks progress on cybersecurity, which has become more important as states turn to the Internet to ease the voting process.All 50 states, for example, post some amount of voting information on their election websites, compared to 40 states in 2008. Such moves are welcome, but come with inherent security risks.“We are rewarding states for going online more right at the moment where we think that being online introduces vulnerabilities into the election system,” Stewart said.States have also been working to bring the registration process online. Online Voter Registration enables voters to register to vote on a government website instead of filling out a written form.Joseph Lorenzo Hall, an election security expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that election officials are big fans of allowing voters to register online “because it helps register people to vote who otherwise wouldn’t bother.” While online registration is more convenient for voters, it might also increase the risk of outside interference, including hackers making changes to registration records or stealing voter registration data. “Changes to the records themselves by unauthorized parties is the most serious,” said Hall. “A smart attacker would do this to favor one choice over another in a contest.”With election cybersecurity taking over 2018’s headlines, scorecards like the EPI could let the public know how much progress their states are making at defending against attacks — and serve as an incentive for officials to act decisively.Judd Choate, the Colorado Director of Elections, says his state has made progress that the EPI doesn’t reward: “We have all these election security measures and none of those things are incorporated into the EPI.”
What’s the City of Chicago Doing About Its Problem With Duplicate Sticker Tickets?
by Melissa Sanchez, ProPublica, and Elliott Ramos, WBEZ The City of Chicago has a message for drivers who received more than one sticker ticket in a single day: Take us to court. Or, if you’re feeling generous, just pay up.Seven weeks after ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ revealed that Chicago police officers and parking enforcement aides had, on some 20,000 occasions over the past decade, issued multiple citations for not having a required sticker on the same vehicle, city officials have made no apparent effort to refund the money — even though they said they might.Asked what was being done, finance department officials deferred to the city’s law department.Bill McCaffrey, a law department spokesman, said in a statement: “Depending on the circumstances, it is possible for a car to receive multiple tickets in a day. In those cases, motorists have the option to pay the fines for the violations or contest the tickets.”Officials with the finance department first raised the prospect of offering refunds or canceling debts in June, after they were informed by ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ that, over the past decade, the city had issued close to 20,000 duplicate citations to vehicles without the required city sticker.The finance department officials said they were “taking this seriously” and working with other departments to “further investigate the issue and determine responsible next steps.”Many city officials privately acknowledge the city ordinance — a requirement that vehicle owners buy stickers annually and affix them to their windshields — makes clear that a vehicle can be cited only once a day. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. The city clerk’s office, which is responsible for administering the sticker program, operates with that understanding. And drivers who contest duplicate tickets nearly always have at least one thrown out, ticket data show.Sticker tickets cost $200 each and quickly rise to $488 if not paid. ProPublica Illinois has reported on how these tickets, as well as other traffic and parking citations, send thousands of drivers into bankruptcy.About half the duplicate tickets remain unpaid. That debt will remain on the books — potentially threatening drivers’ licenses and their vehicles — unless the city concludes the tickets were wrongly issued and dismisses them.Black drivers are affected most by duplicate tickets and, more generally, by all sticker tickets, ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ reported last month. Those tickets disproportionately go to drivers on Chicago’s West and South Sides, neighborhoods where the majority of the residents are low-income and black.Sticker tickets stand out among the dozens of vehicle-related citations the city issues because they’re among the most expensive and least likely to get paid. They also contribute to the largest amount of ticket debt owed to the City of Chicago, a phenomenon helping to push thousands of low-income, black Chicagoans into bankruptcy.In recent months, a growing number of organizations have begun calling for change to the city’s ticketing practices, citing the ProPublica Illinois reporting and more recent reports done with WBEZ.In June, researchers at the Woodstock Institute, a local nonprofit that advocates for progressive financial policies, released a report highlighting disparities in ticketing, including in sticker ticketing.“Our findings indicate you need to look at this,” said Lauren Nolan, research director for the group. “You need to do a bias study. These are pretty stark findings.”The Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative public policy research group, believes that Chicago is overly reliant on fines and fees, including fees from city stickers. The group released an analysis in February comparing Chicago’s taxes and fees to those of other major American cities. Adam Schuster, budget and tax research director with the group, called the cost of city stickers and related penalties a death “by a thousand cuts.” “If [drivers] are not able to pay the original registration fee, the penalty is now that they owe more money, which can be a really hard poverty trap to get out of,” he said.Last month, Jacie Zolna, a Chicago attorney who had filed a lawsuit against the city over the lack of adequate notice for tickets tied to automated traffic cameras — and obtained a $39 million settlement — sued the city again, saying its steep financial penalties violated state law.Ticketing is also becoming an issue in Chicago’s mayoral race. The election is next February.One candidate, Troy LaRaviere, a former Chicago school principal who is one of more than a half-dozen candidates running to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel, released an online ad this week attacking Emanuel for, among other things, city ticketing practices that “force thousands of people to lose their cars and force thousands more into bankruptcy.”Another candidate, Paul Vallas, a former Chicago schools chief, is calling for an overhaul of ticketing policies, including city sticker violations, automated traffic camera citations and driver’s license suspensions tied to debt.“I honestly believe these fees and fines are counterproductive,” Vallas said. “I think they’re actually hollowing out communities.”
Democrats Vow Investigation of VA’s Shadow Rulers After ProPublica Story
by Isaac Arnsdorf Democratic lawmakers said they will investigate how three outsiders have been shaping policy and personnel at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A ProPublica investigation Tuesday revealed the vast influence of the trio, who often meet at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.Tim Walz, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, sent a letter to the agency’s new secretary demanding that the VA hand over all records of contacts between agency officials and the three men, who are sometimes referred to as the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd.”“This situation reeks of corruption and cronyism,” Walz (D-Minn.) said in a statement. “If these revelations prove true, and VA is being secretly run from the shadows of Mar-a-Lago by individuals with no accountability to taxpayers and who have never served in the United States military or government, then that would amount to an unprecedented, disturbing, and profoundly unacceptable betrayal of our nation’s veterans.”The troika is led by Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment who has long known Trump. Another is Bruce Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor who caters to the ultra-wealthy. The third is Marc Sherman, a lawyer who serves as an expert witness in white collar trials. While they lack relevant experience to veterans’ health care, what they do have is the president’s ear.ProPublica’s investigation, based on interviews with former officials and hundreds of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that VA officials treated their directives as orders. Officials who didn’t get along with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd were sidelined or removed. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. The top Democrat on the Senate veterans committee, Jon Tester of Montana, also chimed in saying the VA should be listening to veterans, not politics insiders. “Any influence and supervision of taxpayer-funded VA personnel and programs by unelected, unaccountable and politically-motivated advisors is deeply concerning,” Tester said in a statement.Another member of the committee called for a hearing. “It is just astounding to me that this group of totally unaccountable, unelected and behind-the-scenes people can exert this kind of influence,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), in an interview on CNN.The scrutiny comes at a sensitive time at the VA, where Robert Wilkie is serving his first full week as the new secretary. Wilkie has already run into resistance from the Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s allies in the agency, according to people familiar with the situation.Other Democrats voiced their outrage on Twitter:
Have You Donated or Helped to Collect Birth Tissue?
by Caroline Chen and Adriana Gallardo If you have donated birth tissue, such as your placenta or amniotic fluid, we would like to hear from you. (Note: This does not include private banking for personal use.) We'd also love to hear from health care professionals who have helped to collect or facilitate birth tissue donations.A note about our commitment to your privacy: We appreciate you sharing your story and we take your privacy seriously. ProPublica is gathering this information for our reporting, and will not publish it without your permission. Fill out our form.
ProPublica to Expand Local Reporting Network to Focus on State Governments
by ProPublica In an effort to help stanch the decline in aggressive statehouse coverage across the country, ProPublica today announced that it is expanding its Local Reporting Network with a focus on accountability journalism on state governments or state politics.Under a new two-year grant, ProPublica will pay the salary, plus an allowance for benefits, for reporters at seven partner news organizations who will spend one year tackling an investigative project in their states. Reporters will collaborate with a ProPublica senior editor, and ProPublica’s expertise with data, research and engagement will be made available for the work.Applications for these new slots are due on September 14. Here are the details for those interested in applying. The new group of reporters will begin their work on Jan. 2.ProPublica announced the creation of the Local Reporting Network last fall, and the first group of seven local newsrooms has already produced a strong body of work, exposing lapses in worker safety at nuclear facilities, failures in public housing, the devastating toll of post traumatic stress disorder on first responders, and stunning miscarriages of justice in Indiana, among others. A second group will be chosen for 2019 in an application process later this year; the new state-focused program will add seven additional projects to the network.The number of journalists working in state capitals has steeply declined in recent years, as fewer outlets have the resources to hold accountable those in powerful state offices, from the executive and legislative branches to secretaries of state to attorneys general. An analysis by Pew Research estimated a 35 percent drop in journalists working in state capital bureaus from 2003 to 2014.“Reporters focused on state government are critically important for holding elected officials accountable and leveling the playing field between special interests and the public,” said ProPublica President Richard Tofel. “We are delighted to expand the ProPublica Local Reporting Network to support local reporters and newsrooms who bring much needed sunlight to the dealings of state government.”Reporters selected for the Local Reporting Network will work in and report to their home newsrooms, receiving extensive support and guidance from ProPublica. Each investigation from the ProPublica Local Reporting Network is published by both the reporter’s home newsroom and ProPublica.ProPublica has an extensive track record in local journalism. In a collaboration with the New York Daily News in 2016, one of the News’s reporters, Sarah Ryley, worked on a project about the NYPD’s abuse of nuisance abatement laws, which had police kicking people out of their homes without due process. ProPublica helped to develop the work, edit it and dig deeper into the data. The collaborative series led to sweeping legislative reforms, and ultimately won the 2017 Pulitzer gold medal for public service.In 2017, ProPublica launched ProPublica Illinois, a Chicago-headquartered newsroom that produces investigative journalism to expose wrongdoing across the state. One of those projects, a collaboration with the Chicago Tribune about a deeply flawed property tax assessment system, was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.Eligible newsrooms are invited to apply for the ProPublica Local Reporting Network by Sept. 14. Winning entries will be announced in October, to enable work to begin on Jan. 2. More information on the project and application process can be found here.
Top Official at U.S. Embassy in Israel Is Owed Money From Israel Advocacy Group
by Justin Elliott A top aide to the U.S. ambassador to Israel has financial ties to entities involved in Israel policy or that could have business with the government, according to newly released disclosure forms.One of the groups, an anonymously funded nonprofit called Shining City Community that has been involved in U.S. and Israeli politics, owes perhaps as much as $50,000 to Aryeh Lightstone, a senior adviser to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, according to his financial disclosure forms.Lightstone, a Long Island businessman and rabbi, reported he is also retaining three positions outside his government job. Separately, he reported receiving outside income from two firms after he was hired in July 2017 by the State Department.Lightstone pledged to recuse himself for one year from matters related to Shining City. “The Ethics Agreement that Mr. Lightstone signed is very clear that he will not participate in any matter in which he has a direct financial interest,” a State Department spokesperson said. “His government position does not obligate him to divest from all of his investments, and every investment was declared to and cleared by the U.S. Department of State ethics lawyers.”But an ethics expert who reviewed Lightstone’s filings criticized his ethics agreement, particularly his relationship with Shining City. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email Virginia Canter, a lawyer at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said because he is still owed money by the nonprofit, an anonymous donor could funnel money to him through the group without any disclosure. “It makes him very susceptible to undue influence,” Canter said.Overall “the ethics agreement is flawed because it didn’t sufficiently address the potential conflicts up front,” she said. There are a host of potential conflicts when an official is owed money from political groups, gets outside income while in government, and keeps positions in businesses.The ethics practices of the Trump administration have attracted widespread criticism. At least 188 Trump political appointees have been federal lobbyists, according to data compiled by ProPublica. Many now oversee the industries for which they once lobbied. Others, including President Trump and Jared Kushner, have retained stakes in their own businesses, creating a host of actual and potential conflicts. In the case of the Virginia-based Shining City Community, Lightstone served for a period as its executive director and says he was focused on “developing education for state and federal officials regarding the dangers” of boycotts of Israel.The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported last year that Shining City had given about $1 million to Im Tirtzu, an Israeli organization best known for a controversial campaign attacking various writers and artists in the country as “foreign agents” for their liberal political views. James Frinzi, a Texas lobbyist who worked for Shining City, told ProPublica Lightstone had directed him to lobby in favor of a Texas law that bars state agencies from doing business with entities that boycott Israel.Lightstone’s disclosure forms say that Shining City paid him $53,500 in 2017 and owes him an additional $15,001 to $50,000. The group has “agreed to pay as funds are available. $ comes in sporadically.” Canter said that this could create a conflict of interest. It is exacerbated because Shining City does not disclose its donors.A State Department spokesperson said, “Lightstone now believes [the owed money] will never be paid as the entity is apparently shut down/no longer operating.” But Shining City’s Facebook page is regularly updated, as recently as a few days ago with a post stating “New 2018 DNC slogan: ‘Vote Democrat: We’ll ensure MS-13 is treated respectfully.’” The president of the board of the group, New York attorney Andrew Albstein, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.The State Department spokesperson said: “Since entering government service, Mr. Lightstone has not performed any work for any outside entity. Any income that Mr. Lightstone has collected since beginning government service in 2017 has been in connection with services/work he performed before joining the government, but which had not yet been paid out as of the date on which he began government service.” Shining City’s budget has ranged from $100,000 to as high as $3 million in recent years. It received a $100,000 grant sometime between April 2016 and March 2017 from 45Committee, a political nonprofit that backed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That group, according to the New York Times, was “heavily funded” by Sheldon Adelson, the GOP donor known for his hardline views on Israel policy. (An Adelson spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)After starting in his government job, according to the State Department spokesperson, Lightstone received up to $15,000 each from real estate investment firm L3C Capital Partners and a political intelligence firm called ACG Analytics, which “advises its clients on how anticipated policy actions will impact their portfolios.” Those payments were “part of a previously agreed upon payment plan allowing the companies to pay by the end of the third quarter of 2017. All work was completed at least 30 days prior to Lightstone becoming an employee,” the State spokesperson said.“Aryeh consulted to ACG Analytics for business development which included taking meetings in NYC,” a spokesman for the firm said. “He completed all work by June 15th 2017 and was paid out as cash flow became available. ACGA has had no further professional contact with Aryeh Lightstone.”Lightstone’s ethics agreement does not address his relationship with ACG Analytics. Shortly before joining the State Department last year, Lightstone went into business with two Texas state legislators who sponsored a bill countering boycotts of Israel that Shining City successful lobbied for in the state. The bill was signed into law in 2017. Lightstone’s disclosure forms show he owns a stake in a Magnolia, Texas-based business, called Etsah, or Select Mat, which produces crane mats, or temporary platforms used in heavy construction. Lightstone’s partners in Etsah are Cecil Bell Jr. and Phil King, two Texas state legislators known for their arch-conservative politics. Asked about the origins of the company, a person answering the phone at Etsah last week said, “It was a group of guys that came together and just saw the opportunity in the market.” King and Bell didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.Lightstone also disclosed a stake in a firm founded by beleaguered Trump associate Elliott Broidy called Threat Deterrence Capital LLC as well as a $60,000 payment for work combatting Israel boycotts from the Legacy Foundation, another political nonprofit that doesn’t disclose donors.
Ben Carson Declared Mission Accomplished in East St. Louis — Where Public Housing Is Still a Disaster
by Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — The city’s administrative building was decorated for a festive affair when U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson arrived here last September. An Americana themed banner draped the back of a raised stage. Red, white and blue balloons floated in the foreground.“This is really an exciting day,” Carson told a crowd of a few dozen city and community leaders. “It is a day of transition and a day of progress.”In October 1985, HUD officials arrived here unannounced and seized control of the East St. Louis Housing Authority, citing poor living conditions and fraud. Carson was in town to return it to local control.In a brief speech, Carson said that when former President Ronald Reagan’s HUD took over the housing authority five presidential administrations ago, “the residents were at risk, and the future of our children was at risk.”“Not anymore,” he boldly declared.In the months leading up to Carson’s visit, however, HUD’s own inspectors had failed nine of East St. Louis’ 12 sprawling public housing projects, citing a wide variety of health and safety violations, according to federal records obtained by The Southern Illinoisan.Inspectors reported such problems as windows and doors that didn’t lock, infestation, mold and mildew, fire safety violations, holes in walls, broken appliances, peeling paint and missing lead-based paint inspection reports. Among the properties that failed, HUD inspectors estimated an astounding 5,405 violations. One-quarter were deemed life threatening.In at least one case, persistent security problems may have played a role in a tenant’s death.Just weeks prior to Carson’s appearance, an intruder broke into 23-year-old Alexis Winston’s apartment owned by the East St. Louis Housing Authority and killed her in front of her toddler.Around 4 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2017, Winston made a frantic call to 911, told dispatchers someone was trying to break in, screamed and hung up the phone. When police arrived at the John Robinson Homes, they found her first-floor kitchen window shattered and Winston dead upstairs, her body on the right side of her bed. Her toddler was in a nearby playpen. In the months preceding her death, Winston made repeated requests to the housing authority, then still under HUD’s control, to fix the window, according to family and friends. It didn’t lock and was missing a security screen, commonly seen on other windows throughout the apartment complex. Winston’s complex failed its HUD inspection last year.Carson did not tour any public housing complexes in East St. Louis when he visited last September, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said in a written response to questions. At the time, Carson also was not aware of Winston’s death, Brown wrote. Asked if Carson stood by his remarks, the spokesman declined to comment.“The path forward for public housing is not a dilemma that is limited to East St. Louis,” Brown said in an email.The neglect of public housing in big cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. has been widely documented. But the crisis is also hitting small towns and mid-sized cities — places like Peoria, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Hoboken, New Jersey; Buffalo, New York; and Highland Park, Michigan, HUD property inspections show.And now, after years of congressional funding cuts to public housing programs, the Trump administration has proposed slashing far more. HUD funding for major repairs at public housing complexes, for instance, has fallen 35 percent — from about $4.2 billion in fiscal 2000 to $2.7 billion in 2018, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. Earlier this year, the White House proposed completely eliminating this funding.St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said a homicide investigation into Winston’s death remains open.Kelly, who is also the Democratic nominee for a U.S. House district that includes East St. Louis, has been critical of HUD. After reviewing inspection reports for the properties given to him by The Southern Illinoisan, Kelly said they should have prompted the housing authority to further assess and fix security concerns in all units, and flagged HUD to make sure it was done.Roughly one in every four of the 27,000 East St. Louis residents live in public housing.“HUD failed Alexis and so many others there that simply want to live in peace and safety,” he said. “How can anyone put their lives together and lift themselves out of the circumstances that lead them to public housing if you are fighting for your own safety every day?” Downtown St. Louis, Missouri, from an apartment inside the Orr-Weathers Apartments, in East St. Louis (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) A century ago, the city of East St. Louis was a powder keg. During the World War I industrial boom, African Americans flooded the city, looking for jobs. Shut out of work in the South, some were willing to cross picket lines, angering many white workers.In the summer of 1917, a white person drove into a black neighborhood and sprayed homes with gunfire. Other black people reported being pulled from their cars by whites and beaten that night. Black citizens returned fire, unintentionally striking two police officers in a parked car who had arrived to investigate the shootings. Over the course of three days in July, dozens of black people were beaten and lynched, one of the most savage race-based attacks in the 20th century. Whites set fire to their homes and shot at them when they ran.Some black residents fled town and never came back, but far more moved in.In the 1930s, between the world wars, discussions began about building two public housing developments in East St. Louis — one each for black and white residents. After years of political infighting, protests and attempts to scrap plans for African-American housing altogether, more than 400 families moved into the Samuel Gompers Homes and John Robinson Homes in 1943. East St. Louis’ population peaked at more than 82,000 in the 1950s — and several additional large public housing complexes were built.But since then, the city has been in a freefall. Between roughly 1960 and 1990, the city lost more than 13,000 jobs. The white middle class had already moved. During this time period, much of the black middle class packed up and left, too.In 1990, about five years after HUD took over the housing authority, then-Illinois Gov. James Thompson agreed to spend $34 million to pull the city from the brink of bankruptcy. But that couldn’t prevent East St. Louis from turning over the deed to its four-year-old City Hall that same year after losing a lawsuit filed by a man who was beaten by another inmate while in jail on a traffic violation.A long list of East St. Louis public officials have faced corruption charges; some have done prison time.In 1993, a gambling riverboat opened on the city’s riverfront, providing a critical lifeline for East St. Louis’ empty coffers. But gaming revenues have been dropping for the better part of a decade across Illinois, and were never enough to revive East St. Louis.“Many American cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore and Detroit have neighborhoods where need is urgent, but they differ from East St. Louis in one important respect,” East St. Louis noted in a 1995 report to HUD, discussing its housing needs. “They can shift resources from more affluent neighborhoods into poorer ones, whereas East St. Louis has such pervasive poverty and a woefully inadequate tax base that shifting is exceedingly difficult.” A basketball court near the Lansdowne Towers housing development (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) Today, one in three East St. Louis families earn less than $15,000 a year and about 70 percent of children live below the poverty line. In 2011, the city lost its only hospital with an emergency room. In 2012, the state named a panel to oversee the troubled local school district’s budget. Currently, the city is grappling with acutely underfunded police and fire pension funds.“As an East St. Louis native, it pains me to see my old home town in such extreme distress,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was raised in East St. Louis. Residents here “suffer from one of the highest violent crime and homicide rates in the country” and “deserve better,” he said. Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he’s helped East St. Louis secure half a million dollars to install a new security and lighting system at two large public housing complexes. Durbin also supported efforts by Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks to end the receivership. In an interview last year, the senator said the federal takeover had long been a “sticking point” for city leadership because they wanted the opportunity to manage the housing authority on behalf of their residents. Durbin said he has confidence in Jackson-Hicks, who was elected in 2015, that he didn’t have in previous leaders.“But it is clear that more work remains to keep the families living within ESLHA [housing authority] safe,” he said.Neither Winston nor any immediate family members had ever lived in East St. Louis Housing Authority apartments, but she added her name to the waiting list in the winter of 2017. At the time, Winston and her baby were staying with Winston’s mom, Florince Harlan, in Belleville, Illinois, a short distance away. When Royal turned 1, Winston had started working as a clerk at Circle K in St. Louis and she was eager to establish her independence.The first apartment she was offered was in the John Robinson Homes. Harlan said she was concerned about it by reputation. “I didn’t want her to go there,” she said.The John Robinson Homes was named for an ex-slave, a Civil War captain and turn-of-the-century civil rights leader. The complex sits downtown, in the shadow of the Gateway Arch on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The signs of neglect are clear: holes in the soffit lining of the roof exposing ragged yellow insulation, a boarded-up community center with holes in the windows that appear to have been caused by bullets. Inside the units, there are mice, roaches, holes in walls, leaky ceilings and missing appliances. Top: The John Robinson Homes, which opened in 1943 as a segregated apartment complex for black families in East St. Louis. Bottom: A boarded-up community center, no longer in use. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) After moving in, Winston reconnected with Devanie Moran, a close friend from grade school who lived in another public housing complex, John DeShields Homes, a half-mile away. They had children about the same age; the moms worried together about keeping their kids safe.Moran showed Winston where the management office of the apartment complex was located, and how to file a work order. Moran knew the drill, having moved in several years before Winston. At one point, Moran’s living room ceiling leaked so badly “it was basically raining inside.”Farlon Wilson lives on the opposite end of the complex from Winston. Leaking pipes caused a hole in Wilson’s living room ceiling that the housing authority patched over, and she continues to battle a mold problem with bleach, which she believes is making her children sick. Her bathroom sink fell off the wall. She would have preferred to live elsewhere but this was the apartment offered to her and she took it.Winston’s mom and sister said that Winston wasn’t thrilled about moving into the John Robinson Homes, either. But she was determined to keep an upbeat attitude, her mom said.“We accepted this because you have to accept something low in order to get to something big,” Harlan said. When HUD officials took over the housing authority in 1985, they told reporters that they would improve living conditions and the housing authority’s finances. Over three decades, the housing authority’s financial condition improved from a $14 million deficit to a surplus. A few longtime residents said living conditions had also improved in the earlier years of HUD’s takeover, but then declined again. Longtime tenants such as Delbra Myles have complained that the housing authority hasn’t painted occupied units for 20 years. This isn’t just a cosmetic problem. The paint chipping from window sills and bathtubs may contain toxic levels of lead, according to a lead paint assessment that was conducted in April for the Samuel Gompers Homes, which was built for whites but is now occupied almost exclusively by black families. That report was obtained by The Southern Illinoisan through a public-records request.HUD inspectors have cited Gompers for missing lead-based paint inspection reports for years. From 1995 to 2016, while HUD was the receiver, state health department test records show at least 70 cases of children with dangerously elevated lead levels. Lead poisoning can cause lifelong developmental delays and health problems in affected children. The cause of the children’s high lead levels has not yet been established.Mildred Motley, the East St. Louis Housing Authority’s executive director, said her agency is examining “the exact impact of the alleged lead levels” and has applied for a grant from HUD to assist with removing or sealing lead paint, if necessary. Brown, the HUD spokesman, declined comment on the missing lead paint assessments during HUD’s receivership. Top: The kitchen ceiling of an apartment at the John Robinson Homes was damaged by water. Bottom: A resident pulls back vinyl trim to reveal a large hole filled with droppings from rodents that she said move freely through her apartment at the Samuel Gompers Homes. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) The troubles go beyond lead paint. In audits of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in 2011 and 2012, HUD found that the housing authority double-billed the federal government for certain salaries and unit renovations, and mismanaged stimulus funds during the recession of the late 2000s.In 2012, HUD’s Office of Inspector General found that the department’s failures to give East St. Louis the consistent leadership and detailed attention it needed had prolonged its receivership and led to “significant management and operational” shortcomings. The report concluded that HUD “needs to improve its structure for managing receiverships.” Since taking over East St. Louis, HUD has placed about 20 more housing authorities into administrative receivership. Three remain under HUD’s control, all of them in small majority African-American cities in the Midwest: Gary, Indiana; Wellston, Missouri; and Alexander County, Illinois, home of Cairo, the southernmost town in the state.The day of Winston’s death, Carson was in Cairo, about two hours from East St. Louis, speaking with tenants of two 1940s era housing complexes that HUD plans to demolish because they are no longer safe. The decision to shut down the Cairo complexes after years of neglect and HUD oversight failures was one of Carson’s first major decisions as secretary.Five days after Carson visited East St. Louis and declared the housing authority in excellent shape, HUD’s inspector general released yet another damning report about the city’s housing agency. This one accused a private management company, working on the housing authority’s behalf, of improperly paying workers and awarding contracts to companies owned by employees or their spouses instead of honestly evaluating bids. In a response contained within the report, the company noted that its president initially contacted HUD when “made aware of an employee conducting fraudulent activities,” but disagreed with the amount of money the inspector general claimed was overpaid to workers. The housing authority has ended its relationship with the company. Some residents have resorted to securing their ground-level windows with boards and nails at the John Robinson Homes. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) It didn’t take long after Winston moved in for issues to arise, Winston’s family and friends said. For starters, the mice and roaches were everywhere, her mom said. Harlan said she bought her daughter a bug bomb, and they set it off in her apartment. But what bothered Winston the most was the lack of security.Winston tried repeatedly to get her kitchen window fixed.Moran, Winston’s friend from grade school, recalls going to the management office more than once to help Winston file work orders. When she visited the office a final time, an employee said, “Be patient because they barely have maintenance men,” Moran said.When that came to nothing, Harlan said she accompanied the petite 4’ 9” Winston — her family called her “Precious” — to the housing authority’s headquarters a couple of miles away.A few weeks before her death, one of Winston’s sisters, Laquitsha Bejoile-Hayes, helped her lock the window with a broom handle and two nails. But a permanent repair was never made, and the security screen never arrived.HUD completed its most recent inspection of the housing project where Winston lived five days before she was killed. The inspector noticed the security problems, too.The inspection report noted that nearly half of inspected windows were inoperable or wouldn’t lock. More than a third had damaged or missing screens. This was out of a total of 25 units inspected between the John Robinson Homes and neighboring John DeShields Homes (the two sites are inspected together as one project).Overall, the project scored a 55 on a 100-point scale in 2017 (a 60 is needed to pass). The year prior, it scored a barely passing 61. In 2015, it scored a failing 57.Nationwide, the failure rate for public housing projects nearly tripled, to over 13 percent from about 4.5 percent, between 2015 and 2017. African Americans were disproportionately more likely to live in unsafe conditions, an analysis by The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica of HUD inspection scores found. While apartment complexes are expected to pass routine inspections and fix problems in exchange for federal dollars, HUD rarely orders that they be closed and residents moved if that doesn’t happen. The John DeShields Homes (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) During the past five years, at least 120,000 people, nearly half of them children, lived in public housing apartments that received repeated failing scores, the analysis found.Earlier this year, Bejoile-Hayes asked Motley, who took over as executive director of the East St. Louis Housing Authority in late 2015, for copies of work order requests Winston had filed. Motley declined to provide them. Subsequently, The Southern Illinoisan submitted a public-records request for work orders from April to August 2017 for the development where Winston lived. Among the roughly 130 requests for repairs, five were for window repairs. (Tenant names and unit numbers were not included for privacy reasons.) Of those five requests, the records show that an order to fix one broken window was closed on the day it was reported in late April. The others were not closed until at least mid-September, after Winston’s death, the records show.Motley would not comment on any requests made by individual tenants, including Winston, to repair their units. She said in an emailed statement to The Southern Illinoisan that “window and screen replacements are major improvements which require capital funds.”Scared to be in her apartment at night alone, Winston spent most nights at her mom’s home. But on Aug. 7, Winston decided to stay overnight at the John Robinson Homes. She had a hearing scheduled for that week at the nearby county courthouse to get child support for her daughter. Bullet holes dot a sign in the courtyard of the John Robinson Homes. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) A few hours after Winston was killed, a police officer knocked on the door of her sister’s home in Belleville. Tynesha Bejoile was at work, so her fiancé answered. The officer asked him to have Bejoile call the police department as soon as she could.When Bejoile called the police, she was told that there had been a tragedy in Winston’s apartment. The officer asked her if any immediate relatives could arrange to pick up Royal, who had been taken into the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at the scene. “I asked if my sister was OK, and she said, ‘I can’t tell you that over the phone,” Bejoile recalled.Bejoile-Hayes, another sister, left work and drove to their mom’s house. Florince Harlan, who was asleep, woke up to numerous missed calls, then got another from her ex-husband. A co-worker had told him that rumors were spreading on social media that Winston had been murdered in her apartment.Bejoile-Hayes drove Harlan and Winston’s stepfather to the John Robinson Homes.Around 8:30 a.m., they arrived at a scene filled with signs of tragedy: multiple squad cars in the parking lot, crime scene tape stretched across the apartment complex, and two armed officers guarding the front door of Winston’s apartment. Harlan collapsed in pain. Her ex-husband steadied her by the arm.“That’s when I started screaming,” she said.Eventually, she went to find Royal at a state office just a short drive away. An officer met Harlan there, and walked her over to the police station, where they confirmed that her daughter had been killed.Winston’s mom and sisters spent the next 10 days planning burial services. In the days following her daughter’s death, Harlan said she kept thinking about the fact that her daughter had complained repeatedly about her unsecured apartment.If the screen had been in place, “I think it would have saved her life,” she said. The towers of the Orr-Weathers Apartments (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) Winston wasn’t the only East St. Louis Housing Authority tenant to die in the weeks before Carson’s visit. Last July 26, a fire broke out in an eight-story apartment complex for seniors known as the Orr-Weathers E-2 building, located about a mile from where Winston lived.Derwin Jackson, a tenant in the building, said the alarm sounded loudly on the first floor, but was difficult for some tenants on higher floors to hear. “I’m on the sixth floor. I couldn’t hear it,” he said.A disabled tenant on the fourth floor, 60-year-old Arthur Jefferson, was overwhelmed by smoke, Jackson said. Jefferson moved slowly, “inch by inch,” and collapsed in the hallway not far from his door, according to a police report. He was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Police said a woman who did not live in the building entered with another tenant and set fire to a couch and table in the hallway of the fourth floor. She recently pleaded guilty to aggravated arson and involuntary manslaughter, according to Kelly, the state’s attorney. “I believe it’s going to take another life for them to even consider getting this building up to code like they are supposed to,” said Jackson, who was Jefferson’s cousin as well as his neighbor. HUD inspected the property a week before Jefferson died. Like Winston’s complex, it failed, scoring a 37 out of 100 points.Willie McDaniel, who also lives in the building, said tenants have long complained about the building’s lack of security. People who are not authorized to be in the building sleep in the hallways at night, he said. McDaniel said that it’s not uncommon for feces and urine to linger in common areas for several days.At a meeting last December, tenants asked for the housing authority to assign one of its security workers to patrol the hallways of this high-rise and others. The housing authority responded that security personnel visit the high-rises several times per day and monitor security cameras from their vehicles. But the housing authority “does not have sufficient resources to have Public Safety stationed at each high rise building,” according to responses included in the housing authority’s annual plan.Terrell Wren, another resident in the Orr-Weathers high-rise, had a list of complaints, particularly about bedbugs. His bathroom is in shambles. In late April, a jammed hot water knob caused the water to run continuously. “It’s been like this going on three, maybe four months,” he said. Terrell Wren stands in his bathroom in the Orr-Weathers Apartments. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) McDaniel said he’s so fed up that he organized a petition drive to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, asking her office to intervene. A half dozen tenants wrote to Madigan about bugs, frequent hot water outages, and security concerns they say they’ve raised for years. “Help!!!” one tenant wrote.“They need to condemn this building,” McDaniel said.Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Madigan, said the attorney general’s Consumer Fraud Bureau reviewed the complaints and determined that it does not have jurisdiction in the matter. The complaints will be forwarded to the East St. Louis Housing Authority and copied to HUD, Thompson said. Lakena Harmon remembers hearing that Winston’s had been killed last August. It was all anyone talked about for several days. “I thought of, what if this happens to me, could this happen to me, and will these windows be able to protect me?”Although Harmon didn’t know Winston, she thought of her when her own apartment was sprayed with gunfire this spring.In mid-April, Harmon returned to the Samuel Gompers Homes from a get-together in Belleville. Friends and family had thrown her a gender reveal party. Excited to learn she was having a boy but worn out from the festivities, Harmon said she laid down on her bed at about 10 p.m.Soon after, she heard what she thought was a rock hitting her window. Lakena Harmon sits in her living room at the Samuel Gompers Homes. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) When she heard it again, Harmon realized it was gunfire and rolled off her bed, hitting the floor with her pregnant belly. The window shattered, leaving a bullet hole in her bedroom closet door. She was unharmed, but for weeks her window was covered with a plywood board.As she waited for the window to be replaced, Harmon slept on a mattress in her living room. Then, about two weeks after her window was shot out, she awoke to the smell of raw sewage. “As soon as I put my feet on the floor, it’s all water, all water,” she said. She shuffled across her wet floor to the bathroom and threw up. Then, she started mopping up the mess.Neighbors have had similar experiences. After the incident, Harmon’s doctor wrote a note for her to give to the housing authority saying she needed to be moved or have her apartment repaired as “exposure to raw sewage creates a health hazard for the patient.” The housing authority hasn’t responded, though, and Harmon said her apartment flooded again on July 31. Since HUD ended its receivership, living conditions have remained bleak.A recent assessment showed a staggering backlog of needed repairs at East St. Louis’ public housing complexes. The report said that it would cost $42 million to immediately renovate units and building systems to HUD standards and another $180 million over 20 years.To put that in context, the housing authority only receives about $3 million each year from HUD for major repairs. It also receives about $9 million in federal operating subsidies, intended to cover the difference between the reduced rents charged to tenants and the estimated cost of managing the apartment complexes. Roughly three of every four dollars the housing authority receives comes from the federal government. Kelly, the prosecutor who is running for Congress, has been critical of HUD’s lack of investment to improve the East St. Louis housing complexes. He said last September that he was concerned the agency had sought to distance itself from ongoing problems by returning control of the housing authority to local officials without giving them enough resources to fix its problems.As part of the transition back to local control, a HUD administrator was assigned to provide assistance to East St. Louis and closely monitor the housing authority’s performance for two years. The housing authority was asked to implement a plan to improve living conditions.“The aging housing stock continues to deteriorate. The prior repairs have been plagued with inferior workmanship and materials and unskilled maintenance staff. The lack of maintenance staff has also taken a toll on timely repairs,” the local housing authority wrote in a brief report on the issue. In recent years, major systems such as plumbing, electrical, roofing and heating, have not been properly maintained, the report said.Based on the projected annual funding from HUD for major system repairs, “it will take over a 70-year period to correct the deficiencies” identified by inspectors and in a separate assessment of property conditions.Brown, the HUD spokesman, called Motley, the local housing authority executive director, “a glimmer of hope for housing in East St. Louis.”“As committed as she is, she cannot do it alone,” Brown wrote. “There is a direct, indisputable correlation between housing and the local economy.”The local housing authority “strives to meet HUD standards,” Motley said in an email. “Inspections have identified several items that need to be addressed, and we are in the process of addressing those items.”Under the transition plan back to local control, the housing authority also was asked to improve security on its properties and track monthly crime statistics.In April, police received three reports of home invasions and two of shots fired at the John Robinson and John DeShields apartment complexes, which combined house about 300 families. In May, police responded to an aggravated assault and two incidents each of aggravated battery and criminal damage to property. In June, police responded to a criminal sexual assault. At the John Robinson Homes, some windows are still missing security screens, and are sealed with boards and nails. Children play on a pile of tires in a courtyard at the Orr-Weathers Apartments. (William Widmer, special to ProPublica) Winston’s daughter, Royal, is now living with Bejoile-Hayes, her husband and their children.Bejoile-Hayes said it pains her to think of all the moments her sister is missing, like when her little girl turned 2 this January. Royal was in her pretty white dress, squealing with delight at her brightly colored Trolls-themed birthday party and a few of her favorite foods: a pancake bar with whipped topping, fresh strawberries and chocolate chips.Late last month, Harlan sued the East St. Louis Housing Authority in St. Clair County Circuit Court, alleging that its failure to secure the window after Winston’s multiple requests contributed to her death. Any money collected will go into a trust fund for Royal’s continued care, Harlan said. She’s also hoping it sends a strong message to the housing authority and HUD about the importance of fulfilling work orders so that “nobody else’s child has to die in those apartments down there.”The housing authority and HUD, which is not a defendant in the suit, both declined to comment on pending litigation. The housing authority has yet to file a response in court.“You knew my child needed help,” Harlan said, “and you turned a blind eye.”
We Are Expanding Our Local Reporting Network. Submit Your Best Project Ideas for Investigating State Government.
by ProPublica Last year, ProPublica introduced our Local Reporting Network to help create vital, investigative journalism in communities where such stories would otherwise not to be done.Now, we’re expanding it, and we’re specifically looking for accountability stories emanating from state capitals, from the governor’s mansion to the legislature to the work of state agencies.The influence of state government is far-reaching, touching aspects of life as varied as taxes, education, environmental oversight and health care — yet elected officials and state bureaucrats are getting ever less scrutiny.As local newsrooms are shrinking, and the number of reporters working in statehouses across the country has dropped sharply in recent years. Some news organizations no longer cover their state capitals and others have reduced their bureaus to one or two reporters.With support from a new grant, we will pay the salary, plus an allowance for benefits, for full-time reporters at seven partner news organizations who are dedicated to big investigative projects focused on state politics and state government. We expect that at least one winning proposal will come from Illinois to complement our own local work at ProPublica Illinois. Applications are due Sept. 14, and selected reporters will begin work on Jan. 2 and work on their projects throughout 2019.ProPublica’s first group of seven local reporters has already produced a strong body of work, exposing lapses in worker safety at nuclear facilities, failures in public housing, the devastating toll of post traumatic stress disorder on first responders, and stunning miscarriages of justice in Indiana, among others. (Here are all the stories produced by reporters in the network so far.)Our expansion will not take the place of our original Local Reporting Network. Later this fall, we will solicit proposals for the second year of our general local reporting initiative. Instead of having seven local reporting partners, we will have 13 or 14 next year.If your organization is selected, the reporter will continue to work in your newsroom, but they will receive extensive guidance and support from ProPublica. Their work will be published or broadcast by your newsroom and simultaneously by ProPublica as well. While the reporter does not have to be based in your state capital, he or she will have to spend time there during the year.National news organizations are not eligible to apply; all other newsrooms are. We particularly want to create journalism where there is none and build capacity that news organizations would not otherwise have. We are not looking to fund day-to-day coverage of state government or the legislature, but instead to enable your organization to do ambitious accountability projects.Applications should be submitted by newsroom leaders for a particular project and a specific reporter. If you lead a newsroom and are interested in working with us, we’d like to hear from you about:
What Do You Know About Public Housing in the U.S.? Help Us Investigate.
by Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan, and Beena Raghavendran, ProPublica Volumes have been written about the broken promise of safe public housing for low-income families living in large urban centers.But the deterioration of affordable housing is a crisis that affects some small towns and mid-sized cities, too.And not enough people are talking about it.ProPublica and The Southern Illinoisan are teaming up to examine failures by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to ensure that federal dollars are paying for housing that is safe, decent and sanitary, as the law requires. We’re investigating this issue in small and medium-sized cities, which have fewer resources than larger urban areas to combat aging, crumbling facilities.In April, we reported on HUD’s decision to relocate about 400 people from neglected housing complexes in Cairo, Illinois, after years of oversight failures threw residents’ lives into chaos.Three months later, HUD’s watchdog arm released a stinging report that said HUD put off taking over the Alexander County Housing Authority for years to avoid potential “political repercussions” and financial burdens, despite its knowledge of local mismanagement, poor living conditions and civil rights violations. (Cairo is located in Alexander County.)We’ve published an investigation exploring how deteriorating housing is threatening the health and security of thousands of public housing residents in the southern Illinois community of East St. Louis. HUD ended its 32-year federal receivership there last September.We’re looking to hear from more people about the living conditions at HUD-funded housing.We want to hear whether public housing failures have led to resident suffering, particularly in small- or mid-sized cities where resources are pinched. We want to know how safe the housing has been, and how HUD-funded housing officials responded when residents asked for help.We want to hear stories from advocates and officials, too, who can lend their insight into the HUD-funded housing system.Fill out the questionnaire to share your stories. Fill out the form.
48 Hours in Charlottesville: Fear, Nausea, and a Sad Lack of Surprise
by A.C. Thompson Watch “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville.”I was driving through the lush Virginia countryside along Route 29 last August when I saw it: a long convoy of military vehicles, most of them troop carriers.After a few moments, I realized what was going on. The soldiers were headed south to Charlottesville, where, in a few hours, hundreds of white supremacists were expected to convene for the largest public gathering of racial extremists in decades. I was going there, too, on assignment to cover the rally.Given what had happened in the previous months — three people stabbed at a Klan rally in Anaheim, seven people stabbed at a neo-Nazi event in Sacramento, street fighting that stretched on for hours in Berkeley — I feared it might be a bloody scene in Charlottesville.As the convoy trundled along in the slow lane, I shivered a little despite the heat. The authorities, I thought, must be expecting a storm of violence if they were mobilizing National Guard. At 11:14 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2017, I pulled over and tapped out an email to my editors with the subject line, “In case of emergency.”There was “likely to be violence,” I wrote, adding that it was possible that I’d be swept up by police responding to the unrest. I wanted them to know that they might be getting a call from a hospital bed or jail cell.It was, as they say, a moment. The next couple of days were full of them.“We’re gonna put you in camp!” boomed the white supremacist, torch in hand, as he strode past me and my colleague Karim Hajj, a producer and videographer for Frontline. It was now dark on the night of Aug. 11.“We’re gonna put you in camp!” he shouted again.I didn’t know if the words were meant for me, Karim, or just something the guy enjoyed yelling as he marched, a sort of generic all-purpose threat.Other marchers shouted about giving their enemies “helicopter rides,” an expression meant to evoke the atrocities of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean fascist ruler whose government thugs had made a habit of hurling the regime’s political opponents out of helicopters.The mood of the marchers wasn’t merely angry, it felt homicidal. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. And yet, as the march snaked across the grounds of the University of Virginia, I’d only seen two police officers. One of them had confronted Karim, who was carrying a camera-equipped drone in his hand. The officer wanted Karim to know that he wasn’t allowed to fly it over the campus.By now you know, at least in rough terms, what happened that night. A horde of white supremacists clad in polo shirts attacked a small group of anti-racist protesters, many of them students. The white supremacists used their flaming torches as weapons, smashing them into the students, again and again.University police — outnumbered and unprepared — simply watched as the altercation unfolded.The Police Department’s “lack of intervention was obvious to everyone present,” investigators would later note in an exhaustive 200-page report commissioned by the city of Charlottesville. “It also seems likely that the insufficient police response on Friday night emboldened people who intended to engage in similar acts of violence on Saturday. Anyone who came to Charlottesville to violently confront others was undoubtedly encouraged by what he saw in person or on video at UVA.”It was about 2 p.m. the following day, on Aug. 12, and a gray Dodge Challenger had just sped into a large crowd of people on 4th Street in Charlottesville, leaving broken bodies scattered across the pavement.It seemed like a terror attack. But at that point Karim and I had little information. We knew the wounded were protesters who had shown up to oppose the white supremacists. But we didn’t know who had been behind the wheel of the car —at that point police hadn’t captured the person and apparently he or she was still wheeling around Charlottesville. We didn’t know how many people had been hurt or killed.Were more attacks coming? Would there be another vehicular assault? A bombing? Would an angry Klansman grab an assault rifle and start squeezing off rounds? There was little way to immediately know. But it didn’t feel crazy to fear the worst.I remember the sounds. Moaning and screaming. Helicopters whirling overhead. The wailing of ambulance sirens. Were more attacks happening in another part of town, right now, right at this moment?Eventually, information began filtering out. We learned that police had arrested the man who had allegedly steered the car into the crowd. His name was James Alex Fields, Jr., and he was a 20-year-old neo-Nazi from Ohio. Before the incident, Fields had spent the day carrying a wooden shield and marching around Charlottesville with an outfit known as Vanguard America. (In the wake of the crime, the group rebranded itself as Patriot Front and remains one of the most active white supremacist organizations in the U.S.)Karim and I got then word that a 32-year-old woman — Heather Heyer — had been killed. Many more were injured and with each report the number seemed to go up — 15, then 17, then 19.In late June 2018, we got a new, larger figure, when the U.S. Department of Justice charged Fields with an array of felony hate crimes on top of the murder charge he was already facing in state court. According to the federal indictment, Fields actually hurt 29 people.As I stood on Fourth Street that afternoon, I felt nauseous, horrified, deeply sad.What I didn’t feel was a sense of surprise.The violence had been escalating all weekend and nobody — not the UVA police, not the Charlottesville police, not the Virginia state police, who had mobilized some 600 officers, not the truckloads of National Guardsmen I’d watched roll into town the day before — had seemed particularly eager to stop it. Documenting Hate: Charlottesville Reporter A.C. Thompson shows how some of those behind the racist violence nearly one year ago went unpunished and continued to operate around the country.
The Shadow Rulers of the VA
by Isaac Arnsdorf Last February, shortly after Peter O’Rourke became chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he received an email from Bruce Moskowitz with his input on a new mental health initiative for the VA. “Received,” O’Rourke replied. “I will begin a project plan and develop a timeline for action.”O’Rourke treated the email as an order, but Moskowitz is not his boss. In fact, he is not even a government official. Moskowitz is a Palm Beach doctor who helps wealthy people obtain high-service “concierge” medical care.More to the point, he is one-third of an informal council that is exerting sweeping influence on the VA from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida. The troika is led by Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who is a longtime acquaintance of President Trump’s. The third member is a lawyer named Marc Sherman. None of them has ever served in the U.S. military or government.Yet from a thousand miles away, they have leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans. They have remained hidden except to a few VA insiders, who have come to call them “the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.”Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman declined to be interviewed and fielded questions through a crisis-communications consultant. In a statement, they downplayed their influence, insisting that nobody is obligated to act on their counsel. “At all times, we offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis, seeking nothing at all in return,” they said. “While we were always willing to share our thoughts, we did not make or implement any type of policy, possess any authority over agency decisions, or direct government officials to take any actions… To the extent anyone thought our role was anything other than that, we don’t believe it was the result of anything we said or did.”VA spokesman Curt Cashour did not answer specific questions but said a “broad range of input from individuals both inside and outside VA has helped us immensely over the last year and a half.” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters also did not answer specific questions and said Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz “have no direct influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs.”But hundreds of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with former administration officials tell a different story — of a previously unknown triumvirate that hovered over public servants without any transparency, accountability or oversight. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd spoke with VA officials daily, the documents show, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They prodded the VA to start new programs, and officials travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views. “Everyone has to go down and kiss the ring,” a former administration official said.If the bureaucracy resists the trio’s wishes, Perlmutter has a powerful ally: The President of the United States. Trump and Perlmutter regularly talk on the phone and dine together when the president visits Mar-a-Lago. “On any veterans issue, the first person the president calls is Ike,” another former official said. Former administration officials say that VA leaders who were at odds with the Mar-A-Lago Crowd were pushed out or passed over. Included, those officials say, were the secretary (whose ethical lapses also played a role), deputy secretary, chief of staff, acting under secretary for health, deputy under secretary for health, chief information officer, and the director of electronic health records modernization.At times, Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman have created headaches for VA officials because of their failure to follow government rules and processes. In other cases, they used their influence in ways that could benefit their private interests. They say they never sought or received any financial gain for their advice to the VA. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. The arrangement is without parallel in modern presidential history. The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 provides a mechanism for agencies to consult panels of outside advisers, but such committees are subject to cost controls, public disclosure and government oversight. Other presidents have relied on unofficial “kitchen cabinets,” but never before have outside advisers been so specifically assigned to one agency. During the transition, Trump handed out advisory roles to several rich associates, but they’ve all since faded away. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd, however, has deepened its involvement in the VA.Perlmutter, 75, is painstakingly private — he reportedly wore a glasses-and-mustache disguise to the 2008 premiere of “Iron Man.” One of the few public photographs of him was snapped on Dec. 28, 2016, through a window at Mar-a-Lago. Trump glares warily at the camera. Behind him, Perlmutter smiles knowingly, wearing sunglasses at night.When Trump asked him for help putting a government together, Perlmutter offered to be an outside adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. Having fought for his native Israel in the 1967 war before he moved to the U.S. and became a citizen, Perlmutter chose veterans as his focus.Perlmutter enlisted the assistance of his friends Sherman and Moskowitz. Moskowitz, 70, specializes in knowing the world’s top medical expert for any ailment and arranging appointments for clients. He has connections at the country’s top medical centers. Sherman, 63, has houses in West Palm Beach and suburban Baltimore and an office in Washington with the consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal. His legal work focuses on financial fraud, white collar investigations and damages disputes. His professional biography lists experience in eight industries, none of them related to health care or veterans.Moskowitz and Sherman helped Perlmutter convene a council of health care executives on the day of the Trump-Perlmutter photograph, Dec. 28, 2016. Offering more private healthcare to vets was a signature promise of Trump’s campaign, but at that point he hadn’t decided who should lead an effort that would reverse the VA’s longstanding practices.A new name surfaced in that meeting: David Shulkin, who’d led the VA’s health care division since 2015. Perlmutter then recommended Shulkin to Trump, according to a person familiar with his thinking. (Shulkin did not respond to requests for comment.) Once nominated, Shulkin flew to Mar-a-Lago in early February 2017 to meet with Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz. In a follow-up email a few days later, Moskowitz elaborated on the terms of their relationship. “We do not need to meet in person monthly, but meet face to face only when necessary,” he wrote. “We will set up phone conference calls at a convenient time.”Shulkin responded diplomatically. “I know how busy all of you are and having you be there in person, and so present, was truly a gift,” he wrote. “I found the time we spent, the focus that came out of our discussions, and the time we had with the President very meaningful.”It wasn’t long before the Mar-a-Lago Crowd wore out their welcome with Shulkin. They advised him on how to do his job even though they sometimes seemed to lack a basic understanding of it. Just after their first meeting, Moskowitz emailed Shulkin again to say, “Congratulations i[t] was unanimous.” Shulkin corrected him: “Bruce- this was not the confirmation vote- it was a committee vote- we still need a floor vote.”Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman acted like board members pounding a CEO to turn around a struggling company, a former administration official said. In email after email, officials sought approval from the trio: for an agenda Shulkin was about to present to Trump for a research effort on suicide prevention and for a plan to recruit experts from academic medical centers. “Everything needs to be run by them,” the first former official said, recalling the process. “They view themselves as making the decisions.”The Mar-a-Lago Crowd bombarded VA officials with demands, many of them inapt or unhelpful. On phone calls with VA officials, Perlmutter would bark at them to move faster, having no patience for bureaucratic explanations about why something has to be done a certain way or take a certain amount of time, former officials said. He issued orders in a thick, Israeli-accented English that can be hard to understand.In one instance, Perlmutter alerted Shulkin to what he called “another real-life example of the issues our great veterans are suffering with when trying to work with the VA.” The example came from Karen Donnelly, a real estate agent in Palm Beach who manages the tennis courts in the luxury community where Perlmutter lives. Donnelly’s son was having trouble accessing his military medical records. After a month of dead ends, Donnelly said she saw Perlmutter on the tennis court and, knowing his connection to Trump, asked him for help. Perlmutter told her to email him the story because he’s “trying to straighten things out” at the VA, she recalled. (Donnelly separately touched off a nasty legal dispute between Perlmutter and a neighbor, Canadian businessman Harold Peerenboom, who objected to her management of the tennis courts. In a lawsuit, Peerenboom accused Perlmutter of mounting a vicious hate mail campaign against him, which Perlmutter’s lawyer denied.)Perlmutter forwarded Donnelly’s email to Shulkin, Moskowitz and Sherman. “I know we are making very good progress, but this is an excellent reminder that we are also still very far away from achieving our goals,” Perlmutter wrote.Shulkin had to explain that they were looking in the wrong place: Since the problem was with military service records, it lay with the Defense Department, not the VA.Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman defended their intervention, saying, “These were the types of stories of agency dysfunction and individual suffering that drove us to offer our volunteer experience in the first place — veterans who had been left behind by their government. These individual cases helped raise broader issues for government officials in a position to make changes, sometimes leading to assistance for one veteran, sometimes to broader reforms within the system.”Right after meeting Shulkin, Moskowitz connected him with his friend Michael Zinner, director of the Miami Cancer Institute and a member of the American College of Surgeons’ board of regents. (Zinner declined to comment.) The conversation led to a plan for the American College of Surgeons to evaluate the surgery programs at several VA hospitals. The plan came very close to a formal announcement and contract, internal emails show, but stalled after Shulkin was fired, according to the organization’s director, David Hoyt. Besides advocating for friends’ interests, some of the Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s interventions served their own purposes. Starting in February 2017, Perlmutter convened a series of conference calls with executives at Johnson & Johnson, leading to the development of a public awareness campaign about veteran suicide. They planned to promote the campaign by ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange around the time of Veterans Day.The event also turned into a promotional opportunity for Perlmutter’s company. Executives from Marvel and its parent company, Disney, joined Johnson & Johnson as sponsors of the Veterans Day event at the stock exchange. Shulkin rang the closing bell standing near a preening and flexing Captain America, with Spider-Man waving from the trading pit, and Marvel swag was distributed to some of the attendees. “Generally the VA secretary or defense secretary don’t shill for companies,” the leader of a veterans advocacy group said.The VA was aware of the ethical questions this event raised because of Shulkin’s relationship with Perlmutter. An aide to Shulkin sought ethics advice from the agency’s lawyers about the appearance. In an email, the aide noted, “the Secretary is friends with the President of Marvel Comics, Mr. Ike Perlmutter, but he will not be in attendance.” The VA redacted the lawyer’s answer, and the agency’s spokesman would not say whether the ethics official approved Shulkin’s participation in the event.Perlmutter did not answer specific questions about this episode. His joint statement with Moskowitz and Sherman said, “None of us has gained any financial benefit from this volunteer effort, nor was that ever a consideration for us.”Perlmutter also facilitated a series of conference calls with senior executives from Apple. VA officials were excited about working with the company, but it wasn’t immediately obvious what they had to collaborate on.As it turned out, Moskowitz wanted Apple and the VA to develop an app for veterans to find nearby medical services. Who did he bring in to advise them on the project? His son, Aaron, who had built a similar app. The proposal made Apple and VA officials uncomfortable, according to two people familiar with the matter, but Moskowitz’s clout kept it alive for months. The VA finally killed the project because Moskowitz was the only one who supported it.Moskowitz, in the joint statement, defended his son’s involvement, calling him a “technical expert” who participated in a single phone call alongside others. “Any development efforts, had they occurred, would not have involved Aaron or any of us. There was no product of Dr. Moskowitz’s or Aaron’s that was promoted or recommended in any way during the call,” the trio said. “Again, none of us, including Aaron, stood to receive any financial benefit from the matters discussed during the conversation — and any claims to the contrary are factually incorrect.”Moskowitz had more success pushing a different pet cause. He has spent years trying to start a national registry for medical devices, allowing patients to be notified of product recalls. Moskowitz set up the Biomedical Research and Education Foundation to encourage medical institutions to keep track of devices for their patients to address what he views as a dangerous hole in oversight across the medical profession. At one point, the foundation built a registry to collect data from doctors and patients. Moskowitz chaired the board, and Perlmutter’s wife was also a member. Moskowitz’s son earned $60,000 a year as the executive director, according to tax disclosures.Moskowitz pushed the VA to pick up where he left off. He joined officials on weekly 7:30 a.m. conference calls in which officials discussed organizing a summit of experts on device registries and making a public commitment to creating one at the VA. In an email to Shulkin, the VA official in charge of the project referred to it as the “Bruce Moskowitz efforts.”When the summit arrived, on June 4, Moskowitz and his son did not attend. It’s not clear what role they will have in setting up the VA’s registry going forward — their foundation has shut down, according to its website, and Moskowitz’s son said he’s no longer involved. But in his opening remarks at the summit, Peter O’Rourke, then the acting secretary, offered a special thanks to “Dr. Bruce Moskowitz and Aaron Moskowitz of the Biomedical Research and Education Foundation” as “driving forces” behind it.Over the course of 2017, there was growing tension within the Trump administration about how much the VA should rely on private medical care. During the campaign, Trump championed letting veterans see any doctor they choose, inside or outside the VA system. But Shulkin warned that such an approach was likely to result in poorer care at a higher cost. His preferred solution was integrating government-run VA care with a network of private providers.In September 2017, the Mar-a-Lago Crowd weighed in on the side of expanding the use of the private sector. “We think that some of the VA hospitals are delivering some specialty healthcare when they shouldn’t and when referrals to private facilities or other VA centers would be a better option,” Perlmutter wrote in an email to Shulkin and other officials. “Our solution is to make use of academic medical centers and medical trade groups, both of whom have offered to send review teams to the VA hospitals to help this effort.”In other words, they proposed inviting private health care executives to tell the VA which services they should outsource to private providers like themselves. It was precisely the kind of fox-in-the-henhouse scenario that the VA’s defenders had warned against for years. Shulkin delicately tried to hold off Perlmutter’s proposal, saying the VA was already developing an in-house method of comparing its services to the private sector.Shulkin also clashed with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd over how to improve the VA’s electronic record-keeping software (the one episode involving the trio that has previously surfaced, in a report by Politico). The contract, with a company called Cerner, would cost more than $10 billion and take a decade to implement. But Moskowitz had used a different Cerner product and didn’t like it. He complained that the software didn’t offer voice recognition, even though newer versions of Cerner’s product do. For months, the Mar-a-Lago Crowd pressured Shulkin to put the contract through additional vetting. On Feb. 27, 2018, Shulkin flew to Mar-a-Lago — not to see Trump, who was back in Washington, but to meet with Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman. The trip was supposed to close the deal on the Cerner contract, according to two people familiar with the meeting. By then, Shulkin’s stature had been badly diminished by an ethics scandal, and he expected he didn’t have much longer in the job, but he wanted to finish the Cerner deal first.Shulkin brought O’Rourke, an ex-Trump campaign aide who stepped in as chief of staff after the ethics scandal led to the departure of Shulkin’s top aide. O’Rourke took the opportunity to ally himself with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd. “It was an honor to meet you all yesterday,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “I want to ensure that you have my VA and personal contact information.” He then provided his personal cell phone number and email address. (Using personal email to conduct government business can flout federal records laws, as President Trump and his allies relentlessly noted in their attacks on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.) “Thank you for your support of the President, the VA, and me,” O’Rourke wrote. (O’Rourke didn’t answer requests for comment.)Perlmutter welcomed the overture. “I feel confident that you will be a terrific asset moving forward to get things accomplished,” he replied.The Mar-a-Lago Crowd grew frustrated with Shulkin, feeling like he wasn’t listening to them, and Perlmutter came to regret recommending Shulkin to Trump in the first place, according to people familiar with his thinking. That aligned them with political appointees in the VA and the White House who started to view Shulkin as out of step with the president’s agenda.One of these officials, senior adviser Camilo Sandoval, presented himself as Perlmutter’s eyes and ears within the agency, two former officials said. For instance, in an email obtained by ProPublica, Sandoval kept tabs on the Apple project and reported back to Moskowitz and Sherman. “I will update the tracker, and please do let me know if this helps answers [sic] questions around Apple’s efforts or if additional clarification is required,” he wrote. Sandoval, who didn’t answer requests for comment, knew Perlmutter because he worked on the campaign with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is also close with Perlmutter.In December, White House adviser Jake Leinenkugel sent Sandoval a memo outlining a plan to upend the department’s leadership. Leinenkugel would not say who asked him to write the memo. But it was clearly not intended for Sandoval alone, since it refers to him in the third person. Three people familiar with the situation said the memo was sent to Sandoval as a channel to Perlmutter. The spokeswoman for Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz said they didn’t know about the memo.The memo recommended easing Shulkin out and relying on Perlmutter for help replacing him. “Put [Shulkin] on notice to exit after major legislation and key POTUS VA initiatives in place,” the memo said. “Utilize outside team (Ike).” Although several factors contributed to Shulkin’s downfall, including the ethics scandal and differences with the White House over legislation on buying private health care, three former officials said it was his friction with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd over the Cerner contract that ultimately did him in.Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman dispute that contention. “Any decisions of the agency or the president,” they noted in their statement, “as well as the timing of any agency decisions, were independent of our contacts with the VA.”But it wasn’t just Shulkin — all the officials that the Leinenkugel memo singled out for removal are now gone, replaced with allies of Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz. The memo suggested that Sandoval take charge of the Office of Information and Technology, overseeing the implementation of the Cerner contract; he got the job in April. The memo proposed removing Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman; he left in June, and the post hasn’t been filled. The memo floated Richard Stone for under secretary for health; he got the job on an acting basis in July. Leinenkugel himself took charge of a commission on mental health (the same topic Moskowitz had emailed O’Rourke about). O’Rourke, having hit it off with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, became acting secretary in May.Trump initially nominated White House doctor Ronny Jackson to replace Shulkin, with Pentagon official Robert Wilkie filling in on a temporary basis. On Wilkie’s first day at the VA, Sherman was waiting for him in his office, according to a calendar record.Within a few weeks, Wilkie made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago. He tacked it onto a trip to his native North Carolina, and O’Rourke caught up with him in Palm Beach. They visited a VA hospital and rehab facility, then headed to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman, according to agency records.The Mar-a-Lago Crowd gave Wilkie and O’Rourke rave reviews. “I am sure that I speak for the group, that both you and Peter astounded all of us on how quickly and accurately you assessed the key problems and more importantly the solutions that will be needed to finally move the VA in the right direction,” Moskowitz told Wilkie in a follow-up email. Perlmutter was similarly thrilled with the new regime. “For the first time in 1½ years we feel everyone is on the same page. Everybody ‘gets it,’” he said in an email. “Again, please know we are available and want to help any possible way 24/7.”Wilkie replied that the honor was his. “Thank you again for taking time to see me,” he wrote.Soon after, Jackson’s nomination imploded over allegations of misconduct as White House physician. (Jackson denied the allegations, and they’re still being investigated.) At that point, Perlmutter’s endorsement cleared the way for Trump to nominate Wilkie.Wilkie, who was sworn in on July 30, now faces a choice between asserting his own authority over the VA or taking cues from the Mar-a-Lago Crowd. Wilkie reportedly wants to sideline O’Rourke and Sandoval and restock the agency leadership with his own people. But people familiar with the situation said the Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s allies are pushing back on Wilkie’s efforts to rein them in. As his predecessor learned the hard way, anyone who crosses the Mar-a-Lago Crowd does so at his own risk.
For Charlottesville Authorities, a Painful Post-Mortem on Preparedness
by Ali Winston, special to ProPublica On Aug. 2, 2017, Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer convened a closed meeting of the City Council. The Unite the Right rally was days off, and Signer was concerned about how to manage the potential for trouble. The Virginia State Police were there. So, too, was the chief of the Charlottesville Police Department.Signer and the council members asked the law enforcement officers present directly: Was there a “specific, credible threat” of violence?There was none, the elected officials said they were told.Mayhem, of course, ensued some 10 days later, as marches by white supremacists turned bloody and left a 32-year-old woman dead. The violence set off a national political firestorm, and also a great deal of soul-searching by the city of Charlottesville.Months later, a 200-page independent review of law enforcement’s handling of the rally excoriated the local and state police for failing to intervene earlier and more effectively to limit the bloodshed. Buried deeper in the report, however, was a detailed account of the intelligence shortcomings that left the police poorly prepared for what was to come, including the Aug. 2 meeting. Those at the meeting considered relocating the rally, the account reveals, thinking it might be safer away from Emancipation Park, site of the disputed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But they didn’t, based on advice from police — and specifically from Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas.“Council asked the law enforcement officers about imminent danger, but received no information suggesting a ‘specific, credible threat of violence,’” the report said. “Chief Thomas told us that the information presented to the Council did not, in his view, meet the threshold that would justify moving the event.”Signer, in a recent interview with ProPublica and Frontline, said he never actually saw security plans for the event until weeks after the fatal rally.“I wish that we had known more. I wish that we had been given more information by the state intelligence apparatus,” Signer said.Asked if the police had indicated that white supremacists would come heavily armed to the marches on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 — some marchers had guns, clubs and pepper spray, among other weapons — Signer said, simply, “No.”In an effort to better understand how that could be, ProPublica and Frontline spoke with a researcher hired by a federal agency in the months before Charlottesville to collect information on the aims and activities of white supremacist groups, dozens of which would ultimately make their way to Charlottesville. The researcher, who has decades of experience in law enforcement, would only speak on the condition that his name would not be used because of his ongoing intelligence and undercover work for the government. He said he filed reports roughly every two weeks from January to August 2017 chronicling what he said was clear evidence that extremists on the right and left were destined to meet violently. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email Those reports, he said, were shared with the federal agency that hired him, and he believes, made their way to the local authorities.“Because of the length of time that the groups had to organize, the extent of their networking, and the logistics in question, there were concerns expressed to law enforcement agencies about the potential for violence,” the intelligence researcher told ProPublica and Frontline in an interview last week.He would not name the specific agency he worked for or give us copies of the reports he says he submitted. What became of his work is hard to determine. Shortly after the rally, there were published reports that offer support for his claim: The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI had warned the state and Charlottesville police of the potential for violence.Politico reported late in August 2017 that the Department of Homeland Security had issued a confidential warning to law enforcement authorities three days before the deadly Aug. 12 Charlottesville protest rally. It warned that “an escalating series of clashes had created a powder keg “likely to ignite in Charlottesville. An earlier report that month by Foreign Policy magazine said the FBI and DHS had warned the Trump administration back in May.“We assess lone actors and small cells within the white supremacist extremist movement likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year,” said the bulletin, which was titled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence.”.The independent review done in Charlottesville does not resolve the question of how and why federal warnings were not heeded by local police. But it makes clear failings on the front end (inadequate intelligence on potential threats) made the failings that came later (inexplicable restraint in the face of bloodshed) all the more likely.“The planning and coordination breakdowns prior to August 12 produced disastrous results,” the report said.The report said the Virginia State Police would not cooperate with investigators, and faulted Thomas for trying to limit the participation of officials in his department.Contacted this week, the State Police said they did the best they could a year ago. The local police had nothing more to say. Thomas, the CPD chief, retired shortly after the release of the independent report. Thomas, through his lawyer, declined to discuss his performance, including his determination that no “specific, credible” threat of violence surfaced prior to the rally.ProPublica and Frontline had sent a series of questions to the FBI about its intelligence on white supremacist groups and why the information the bureau developed did not seem to result in better preparedness.The FBI issued a statement in response.“The FBI investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security, and cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or exercise of First Amendment rights. We remain committed to protecting those rights for all Americans.”The statement added that, “the FBI takes seriously all acts or threats of violence and is committed to investigating crimes that are potentially bias-motivated.”In pages upon pages of fault-finding, the review offers a painstaking chronology of local law enforcement’s struggle to obtain useful intelligence in the weeks leading up to the Unite the Right weekend.In May, there had been two tense days in Charlottesville involving white supremacists and protesters who challenged them. There was no violence and few arrests, but Thomas told investigators for the independent report that the events amounted to an “operational blind spot” for his department, which had failed to see the potential for trouble in advance.Thomas and his department had another chance to improve its intelligence when the Ku Klux Klan held a march in Charlottesville on July 8. Thomas said he authorized the purchase of more sophisticated technology capable of “pinpointing potential threats based on social media activity.” He also assigned a captain to oversee the intelligence gathering, but wound up disappointed with the first results of the effort, according to the report.There was no estimate of how many people would show up; no criminal histories for any of the likely marchers were compiled, and scant information was gathered about the anticipated tactics of the Klan marchers or their expected opponents. The department also had failed to reach out to other jurisdictions that had a history of dealing with Klan gatherings, the report said.The Charlottesville Police Department’s blind spot, Thomas conceded, had remained so.There also had been next to no training for officers handling the march. “CPD’s training efforts to prepare for the Klan event were fragmented, unfocused, and inadequate,” the report concluded.It showed. The Klan came and went without great incident, but hundreds of protesters who had shown up to confront the marchers swarmed the streets. Groups of officers got separated. More than 20 arrests were made. An officer was spit on. The Virginia State Police and the Charlottesville Police Department used different radio channels for communication, and the state police deployed tear gas without proper authorization.“You are damn right I gassed them; it needed to be done,” a state police official told Thomas, according to the independent review. The police, he said, were “under attack.”Seth Wispelwey, a local religious leader, said it seemed as if city leaders and law enforcement “didn’t know what they were doing,” according to the report.Thomas and his department recommitted to doing a better job with the Unite the Right rally looming. Individual detectives were assigned to research groups on the right and the left that were likely to attend. But this appears to have amounted to not much more than reading old news articles and trying to reach the group leaders to determine their intentions, according to the report.The report says CPD got some input from “outside agencies and groups.” It lists a police chief in Pikeville, Ky., where there had been a recent rally; an investigator at the Anti-Defamation League; and the FBI’s field office in Richmond, Va. The threat assessments warned that white supremacists were likely to bring bats, batons, knives and firearms, and that anti-racist militants would respond with soda cans filled with cement, bottles filled with urine or fuel, and pepper spray.How that failed to qualify as a “specific, credible” threat of violence is unclear. But the report makes clear the authorities didn’t believe they had what they needed to try and move or cancel the rally.“Council was told that generalized threats of violence, promises to use violence in self-defense, and information that counter-protesters planned to use violence….were insufficient,” the report said.But the full report contains virtually no mention of an intelligence tool typically vital for such events: confidential informants inside extremist groups on both sides. There is nothing in the report about whether local or federal law enforcement had, or used, such intelligence assets. William Long, a former FBI agent who retired in 2014, said there were clearly breakdowns in intelligence gathering and sharing in Charlottesville. He spent many years of his career investigating white supremacist groups in the Western United States, probes that routinely relied on the use of informants. He finds it hard to believe the FBI and others didn’t have multiple informants within the groups, both before Charlottesville and after.“People in this movement, many times they are ripe for development as informants,” Long said. “They’re people who are looking to belong to something. Some of them are overtly racist and believe what they’re spewing. Others are not, they’re weak-minded followers that fall in because others will accept them. There are people in neo-Nazi and white supremacist movement that will mature, realize, hey, my friends are going to prison, I’m going nowhere in life and I’m tired of sleeping on someone’s couch. If you can catch them at the right time, when you get them realizing that this is stupid, you can knock it out of the park.”He acknowledged that developing intelligence through human sources was far more challenging than tracking material on the Internet, which seems to have been the chief approach taken by local authorities.“Developing informants who are going to the training sessions with groups, for example, is a whole different thing,” Long said. “You have to make a real effort to either recruit people who are already on the inside, or recruit a capable person with credentials to get there, and once you vet them, move them into that position where you want them, where they’re most useful — that takes some experience and skill to do that. The bureau does emphasize that. Whether it’s being done expertly, across the board, I don’t know.”
Illinois House Candidate Will Walk for Votes — And Has To
by Mick Dumke Amanda Biela was campaigning door to door in north suburban Glenview one afternoon last week when she stopped to talk with a senior watering his front lawn.“I’m running for 15th District state rep,” Biela told him, “and I’m basically running against the Madigan machine.”Biela explained that she’s challenging incumbent Rep. John D’Amico, which means she’s also taking on his ally Michael Madigan, the long-serving state House Speaker and Democratic Party leader. Biela, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and mother of three, added that her top priority is lowering property taxes.She didn’t mention that she’s a Republican. Why bring it up right away in a Democrat-dominated district? Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. It didn’t matter. The man remained focused on his grass. “All politicians are crooks,” he told Biela.She smiled and went with it. “That’s why I’m running!” She offered him a flier. “Please, just think about it in November.”The man accepted the flier, glanced at it, and stuffed it into the mailbox on his porch. Then he went back to his lawn.Voters are angry — some to the point that they’ve tuned out politics — as I saw when I walked a few neighborhoods with Biela recently.In most places, that could spell doom for an entrenched incumbent. But in the 15th District, made up of parts of the city’s Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs, Democratic Party insiders have triumphed for years, often without viable challengers. It’s a story that’s repeated in districts around Chicago every election cycle.To add to her challenge, Biela has been forced to navigate a civil war within her own party as she tries to line up resources for a serious campaign.In short, her race offers a snapshot of the Democratic political dynasties, Republican infighting and incompetence, and influence of big campaign money that have long defined Illinois and frustrated its voters.And yet Biela argues, “I think this district can be flipped.”It would be a huge upset. She’s taking on not just an incumbent with clout but a history of family and party domination.D’Amico took office in 2004, but members of his family have run Chicago’s 39th Ward, which makes up a large chunk of the 15th District, for more than a half century. His grandfather, Anthony Laurino, became the ward’s alderman in 1965. When Laurino stepped down after 29 years in office, his daughter, Margaret — D’Amico’s aunt — succeeded him. She’s now been in office for 24 years.In 1995, the elder Laurino was indicted by federal prosecutors for allegedly helping family members and allies get no-show city jobs. He died before his case was resolved, but both of D’Amico’s parents were convicted and sentenced to prison for their roles in the ghost payrolling system.D’Amico is paid about $78,000 a year as a member of the Illinois House, but that’s his part-time job. He’s worked for the City of Chicago since 1981, and now makes about $107,000 a year as an assistant district superintendent in the water department, according to city payroll records.Though he’s well aware Madigan is deeply unpopular across much of Illinois — and widely blamed for the state’s dire financial condition — D’Amico remains a steadfast ally, arguing the speaker has fended off a right-wing push by Gov. Bruce Rauner, a relentless Madigan critic.Since taking office, D’Amico has only faced three election opponents. He beat them all by at least 19 points. His top campaign donor is Democratic Majority, a political action committee Madigan controls. D’Amico rejects Biela’s charge that he’s a machine guy in lockstep with the speaker. He told me he’s repeatedly voted for property tax relief, as well as for investments in schools, parks and libraries.“My campaign is based on volunteers and people based in the communities — people who believe in what I believe in,” he said.Clearly, a lot would have to go Biela’s way for her to win. It doesn’t help that Republicans don’t have a functioning campaign operation in Chicago or Cook County.Biela was recruited to run last year by fellow Republicans in the Northwest Side GOP Club, a group trying to build a presence in that corner of the city and nearby suburbs — including by playing off fears of an affordable housing proposal.The Illinois Opportunity Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smaller government and limits on union rights, stepped in to pay for Biela’s campaign legal fees, phone banking and consulting, records show.But Biela said she was uncomfortable with how closely the IOP people and their ally Dan Proft, a well-known conservative activist, wanted to control her message.Proft and IOP leaders have waged political war on Rauner and other Republicans they believe have betrayed the right on abortion, among other issues. During the primaries last winter, Proft served as an adviser to Rauner’s opponent, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, while a super PAC he runs, Liberty Principles, backed a challenge against House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. Proft’s candidates lost both races.But even after the primaries, Biela said Proft told her she couldn’t work with Durkin or his House Republican Organization, saying, “It’s black or white — you have to pick a team.”The conversation left her wondering how the GOP could beat Madigan and the Democrats if its factions are fighting with each other.Proft didn’t dispute Biela’s account. “We support candidates committed to the economic liberty policy agenda who want to bring policy revolution to Springfield,” he said in an email. “The Rauner-financed House Republicans support surrender Republicans who raise taxes and fold in with Chicago Democrat Socialists and their big government, cultural Marxist, status quo agenda. The two visions are mutually exclusive.”Proft characterized Biela as naive. “Unfortunately, like so many first-time candidates, Amanda doesn’t know what she doesn’t know,” he said. “Amanda will lose badly.”After their conversation, Biela said, she broke with Proft and began working with the House Republican Organization, which has helped her with promotional materials and volunteers. In June, Durkin’s campaign fund transferred $250 to Biela’s.That’s not much money. Even after Rauner’s campaign gave the House Republican Organization $2 million a few weeks ago — he’s the group’s top financial backer — the HRO has to focus on districts that the GOP might be able to take from Democrats. Biela, who’s hoping for more support, said she has to prove her district is one of them.She also knows she can’t afford to blanket the district with mailings or put ads on TV, as more flush campaigns are able to do. At the end of June, when quarterly reports were last filed, her campaign fund had about $6,100 on hand. D’Amico’s had $369,000, much of it from Madigan’s organizations and various unions.In spite of the financial and organizational mismatch, Beila argues she could pull off an upset. Biela said a lot of people, including some Democrats, are tired of being overtaxed and ruled by political families like D’Amico’s and Madigan’s. So she’s walking the district and talking about the machine and high taxes — and mostly avoiding subjects like abortion, immigration and President Trump.“I talk about things that have an appeal to everyone,” she said.She’s often rebuffed — sometimes even before she speaks. But at some homes she’s been greeted with enthusiasm. When Glenview resident Christopher Kellogg opened his door last week, Biela made her usual declaration that she was taking on the Madigan machine.“Oh, thank God,” Kellogg told her. “I’m fed up with it.” Biela talks with resident Christopher Kellogg in Glenview. Kellogg said he welcomed a challenger in the district. (Joshua Lott for ProPublica Illinois)
Using the Power of the Crowd to Document Hate
by Rachel Glickhouse Today we’re debuting a documentary with Frontline that chronicles some of our reporting on hate groups over the past year.Reporters A.C. Thompson and Ali Winston have been investigating the rise of white supremacist groups in the U.S. after the violent August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Their work is part of a project at ProPublica called Documenting Hate.The project, which started shortly after Election Day in 2016, has an ambitious goal: collect as much data as we can to make up for the wholly inadequate records collected by the government.We’ve been asking people to share their stories with us. We’ve received more than 5,000 reponses to date. Together with more than 150 partner newsrooms around the country, we’ve been working to verify these reports and to tell these stories. If you’ve been a victim or or witness to a hate crime, we want to hear your story. In this, the second year of the project, we continue to receive tips from all over the United States, and from cities big and small. Victims and witnesses write to tell us about incidents that have happened as recently as earlier in the day and as long as decades ago. They tell us deeply personal experiences of threats and harassment, belittlement and humiliation — and sometimes physical violence.There are stories like Melissa Johnson’s. The day after the 2016 election, she was leaving a Trader Joe’s in San Diego when a man slowed down his car next to her, she told Reveal, the investigative radio program. The man leaned out of the window and yelled: “Fuck you, nigger, go back to Africa. The slave ship is loading up … Trump!”Reveal reviewed hundreds of our tips in which the president’s name was mentioned during an act of hate, verifying more than 150 incidents that it featured in a story and radio segment. Sometimes tipsters send us local news clips. That’s how we learned about the murder of Jimmy Smith-Kramer, a 20-year-old Native man in rural Washington state. One of the reporters on our team, Rahima Nasa, investigated the case and and found out why police hadn’t charged the killer with a hate crime. In the end, the killer was sentenced to less than eight years in prison, with no hate-crime charge.Occasionally, victims manage to record hate incidents as they happen. In Texas this spring, college student Ali Alghamdi was cut off by an irate driver, who got out of his car to berate him. “This is not Pakistan, Afghanistan or Kuwait. We have rules in this fucking country,” the man said to Alghamdi. “You sound like a fucking Arab.” The student, who shared his experience with HuffPost, filmed the encounter and called police, who said they’d pursue disorderly conduct charges. After the story went viral, The Caller-Times in Corpus Christi reported that the mayor of the college town where the incident took place wrote a letter denouncing the suspect’s behavior.We often hear from tipsters about vandalism and how it affects communities. In one small Colorado town, someone hung a noose around the neck of an African statue, the Denver Post reported.“Everybody was embarrassed by the situation because we don’t see our community as being racist,” witness Angie Mays told the paper. “So to have a hate crime in a public space is really hurtful.” The Documenting Hate project receives hundreds of tips in Spanish through Univision, which has written extensively about hate against Latinos and immigrants. Earlier this year, Univision wrote about dozens of hate incidents at Walmarts and other superstores, affecting customers and workers alike.In one case, a 19-year-old Walmart employee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was verbally abused by a man after asking to see his beer receipt. “I have money. I have a job. Do you even have a visa? You should go back to your country. Are you even from here? You’re stealing our jobs,” she recounted to Univision. “He screamed so loud I have never been more scared in my life about just doing a task for a job.”Univision heard from other Latinos who’d been targeted in the workplace. Amílcar Bermúdez, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant working for a paving company in Florida, told Univision a co-worker grew angry with him for having more experience and getting paid slightly more. “How is it possible if you’re an immigrant?” he recalled the man saying. “He said Donald Trump was going to deport me in a box to my country and that he was going to call immigration on me.” Then the man assaulted him, sending Bermúdez to the hospital. (The man was later convicted and had to pay for Bermúdez’s medical expenses, Univision reported.)Latinos have also sent in tips about getting harassed for speaking Spanish in public. The Los Angeles Times spoke to Natalia Meneses, who said she was targeted in Georgia after her three-year-old uttered two words of Spanish. “You need to teach this kid to speak English, because this is America and kids need to learn English,” Meneses said she was told by another woman. “If not, you need to get out of this country.” While some undocumented immigrants are fearful of going public, many have submitted tips to the project through Univision. This month, Univision reported on immigrants who’d been detained while visiting the beach in Florida. They believe they were racially profiled by a state Fish and Wildlife official who called ICE on them; the state agency says the officer was just doing her job.We also compare the stories we receive to official police records. After we noticed that we received hundreds of tips about incidents targeting people for being gay, we investigated why so many police departments were marking hate crimes as anti-heterosexual. It turns out they were doing so erroneously.In May, we even worked with one of our partners to bring the project to the stage, working with Los Angeles radio station KPCC for an event that brought together journalists, victims, experts and activists.In the months ahead, we have more stories coming from ProPublica and our partners. Stay tuned.
Trabajador acusado de abusar sexualmente a ocho menores de edad en albergue para inmigrantes
por Michael Grabell y Topher Sanders Read in English.Este reportaje incluye detalles gráficos de alegatos de abuso sexual de menores.Un cuidador de jóvenes empleado por Southwest Key fue imputado por once delitos después de que las autoridades lo acusaran del abuso sexual de por lo menos ocho niños inmigrantes no acompañados a lo largo de casi un año en uno de los albergues de la empresa en Mesa, Arizona, de acuerdo con las actas del tribunal federal.Los alegatos en contra de Levian D. Pacheco, quien es VIH positivo, incluyen que sometió a sexo oral a dos de los adolescentes y que trató de forzarse sobre uno de ellos para penetrarlo por el ano. Los demás seis adolescentes, de entre 15 y 17 años, dijeron que Pacheco los había toqueteado sobre la ropa. Según la petición presentada ante el tribunal para establecer el caso de la fiscalía, se alega que todos los incidentes ocurrieron entre agosto de 2016 y julio de 2017.El caso, investigado inicialmente por la policía local, procede actualmente en el Juzgado de Distrito de EE.UU. en Phoenix. Pacheco trabajó en el albergue Casa Kokopelli de Southwest Key, uno de los ocho operados en Arizona por la empresa desde mayo de 2016.Los registros muestran que en 2017, el Departamento de Servicios de Salubridad de Arizona citó a Casa Kokopelli por no haber completado todas las investigaciones de antecedentes, incluidas las huellas digitales, para asegurarse de que sus empleados no habían cometido delitos de índole sexual o de otro tipo. Pacheco trabajó casi cuatro meses sin haberse completado su investigación de antecedentes según los documentos y lo mencionado por un funcionario de la agencia. Los registros no mostraron arrestos previos ni condenas por delitos sexuales, dijeron. Pacheco, de 25 años de edad, fue acusado formalmente en agosto de 2017 tras haber sido investigado por oficiales del orden público y la oficina del Inspector General del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos. Hasta el momento los cargos impuestos incluyen ocho de contacto sexual abusivo con un menor bajo tutela y tres cargos de actos sexuales con un menor bajo tutela. Fue imposible localizar a Pacheco para obtener sus comentarios, aunque él negó los cargos en los documentos judiciales. Pacheco se encuentra actualmente bajo custodia del Alguacil Federal de los Estados Unidos. Benjamín Good, su abogado defensor público federal, dijo que “espera con interés defender al Sr. Pacheco ante el juzgado”.Funcionarios de la administración de Trump han aseverado repetidamente que los albergues son lugares seguros, y hasta divertidos, para los chicos. Sin embargo ha ido aumentando el escrutinio intenso de los albergues sufragados con fondos federales y operados por empresas privadas desde que la administración separó unos tres mil niños de sus padres en la frontera, enviándolos a refugios y casas de acogida en todo el país. La semana pasada ProPublica informó que la policía de todo el país ha atendido cientos de llamadas con reportes de delitos sexuales en albergues que atienden a niños inmigrantes. Una de esas llamadas ocasionó que fuera condenado de abuso sexual uno de los trabajadores de un albergue en Tucson.Ahora surgen más documentos con incidentes supuestos en Arizona y relacionados con Southwest Key, el operador más grande de albergues de jóvenes inmigrantes a nivel nacional.ProPublica descubrió el caso de Pacheco solo cuando trató de encontrar información adicional de una vaga referencia sobre un caso de abuso sexual en los registros de las inspecciones en Arizona. Los funcionarios federales sabían del caso cuando contestaron preguntas de ProPublica la semana pasada y también al describir las condiciones de los albergues ante el Congreso, pero no lo mencionaron.Aparte del caso de Pacheco, se detectaron otros dos relacionados con abuso en albergues de Southwest Key.El martes, Fernando Magaz Negrete, empleado de las instalaciones de Southwest Key en Phoenix, fue arrestado bajo el alegato de que abusó sexualmente de una niña de catorce años al besarla y frotarle el seno y la entrepierna, de acuerdo con los medios noticiosos de esa ciudad. Y, The Nation reportó el viernes que el pasado junio una niña de seis años separada de su madre fue supuestamente toqueteada por un niño en otro de los locales de Southwest Key, esta vez en Glendale, Arizona.En otras instalaciones de Southwest Key, los informes policiales y los registros de llamadas de los últimos cinco años enumeran relaciones indebidas con el personal, docenas de menores escapados, contacto sexual entre niños en los albergues y otros alegatos de abuso sexual de parte de los empleados. En uno de los casos ProPublica encontró que un cuidador de jóvenes en Tucson, de 46 años, fue condenado por acariciar a un chico de 15 años quien había llegado a los Estados Unidos tan solo cinco días antes.A través de un mensaje de correo electrónico, Kenneth Wolfe, vocero del HHS, dijo que la agencia emitió una orden para cesar de colocar a menores no acompañados en el albergue Casa Kokopelli y para trasladar a quienes ya estuvieran allí. El vocero se rehusó a decir cuando se dictó ese cese de colocación.“Estos son niños vulnerables en circunstancias difíciles y la Oficina de Reasentamiento de Refugiados de la Administración del HHS para Menores y Familias aborda nuestra obligación para con cada menor con el mayor de los cuidados”, dijo. “Se toma en serio cualquier alegato de abuso o negligencia”.Al responder las indagaciones de ProPublica, Jeff Eller, vocero de Southwest Key, informó por correo electrónico que no podía comentar acerca de casos específicos. Cuando se le preguntó cómo era posible que los supuestos actos de Pacheco no hayan sido detectados durante once meses, Eller no respondió directamente, sino que dijo: “Cualquier empleado acusado de abuso es suspendido inmediatamente y se llama a las autoridades del orden público. Eso fue lo que hicimos en este caso”. Eller dijo que los alegatos también se hicieron del conocimiento de la Oficina Federal de Reasentamiento de Refugiados encargada de supervisar el sistema de albergues, así como de la agencia estatal correspondiente.Como respuesta a lo dicho acerca de cómo podría la empresa garantizarle al público que los niños se encuentran seguros en sus instalaciones, Eller escribió: “Consideramos que la premisa de su pregunta no es honrosa”.“Cundo suceden estos casos, nosotros notificamos a las autoridades del orden público y a las agencias estatales”, dijo. “Cuando los menores llegan a las instalaciones educamos a cada uno a nuestro cargo acerca de su derecho de no sufrir abuso o negligencia dentro de este programa y en este país. El mensaje se les repite durante el tiempo que permanezcan en nuestros albergues”.En los últimos cinco años, la empresa texana sin fines de lucro ha recibido más de US$1.3 miles de millones de dólares en fondos federales para albergues y otros servicios, cantidad que incluye más de US$500 millones en lo que va de este año.Esta semana, ante los numerosos informes sobre las problemáticas en instalaciones sufragadas con fondos federales, el Senador Charles Grassley, R-Iowa y la Senadora Dianne Feinstein, D-California, solicitaron que el Inspector General del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos de EE. UU. investigara los alegatos de abuso sexual y físico en los albergues.“Estos alegatos demuestran que existe un patrón extenso de abuso lo cual justifica una investigación detallada sobre las reclamaciones, abarcando, incluso, el proceso y el procedimiento con los cuales se contratan, capacitan y autorizan los guardias o el personal”, comunicaron los Senadores al Inspector General por medio de un oficio.El pasado jueves, HHS mencionó que el año pasado operadores de albergues notificaron al FBI acerca de 264 alegatos de abuso sexual. Aunque estos pueden ser incidentes que van desde “tocar las nalgas” hasta agravio sexual, la agencia dijo que 53 de los alegatos tuvieron que ver con un adulto. La agencia no mencionó cuántos alegatos tuvieron fundamentos ni cuántos constituyeron agravios más graves.Las actas de los tribunales federales muestran que los funcionarios del albergue de Southwest Key en Mesa no captaron que Pacheco abusó de los niños durante meses, y que no fue sino hasta que uno de ellos lo divulgara el verano pasado que se descubrió la amplitud de los alegatos en su contra.Los funcionarios del albergue se enteraron de que Pacheco había posiblemente abusado a un niño en las instalaciones cuando un adolescente identificado en el acta judicial como “John Doe 1” informó a uno de los maestros que un miembro del personal había entrado a su habitación temprano por la mañana del 24 de julio de 2017, y que le había tocado el cuerpo, incluso el pene, por sobre la ropa. El adolescente luego le comentó el incidente a su compañero de cuarto, y ese chico, conocido como “John Doe 2” le dijo que el mismo empleado lo había tocado de manera similar.Inicialmente, el segundo adolescente negó el incidente cuando fue cuestionado por el personal. Horas después, les dijo que Pacheco había entrado a su habitación temprano una mañana, cosquilleándolo y tocando sus “partes privadas”.Pacheco fue expulsado de las instalaciones y las autoridades del orden público entablaron una investigación, muestran los antecedentes. Al día siguiente, el 25 de julio, un tercer adolescente le comentó a uno de los consejeros del albergue que había escuchado acerca del despido de Pacheco por haber tocado a otros chicos indebidamente. El adolescente le dijo al consejero que Pacheco también lo había toqueteado a él y que sabía de tres otros chicos que habían sido abusados por Pacheco. Ese chico luego le diría a un “entrevistador forense” que Pacheco lo había manoseado dos veces.Las autoridades locales del orden público y el personal del albergue captaron a esos tres adolescentes y a dos más. Estos también revelaron que Pacheco había abusado de ellos.El cuarto adolescente mencionado en las actas del juzgado informó que Pacheco lo había tocado por encima del pantalón de pijama en algún momento en junio o julio de 2017.Un quinto, quien fuera trasladado de Casa Kokopelli a otra instalación en Arizona, dijo que estaba cepillándose los dientes y que, cuando abrió la puerta del baño encontró a Pacheco allí con papel sanitario en las manos. Según las actas, el chico dijo que Pacheco luego le tocó el pene por encima de la ropa.Un sexto adolescente informó que Pacheco abrió la puerta de la ducha cuando se estaba bañando para mirarlo, aunque no lo tocó. De acuerdo también con las actas judiciales, ese mismo chico informó posteriormente a los trabajadores sociales que en otra ocasión, al cambiarse de ropa después de un partido de futbol, Pacheco entró a su habitación diciéndole “mi amor, ya llegué”. Pacheco luego le agarró el pene al muchacho, dijo él. Pacheco se rio y le dijo al chico que “lo tenía grande”, mencionan las actas.El séptimo adolescente, “John Doe 7” es la misma víctima cuyos alegatos fueron brevemente mencionados en el reportaje de ProPublica la semana pasada. El chico estuvo en las instalaciones de Mesa y fue trasladado a Tucson, donde reveló los alegatos de abuso a los funcionarios. El adolescente dijo que se recuperaba de una cirugía a principios de junio de 2017 y estaba adormilado debido a los medicamentos para el dolor cuando despertó y vio a Pacheco en su habitación. Pacheco le dijo al chico que tenía “uno grande”. El adolescente mencionó que pudo darse cuenta de que Pacheco “había eyaculado sobre sí mismo”, según las actas judiciales.También les comentó a los funcionarios que en otra ocasión jugaba videojuegos cuando Pacheco entró al cuarto y le dijo que sacara el pene. El chico se rehusó y Pacheco se lo agarró por encima de los pantalones, según lo mencionado en el acta judicial. El adolescente dijo que en un tercer incidente Pacheco lo empujó sobre la cama, le bajó los pantalones y los calzoncillos y comenzó a frotarle el pene. El chico dijo que trató de empujar a Pacheco para alejarlo pero que no pudo debido a su lesión y a la cirugía. Pacheco se metió el pene del chico en la boca, dicen las actas judiciales. El octavo menor alegó que Pacheco entro en su habitación y lo despertó al hacer ruido con las persianas. Pacheco le dijo al chico que “iba a chupárselo”, de acuerdo con las actas judiciales. Mencionó que Pacheco le bajó los pantalones y le puso la boca en el pene tres veces. El chico describió otra ocasión en la que Pacheco entró a su cuarto cerca de la medianoche, se bajó sus propios pantalones y se quitó los calzoncillos, diciéndole al muchacho que quería que él le metiera el pene en el “trasero”, o sea, a Pacheco, según el acta judicial.Pacheco luego trató de forzar el pene del chico en su propio ano, pero el menor lo empujó y amenazó con reportarlo, según el acta.Las actas judiciales también informan que, cuando fue arrestado, Pacheco divulgó que es VIH positivo. Los funcionarios del Centro del Suroeste para VIH/SIDA educaron a los muchachos acerca del VIH y su transmisión, y un “par” de los ocho chicos pidieron una prueba de detección, mencionan las actas. No ha quedado claro cuáles fueron los resultados.Cinco de los ocho adolescentes, quienes son parte de las acusaciones de abuso sexual en contra de Pacheco, negaron o no divulgaron el alegato cuando los entrevistadores o el personal del albergue hablaron con ellos por primera vez.Nayeli Chávez-Dueñas, psicóloga clínica quien ayudó a elaborar las pautas del albergue a nombre de National Latina/o Psychological Association (Asociación Nacional de Psicología para Latinos/Latinas) dijo que no le sorprendía que el supuesto abuso durara tanto tiempo “ya que muchos de estos chicos están aterrorizados”. Muchos de ellos han vivido abuso sexual y violencia física, dijo, y en los albergues enfrentan mucha incertidumbre.“Entonces, cuando tenemos adultos encargados de cuidar a estos chicos tan vulnerables”, comenta Chávez-Dueñas “estos saben que los menores temen tanto por su seguridad que es poco probable que los delaten”.Se programa que el juicio de Pacheco inicie el 28 de agosto.
Informes revelan supervisión “laxa,” actividad sexual en centros de acogida de niños inmigrantes en Chicago
por Duaa Eldeib, Jodi S. Cohen y Melissa Sanchez Read in English.Poco después de Navidad en 2015, tres niños quedaron sin vigilancia en la sala de televisión de un centro de acogida en Des Plaines que alberga niños inmigrantes y es operado por Heartland Human Care Services.Un niño realizó sexo oral a un niño mayor, según los archivos de bienestar infantil del estado. Después el niño mayor intentó penetrarle por detrás. Cuando no lo logró, el niño más joven hizo sexo oral al niño mayor una segunda vez.El tercer niño en la sala, el más joven, había estado jugando con videojuegos. Fue hasta la puerta para hacer de centinela, según documentos basados en un video del incidente.El Departamento de Servicios para Niños y Familias (DCFS por sus siglas en inglés), la agencia encargada de proveer licencias para instalaciones e investigar acusaciones de negligencia y abuso de niños, amonestó a Heartland por no proporcionar supervisión apropiada – un fallo que ha sido repetido múltiples veces durante los últimos tres años y medio, según una investigación periodística hecha por ProPublica Illinois. Entre otros incidentes, una empleada de un refugio de Heartland en Chicago fue investigada por una supuesta relación sexual con un adolescente. Y al menos 10 niños se han fugado mientras estaban bajo el cuidado de Heartland en años recientes, incluida una que debía de haber sido monitoreada individualmente por un empleado.Los archivos muestran también que en más de una ocasión no había suficiente personal en servicio para atender las necesidades de los niños, o los empleados no tenían planes para vigilarles correctamente. Un supervisor dijo a un investigador que el ambiente en uno de los refugios se había vuelto “laxo,” mientras otro empleado reconoció que los trabajadores del centro se habían puesto “demasiado cómodos.”Una investigación de ProPublica Illinois la semana pasada incluyó información inicial sobre algunos de estos problemáticos incidentes. A última hora del miércoles, ProPublica Illinois obtuvo documentos adicionales de DCFS que detallan las quejas que la agencia había corroborado – quiere decir, que encontró evidencias creíbles que los incidentes sucedieron.Tres empleados fueron disciplinados en el caso de los niños que participaron en sexo oral en el centro de acogida en Des Plaines, que es conocido como Casa Guadalupe. A los niños se les hicieron pruebas para enfermedades de transmisión sexual, y uno fue transferido a otro refugio. El niño mayor tenía 15 años y uno de los otros tenía 11, con un historial de trauma y abuso, aunque no queda claro cuál de los niños fue. Los archivos no incluyen la edad del tercer niño.Heartland Human Care Services – la división de Heartland Alliance que cuida alrededor de 3,000 niños detenidos al año – ha operado primordialmente por debajo del radar. Incluso los vecinos de los albergues de Heartland suelen no saber quiénes son los niños. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Pero Heartland, una organización de derechos humanos sin fines de lucro que ha existido durante 130 años, y el principal cuidador de menores inmigrantes detenidos en Illinois después de cruzar a Estados Unidos, se ha enfrentado a un aumento de escrutinio en semanas recientes después de que empezó a albergar a niños forzosamente separados de sus padres bajo la ofensiva de tolerancia cero de la administración Trump.Desde el año fiscal 2015, Heartland ha recibido más dinero federal que todas las organizaciones, menos tres, que tienen contratos con el gobierno federal para albergar a niños inmigrantes detenidos por las autoridades. Los centros de acogida son supervisados por la Office of Refugee Resettlement (Oficina de Reasentamiento de Refugiados, o ORR) del U.S. Health and Human Services Department (Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos federal).Funcionarios de Heartland han dicho que oficiales de ORR realizan supervisiones periódicas, que incluyen desde reuniones semanales con el personal hasta visitas a los albergues de forma rutinaria. ORR no ha respondido a una solicitud hecha por ProPublica Illinois para acceder a sus archivos públicos.Los documentos recientemente obtenidos arrojan más luz sobre algunos de los problemas dentro de los refugios de Heartland en años recientes. También concuerdan con los hallazgos de una investigación aparte expuesta por ProPublica la semana pasada que reveló cientos de acusaciones de ofensas sexuales, peleas y niños perdidos en los más de 100 albergues para niños inmigrantes a través del país.Los funcionarios de Heartland se negaron a hablar de incidentes específicos, diciendo que hacerlo podría comprometer la privacidad de los niños. Dijeron que los incidentes “representan ocasiones altamente inusuales” y que, aunque los empleados están bien entrenados y dedicados, son “seres humanos cuidando a seres humanos.” Dijeron que toman “acción rápida y apropiada” y dan parte de todos los incidentes a las autoridades estatales y federales.“Si el objetivo es cuestionar la calidad del cuidado que suministramos a través de airear información sensible sin contexto sobre niños menores, y usar esto como si definiera nuestro trabajo, entonces eso es una vergüenza,” dijo Heartland en una declaración a ProPublica Illinois. “Durante el periodo de cinco años que ustedes han examinado, hemos cuidado a más de 15,000 niños.” Heartland abrió su primer centro de acogida para niños no acompañados hace más de 20 años, y hoy opera nueve centros en Illinois, albergando hasta 500 niños a la vez. Cinco instalaciones operan en Chicago, incluido un asilo de ancianos reconvertido que puede albergar hasta 250 niños en Bronzeville. Heartland también alberga niños en el suburbio de Des Plaines en cuatro cabañas llamadas Casa Guadalupe en el campus de Maryville Academy, una agencia católica de bienestar infantil sin fines de lucro.Algunas de las acusaciones recientes más preocupantes, detalladas en reportajes periodísticos y una denuncia civil pendiente, tienen que ver con Casa Guadalupe. Heartland anunció esta semana que la organización había concluido su propia investigación de acusaciones de abuso y negligencia hechas por varios niños que fueron albergados allí en meses recientes, entre ellas que un empleado había inyectado a un niño con un sedante. El anuncio dijo que no se encontraron evidencias para apoyar las aseveraciones. DCFS y las autoridades federales siguen investigando.Actuales y antiguos empleados dicen que existen problemas. Una persona que trabaja actualmente en Casa Guadalupe dijo a ProPublica Illinois la semana pasada que se descuidan a los niños por falta de personal. Esta persona, que pidió no ser identificada por temor a represalias, dijo que a veces se exige que dos empleados supervisen hasta 32 niños a la vez – además de cumplir otros deberes como lavandería o preparar y servir comidas.“Si tengo que hacer cosas que no son parte de mis tareas asignadas, entonces a veces estos niños serán dejados solos,” dijo esta persona en una entrevista. “Si no se tiene suficiente personal para cuidar a los niños, eso es negligencia.”La falta de supervisión ha ocasionado accidentes, y algunos de los niños más jóvenes en los albergues – aquellos con menos de 5 años – han quedado sin bañarse durante días, dijo esta persona.Funcionarios de Heartland discreparon con esta versión y dijeron que se mantienen ratios de personal en proporción al número de niños según los requerimientos de licencias federales.Una denuncia civil puesta en una corte federal contra Heartland el mes pasado asevera que la agencia fue negligente en cuidar a un niño de 11 años de Guatemala que se golpeó contra el marco metálico de una cama y necesitó tres puntos de sutura en su cabeza.Heartland ha dicho que no encontró ningún indicio de negligencia.Oficiales de la organización dijeron que emplean aproximadamente a 500 trabajadores en los nueve albergues y que en años recientes han contratado personal adicional para cumplir con nuevas normas federales.“Tenemos un nivel alto para el personal que provee refugio y cuidados a los niños. Si encontramos que nuestras políticas, procedimientos y/o niveles de cuidado no se están cumpliendo, tomamos acción inmediata,” dijo Heartland en una declaración.Heartland también se ha enfrentado en el pasado a preguntas sobre supervisión inadecuada, según los documentos recién obtenidos.En el refugio más grande de Heartland, en Bronzeville, una empleada de 27 años tuvo una supuesta “relación inapropiada” con un menor de 17 años de El Salvador, según informes de DCFS y la policía de Chicago. El niño fue albergado en el centro de acogida durante aproximadamente dos meses y, mientras se preparaba para ir a vivir con una tía en Texas, el personal se fijó que tenía “marcas/moretones” en el cuello, según los archivos. El informe los describe como “chupetones.” Trabajadores del albergue, conocido como International Children’s Crisis Center (Centro Internacional de Crisis para Niños), encontraron cartas entre sus pertenencias que detallaban una relación sexual entre la trabajadora y el menor e incluían el número de teléfono de ella. Una carta decía que “habían hecho el amor,” según un informe policial. Las cartas incluían dibujos de corazones encima de las letras “i”, según un informe disciplinario. Aunque inicialmente la trabajadora reconoció la relación, según informes de DCFS, la negó después de haber sido despedida y haber contratado un abogado. Según archivos de DCFS, la empleada negó haber escrito las cartas, aunque contenían la misma letra que ella había usado en formularios de la compañía. También negó haber estado en el cuarto del niño durante un periodo de tiempo prolongado, aunque un video muestra cómo ella entra en el cuarto y se queda durante unos 45 minutos.El menor también negó que hubiera una relación, según DCFS. Pero según un informe policial, el menor dijo a un investigador que se habían besado.Heartland despidió a la mujer el mismo día que el personal descubrió las cartas, citando “mala conducta flagrante.” Como 10 meses más tarde, DCFS amonestó a Heartland por supervisión inapropiada. Ningún cargo criminal fue presentado contra la mujer.Heartland declinó responder a preguntas sobre el incidente.Archivos de DCFS muestran que al menos cuatro menores se han fugado de albergues de Heartland durante los últimos 3 años y medio. Archivos policiales de Chicago incluyen informes de al menos seis niños más que se escaparon de instalaciones de Heartland, y un antiguo empleado describió como una niña de 4 años “anduvo deambulando” sin que nadie se diera cuenta en un refugio de Heartland en Englewood.Heartland dijo que es “increíblemente inusual” que los niños se fuguen, y que ningún niño bajo su cuidado de los que habían sido separados de sus padres escapó durante esta primavera y verano.Dos niñas del centro de Bronzeville se fugaron durante una excursión al Museo de Ciencia e Industria en marzo de 2016. Una había sido asignada a un empleado que tenía el encargo de vigilarla individualmente después de que había sido puesta en un “plan de seguridad” unas semanas antes porque se había estado cortando a sí misma. Sin embargo, había sólo dos empleados en la excursión al museo, uno de los cuales era el chófer, para supervisar a 10 niñas. Eran las vacaciones de primavera y el museo estaba atestado. Cuando el personal se distrajo con un asunto concerniente a un billete de entrada, una niña se volvió hacia otra, dijo, “Cuídate,” y se fue corriendo, según entrevistas de DCFS. La segunda niña también corrió detrás de ella, pero fue rápidamente localizada.Siete empleados de Heartland buscaron a la primera niña dentro del museo y en los alrededores, incluyendo en negocios y estaciones de tren locales y distribuyeron fotos de ella, aunque no queda claro si fue localizada. A las preguntas en torno a los casos de fugados y sobre si fueron encontrados, Heartland declinó hacer comentarios.Después del incidente, Heartland estableció nuevas normas para las excursiones en el centro de Bronzeville que requerían asignar empleados para vigilar a niños específicos, la presencia de un trabajador de seguridad, y contar los niños cada 15 minutos. Siete niños se han escapado de alguno de los albergues de Heartland en Rogers Park desde diciembre de 2014, según informes de DCFS y la policía. No está claro cuántos fueron encontrados, pero informes policiales muestran que, en dos incidentes separados, dos niños fueron ubicados y arrestados en las afueras. Uno de los menores fue entregado a las autoridades de inmigración. El segundo fue encarcelado en el condado de Kane.Entre los casos, en abril de 2017 un chico de 16 años saltó una verja mientras los niños jugaban al fútbol en el pequeño jardín detrás de la casa de ladrillo, que está rodeada por una valla y una red.Un video muestra que el menor se fue corriendo hacia la verja después de que otro niño tuviera una “crisis” al empezar el recreo, según muestran los archivos. El niño que escapó también había intentado fugarse de Casa Guadalupe unas semanas antes.Pasó una hora antes de que el personal se diera cuenta de que el niño estaba desaparecido, según documentos de DCFS.Heartland hizo informes amonestando a cuatro empleados por “falta de vigilancia” y no seguir los procedimientos.DCFS notó que había suficientes empleados para encargarse del número de niños, pero no tenían un plan establecido antes de sacar a los niños fuera de la casa. Tampoco habían asignado a cada empleado una cantidad específica de niños para vigilar mientras estaban fuera, a pesar de las reglas de Heartland que exigen hacerlo. Tomar estos pasos, concluyó DCFS, podía haber prevenido la fuga del niño. En el albergue de Heartland en Englewood, una casa anodina en la zona sur de la ciudad, un informe de inspección de DCFS de 2015 citó un “incidente” del julio anterior que había motivado la instalación de puertas más seguras. Archivos estatales más detallados no han podido ser obtenidos, y no hay informes policiales del incidente.Pero una persona que previamente trabajó en ese centro de acogida hizo un recuento de lo que sucedió.“Una niña de 4 años salió por la puerta principal y deambuló por el barrio llamando a su madre,” dijo esta persona. “Un vecino la vio y la llevó caminando de vuelta al albergue.”Heartland declinó hacer comentarios sobre el incidente.
ProPublica Hires Reporter Renee Dudley to Cover Technology
by ProPublica ProPublica announced today that Renee Dudley is joining its staff as a senior reporter covering the central roles that technology, algorithms and social media play in our lives. She starts on Aug. 13 and will be based in the Boston area.Dudley comes to ProPublica from Reuters, where she reported extensively on problems with college entrance exams, uncovering a U.S. college admissions system corrupted by systematic cheating on standardized tests in Asia. Following public outcry over the use of leaked SAT exams and other issues, the test’s maker vowed to fix the problems. The series, Cheat Sheet, was named a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist in national reporting.Before joining Reuters in 2015, Renee worked in New York and Boston for Bloomberg News and in South Carolina for The (Charleston) Post and Courier and The (Hilton Head) Island Packet. At Bloomberg, she uncovered an accounting scandal at Walmart’s China unit and used internal documents to show that the company was unable to keep shelves stocked in the U.S., in part because it had cut 120,000 employees while adding more than 450 new stores.In Charleston, her reporting on the misuse of campaign funds led to the indictment and resignation of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, then South Carolina’s most powerful politician. Her state house reporting also made her a persistent thorn in the side of then-Gov. Nikki Haley. She was named South Carolina’s 2011 Journalist of the Year and received the Society of Professional Journalists’ Pulliam Award in 2010 for her work upholding First Amendment rights while reporting for The Island Packet. There, her reporting led to a change in state law that opened public records.“Renee is a tenacious reporter who has repeatedly landed revelatory stories about abuses of power and forced important issues to the forefront of public debate,” said ProPublica managing editor Robin Fields. “As we expand our efforts to hold the giants of technology accountable, we are excited to welcome her to the ProPublica team.”“As a daily newspaper reporter in South Carolina, I localized ProPublica’s national series on dialysis and have admired the organization’s work ever since,” said Dudley. “I’m honored to join the team and dig into an exciting and important beat.”
To See How Levees Increase Flooding, We Built Our Own
by Al Shaw, Lisa Song, Katie Campbell and Ranjani Chakraborty
Flood Thy Neighbor: Who Stays Dry and Who Decides?
Lisa Song, ProPublica, Patrick Michels, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and Al Shaw, ProPublica Just after Christmas 2015, police showed up at the Starling Community Trailer Court in Arnold, Missouri, and told residents to get out. There was no time to stack sandbags, no time to pack. The big one was coming.The mobile home park backed onto a rising creek, where the oldest residents were closest to the threat. Sarah Quinn raced to help her grandmother and great-grandparents get to safety. They narrowly escaped the rushing Meramec River, which snakes around Arnold and other St. Louis suburbs on its way to meet the Mississippi.About 12 miles upstream, the Meramec climbed the steep banks of the city of Fenton and flowed across a road into the Riverside Golf Club, where Walt Wolfner was busy carting furniture and computers out of his clubhouse. He knew, because the course had flooded so often lately, that he and 20 workers would need two weeks to mop up the damage.Thirty miles farther up the Meramec, the river was creeping up on the town of Pacific, too. Devin Brundick and Felicia Ammann, a young couple who owned a small green bungalow beside the river, hurried to load their belongings into a friend’s truck.By the time the river crested, Wolfner’s clubhouse was under 11 feet of water, Brundick and Ammann’s bungalow was uninhabitable, and Quinn’s grandmother lost everything.“Her sofa, her chair, her deep freeze, washer, dryer, bed, mattress, all of it,” Quinn said. “All of her books that she’s collected over the years … nothing could be saved.”They were the lucky ones. The flood killed at least 20 people in the Midwest and broke records along the Meramec. It was a once-in-a-generation flood — or so they thought, until it happened again 16 months later.Only one city escaped the destruction. Valley Park, just upstream of Fenton, stayed dry during both floods, safe behind a ring of dirt and concrete — a $50 million levee designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.“It’s been wonderful,” said Valley Park resident Ryan McDougell. “The engineers that came in here and put the levee in, they did a great job. It sucks for the folks down below, because, I mean, this is going to happen every year.” When rivers flood now in the United States, the first towns to get hit are the unprotected ones right by the river. The last to go, if they flood at all, are the privileged few behind strong levees. While levees mostly are associated with large, low-lying cities such as New Orleans, a majority of the nation’s Corps-managed levees protect much smaller communities, rural farm towns and suburbs such as Valley Park.But why Valley Park? It wasn’t the biggest city or largest employer along the Meramec. Its neighboring towns all had homes and industry in harm’s way, too. But after almost a century of planning to protect all these communities, the federal government built a single 3-mile levee, shielding the low-lying area of just one town.Exploring why that happened offers a window into the nation’s flawed approach to controlling rivers, in which — an investigation by ProPublica and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found — life-and-death decisions are dictated less by sound science than by economics, politics and luck.Levees have been the nation’s most common method of flood control for much of U.S. history, despite a major drawback: Levees protect the land immediately behind them, but can make flooding worse for people nearby by cutting off a river’s ability to spread over the floodplain — the flat, low-lying land beside the river channel. This is a basic matter of physics and something the Corps has known since at least 1852, when a report it commissioned demonstrated that as levees confine a river to a narrower channel, they force water to flow higher and faster. A levee such as the one at Valley Park, on just one side of the Meramec, creates a traffic-jam effect that forces water higher on the opposite bank and upstream.Twenty-five years ago, before it built the Valley Park levee, the Corps predicted that saving the city would cause just a few extra inches of flooding in areas close by. But it reached that conclusion based on outdated models, without factoring in wild cards such as additional development and climate change that often exacerbate flooding. After building the levee, the Corps never measured its actual impact.Residents in Arnold, Fenton and Pacific weren’t just frustrated that they suffered repeated floods while Valley Park stayed dry. They blamed the levee for making the flooding worse.Their accusations echo claims from residents near other levees: A 2011 flood along Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River raised suspicions that a levee had pushed water into unprotected communities. In Louisiana, engineering consultants projected that a proposed levee extension would raise flooding by about an inch, but local reporters uncovered another study that predicted up to 8 inches — a finding that prompted a lawsuit. And a recent paper found levees have aggravated major floods on the Lower Mississippi River.People across the Meramec basin can only watch and wonder. Sitting in his new clubhouse, which he’s rebuilt twice since 2016, Wolfner peers out at the river and stews about the unfairness of it all. Besides the levee, what does Valley Park have that Fenton doesn’t?The Corps “could have bought out everybody in that area for that kind of money and never built the levee and not hurt all these people, not hurt guys like me,” he said.“Let the water go where it’s supposed to go.”“Seldom Economically Justified”The Army Corps of Engineers has a huge, complex job — reducing flood risk across the nation’s rivers and coasts and a requirement to do it in a way that benefits the country economically. To prioritize its resources, the Corps uses cost-benefit calculations.In practice, those formulas determine who gets flooded and who gets saved.They’re intended to bring some dispassionate reason to a contentious process. But the calculations favor highly valued property over less affluent communities. And the Corps has favored levee-building over nonstructural fixes such as buying out homes to create space for the river to spread out during a flood — practices that many experts say are more effective in the long run, but which the Corps concluded were “seldom economically justified.” Katherine Poppen, left, waves to fellow boaters on the Meramec River in Valley Park, Missouri. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) The Corps has used some version of these formulas along the Meramec since at least 1929, when it decided a reservoir held behind a dam was the best solution for controlling the wild, free-flowing river. Unlike a levee, which could push water into nearby towns, a reservoir would act as a valve, releasing water from the dam during droughts and storing extra water during floods. The plan might have eliminated flooding for everyone along 33 miles of the Lower Meramec, from the mouth of the river to the city of Eureka, 12 miles upstream of Valley Park. But for decades, the Corps’ math said the land that would be protected wasn’t valuable enough to justify the cost of building a dam.By the 1960s, the area’s population had grown large enough for the Corps to reconsider the reservoir. But by then, the plan had attracted opposition from special interests, including business owners around a nearby lake who didn’t want to compete for tourists and environmentalists who believed rivers ought to flow freely. Jimmy Carter campaigned for the presidency with a promise to block big, wasteful federal water projects. The Meramec dam was among the targets of a 1977 “hit list” he released as president.The fate of the reservoir was put to a rare public referendum among voters in St. Louis and a dozen counties along the Meramec in 1978. The Corps already had bought thousands of acres and started building a visitor center when the vote showed that nearly two-thirds opposed the project. Congress formally deauthorized the reservoir in 1981.The following year, the Meramec unleashed one of its worst floods on record, rising so suddenly that first responders rescued residents in the dark as the river inundated Valley Park. The flooding killed six people and caused more than $100 million in damage. In the small community of Times Beach, residents cleared out, abandoning that land to the river.At the time, Walt Wolfner was in high school and already the manager of his father’s golf course in Fenton. With the course submerged, Wolfner’s father began a tradition that Wolfner continues today: jotting down the height of the Meramec from nearby stream gauges along with its impact on the course. He logged the river’s height in Valley Park at 39.73 feet. Beside it, he wrote, “5 1/2 [feet] water in clubhouse.” Walt Wolfner, the owner of Riverside Golf Club in Fenton, Missouri, keeps a log of flood data from a stream gauge. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) The Corps had orders from Congress to solve the flooding on the Meramec, along with a budget of $20 million, or about $54 million in 2018 dollars. The fix had to be economically sound, Congress said, and it could not include “any dams or reservoirs.”In a report released in 1987, the Corps outlined plans to protect more than a dozen communities with levees and other solutions — and then discarded all but a few of those plans because their costs outweighed the projected benefits.The 6-mile riverfront of Fenton was among the places the Corps decided a levee would be too expensive. Wolfner rebuilt his clubhouse last year, elevating it 14 feet off the ground to protect from future floods. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) In Arnold, the Corps considered buying out low-lying houses and trailer homes — including in the Starling Community Trailer Court, where Sarah Quinn’s grandmother was flooded out in 2015. This proposal also failed the test. The city of 19,000 was the largest in the area and vulnerable on two fronts, from floods rushing down the Meramec and from high water backing up from the Mississippi. The Corps calculated that it could buy out the riskiest homes for $5 million. But the properties weren’t worth enough to justify that, the agency decided.The process is “always driven by property values, for better or worse,” said Leonard Shabman, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research institution, who studies federal cost-benefit formulas. “The analyses that get done may favor those with higher incomes.”Valley Park had hundreds of homes and valuable public services — its police station, fire station, city hall and schools — in the lowest part of the floodplain. The Corps figured it would be worth protecting them all with an $11.8 million levee.The Corps recommended two solutions in addition to the levee: a buyout for a low-lying mobile home park in Eureka and an improved flood warning system across the region. But these were stymied by a new law, backed by environmentalists and the Reagan administration, which added another condition: The Corps had to find a local funding partner for these projects.Only city leaders in Valley Park were willing to pay their share, $3.7 million, to clinch the deal to put a levee between the Meramec and their city of 3,200 people. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Census Bureau; United States Geological Survey; United States Department of Agriculture (Yan Wu and Eric Sagara/Reveal, Al Shaw/ProPublica) Over the years, the $11.8 million price tag, which the Corps had so carefully figured into its cost-benefit calculations, began to climb. A Corps spokeswoman cited multiple reasons, including cleanup of contaminated soil found during construction and lawsuits from landowners in the levee’s path who didn’t want to sell their property to make room. In 2000, Congress passed a bill that funded the levee at $35 million. In 2003, federal lawmakers upped the funding to $50 million.Valley Park was on the hook for a quarter of the cost as it grew. Still, its support did not waver. The city issued a series of bonds and diverted tax revenue to pay for the levee, at one point prompting a lawsuit from its school district over lost tax money. The final price for the city was just over $13 million — more than the entire project was supposed to cost.The Corps’ original reservoir solution for the Meramec would have protected more than a dozen communities. The estimated cost of that dam in 1929 was $6.6 million, an amount equivalent to roughly $70 million by the time Valley Park got its $50 million levee.Instead, the Corps had its hands tied so tightly over the decades that all it could build was a single levee, benefiting one small city. “It’s Not Going to Affect Anything”From Valley Park, the levee’s slope resembles the inside of a grassy bowl, around 20 feet tall. Water caught behind the levee is guided out of the city by a system of drain pipes. Steel gates let traffic in and out through several road and railroad crossings. When the Meramec begins to rise, the gates close and seal off Valley Park from the wall of water.When the levee was designed in 1993, the Corps’ hydraulic modeling software demonstrated it would increase flooding upstream by less than 5 inches during a 100-year flood (a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year) and only within a few miles of Valley Park — not far enough to reach Eureka or Pacific. It had put the average yearly cost of flooding created by the levee at $7,200 in 1987, or $16,000 in 2018 dollars. The top of a flood gate and a levee in Valley Park. The $50 million levee designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was finished in 2005. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) “The Army Corps of Engineers, before they built the levee, they were having meetings and telling everybody, ‘No, no, this levee’s not going to hurt anything. It’s not going to affect anything,’” Walt Wolfner said. “And they basically, in our minds, lied to us.”In reality, the Corps could not say with certainty that the levee wouldn’t contribute to additional flooding in the future, because its calculations left out how key variables could change over time.The first of those factors is development. The Corps built the levee tall enough to protect against a 100-year flood, a height that offered an additional perk: Valley Park residents no longer had to buy costly federal flood insurance.With a levee to protect the city, the Corps calculated that rising land values in Valley Park and administrative savings in the flood insurance program would create nearly $100,000 in annual benefits, about $225,000 today. That number helped bolster the case for the levee in the Corps’ cost-benefit analysis.But even though the Corps anticipated that the levee would prompt growth in the area worth $15 million per year, it didn’t expect the flood damage to grow, too.Valley Park’s population has more than doubled since the 1980s, to 6,900. And between 1980 and 2010, the combined population of Arnold, Fenton, Valley Park, Eureka and Pacific increased nearly 50 percent.Tim Engelmeyer, Valley Park’s city attorney, said critics in the region are unduly fixated on the levee, but any Meramec community that allowed development since 1993 has “brought some of this on themselves.”Since 1993, growth in the floodplain includes extensions of several Fenton subdivisions and hundreds of new residential lots scattered across unincorporated St. Louis County between Pacific and Arnold, an analysis of county tax parcel data and Federal Emergency Management Agency flood insurance maps shows. Top: The Valley Park levee, left, shields the town from the river. Bottom: Mirasol, a residential subdivision, and the Meramec River, top, in Eureka, Missouri. When the river flooded in 2015 and 2017, floodwaters trapped some residents. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) By taking up space that would otherwise hold water during a flood, new buildings inside the floodplain drive the river higher. For people living nearby, those extra inches of water can mean the difference between soggy front yards and replacing the furniture, carpet and walls in the first floors of their homes.“You put a stone into a bucket of water, it’s going to raise the level of water,” said Devin Brundick, the owner of that little green house in Pacific. Now, every time he drives past new construction sites in the floodplain, he envisions the river near his home rising another fraction of an inch.“The real estate’s cheap because it’s in a floodplain,” he said, and local governments like the tax revenue from new development. “So far, no one’s been held accountable.”Development outside the floodplain, on higher ground, worsens flooding in a different way.As the suburbs sprawl across open land, soil that might have absorbed rainfall is paved over, sending water rushing faster toward the river and creating more frequent floods. Some of this is driven by Valley Park subdivisions built after 1993, near two small creeks that funnel runoff straight into the Meramec. Devin Brundick, left, and Felicia Ammann of Pacific, Missouri, raised their house onto an eight-foot foundation after it was nearly destroyed by flooding in 2015. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) Phillip Eydmann, a retired engineer with the Corps who helped design the Valley Park levee, said conditions along the river have changed since 1993.“We are encroaching on the rivers more and more and increasing the runoff,” he said. “Those (flood) heights are probably going to go up.”The second variable is climate change. It was a fairly new concept for federal policymakers in the early 1990s, but by the time the levee was complete, scientists were highly confident that human-driven climate change would affect rainfall all over the country. There’s now a consensus that rainstorms across the Midwest are intensifying, dumping more water into the Upper Mississippi basin. Researchers and regulators generally calculate future flood patterns based on a river’s past behavior. But climate change makes everything more unpredictable.The Corps now considers climate change in some of its flood planning, but an Obama-era executive order that might have strengthened its approach was rescinded last year by President Donald Trump.The Corps never updated its 1993 calculations or checked them for accuracy — not when the levee was finished in 2005, nor when the levee held back its first big flood in 2008 or after the larger, more recent floods. The Corps used widely available modeling software of the early 1990s. The technology’s ability to accurately model how rivers behave has significantly improved since then.John Boeckmann, an engineer for the Corps’ St. Louis District and chief of its hydrologic engineering section, said he still stands by the Corps’ 1993 calculations. Any flooding coming from the levee is localized and “is not affecting other communities upstream,” he said. “We’re confident what was done then is sound science and good engineering.”When ProPublica and Reveal asked the Corps whether it ever checks its predictions of levee-induced flooding against more recent data, a spokesman from agency headquarters in Washington said the “verification process that you describe is not a practice that (the Corps) uses.”As a result, levees that are meant to last for decades, even a century, are built based on maps and modeling technology from another era. Ammann and Brundick work in their yard. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) “Thanks for the Water, Valley Park”The Valley Park levee met its first test when floods tore through the Midwest in spring 2008. One bar owner told reporters that she was so confident in the new levee that she hadn’t bothered to pick up her computer off the floor.“It’s a 100-year event, and it’s a 100-year levee,” Army Corps of Engineers Col. Lewis Setliff declared. “It got tested, and it passed.”But upstream in Pacific, the mood was grim. More than 200 buildings flooded. Then-Mayor Herbert Adams urged federal officials to provide a levee or some other protection for communities along the Meramec. And at least one resident wasted no time assigning blame. A hand-lettered sign outside a flooded home read, “Thanks for the water, Valley Park.”The record floods in 2015 and 2017 only fed the suspicions in neighboring towns. Was the levee to blame? The Corps defended its work with a fact sheet citing its calculations from 1993, but no new data.“The levee does not increase flood heights anywhere downstream of Valley Park,” the agency declared.In fact, the Corps isn’t sure of the levee’s effect. John Boeckmann, the Corps engineer, said development in the area makes it hard to assess.“It’s really hard to isolate the effects of a single item,” he said. “So much has changed.”Checking the agency’s estimates against the levee’s actual impact would require additional funding from Congress, likely hundreds of thousands of dollars for a detailed model. And there’s a question of fairness, Boeckmann said: If one community got a special study, every other flooded town near a levee would want one, too. The St. Louis District alone has more than 70 levees, so the costs soon would add up to millions of dollars.Jonathan Remo, a professor at Southern Illinois University who’s spent his career studying Midwestern floods, said the Corps has no incentive to verify whether its original flooding predictions still hold. Scientifically speaking, it’s a good idea to check those numbers, given how modeling software and local conditions have changed since 1993, he said. Such a study could even help the Corps make better predictions.But there are built-in disincentives for the Corps to prove its own work was wrong, Remo said. If the Corps found that the water levels have risen more than it estimated, it wouldn’t just make the agency look bad, he said. It could expose the agency to litigation.Anne Jefferson, a geology professor at Kent State University, said it all comes down to funding priorities.“There’s a lot of money to build things,” she said, but “nobody wants to put up the money to watch and see what happens” afterward. “It’s really about what we want to spend money on as a nation.”Researchers say this is a common problem in science and engineering. Whether it’s verifying levee models or doing long-term monitoring in ecological restoration, funding for initial projects dwarfs what’s available for follow-up research.The federal government has the tools to get a much better picture of how levees worsen flooding, for a fraction of the cost of a comprehensive model. The U.S. Geological Survey, a scientific agency that monitors natural hazards, operates stream gauges that measure the flow of water in rivers.In 2011, two scientists used stream gauges next to or directly upstream of levees to examine water heights during floods, as well as flow rates — the amount of water rushing past the gauge each second. The higher the flow rate, the larger the flood. A stream gauge near the Meramec River in Valley Park. The gauge collects data on the height of the river, both during floods and under normal river conditions. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) The scientists studied 13 levees in the Midwest, compiling these two measurements before and after the levees were built. They wanted to see whether floods with similar flow rates produced different flood heights before and after levee construction.They found that in all 13 cases, for floods of the same flow rate, water heights post-levee were higher than pre-levee — in one instance by more than 5 feet. Co-author Nicholas Pinter, an earth science professor at the University of California, Davis, said the study used real-world data to show what actually happened during floods, instead of relying on a model of what “should” happen.Scientists say stream gauges near every levee could serve as a warning system, indicating which levees worsen flooding and delivering a reality check on the Corps’ design predictions.But the Geological Survey and other agencies have struggled to maintain their network of gauges. Due to tight budgets, the Geological Survey said only 73 percent of the gauges it considers essential for monitoring rivers are operational today. And because they are designed to track flooding, not the effects of levees, many gauges are far from levees, and some don’t track flow rates at all, making them useless for these calculations.Bob Criss, an earth science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, tried to do a stream gauge analysis for Valley Park, but the limitations of the gauges led him astray. He co-wrote a paper on the 2015 flood and called it a “man-made disaster.” It blamed the levee and other upstream development for raising water levels at Eureka a foot higher than they should have been. What Criss didn’t realize — and what ProPublica and Reveal have only recently discovered — is that the underlying data was flawed because the Geological Survey had moved the stream gauge several months before the flood, without flagging the change in the data.Correcting that data made the extra height disappear. Whatever the impact from the Valley Park levee and nearby development, it wasn’t great enough to reach the Eureka gauge.It’s also impossible to use gauges to measure flooding from the Valley Park levee, because the gauge next to the levee measures only water heights. The Geological Survey acknowledged this shortcoming to reporters after the 2008 flood. In 2015, the river at Valley Park rose higher than it had in 1982 — but without knowing the flow rate, it’s impossible to tell whether the extra height was the natural result of a bigger flood or whether the levee and new development were partially responsible for pushing the water higher.A Geological Survey spokeswoman said the agency could improve the Valley Park gauge to collect flow rates, but it would require extra measurements and calculations with “a much higher cost.” Source: United States Geological Survey; Missouri Spatial Data Information Service; United States Department of Agriculture. Note: The approximate height of the 2015 record flood at Valley Park was 44 feet. Data used to show this flood is from a USGS model. (Yan Wu and Eric Sagara/Reveal, Al Shaw/ProPublica) There’s also been some debate about whether the levee was built too high, which would contribute to additional flooding. Six months after the Criss paper, a separate report found that the levee must have been higher than its authorized height, because at the 100-year-flood level, it would have been submerged in 2015, which would have lowered the water level in nearby towns. The report was funded by the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, which had hired a local engineering firm to measure the height of the levee at several locations.Remo, the Southern Illinois professor, said it’s hard to prove the levee was built too high because the Corps gives itself a lot of leeway on this front. When the agency designed the levee, it modeled the size of the 100-year flood at Valley Park and found the baseline levee height needed to hold back that flood. Then the Corps added an extra 3 feet to the levee design for safety and up to 4 feet more to account for how the levee might settle over time. That meant the levee was built up to 7 feet higher than the elevation of the 100-year flood.For Valley Park, the added height makes it virtually certain that the city will be protected from a major flood, even if its flow rate is larger than what the Corps calculated in 1993.On the flip side, every extra inch of the levee above the baseline height increases the possibility of passing more damage on to Valley Park’s neighbors.Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said Valley Park should shoulder more of the responsibility for making sure its levee doesn’t harm its neighbors. Most federal levees are maintained by local levee districts, and it’s up to them to ensure the structure stays up to date with changing flood patterns and regulations. But few local governments have the expertise or funding to check the Corps’ calculations. And just like the Army Corps, they have little incentive to do anything that might indicate their levees are piling extra harm onto surrounding communities. A cyclist bikes along a trail on top of the Valley Park levee. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) Tim Engelmeyer, the Valley Park city attorney, said it’s unrealistic to expect a “little town of 7,000” to handle a complex modeling update.U.S. Geological Survey scientists also have proposed a sophisticated computer model that would do what the Corps says it cannot: conclusively demonstrate the levee’s impact on the region. The model, said Geological Survey hydrologist Paul Rydlund Jr., would consider the Meramec Valley as it looked in the 1930s, then slowly add in the development over time: bridges, neighborhoods, the levee. Rydlund said he hopes such a study could help people on the river understand its changing behavior.So far, the Geological Survey has raised $50,000 of the $365,000 it needs to build the model. Lately, the agency has been asking local officials to help.“You’re on Your Own”The 2015 and 2017 floods were a clear reminder that, after almost a century of work by the Army Corps, most communities on the Meramec remain exposed to flooding. With $350,000 from Congress, the Corps has commenced another study of the same volatile river.The agency partnered with local governments, including Pacific, Arnold and Fenton; federal and state agencies; and other organizations to produce a report it calls a “blueprint” for reducing flood risk. Hal Graef, a project manager for the Corps’ St. Louis District, said it will focus on nonstructural solutions such as buyouts and raising home foundations.John Boeckmann, the Corps engineer, said the initiative is not about the Valley Park levee. A fact sheet from the agency attributes flooding to “increased frequency of heavy rainfall and severe storms, geology, topography, development, storm water runoff, and loss of wetlands and open space.”Part of the effort involved public meetings and surveys asking for feedback. Officials had received 38 responses as of late June. Some urged limits on floodplain development or blamed the levee for aggravating flooding. Others wanted more levees along the Meramec.One respondent, who seemed aware of previous plans to build a reservoir, wrote: “Stop building all levees anywhere on the Meramec River. Stop all development in the Meramec floodway or floodplain. Build a dam in the Upper Meramec.”The final report is due in November 2019. After that, it will be up to the communities to follow the recommendations. Graef said the report will list potential funding sources. The Corps will not have authority to force anyone to adopt the ideas, nor will there necessarily be guaranteed funding for them.The agency already is stretched thin. Only about 2 percent of the Corps’ authorized construction projects get funded each year. And although the Corps is building far fewer levees than it did in the mid-1900s, the agency is on the hook for an aging network that costs billions to maintain and keeps getting hit by natural disasters.There is no indication it will get more support under the Trump administration. Small-government advocates long have called for removing civil works from the Corps, and in June, the administration released a plan that would do just that: Strip the Corps of its flood control responsibilities and reassign the job to the Department of Transportation and Department of the Interior. A shift like that would add a new layer of uncertainty to the Corps’ future.Flood victims around Valley Park don’t have the luxury of waiting for a government fix. Top: A house, left, in the process of being raised onto a foundation sits next to a vacant home in Pacific. Bottom: An empty lot where a home once was, at Starling Community Trailer Court in Arnold. (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica) Last year, Walt Wolfner tore down the half-century-old clubhouse that took on 11 feet of water in the 2015 flood. In its footprint, he built a new one, accessible by stairs and an elevator, 14 feet above the ground.“You’re on your own,” Wolfner said. “It’s every man for himself.”Sarah Quinn moved away from Arnold after the 2017 flood, but she often visits her grandmother at the Starling Community Trailer Court.“Anytime we’re together in the car driving over the bridge, I see her peering over the river,” Quinn said. “If it rains too much, she’ll go back into the woods and check the creek. She will not admit that she’s nervous, but she does not want to go through it again. I don’t think anybody would.”Four months after the 2015 flood, Devin Brundick and Felicia Ammann set about elevating their home in Pacific. They had an 8-foot concrete foundation poured, then had a crane pick up their little green house and set it on top. It was another year before they could move back in. Brundick is a carpenter, and when he has time at home, he works on finishing repairs.“We’ve got a slop sink in our kitchen and I got a bunch of wire shelving for storage space, so that’s pretty rough,” Brundick said. “Most people, I don’t think, would feel like they’re actually in a house. We just call it glamping.”The way this area has flooded since they bought the house, Brundick and Ammann doubt they’ll make money selling the home the way they’d planned — even from its new perch.Their corner of town is full of signs of how other people are making their own plans to weather the future: old homes parked high up on fresh concrete foundations and others sitting low to the ground, newly abandoned.
Election Commission Documents Cast Doubt on Trump’s Claims of Voter Fraud
by Jessica Huseman In May of 2017, President Donald Trump established a presidential commission to explore the threat of voter fraud — staffing it with multiple Republicans who had theorized that fraud was a substantial problem in American democracy. The commission, widely called the voter fraud commission, was immediately criticized as a political creation aimed at a phony problem.In January, Trump disbanded the commission, which by then had produced little if any evidence that voter fraud was a significant menace.Today, thousands of commission documents were released that show aspects of the body’s inner workings. As critics have suggested, the records — a mix of memos, internal emails and reports — make clear the commission’s work was driven by a small number of members who were convinced voter fraud was widespread, and that other members were often excluded from critical decisions about the commission’s aims and tactics.The documents were provided to ProPublica by American Oversight — a group that provided legal representation to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who had been a Democratic member of the commission. Dunlap has contended that the commission’s leaders left him out of key deliberations, which he was entitled to participate in by law. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email The judge ruled that the commission must disclose documentation related to internal deliberations, and the commission did so on July 18. Below is a sampling of some of the noteworthy material in them:In January, when Trump abruptly dissolved the commission, he claimed that it had “substantial evidence of voter fraud” and that the commission’s “initial findings” would be turned over to the Department of Homeland Security. But the documents released today show there was nothing to support these claims.On Nov. 18, 2017, Andrew Kossack — the executive director of the commission — circulated a draft “Staff Report” on the commission’s work. The report is a summary of the commission’s efforts, which Kossack appears to have been compiling beginning in August. The draft report included a prewritten section called “Evidence of Election Integrity and Voter Fraud Issues.” The section, with few exceptions, wound up almost entirely blank.Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight, said the lack of material in the section set aside for evidence of fraud or other voting problems “shows that the White House knew, or at least should have known, that it was blatantly lying when they made those claims in January.”Requests for comment sent to both the White House and Kris Kobach, the former vice-chair of the commission, have not yet been returned.The only known action taken by the commission during its short life was a letter it sent to all 50 states in late June 2017 requesting copies of publicly available voter rolls, which list registered voters in each state. The letter did not include any details about how the records would be used, and many state officials denied the request.Today’s documents show the commission worked behind the scenes with Republican Party officials in at least one state to circumvent the decisions of state officials.John Merrill, the Republican secretary of state for Alabama, had denied the commission access to the state’s voter rolls, saying it violated Alabama law to distribute the data to such an entity.However, in an email exchange with Kobach, Terry Lathan, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said, “The ALGOP will honor your request and have a full state voter pull for the commission you chair.” Lathan added that the party’s political director would “initiate this process immediately.” Merrill told ProPublica he was unaware that the state Republican Party had sent the list to the commission. Moreover, he said, the list would have been out of date — perhaps by several months.After Colorado agreed to send information to the commission, voters there began canceling their voter registrations so that the Trump administration would not have access to their data. At the time, Colorado officials told ProPublica they were not worried — Colorado is a same-day-registration state, so voters could re-register even on the day of the next election in which they wanted to cast a ballot.But Dick Lamm, a former governor of Colorado, and Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, an organization that advocates for stricter limits on immigration, exchanged emails about the de-registration in the state.In them, Lamm tells Beck he thinks those who deregistered should be investigated. “I suspect many/most of these were illegals now scared of Trump’s new policies,” he wrote.Rosemary Jenks, the director of government relations for NumbersUSA, forwarded the exchange to Kobach saying, “Definitely interesting stuff for the Commission to check into, especially since Colorado is cooperating!” The documents do not make clear if such an inquiry was ever begun.Several secretaries of state — including Merrill — expressed frustration with the commission after receiving the letters requesting voter rolls, responding to the commission with questions about how the data would be used.The documents show that Kobach initially wanted to tell the states some of what the data might be used for. He wanted to “compare voter rolls to federal databases of known noncitizens residing in the United States to identify ineligible noncitizens who have become registered.”It was an odd aim, for Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas, had admitted during litigation in Kansas that such comparisons were not productive or reliable.The commission ultimately never told the secretaries of state that the data might be used in this way, and took this out of communications to the states at the behest of Vice President Mike Pence’s office.The vice president’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this matter.The documents released today also suggest that the commission had intended to ask states for far more information than has been publicly reported.ProPublica first reported last October that Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams — two individuals who are closely associated with advocacy for strict laws to prevent voter fraud — provided feedback on the request for state voter rolls behind the scenes before their formal appointment to the commission. The documents now show their specific suggestions.In addition to the voter roll data, von Spakovsky and Adams jointly recommended the commission ask for a long list of other data from states. Those on the email chain jointly agreed that the first request should be simple, and that additional data could be requested later. It appears the commission quickly made plans to request some of the additional data the pair had requested, namely jury questionnaires. The documents show that in late June, at the same time the original letter was sent, Kobach and members of the Office of the Vice President had drafted and finalized a letter to send to federal clerks’ offices requesting information on “all individuals determined to be ineligible or who were otherwise excused from federal jury duty” because they had died, moved out of the jurisdiction, had a felony conviction, or were not U.S. citizens. They specifically requested the names of the individuals and their addresses, and the reason they were excused from jury duty, and “other identifying information associated with each individual.”It is not immediately clear if this letter was sent. The data could have been used to compare against the voter rolls the commission was collecting in an attempt to suss out individuals that remained on the voter rolls after their deaths or a move, or non-citizens who were registered to vote.In a letter addressed to Pence and Kobach sent today, Dunlap confirmed he had no knowledge of the plan to request this information despite his role as a commissioner. “I have no way of knowing whether these requests were issued or, if not, why not, but Vice Chair Kobach’s and certain commissioners’ cavalier attitude towards vacuuming data is troubling,” he wrote.
ProPublica Honored With Society of Professional Journalists Award for Contributions to Open Government
by ProPublica The Society of Professional Journalists awarded ProPublica with a Sunshine Award. The honor is bestowed to individuals and organizations for their notable contributions to open government. The other honorees this year are Miami Herald capital bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas and Associated Press reporter Rachel La Corte.ProPublica was recognized for “Trump Town,” the first comprehensive and searchable database of Trump’s 2,724 political appointees, along with their federal lobbying and financial records. The project is the result of a year spent filing Freedom of Information Act and open-records requests, collecting staffing lists and publishing financial disclosure reports. It illuminates the degree to which President Trump has failed to “drain the swamp,” despite his campaign promises to address corporate lobbying and corruption in Washington.Led by ProPublica research editor Derek Kravitz, news applications developer Al Shaw, research fellow Claire Perlman and researcher Alex Mierjeski, the Trump Town team identified at least 188 Trump political appointees who have been federal lobbyists. Many are now overseeing the industries on whose behalf they once lobbied. They also discovered ethics waivers that allow Trump staffers to work on subjects where they have financial conflicts of interest. And they found at least 278 appointees affiliated with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, in addition to at least 144 staffers from prominent conservative think tanks, are now working in the federal government, many on efforts to undo Obama era regulations.“The organization filed more than 200 FOIA and Form 201 ethics requests to obtain the data and worked with dozens of FOIA officers, ethics attorneys and nonpartisan groups for guidance,” said contest judges. “It is for this level of tenacity in government reporting that ProPublica is being recognized.”ProPublica also released the data as a free download through the ProPublica Data Store and published a reporting recipe, explaining the journalistic insights and techniques that allowed the team to do the reporting and guiding other journalists in how they can use the data. The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and Esquire, among other outlets, wrote stories using this database.Learn more about the Sunshine Award here.
For Most Common Heart Surgery, St. Luke’s Has Been Among the Nation’s Worst
by Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle, and Charles Ornstein, ProPublica Even as the federal government prepares to cut off funding to Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center’s poorly performing heart transplant program, the Houston hospital has continued to promote itself as a national leader in cardiac surgery.But the declines at St. Luke’s have not been limited to transplants, a continuing investigation by the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica has found.In January, a leading group of surgeons rated St. Luke’s as among the worst-performing hospitals in the nation for coronary artery bypass surgery, the most common open-heart operation and a key indicator of a cardiac program’s overall quality.Four months later, the hospital’s most-experienced bypass surgeon retired — the latest in a series of major physician departures in recent years.Now, following news reports highlighting the plight of St. Luke’s patients who died after heart transplants, family members of those who fared poorly after bypass operations are second-guessing their decision to seek care at a hospital regarded as one of the nation’s best for heart surgery. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. Hospital officials acknowledge the poor bypass rating but say they have improved over the past year. Others, however, say publicly available statistics give reason for concern.“They need to get better,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute and an expert in hospital quality measures, after reviewing St. Luke’s bypass outcome data and other measures that suggest care at the hospital has lagged in recent years.Of nearly 600 hospitals that voluntarily report surgical outcomes to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, St. Luke’s was one of 18 nationally to earn only one star for overall bypass quality, the group’s lowest rating.Between the middle of 2016 and the middle of 2017, 19.3 percent of the 494 patients who underwent bypass operations at St. Luke’s suffered major complications, including strokes, kidney failure, prolonged time on a ventilator and infections, according to the society’s analysis, which is adjusted to ensure hospitals are not penalized for treating sicker patients. That’s compared to a national rate of 11.3 percent.Among hospitals that performed at least 200 bypass operations, none recorded a higher rate of major complications than St. Luke’s. The hospital also scored poorly — toward the bottom nationally — in the percentage of patients who received all of the recommended medications before and after bypass surgery, though the hospital contends the low rating was largely due to a recordkeeping deficiency that has since been corrected.“There are specific things that the cardiac surgery program could be doing better but clearly is not,” said Jha, referring to the results from mid-2016 to mid-2017. He called STS the “gold standard” for analyzing heart surgery outcomes.Dr. David Berger, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Baylor St. Luke’s, said changes have already been made. He shared data with reporters showing that the hospital’s bypass performance improved in the final six months of 2017 and will no longer be ranked among the worst in the nation when the Society of Thoracic Surgeons releases updated data later this month. In an interview Thursday, Berger said the hospital has consistently performed well in what he maintained is the most important measure of a program’s quality: the percentage of patients who are discharged from the hospital and survive at least 30 days after bypass surgery. At St. Luke’s, 98 percent of patients survived at least a month after having a bypass in 2017, better than the national average of 97.5 percent, according to data provided by the hospital.Berger also shared figures showing the hospital’s major complication rate following bypass operations had improved somewhat in the final six months of 2017. However, the program’s performance on this measure still ranked as one star out of three, statistically below that of other programs.“We agree that during that time period [mid-2016 to mid-2017] for the cardiac bypass program, we were in certain areas not operating to our potential,” Berger said. “Currently we are providing safe and high-quality care, and we are continuing to improve our performance daily.”Patients have long come to Houston from across the country for treatment at a hospital known for its affiliation with the Texas Heart Institute, the research nonprofit led by pioneering surgeon Denton Cooley until his death in 2016. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Cooley and his team turned St. Luke’s into one of the busiest cardiac hospitals in the country, refining many of the surgical techniques in use today. That included coronary bypass, in which surgeons use vein grafts to create new routes around narrowed and blocked arteries, restoring sufficient blood flow to a patient’s heart muscle.That history gave Lisa Blackmon-Jones comfort when her 73-year-old father checked into the hospital in need of a triple bypass in February. Blackmon-Jones, a nurse, had trained at St. Luke’s in the 1980s and remembered scrubbing in with Cooley.“I was excited to take my dad to St. Luke’s,” Blackmon-Jones said. “I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, they’ll take care of him.’”Her father, Purnell Blackmon, a former Houston Metro bus driver, was discharged from the hospital without major complications after his surgery — a successful outcome in the Society of Thoracic Surgeons’ scoring system — but he suffered numerous setbacks in the weeks that followed. He returned to St. Luke’s multiple times with a high fever, low blood pressure, a severe infection and anemia, Blackmon-Jones said.He died at the hospital on April 25 after several days connected to a ventilator.“That’s not at all what we expected when we took him there,” said Blackmon-Jones, who complained about the quality of nursing care, poor communication from doctors and dirty hospital rooms.“This was St. Luke’s,” she said. “I thought they were supposed to be the best.”The hospital’s poor bypass rating came at the same time federal regulators were scrutinizing St. Luke’s for worse-than-expected heart transplant outcomes.In July, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services formally notified the hospital it was cutting off funding to its heart transplant program on Aug. 17 because it had not done enough to correct problems that could endanger patients. The decision followed an investigation by the Chronicle and ProPublica that found an outsized number of St. Luke’s patients died or suffered unusual complications after receiving new hearts.There have been other indicators that St. Luke’s performance has fallen short of its reputation in recent years.Healthgrades, a company that rates hospitals based on federal data, reported in May that between 2014 and 2016, St. Luke’s performed worse than expected in nine of 13 critical safety measures, including the rates of patients who emerged from surgery suffering from bloodstream infections, excessive bruising, a collapsed lung or respiratory failure. It also reported that a higher-than-average percentage of St. Luke’s patients suffered complications after procedures to implant pacemakers and defibrillators.On the federal government’s hospital quality website, St. Luke’s is rated below average, two out of five stars. And in a survey of patients posted on the site, patients expressed misgivings about certain aspects of the care they received. Only 59 percent of St. Luke’s patients reported that their room was always clean, compared to 75 percent nationally. Similarly, just 60 percent of St. Luke’s patients said they always received help as soon as they wanted it, 10 percentage points below the national average.And in February, in a Harris County Medical Society survey of more than 2,000 doctors at 26 Houston-area hospitals, local physicians ranked St. Luke’s at or near the bottom in virtually every category, including overall satisfaction, nursing staff levels, the quality of medical supplies and administrators’ commitment to patient safety.These declines came after St. Luke’s was purchased in 2013 by Catholic Health Initiatives, a Denver-based nonprofit chain burdened with billions of dollars in debt, and after the hospital entered into a joint-operating agreement in 2014 with its affiliate Baylor College of Medicine. Together, St. Luke’s and Baylor are working to build a new medical campus, including a $916.8 million, 650-bed hospital to replace its aging facility in the Texas Medical Center. Berger acknowledged that the hospital has lagged in various quality measures, but he said those were all based on “historical” data and do not reflect changes made by a new group of hospital leaders. He provided data from Premier Inc., a company hired by hospitals to track performance measures, showing a steady rise in quality and safety scores since the fall of 2016, when Gay Nord took over as St. Luke’s president.Since then, Berger said administrators have invested additional resources in the hospital’s quality department, strengthened its physician-leadership structure and worked with doctors and nurses to find ways to improve outcomes. These changes will be reflected once publicly available data catches up to the hospital’s current performance, Berger said.“The issues that you’re bringing to light focus on a period of time in the institution when there were some challenges,” Berger said. “But I think our current data, which shows really excellent outcomes both from patient safety and from quality, would show that those issues are no longer pertinent. … Those are historical issues.”Berger acknowledged, and experts agree, that many factors beyond what happens in the operating room can contribute to below-average surgical outcomes. Poor nursing care, post-operative treatment, infection control and prescription drug management can drag down a hospital’s numbers.Several top physicians left St. Luke’s in recent years after raising concerns about the overall direction of the hospital, which has lost hundreds of employees to layoffs and attrition, some of them in nursing and medical support positions.Two months ago, the hospital’s most senior cardiac surgeon, Dr. David Ott, turned in a three-sentence note announcing his retirement after 50 years at the Texas Medical Center, according to a copy of the letter obtained by reporters.More than a dozen surgeons perform heart bypasses at St. Luke’s, but the note marked the end of an era. Ott, who replaced Cooley as the Texas Heart Institute’s chief surgeon four years ago, has long been known as one of the nation’s most experienced coronary bypass surgeons.Ott’s resignation came the same day the Chronicle and ProPublica published their first story about problems plaguing the heart transplant program, though there’s been no indication that this factored in his decision. In his letter, Ott said he was retiring before undergoing shoulder surgery.“While much has changed in the medical center,” Ott wrote in the letter, “it remains true that caring for one’s fellow man is one of the world’s highest callings and something in which we can all take considerable pride.”Berger said the hospital had anticipated Ott’s resignation due to health problems and said he remains confident in the cardiac surgeons who perform bypass surgeries at the hospital.“We’ve recruited really outstanding cardiac surgeons during the period of time when Dr. Ott was winding down,” Berger said.Ott did not reply to messages seeking comment for this story.Ernest Barnard, a 75-year-old resident of Cypress, a suburb northwest of Houston, checked into Baylor St. Luke’s in the summer of 2016, feeling lethargic and struggling to catch his breath, according to his family. After three weeks at the hospital, family members said the medical team concluded Barnard needed a quadruple bypass to improve blood flow to his heart. The evening before surgery, his children brought him a treat, hoping to lift his spirits.“I’m a daddy’s girl,” Graciella Gonzalez said. “He asked for an ice cream … so I went to the gift shop and got him an ice cream. And that was his last meal he ever had.” Top: Noemi Barnard holds a photo of her late husband, Ernest Barnard, with her daughters, Graciella Gonzalez, left, and Gloria Bivens. Bottom: Graciella Gonzalez shows notes she made after her father’s bypass surgery at St. Luke’s. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle) For nearly two years, Gonzalez and her family have wondered went wrong. They kept friends and family members updated with regular Facebook posts during Barnard’s two-month hospital stay, chronicling his slow decline in real time.After the initial bypass surgery on July 22, the surgeon told the family he had bypassed only three of four arteries, because the fourth had been too narrow, Gonzalez said. Otherwise, everything had gone well, she and other family members remembered the surgeon saying.Barnard never fully recovered.Barnard’s family said they complained to the hospital multiple times about the quality and availability of nursing care, echoing the concerns of several other patients, nurses and other medical professionals interviewed by the Chronicle and ProPublica. They began taking pictures of what they saw and contemplated transferring him to another hospital.“You’d call the nurse on the phone, and it rings them, but then you wouldn’t see them for hours and hours, so you’d have to call again,” Gonzalez said.On Aug. 12, three weeks after the initial surgery, a surgeon reopened Barnard’s chest after doctors noticed fluid leaking from his incision. They were worried it might be infected, Gonzalez said. After the surgery, she said doctors told the family there was no infection, which was a relief. They also told the family that the wiring holding Barnard’s chest closed appeared to have come loose at some point after the initial surgery and had been fixed, Gonzalez said.The next time Gonzalez saw Barnard, she said he had a vacant look in his eyes, and she knew something was wrong. Days passed, but he did not wake up. Later, a brain scan revealed Barnard had limited brain function, Gonzalez said. He didn’t regain consciousness.A week later, his family made the decision to withdraw life support. Nobody explained what went wrong, Gonzalez said. She and her family had serious concerns about the care her father received, but until they were contacted by reporters last month, they were unaware of the hospital’s higher-than-average rate of complications following bypass surgeries during the time her father was a patient there.Family members said they filled out a form more than a year ago to obtain Barnard’s medical records and have followed up several times, but as of Friday, they still have yet to receive them. A hospital spokeswoman said St. Luke’s has no record of the request.Reporters presented St. Luke’s officials with a consent forms signed by Barnard’s widow, Noemi, authorizing the hospital to release medical records to journalists and freeing staff to answer questions about Barnard’s care. As of Friday, they had not done so. Instead, the hospital issued a general statement on patient care:“Our goal every day is to ensure that each patient receives the care he or she needs — with compassion and reverence — and goes home as healthy as possible. Our hearts and prayers are with each family when this doesn’t happen, and we are saddened by the passing of any patient while under our care.”Poor performance in St. Luke’s bypass program wasn’t a one-time blip. Bypass outcomes began to slide in 2013, the same year the hospital was purchased by Catholic Health Initiatives, according to an analysis by MPIRICA Health Analytics, a company based in Washington state that grades hospitals and surgeons based on federal billing data.MPIRICA looked at how Medicare patients fared after bypass surgery, taking into account more than 500 possible risk factors. It looked at outcomes 90 days after patients were discharged, compared to 30 days after surgery for the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.In MPIRICA’s credit score-like rating system, excellent outcomes are considered anything between 600 and 800, fair outcomes fall between 400 and 600, and anything lower is considered below average. In 2015 — the most recent year analyzed — the company rated St. Luke’s bypass outcomes at around 300, the lowest of any hospital in Houston. A few other St. Luke’s surgical programs received low marks in the analysis, while some were rated as excellent.St. Luke’s officials called the company’s analysis “incomplete” and “potentially misleading” because it focused only on Medicare patients and was based on publicly available billing data, rather than more granular information logged in confidential medical records.MPIRICA defended its analysis, saying researchers commonly use Medicare data to assess hospital outcomes. Shakil Haroon, the company’s co-founder and CEO, said hospitals spend a lot of time and money marketing their reputations; his company digs into the data to determine if those reputations are justified.“It is extremely unlikely that what was observed at St. Luke’s is an aberration,” Haroon said. Larry “L.T.” Thomas, 46, of Lake Charles, Louisiana, was among those who received a bypass at St. Luke’s in 2015, the most recent year for which MPIRICA has released data. He died four months after surgery. Two years later, Thomas’ surviving family members filed a lawsuit against the hospital in Harris County District Court, alleging that doctors and nurses made a series of mistakes during and after his surgery, resulting in major complications.According to the lawsuit and an expert opinion filed with the court, Thomas, a diabetic, suffered a spike in glucose levels in his blood during the surgery, prompting an anesthesiologist to give two doses of insulin to bring his blood sugar back within a safe range. This common intervention during surgery requires that a patient’s glucose level be measured frequently afterward, according to the lawsuit, but St. Luke’s staff failed to do that.Dr. Duane Funk, a Canadian anesthesiologist, reviewed the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. His report, filed with the court last fall, said the initial dose of insulin given to Thomas during surgery was too large; the second came too soon. After surgery, Funk wrote, medical records indicated that physicians failed to to make staff in the intensive care unit aware of the insulin treatment. As a result, nursing staff did not check Thomas’ glucose level until it became critically low and he began to have seizures, Funk wrote.Thomas suffered irreversible brain damage and never left the hospital, according to the lawsuit.Tim Riley, a Houston lawyer representing Thomas’ surviving family members, declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is ongoing. Lawyers representing St. Luke’s have denied any wrongdoing in court filings and have sought to have Funk’s written testimony dismissed, arguing that he failed to articulate a clear breach in the standard of care provided to Thomas.St. Luke’s officials did not answer questions from reporters about the case.Lisa Blackmon-Jones can’t point to anything specific that led to her father’s death following bypass surgery earlier this year, but like other families, she was disappointed with the care provided by St. Luke’s. A family photo of Purnell Blackmon and Georgia Blackmon at prom. Purnell Blackmon passed away a few months after heart bypass surgery at St. Luke’s in Houston. (Courtesy of the Blackmon family) Doctors performed the triple bypass in February, and initially, Blackmon seemed to be doing well, his daughter said. The 73-year-old was discharged from the hospital in under two weeks, giving him hope he would soon regain enough strength to return to his daily routine of swimming laps with his daughter at the YMCA pool near his home in southeast Houston.But within a month, Blackmon was feeling worse than he did before the surgery, said his wife, Georgia Blackmon. He couldn’t walk from the couch to the kitchen without growing winded; he needed a wheelchair to check the mail.Blackmon returned to St. Luke’s multiple times in the weeks that followed, his wife said, and doctors ran a series of tests to try to figure out what was causing his low-blood pressure and anemia. They gave him antibiotics, believing he was suffering from an infection, according to family, but the drugs didn’t seem to help.Blackmon’s condition worsened dramatically during his final hospital stay in April, his family said. One day, family members said they found him gasping for air. His daughter-in-law — another nurse — told staff to get a doctor, family members said, and Blackmon was rushed to an intensive care unit and connected to a ventilator.Within days, family members said, Blackmon was suffering from kidney failure, his blood pressure was critically low and doctors had begun discussing plans for hospice.Georgia Blackmon signed a form allowing the hospital to share her husband’s records and discuss his case with reporters. St. Luke’s officials did not do so, instead referring to their general statement about the hospital’s commitment to patient care.Blackmon died on April 25. A few weeks later, his daughter read news stories about troubles plaguing the heart transplant program at St. Luke’s and reached out to reporters.“After everything,” she said, “nobody could ever tell us what went wrong.”
We’re Writing About Problems at the Immigrant Shelters Housing Children and Teens — in English and Español
by Melissa Sanchez, Jodi S. Cohen and Duaa Eldeib Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Hi and hola. This week we wanted to tell you about our reporting on what’s happening inside the 11 shelters for immigrant children in Illinois — and how you can help us do more. We published a story on Thursday that revealed how “lax” supervision at these shelters — nearly all run by a prominent nonprofit that has received little scrutiny until now — has contributed to sex between children, an alleged inappropriate relationship between an employee and a teenager, and at least 10 runaways. The story followed another last week about these shelters, all but two of which are run by Heartland Human Care Services. Heartland officials said the incidents “represent highly rare occasions,” that they take “swift and appropriate action” when necessary, and report all incidents to state and federal authorities.We also are publishing these stories en español. This is something we’ve wanted to do for some time and these stories, in particular, are so important to many people in Chicago’s Spanish-speaking immigrant communities. We want to give a shout-out to Carmen Méndez, our translator, and to our new Spanish-language media partners who are helping us get the word out: Univision Chicago and Sin Censura Con Vicente Serrano. If you want to be our partner, or just steal our stories to republish, here’s how.Our colleagues at the national ProPublica office also are doing more — both on immigration, and to reach Spanish-language audiences. Here’s a story reporters Michael Grabell and Topher Sanders published last week on sex abuse at shelters for unaccompanied minors, and another from Kavitha Surana on the reunification of an immigrant mother with her daughter after more than 100 days of separation. And here’s a new page we unveiled this week that’s home for all of the stories we’ve translated into Spanish.Finally, we want to ask for your help. We plan to continue reporting on the conditions for the thousands of immigrant children who are housed in Illinois shelters. Five are in Chicago and six are in the suburbs. Please reach out if you know of a child who has been detained, if you work or used to work at one of the shelters, or if you have any information or documents you’d like to share. Here’s some information about how to do that, in English, español and português.You also can always contact us directly — melissa.sanchez@propublica.org, (hablo español), jodi.cohen@propublica.org and duaa.eldeib@propublica.org (I speak Arabic) or call us at 708-967-5725.Thank you.—Melissa Sanchez, Jodi S. Cohen and Duaa EldeibWhere we’ve been in the news this week:On our investigation into Chicago-area immigrant shelters:
Steve Cohen Is Spending Millions to Help Veterans. Why Are People Angry?
by Isaac Arnsdorf At a House hearing last year on post-traumatic stress disorder, a private organization showed up with an ambitious plan to help suffering veterans. The Cohen Veterans Network was opening a chain of free mental health clinics across the country, backed by $275 million from hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen.By contrast to the high-profile scandals at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Cohen Network claimed 96 percent client satisfaction. In a statement for the hearing, the organization said its clinics “provide a desirable alternative” to the VA — a clear echo of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to let veterans skip the VA for “a private service provider of their own choice.”But at that same moment, across the country, the Cohen Network was closing its clinic in Los Angeles less than a year after it opened. The Cohen Network’s leaders had alienated the staff there, former employees said, by telling them to prioritize healthier patients over homeless veterans. The shutdown was so hasty that former therapists said it left some patients in the lurch.Privatization has become the defining controversy at the VA under the Trump administration. Conservative billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Ken Langone want veterans to increasingly see private doctors, while traditional veterans organizations want to maintain the government-run health system.The Cohen Network has become a test case for both sides. It is either proof that the private sector can do the job better than the VA — or a template for diverting taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private groups.Steven Cohen is perhaps an unlikely person to find himself in the crossfire of this debate. He is best known as the billionaire hedge fund titan whose investment returns were the envy of Wall Street, until prosecutors busted his firm for insider trading. (Cohen, 62, was not personally charged; he declined to be interviewed for this article.) Since then, Cohen has launched a new hedge fund and opened 10 clinics serving veterans across the country. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email A thorough examination of the Cohen Network’s record — including internal documents, emails and dozens of interviews with current and former employees — reveals a different story from the one the Cohen Network tells about itself. The clinic at the University of Southern California was doomed by the Cohen Network’s mismanagement and insistence on a narrow focus that helped only a subset of veterans, former employees said. “The model we ended up believing would really serve veterans was different than the model the Cohen Network was proposing all clinics operate under,” said Marv Southard, who served as CEO of the Cohen clinic at USC and is now chair of USC’s doctor of social work program. The network’s original clinic, at New York University, got into a spat over who would own the patent rights from research that Cohen funded. And shortly after the hearing, Cohen mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to get the government to subsidize the clinics.The Cohen Network and Cohen’s own spokesman insist they’re not trying to privatize the VA and their only goal is helping veterans. “No single private person in this country has ever donated more money to save veterans’ lives and treat their mental health needs than Steve Cohen has,” Cohen’s spokesman, Mark Herr, said. The organization blames others for the problems in Los Angeles, New York and Washington.The story of the Cohen Network illustrates what could lie in store for veterans as Trump pursues his campaign pledge to place their care in the hands of the private sector.When the Cohen Network opened the LA clinic in mid-2016, it attracted talented therapists with what appeared to be a rare opportunity to treat veterans as if money were no object. “It almost seemed too good to be true,” one of the clinicians said. “And, in fact, it was.”The disappointment started as soon as the staff showed up. The clinic turned out to consist of a hallway shared with the dermatology department inside a USC facility. There were only three therapy rooms for six therapists; they were supposed to take turns and then walk to a different office several blocks away.The next problem was the software for the patients’ medical records. Many of these systems are clunky, but clinicians said this one was the worst they’d ever used. They would fill out a long form and click submit, only to find their session had timed out and they had to start over. Session notes mysteriously vanished. “It was completely substandard compared to what we would have expected from this organization,” said Kathryn Arnett, the clinic’s director.The Cohen Network’s CEO, Anthony Hassan, shot down complaints about the software, so staff across the network convened secret conference calls to troubleshoot, according to former employees. In written responses to questions, Hassan said it’s “absurd and untrue” that he lashed out at employees who spoke up about the software. He also denied it ever had problems, saying “there was no bug in the system.”But a February 2017 internal review concluded otherwise: “There are ongoing clinical data errors in the system,” Cohen Network officials wrote.Because of these problems, some current and former employees doubt the Cohen Network’s claims about its results. The client satisfaction survey, for example, was completed by only 6 percent of exiting patients, according to an October 2016 email from the network’s chief operating officer. The Cohen Network said the response rate has since risen to 59 percent. Still, that’s lower than typical for published studies and it means the score might not represent all patients’ views, particularly since there’s evidence that happier patients are more likely to complete the survey. (“We’re confident in the integrity of our data,” Hassan said, but he declined to elaborate on how they inspect and validate the data.)The Cohen Network wanted more patients and was displeased with low turnout: An internal review found that the LA clinic, in its first six months, saw just 116 clients, which cost the clinic $10,282 each. “The average cost per client is very concerning, as is the low client count,” two executives wrote. Some of the clinicians had seen an emphasis on cost and volume at public agencies or cash-strapped nonprofits, but they struggled to understand such scrimping from the well-funded Cohen Network.The Cohen Network’s focus on measurable outcomes influenced the care that the clinics would provide. Clinicians were supposed to use a set of six- to 15-week treatment programs that have been shown to help with PTSD, insomnia, depression and anxiety.But patients often have multiple conditions that don’t fit neatly into 12 weekly sessions. The Cohen Network’s limited scope led some other organizations that serve veterans to stop referring people there. “I didn’t think their model invested enough in engagement and after-care and focused too much on short-term intervention,” said Southard, who led the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health for 17 years before becoming CEO of the Cohen clinic at USC. “The biggest disjuncture between USC’s vision and the Cohen network’s vision,” he said, “was we were aiming at people with more serious issues and problems and we needed a model that would serve them.”The Cohen Network’s focus on measurable outcomes for PTSD led the LA clinic to shun some of the neediest patients. Because of the clinic’s location in a gritty part of downtown Los Angeles, many veterans who walked in were homeless. Homeless patients were hard to follow up with, which could be a drag on the clinic’s metrics. In an internal memo, Cohen officials chastised the staff for “targeting inappropriate client populations (e.g., transient/homeless, chronically mentally ill).”Clinic staff were devastated. “All of us came here believing we were going to help the people who need us the most, and they said no,” said Arnett, the USC clinic’s director. “They weeded out the most compromised veterans.” This is exactly what the VA’s defenders have long warned would happen to veterans left to the private sector.Hassan countered that the clinic simply wasn’t equipped to treat people with chronic mental illness or who needed inpatient treatment for drug addictions. “Our network provides short-term outpatient psychotherapeutic care delivered through weekly or biweekly sessions,” he said. The Cohen Network, he added, is intended to fill in gaps in the existing system, not to replace it.Steve Cohen arrived to tour the clinic in October 2016, with a New York Times photographer in tow. A spokesman said Cohen was “impressed by the effort made by USC,” but people who were present recall it differently. Cohen didn’t like how small the clinic was, they said. He didn’t like that people needed to be buzzed in (a security measure). He didn’t like the neighborhood. As Arnett recalled it, “He said, ‘Why can’t we have this?’ and “Why isn’t it like that?’ He took a few pictures and stayed less than half an hour.”In response to Cohen’s dissatisfaction, staff looked into moving the clinic to more affluent Pasadena, which would be more expensive and cater to a different kind of client. In June 2017, Hassan emailed the staff to say the clinic was closing, with no explanation. The abrupt shutdown cut off some patients in the middle of treatment, according to three former clinicians and three other former employees. Clinicians said they had some patients who had just completed intake or opened up about a traumatic experience for the first time. The therapists had to tell them they couldn’t continue. For his part, Hassan insisted that no patient’s treatment was interrupted and that USC was supposed to tell the Cohen Network about any patients who needed their treatment to be extended.The therapists tried to find referrals for all the patients to continue treatment elsewhere, but there wasn’t always another provider available. The Cohen Network sent a list of resources, printed on expensive paper, but the therapists said it wasn’t helpful. “It looked like someone had Googled ‘mental health Los Angeles’ and picked the top three results,” a third former clinician said.The Cohen Network initially said the clinic would reopen, but as the months went by it never did, and eventually Los Angeles disappeared from the map on its website. “We just ghosted,” a former employee said. “We just split town, and what about all of these patients? The really bad part is, nobody seemed to care.”Cohen got involved in veterans’ health for the most personal of reasons: His son Robert joined the Marines and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. It was “obviously, as a parent, a very scary thing,” Cohen has said. “Now, he came back, he’s fine, but not every vet is.” For Cohen — whose interests until that point were limited to trading stocks, collecting art, spending time with his family and rooting for the New York Yankees — it was a life-changing experience, according to a person close to him. Cohen established his first veterans clinic at NYU in 2013.That was the same year his hedge fund, SAC, pleaded guilty to insider trading. Prosecutors circled Cohen for almost a decade, nabbing eight of his lieutenants (although some of those convictions were later overturned). In one case, a trader got a sneak peek at discouraging clinical trial results affecting two pharmaceutical companies. Cohen had $700 million riding on those stocks. The trader called Cohen, who then liquidated his position and bet $260 million that the stocks would fall. When the results of the clinical trial became public, the trade netted SAC about $276 million, the biggest profit from insider trading ever.The trader, Mathew Martoma, is serving a nine-year sentence, but he refused to testify against Cohen, so prosecutors could not prove whether or not he told Cohen anything about how he got his information. They indicted SAC as a company, but not Cohen personally. The Securities and Exchange Commission sought to ban Cohen from the hedge fund industry for life, but settled on a two-year hiatus. (This cat-and-mouse game loosely inspired the Showtime series “Billions.”)Cohen opened a firm called Point72, which was initially a family office that managed his own $11 billion fortune, and has since begun to manage money for outside investors. He printed a mission statement and list of core values — starting with “Ethics & Integrity” — on a big poster for the staff to sign. He hired a 55-person compliance team that now reads all of his emails and routinely restricts trades, according to Herr, Cohen’s spokesman. “We have the most aggressive compliance and surveillance department on Wall Street,” Herr said. “It would be hard to have done more than we have.”The staff of the nonprofit Cohen Veterans Network, which was formally launched in 2016, works in the same building, outfitted like the traders in branded fleeces. “It’s almost as if I’m one of the portfolio managers. I’m just not making money, I’m spending money,” Hassan once told a Bloomberg reporter. “We very much feel part of the firm.”Cohen got started at NYU when Ken Langone, the name donor of the university’s hospital system, connected him with Charlie Marmar, the chair of the psychiatry department. Marmar, who’d spent 21 years at the San Francisco VA, had an idea not only for a mental health clinic but for research on the biological signs of PTSD. Cohen and Marmar discussed the vision over poached eggs and coffee at Cohen’s Greenwich mansion, where Cohen dazzled Marmar with the Picassos on the walls and the Warhol in the bathroom, two of Marmar’s colleagues recalled.The mission, as one researcher involved in the project described it, was to find a “pregnancy test for PTSD”: a blood test or a brain scan that could be used to diagnose PTSD, rather than relying on self-reported symptoms. Better understanding the biology might also lead to more effective treatments.Some experts were skeptical that a biological test could work for a complex and varied psychiatric condition like PTSD. The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs had already sunk millions into pursuing PTSD biomarkers, with little to show for it. “We mostly rolled our eyes and said good luck,” said Terence Keane, director of the National Center for PTSD’s Behavioral Science Division at the Boston VA. “Why would that be what Steve Cohen wanted to put his money into?”In Keane’s view, there were many more deserving research endeavors in need of funding. Still, a diagnostic test for PTSD, if one could be found, would have a clear market. Nearly a million veterans receive government checks based on a diagnosis of PTSD. So a functional test could decide how the VA distributes billions of dollars — and make a lot of money for whoever commercialized it.Cohen launched a second nonprofit organization, called Cohen Veterans Bioscience, to lead the research. Its CEO, a former pharmaceutical executive named Magali Haas, sent researchers contracts asking them to sign over intellectual property rights, according to three people who reviewed the agreements. That caused friction with NYU researchers and lawyers, who objected to what they viewed as the Cohen group’s revenue grab — or wanted the university to share in the possible windfall, according to a person present for conversations on this point. NYU declined to comment.In recent years, foundations have shown increasing interest in possible commercial applications of research they support. Major philanthropies, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation sometimes retain a license to use inventions they’ve funded, much as the federal government does, while working to ensure that the discoveries benefit the public. Others, like the BrightFocus Foundation, have pushed further, seeking royalties from discoveries they fund.But it’s rare, experts say, for foundations to seek total control over intellectual property developed by the academics whose work they fund. Universities typically object because they consider themselves more qualified to use the IP to advance research and benefit the public. And since foundation grants typically don’t cover universities’ full costs including overhead, they don’t want to be in the position of subsidizing commercial research. “There were cases where industry was using this as a ploy to get a lower rate on research costs and get ownership of technology in a sweetheart deal,” said Wes Blakeslee, the retired director of the Johns Hopkins University Technology Transfer Office.The disagreement over intellectual property led Cohen to stop funding Marmar’s research, according to two people involved in the project. Haas disputed that, saying in an interview that NYU didn’t get more money because it mismanaged the original grant. She then followed up with an email, this time saying the study ended because NYU finished recruiting subjects.Cohen Veterans Bioscience moved on from NYU, scooping up existing biological samples and datasets, and funding top researchers. But some scientists said they turned down Cohen out of discomfort with the IP arrangements. “They have offended many people across the country,” said Keane of the National Center for PTSD. “The undercurrent is they’re trying to get a silver bullet to make money, and that’s why a lot of groups are not collaborating with them.”Haas said Cohen Veterans Bioscience shares intellectual property rights with collaborators, but they’re still hammering out the details. “The only thing we’re interested in is trying to move the science forward,” she said. If the organization did have rights to an invention that it could license to a drug company to develop, she said, all the proceeds would fund future research.Cohen’s spokesman, Mark Herr, said Cohen won’t invest in anything that arises from Cohen Veterans Bioscience’s work. “We maintain a church and state separation between the two, and that will not change in the future,” he said in a statement.When Cohen started his collaboration with NYU, Langone and a fellow NYU trustee, former AIG CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, told faculty members that the goal of the clinic was to create a private alternative to the VA, according to two people familiar with the discussions. “Langone and Greenberg were really into privatizing the VA, and the big motivation behind the Cohen clinic was to be proof of concept,” one of the people said. (Greenberg declined to comment. Langone’s spokeswoman referred questions to NYU, which declined to comment.)Cohen wasn’t present for those meetings, and his spokesman said he doesn’t support privatizing the VA or envision the Cohen Network as a model for doing so.Last year, Cohen set out to persuade Congress and the Trump administration to reimburse his clinics for veterans treated there. (Cohen contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and another $1 million to the House Republicans’ super PAC in April 2017.)From the beginning, the Cohen clinics were advertised as free to patients, but the plan was always to start seeking reimbursement for their treatment. By their fourth year in operation, clinics are supposed to supply 25 percent of their own funding from insurance reimbursements, local philanthropy and government grants, according to information posted on the Cohen Network’s website. That figure rises to 50 percent by year six. In some cases, billing insurers also requires charging copays from patients.Hassan said the clinics never turn away patients who can’t pay. He called collecting reimbursements a common-sense way to extend the reach of Cohen’s gift and make the clinics sustainable; like Haas, he said any revenues would be used to offset costs.As part of his pursuit of government reimbursements, Cohen contacted fellow billionaire Ike Perlmutter, the enigmatic Marvel Entertainment chairman who has unofficially advised Trump on veterans policy. Cohen had a phone call with Perlmutter late last summer to sell him on the network, according to a person familiar with the call. Perlmutter questioned why Cohen would go to so much trouble to open brick-and-mortar clinics when other nonprofit organizations have leaner models, the person said. According to this person, Perlmutter warned then-VA secretary David Shulkin to be careful with Cohen. (Perlmutter’s representative declined to comment, and Shulkin didn’t answer requests for comment.)Cohen also sought advice from a person who shaped President Trump’s position on the VA: Jeff Miller. As chairman of the House veterans committee, Miller had been a harsh critic of the VA and promoter of private alternatives. He was one of the first lawmakers to endorse Trump and became the candidate’s point man on veterans issues. After Miller retired from Congress in January 2017 and joined a big law firm, his first lobbying client was Steve Cohen.In September 2017, Cohen Veterans Bioscience flew researchers from around the country to a lavish summit in Washington, featuring a speech by Shulkin and a panel moderated by Miller. At a cocktail party at the National Portrait Gallery, Cohen lingered behind bouncers in a roped-off area, summoning people he wanted to talk to, an attendee recalls. A day after the summit, Cohen Veterans Bioscience held a briefing for congressional staff in the House veterans committee hearing room. Cohen Veterans Bioscience also joined a coalition with two pharmaceutical companies to lobby for access to VA datasets and biological samples.Cohen’s representatives repeatedly complained to government officials that his clinics couldn’t get reimbursements from the VA. In one meeting, the leader of a veterans organization corrected Miller, pointing out that the Cohen Network could, in fact, enroll in a program for buying private-sector care (a program Miller had actually helped create). But that would require each patient to obtain advance approval from the VA. Miller made clear that the Cohen Network wanted to see the veteran first, then send the VA the bill.Miller set out to change the law to let the clinics do exactly that. His team visited the office of every member of the House veterans committee and drafted a bill to let the VA pay for veterans who walk in to private mental health providers like the Cohen clinics. “Here is language to get you started,” they wrote in an email to congressional staff.The lobbyists recruited a freshman lawmaker from each party, both former Marines, to sponsor their bill and tried to rush it through the House on a voice vote in time for Veterans Day. But the bill raised objections from major veterans organizations. They generally oppose privatizing the VA because the health system remains popular with their members despite recent scandals. A few days later, the VA weighed in with more than a dozen concerns about the bill, including that it carved out a new private-care program conflicting with other laws on eligibility and funding.Miller called a meeting with the major veterans groups to brief them on the bill. The veterans groups agreed among themselves to present a united front. Meanwhile, they pressured the Democratic cosponsor to drop out and waved other lawmakers off the bill. Miller caught wind of the counterattack, but by the time the veterans organizations showed up at his office overlooking the Capitol in late October 2017, the bill was dead.Thwarted in Congress, Miller fared better with the Trump administration. He contacted senior VA officials in the hopes of forming a partnership with the Cohen Network. They signed an agreement in October 2017 that didn’t offer much other than to share data that was already publicly available. The VA has scores of similar agreements with other organizations.But soon after the agreement was in place, Cohen’s representatives raised the issue of getting reimbursements for the clinics. That made VA officials feel tricked, according to a former agency official.Veterans groups and some lawmakers were suspicious when they found out about the partnership. The Cohen Network “must be transparent about its organization and compliance with federal law,” the top Democrats on the House and Senate veterans committees wrote in a March 5 letter to Shulkin demanding more information.Nevertheless, the Cohen Network succeeded in getting approved to receive reimbursements from the VA. A Cohen Network official downplays the payments, saying they’ve amounted to $500 so far.But after Miller’s lobbying campaign, that does little to reassure defenders of the VA’s healthcare system. “The problem is there’s only so much government money in veterans’ care,” another former VA official said. “If you start trying to carve into that to feed things like the Cohen Veterans Network, that’s actually privatization. It’s going to be death by a thousand cuts.”The resistance to the Cohen clinics is vexing for Cohen, who believes he’s trying to make a positive impact. “Steve Cohen is helping repay the debt we owe our veterans,” said his spokesman, Herr, “and it is shameful that anyone doubts or impugns his generosity.”Cohen is undeterred. The network just opened its 10th clinic and plans to have 25 by 2020. Cohen believes the network is succeeding, Herr said, and is considering expanding his support beyond the $275 million he’s already committed.
When Public Records Aren’t Public
by Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica Last fall, a reporter for the South Bend Tribune asked to see the court files for three criminal cases in Elkhart County, Indiana.For reporters, such requests are routine. Unless a court file is sealed — and none of these were — court files are about as easy to access as any public records in any branch of government. Reviewing those files allows the public to assess the performance of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, and to gauge the fairness of a case’s outcome.But in Elkhart County, these requests for court files proved to be anything but routine. A judge issued orders that barred access to all police reports that were in the three court files; to all exhibits that were shown to jurors during the trials; and to all briefs filed on appeal. And that’s only a partial list of the records she denied, some in violation of Indiana’s open records law, according to the state’s appointed watchdog on access issues.The judge, for instance, maintained that the appellate briefs were attorney-work product, and therefore privileged and private. These were not drafts, however; they were completed briefs submitted to the court and placed in the file.The judge’s orders, in effect, prevented reporters and the public from seeing evidence used to convict the defendants, as well as the arguments raised afterward about whether the trials had been just. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Last week, The Tribune and ProPublica published the first in a series of articles examining criminal justice issues in Elkhart, Indiana. The Tribune has been researching the project since last year, largely through public records requests to police, prosecutors and courts in Elkhart County.Obtaining those public records, however, has proved a challenge, as officials with the county court system and the city of Elkhart have presented a series of obstacles, delaying or denying access to many records that are normally considered public as a matter of course. At the same time, the city of Elkhart has subpoenaed The Tribune for records of its news-gathering activities.A Blocked Path to a BoxOn May 3, a reporter for The Tribune filed a request, under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act, for documents showing how much the city had paid outside law firms hired to defend Elkhart or its police officers in a 22-year-old wrongful-conviction case.On June 1, Elkhart’s chief lawyer, Vlado Vranjes, told the reporter he expected the city controller’s office to hand the records over to the law department by June 8. Vranjes would then review the records and decide what to release.But on June 25, the reporter learned there had been a delay. In a phone call, an assistant in the law department explained it this way:The legal billing records were kept in a box, and that box was in a storage building. When an employee of the controller’s office went to get the records, she found that boxes had been moved around, blocking her path to the box with the records requested by The Tribune.The controller’s office contacted the city’s building and grounds department, asking for a crew to help clear a path to the records. But June was an especially busy month for the building and grounds crews, with several downtown events, including the Elkhart Jazz Festival, demanding their time. No crew was available to move the boxes.In the end, the city elected to execute a workaround. The city attorney’s office contacted each of the outside law firms directly, and those firms provided their own billing records to the city, which, in turn, released them to the Tribune more than two months after the request had been submitted. The boxes remained where they were.“The City of Elkhart values the right of the public to access government information in a transparent and timely fashion,” Vranjes wrote in an email to The Tribune on Thursday. “When the City or one of its departments receive a public records request, we make every attempt to process those requests within a reasonable amount of time, taking into account the nature of the request, the employees available to work on the request, and any unforeseen circumstances.”Access DeniedLast October, a Tribune reporter submitted a request to the Elkhart County Clerk’s office, seeking the court files for three separate murder cases tried between 2000 and 2005. In November, the reporter followed up with a request for the exhibits shown to the juries in those cases.In late December, Elkhart Superior Court Judge Teresa Cataldo granted partial access in two of the cases while withholding certain documents, including police reports, appellate briefs and trial exhibits. The following month, she issued a nearly identical order in the third case.The Tribune responded in January by filing a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor, a lawyer appointed by the governor to advise state and local government agencies on access issues. In early March, Public Access Counselor Luke Britt wrote that Cataldo had failed to comply with the state’s public records act. She should have released certain documents, including police reports and appellate briefs, he wrote.Britt itemized records — for example, the cause of death and other details in an autopsy report — that should have been disclosed. He explained that witnesses’ names are public record, as are jurors’ names, as are the names of most victims. “Finally,” he wrote, “briefs submitted to a court are not confidential work product or deliberative material once they are submitted as a pleading and become part of the record.”“As to those records which have not been explicitly declared confidential by statute or rule, I encourage the Court to revisit its policies and procedures to ensure appropriate access to its records,” Britt wrote.Separately, an administrator for the Indiana Supreme Court advised Cataldo that all exhibits offered at trial — even those not seen by the jury — should be disclosed upon request. Nothing in the court files, the administrator wrote to the judge, suggested any of the exhibits had been excluded from the public.Cataldo in May issued amended orders on The Tribune’s requests. She allowed access to some of the records she previously withheld, including some trial exhibits. But despite the guidance from the public access counselor and Supreme Court administration, she again withheld all police reports related to the cases. The judge also denied access to certain trial exhibits.On Thursday, Cataldo did not respond to an email seeking comment.In a separate case, The Tribune asked in early May to hear the audio from a trial held in 1997. Under Indiana law, such audio is a public record. After getting no reply from Cataldo’s office for four weeks, the paper and ProPublica decided to have a transcript of the trial prepared — at a cost to the news organizations of $1,000. It’s now been three months since the request for audio was made. To date, there has been no response.Missing PagesFor at least two police officers, the city of Elkhart failed at first to disclose disciplinary records that are considered public and must be released under Indiana law. One of those officers was Steve Ambrose, who played a role in the wrongful-conviction cases of Keith Cooper and Christopher Parish, chronicled by The Tribune and ProPublica last month.The Tribune asked for Ambrose’s employment and disciplinary records on Oct. 27. On Dec. 14, the city released portions of Ambrose’s personnel file. Its response included no records of discipline. Several months later, while reviewing the transcript of a sworn deposition of Ambrose, a Tribune reporter discovered Ambrose had been suspended multiple times during his time with the Elkhart police. The reporter asked city officials about the missing documents on March 29. More than three weeks later, on April 23, the city provided 25 pages of Ambrose’s disciplinary records.While the city’s first response disclosed no disciplinary history, its second response revealed 10 reprimands or suspensions in nine years.Even then, the second response did not include records of at least one incident, in which Ambrose moved a camera to prevent it from recording fellow officers during a fight with a person in detention at the police station. In depositions, both Ambrose and a former supervisor said the department suspended Ambrose for what he did.The Tribune has yet to receive any records from the city about that incident, even after pointing out the deposition testimony in which Ambrose said he had been suspended.The City Subpoenas The TribuneWhile The Tribune has at times struggled to get records from the city of Elkhart under the state’s public records act, the city of Elkhart has used the power of subpoena to demand records from the Tribune.The city is currently being sued in federal court by Keith Cooper, who was convicted of a 1996 robbery in Elkhart. In 2017 he received the state’s first pardon based on innocence.On June 27, the city served a subpoena on The Tribune, demanding “correspondence, letters, emails, texts, memos or other documents showing any communications or meetings” between Cooper or his attorneys, and anyone from the newspaper.The newspaper responded with a motion to quash the subpoena, saying the city’s demand undermines The Tribune’s ability to report on matters of public concern. “[G]iving information, even unwillingly, to a litigant in a case the Tribune has covered” would jeopardize the newspaper’s standing among readers and sources as an unbiased provider of news, the Tribune’s lawyer wrote.Quoting from a federal judge’s ruling in a case out of Chicago, The Tribune said if such subpoenas are allowed, “news organizations become the indentured servant of the litigants, and their ability to do their important work will be severely impaired.”So far there has been no decision on whether the subpoena will be enforced.
Worker Charged With Sexually Molesting Eight Children at Immigrant Shelter
by Topher Sanders and Michael Grabell This story includes graphic details of alleged sexual violence against minors.A youth care worker for Southwest Key has been charged with 11 sex offenses after authorities accused him of molesting at least eight unaccompanied immigrant boys over nearly a year at one of the company’s shelters in Mesa, Arizona, federal court records show.The allegations against Levian D. Pacheco, who is HIV-positive, include that he performed oral sex on two of the teenagers and tried to force one of them to penetrate him anally. The other six teens — all between 15 and 17 — said Pacheco had groped them through their clothing. All of the incidents are alleged to have taken place between August 2016 and July 2017, according to a court filing last week that laid out the government’s case.The case, initially investigated by local police, is now proceeding through U.S. District Court in Phoenix. Pacheco had worked at Southwest Key’s Casa Kokopelli shelter, one of eight the company runs in Arizona, since May 2016.Casa Kokopelli was cited by the Arizona Department of Health Services in 2017 for failing to complete background checks, including fingerprinting, to ensure that employees hadn’t previously committed sex offenses and other crimes, records show. Pacheco worked for nearly four months without a complete background check, according to documents and an agency official. Those records did not show any previous arrests or convictions for sex offenses, they said. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Pacheco, 25, was indicted in August 2017 after an investigation by local law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services inspector general’s office. The current charges include eight counts of abusive sexual contact with a ward and three counts of sexual acts with a ward. Pacheco, who is in U.S. Marshals’ custody, could not be reached for comment, but he denied the charges in court documents. His federal public defender, Benjamin Good, said, “We are looking forward to defending Mr. Pacheco in court.”Trump administration officials have repeatedly asserted that the shelters are safe, even fun, places for kids. But there has been increasingly intense scrutiny of the federally funded, privately run shelters after the administration separated some 3,000 children from their parents at the border and sent them to shelters and foster homes across the country. Last week, ProPublica reported that police nationwide have responded to hundreds of calls reporting possible sex crimes at shelters that serve immigrant children. One of those calls resulted in the conviction of a Tucson shelter worker for molestation.Now further documents have emerged describing alleged incidents in Arizona involving Southwest Key, the largest operator of immigrant youth shelters nationwide.ProPublica only discovered Pacheco’s case while trying to find additional information about a vague reference to a molestation case in Arizona inspection records. Federal officials had known about the case when answering questions from ProPublica last week and when describing the conditions of the shelters before Congress, but did not mention it.In addition to Pacheco, two other cases involving abuse at other Southwest Key shelters have recently surfaced.On Tuesday, an employee at a Southwest Key facility in Phoenix, Fernando Magaz Negrete, was arrested on allegations that he sexually abused a 14-year-old girl by kissing her and rubbing her breast and crotch, according to Phoenix news outlets. And The Nation reported Friday that a 6-year-old girl who had been separated from her mother was allegedly fondled by a boy at another Southwest Key facility in Glendale, Arizona in June.At other Southwest Key facilities, police reports and call logs from the last five years detail inappropriate relationships with staff, dozens of runaways, sexual contact among kids at the shelters and other allegations of molestation by employees. In one case, ProPublica found, a 46-year-old youth care worker in Tucson was convicted of groping a 15-year-old boy who had just arrived in the United States five days earlier.In an email, HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said the agency has issued a stop placement order and removed all unaccompanied minors from the Casa Kokopelli shelter. He declined to say when the stop placement order was issued. “These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families treats our responsibility for each child with the utmost care,” he said. “Any allegation of abuse or neglect is taken seriously.”In response to questions from ProPublica, Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Southwest Key, wrote in an email that he was unable to comment on specific cases. When asked how Pacheco’s alleged actions could have escaped detection for 11 months, Eller didn’t answer the question, but said: “Any employee accused of abuse is immediately suspended and law enforcement called. This is what we did in this case.” Eller said the allegations were also reported to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the shelter system, and the appropriate state agency.In response to a question about how the company could assure the public that children are safe in its facilities, Eller wrote: “We find the premise of your question dishonorable.”“We report these cases to law enforcement and state agencies when they happen,” he said. “We educate every child in our care upon arrival to the facility of their right to be free from abuse or neglect in this program and this country. This message is repeated to the children throughout the duration of their stay at our shelters.”In the past five years, the Texas-based nonprofit has received more than $1.3 billion in federal funds for the shelters and other services—including more than $500 million so far this year.This week, following numerous reports of problems at the federally funded facilities, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, requested that the inspector general for the U.S. Health and Human Services department investigate the allegations of sexual and physical abuse at the shelters.“These allegations demonstrate a long-term pattern of abuse warranting a thorough investigation into the claims, including the process and procedure by which any guards or contracted staff are hired, trained, and vetted,” the senators wrote in a letter to the inspector general.HHS said Thursday that shelter operators reported 264 allegations of sexual abuse to the FBI last year. While those can include anything from “touching of the buttocks” to sexual assault, the agency said, 53 allegations involved an adult. The agency did not say how many of those allegations were founded or how many constituted more serious assaults.Federal court records show that officials at the Southwest Key shelter in Mesa were unaware that Pacheco was abusing boys for months — and that it wasn’t until one of the boys spoke up last summer that the extent of the abuse allegations against Pacheco was uncovered. Shelter officials first learned that Pacheco may have abused a boy at the facility when a teen identified in court records as “John Doe 1” told a teacher that a staff member had entered his room in the early morning hours of July 24, 2017 and touched his body, including his penis, over his clothing. The teen then told his roommate about the incident and that boy, known as “John Doe 2,” said the same staffer had fondled him in a similar way.The second teen initially denied the incident when he was approached by staff members. Several hours later he told staffers that Pacheco had come into his room early one morning, tickled him and touched his “private parts.”Pacheco was then removed from the facility and local law enforcement launched an investigation, records show.The next day, July 25, a third teen told a shelter counselor that he had heard about Pacheco’s dismissal for inappropriately touching other boys. The teen told the counselor that Pacheco had also fondled him and that he was aware of three other boys Pacheco had molested. That child would later tell a “forensic interviewer” that Pacheco had groped him twice.Local law enforcement and shelter staff tracked down those three teens and two others, who all said that Pacheco had molested them.The fourth teen in the court records reported that Pacheco had touched him over his pajama pants sometime in June or July of 2017.A fifth boy, who had been moved from Casa Kokopelli to another facility in Arizona, said he was brushing his teeth, and when he opened the bathroom door, Pacheco was standing there holding toilet paper. The boy said Pacheco then touched his penis over his clothing, the records show.A sixth teen reported that Pacheco opened the shower door while he was bathing and stared at him but did not touch him. The boy later told social workers that on another occasion, he was changing his clothes after a soccer game when Pacheco walked into his room and said “My love, I have arrived,” according to court records. Pacheco proceeded to grab the boy’s penis, the teen said. Pacheco then laughed and told the child he “had it big,” the records show.The seventh teen, “John Doe 7,” is the same victim whose allegations were briefly referenced in ProPublica’s story last week. The boy had been at the Mesa facility and was transferred to Tucson, where he revealed the molestation allegations to officials. The teen said he had been recovering from surgery in early June of 2017 and was groggy from pain medication when he awoke to find Pacheco in this room. Pacheco told the boy that he had a “big one.” The teen said he could tell that Pacheco had “ejaculated on himself,” according to court records.On another occasion, the teen told officials, he was playing video games when Pacheco entered the room and told the boy to take out his penis. The boy refused and Pacheco grabbed the teen’s penis through his pants, according to court records. During a third incident, the teen said Pacheco pushed him down on a bed, pulled down his pants and underwear and began to shake his penis. The boy said he attempted to push Pacheco away, but was unable to because of his injury and surgery. Pacheco put the boy’s penis in his mouth, the court records state.The eighth boy alleged that Pacheco came into his room and woke him by making noise with the blinds. Pacheco then told the boy he was going to “suck his,” according to court records. The boy said Pacheco took down his pants and put his mouth on the teen’s penis three times. The boy describes a separate incident in which Pacheco entered his room around midnight, took off his own pants and underwear and told the boy he wanted the teen to put his penis in Pacheco’s “butt,” records state. Pacheco then attempted to force the boy’s penis into his anus, but the boy pushed him away and threatened to report him, according to the records.Pacheco disclosed he was HIV positive when he was arrested, according to court records. Officials with the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS educated the teenage boys about HIV and how it is transmitted and a “couple” of the eight children sought testing, records state. It’s unclear what the results were.Five of the eight teenagers that Pacheco is accused of molesting either denied or didn’t disclose the allegation when first approached by interviewers and staff members.Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas, a clinical psychologist who helped develop shelter guidelines on behalf of the National Latina/o Psychological Association, said she wasn’t surprised that alleged abuse went on for so long “because a lot of the children are terrified.” Many of the children have experienced sexual and physical violence, she said, and in the shelters, they face a lot of uncertainty.“So when you have adults that are taking care of these children that are so vulnerable,” Chavez-Dueñas said, “they know that the children are going to be so afraid for their safety that they are not likely to report.”Pacheco’s trial is scheduled to begin on August 28.
Our Rebuttal to Kris Kobach’s Critique
by Jessica Huseman Earlier today, the press team for Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach distributed a detailed statement asserting that an article published by ProPublica and the Kansas City Star about him was rife with inaccuracies and bias. The article explored Kobach’s role in defending immigration ordinances in four small towns, focusing on the high costs (a total of $9.5 million) and meager results (laws that are defunct or defanged).We believe our extensive reporting on this article, including interviews with more than 40 people and 30 public records requests, unequivocally supports the conclusions we reached. In addition, as is standard in ProPublica’s reporting process, Kobach was made aware of every assertion about him before the article was published, first in a phone interview with reporters from the Kansas City Star, and then in a detailed list of questions emailed several days before publication. His answers from the interview are included extensively in the article. However, he declined to respond to the emailed questions, some of which involve pieces of the story he asserts are false. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach speaks during a fundraiser for his gubernatorial campaign in Emporia, Kansas, in October 2017. (Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images) Before laying out Kobach’s assertions and our responses, let’s start with what Kobach isn’t disputing: That his star rose while the towns he represented spent millions on litigation. Nor did his press team dispute that Kobach has made at least $800,000 from this work and that he failed to report much of this income on his state disclosure forms. (All of the “Kobach statements” below were copied verbatim from the document his press representatives circulated.)Kobach’s statement: “None of the towns is enforcing ordinances he helped craft.” That is incorrect. Fremont and Valley Park laws are both fully enforced and in effect.The statement that Kobach’s spokesperson, Danedri Herbert, cites — the one in quotation marks above — is accurate. The definition of “enforced” is to cause something to happen by force. It is true that laws remain on the books in Fremont, Nebraska, and Valley Park, Missouri, but both towns told ProPublica that officials have never attempted to penalize anyone for not following the law. There are thousands of statutes on the books in the U.S. that are not enforced. (See this humorous assemblage of statutes — including an Arizona prohibition on donkeys sleeping in bathtubs — that continue to exist but do not generate any prosecutions or punishments. In other words, they are not enforced.)In both Fremont and Valley Park, the laws that survived court challenges were emaciated versions of the original ordinances. Both first sought to punish employers and landlords for doing business with undocumented immigrants. In Valley Park, all that remained after court challenges was a provision making it illegal to “knowingly” hire illegal immigrants — something the story noted was already illegal under federal law. The city attorney in Valley Park stated that he has no memory of anyone being targeted under the law and, even if someone had been arrested, he likely would have refused to prosecute them. Kobach’s response to this is included in the story.In Fremont, the portion of the law that remains on the books requires renters to fill out an application for a permit to ensure their citizenship status. But the form Kobach created and that was approved by the court does not collect enough information to verify citizenship status. The city has thus never successfully checked the citizenship status of any renter in the town and has never penalized anyone for violating the law. The city simply keeps the digital forms, but reports that it has “no future plans” to use them. Kobach was asked to comment on this in the list of emailed questions but did not respond.Kobach’s statement: The narrative — Kris Kobach went to these towns to persuade them to adopt the ordinances stopping illegal immigration. In every single case, all four towns had adopted or voted on the ordinance before anyone contacted him to help defend them in court.Kobach’s statement distorts what was reported. ProPublica’s article did not assert that he initiated discussion of these ordinances (with the exception of in Albertville, Alabama, where an ordinance never passed). What we did state was that Kobach substantially rewrote the ordinances in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Valley Park and Fremont and that he made rosy predictions about their chances of legal success. (We did not claim he authored the ordinance in Farmers Branch, Texas.) His involvement in rewriting the legislation is a matter of public record; many of the changes he made are specifically enumerated in court filings. Kobach has discussed his involvement in interviews on TV and on the radio. Moreover, Kobach specifically described to the Kansas City Star reporters his input, saying, “at the end of the day, all four ordinances were ones that I had drafted or corrected or amended.” As he put it in a comment about the Fremont ordinance: “I helped them get the wording exactly right so that we could defend it well.” Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Kobach was given ample opportunity to comment on the timing of his hiring in all of these cities, and on the extent of his involvement in writing the legislation. But at moments, he seemed fuzzy on the details. He said, “I can’t remember the chronology of Valley Park — if I was brought in after the suit, after they had already been sued, or not… And then in Fremont, Fremont was a little bit different.”Kobach’s statement: The article attempts to create the false impression that the laws Kobach drafted have all been struck down. Arizona the Lawful [sic] Arizona Workers Act, which Kobach helped draft, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and was approved. That law requires all Arizona employers to use e-Verify.ProPublica’s article made no blanket assertion about every piece of legislation Kobach has ever helped write and it did not mention the Legal Arizona Workers Act. The article focused on the four instances in which Kobach was hired to defend towns that had passed immigration ordinances.Kobach’s statement: “SB 1070, the ‘show me your papers’ law, which was passed in 2010 before being largely overturned by the Supreme Court….” This sentence is misleading. The central provision of the law, which directed police officers to check immigration status of people they stop where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the country illegally, was approved by the United States Supreme Court. The parts of the law that were struck down were relatively minor and were rarely mentioned in the media.The Supreme Court ruling and the various settlements that followed reduced much of the power of the law. The Los Angeles Times concluded that the law had “pulled the last set of teeth from what was once the nation’s most fearsome immigration law.” The New York Times offered a more equivocal view, writing that “the Supreme Court struck down three central sections of Arizona’s law, which had been regarded by opponents as the most harsh. In allowing the ‘show-me-your-papers’ provision to stand, the court accepted, for the time being at least, Arizona’s word that police officers would not engage in racial profiling as they put it into practice.” But the hometown Arizona Republic called the Supreme Court decision “a largely symbolic victory” for its proponents.Kobach’s statement: The article implies that Hazleton passed its ordinance because the mayor was upset about the increasing Hispanic population. That is false. The mayor never said that. It was prompted [by] rising gang [sic] involving illegal alien gangs like MS-13 and a high-profile murder involving an illegal alien and the cost to the city of illegal immigration.Hazleton’s then-mayor, Lou Barletta, told ProPublica in an interview (which was recorded with his consent) that his concerns extended far beyond gang activity. He cited impacts on the local hospital, schools and city workers because of a depleted tax base and a newly Spanish-speaking population the city was not prepared to serve. All of this occurred as a result of the increase in Hispanic population. We think our article fairly distilled his comments. ProPublica also traveled to Hazleton and spoke with several city leaders. One former city official complained of the town’s increasingly Hispanic identity, and the failure of these new residents to “assimilate” with the town’s existing population. He referred, repeatedly, to the white citizens as “Hazletonians” while referring to the Hispanic citizens by their countries of origin.Kobach’s statement: The article implies that Hazelton’s financial distress was somehow caused by litigation over the ordinance. The city was in distress prior to the ordinance, and indeed, the ordinance was, in part, prompted by a desire to reduce the cost imposed on the city by illegal immigration. Even the ACLU’s attorney fees the city paid were a relatively small portion of the debts faced by the city.The article did not assert that the $1.4 million paid to the ACLU caused Hazelton to tumble into receivership. It explicitly noted that city officials deny that the lawsuit caused the bankruptcy. It’s also worth recapping what Kobach himself wrote at the time in a legal filing (which was noted in the article) — that being forced to pay the ACLU’s fees “would likely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and drives the city into bankruptcy and Act 47 receivership.” At the time that the city was ordered to pay the ACLU’s fees, records show it had an annual budget of $9.5 million and just over $9 million in debt. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to how onerous a bill for $1.4 million was under those circumstances.Kobach’s statement: The story did not include interviews from city council members in Farmer’s Branch who viewed the ordinance favorably. Instead, the report quotes only Phelps, who was opposed to the ordinance. The majority of the governing body was in favor of the ordinance (obviously).It is correct that the most of the governing bodies cited in the article voted in favor of the anti-immigration ordinances. (The lone exception is Fremont, whose city council voted the measure down only to see citizens vote it in as a ballot initiative two years later.) What we emphasized is that some government officials now feel Kobach offered excessively optimistic predictions or even misled them, not that they felt that way at the time. ProPublica interviewed multiple people in Farmers Branch and the quotes in the article reflect the balance of opinion reflected in our interviews.Kobach’s statement: The first favorable statement in the article is buried in paragraph 14.Again, the balance of statements simply reflects the balance of comments and feelings of multiple city officials, including many who felt duped and whose budgets were depleted by this litigation. To represent the findings otherwise would not have been true to the reporting.Kobach’s statement: Did anyone contact the Immigration Reform Law Institute or the Federation for American Immigration Reform?Yes. The organizations confirmed that he worked for them and that he had been compensated by them. Further, we asked Kobach multiple questions about his work for FAIR and IRLI, and he chose not to respond to them.