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Updated 2017-12-16 18:33
Lobbying Registration Database
by Jeremy B. Merrill
Lobbying Registration Database Reporting Recipe
by Jeremy B. Merrill It can seem like lobbyists run Washington from behind the scenes. But their work isn’t completely opaque: They’re required to register with the House and the Senate when they lobby for a new client.Our new lobbying database will help you cover Congress and the organizations that may try to influence lawmakers. We hope this new database will be helpful to a wide variety of people, from informed citizens and civic activists to journalists.Here’s how to use it. Interested in who is advocating for Facebook’s interests as Congress considers how to stop Russian interference in future elections? Search for “Facebook” and you’ll see that David Wade/GreenLight Strategies LLC represents Facebook on “congressional investigation” and Blue Mountain Strategies represents the social networking company on issues including “elections integrity.”Are you responsible for covering the western United States, or the environment, or are you politically active on either subject? The Waters of the United States rule is a hot topic; you’ll find energy, construction and agriculture companies who say they hired lobbyists to influence the “WOTUS” rule by searching “WOTUS” or “Waters of the US.”You can search by an organization name, a lobbying firm’s name, an individual lobbyist’s name, policy issues or even the name of a Congress member a lobbyist used to work for. Tax-Related Lobbying Arrangements, 2016 – 2017 At the beginning of 2017, many organizations hired lobbyists to represent their interests as Congress prepared to discuss passing major changes to the tax code. (Source: Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of the Senate) So who’s lobbying on tax issues? Either search “tax” or visit the Taxation issue page. You’ll find McGuireWoods representing Southern Co., a power company, and Altria, a tobacco company, on issues like “tax reform” and “taxation of multinational corporations.” On that issue page, you’ll also find a chart of lobbying registrations filed over time — the number of clients hiring new lobbyists each quarter to represent them on a given issue. That’s one reason why there was a sudden spike in new tax-related lobbying arrangements at the beginning of the Trump administration: With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, a tax bill was likely to come up, so companies wanted to influence it.Beyond taxation, each of 79 issues has its own page.Where the Data Comes FromThe data, including issue categories like “taxation,” comes from a form that lobbying firms — or organizations that hire in-house lobbyists — are required to file, under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. The form is called an LD-1, and it is collected by the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. For more details, you can read the Clerk of the House’s guide to the lobbying disclosure rules.Those two offices release these forms online as they receive them. We update the data daily, from big archives of XML files. The forms are published online individually, too. You can check our work by clicking the “Original Registration Form” link on each disclosure page to see the form presented visually, like this one. We show almost all the fields from these forms, excluding firm/client addresses, related organizations and related foreign entities — we’ve organized it in a way that we think is easier to understand for researchers, activists and journalists.Lobbyists handing in the form also have to list the specific issues they plan to lobby on — that’s the “congressional investigation” tag that one of Facebook’s lobbyists cited. These can be as abstract as “tax reform” but can also get specific, like this disclosure from the Investment Program Association, which says it will be lobbying on “Department of Labor definition of fiduciary for purposes of ERISA” and “H.R. 10, Financial CHOICE Act of 2017.” When lobbying registrations cite a specific bill, our app will link you to that bill.The forms also list the individual people doing the lobbying. If one of those lobbyists used to be a member of Congress, works as a congressional staffer, or has had one of a small set of positions in the executive branch in the last 20 years, the lobbyist is required to disclose that. The term of art for such lobbyists is “covered,” because they’re covered by a provision of the lobbying disclosure law.There’s another form that the law requires lobbyists to file: a form with updates each quarter, saying how much they spent, which federal agencies they lobbied and noting any changes to the issues or lobbyists involved. The updates also include the amount of money spent each month on lobbying efforts. The data from those quarterly updates isn’t included in our lobbyist search app ... yet.Here are some ways you might use the lobbyist database for research and journalism:
Molly Parker on Growing Up in Southern Illinois
by Logan Jaffe Molly Parker is a reporter at The Southern Illinoisan who’s been covering the housing and economic crisis in Cairo, in southern Illinois, for the past two-and-a-half years. She is one of seven reporters selected to join ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, a yearlong initiative that aims to boost local, investigative reporting by partnering with and paying the salaries of journalists in cities with populations below 1 million. This week, ProPublica Illinois engagement reporter Logan Jaffe interviewed Parker. Below is a lightly edited version of what Parker told Jaffe in their conversation. Courtesy of Molly Parker I grew up in a town called Simpson. It’s a little bitty town in Johnson County. I think the sign says “Population: 60” but I’m pretty sure that’s an exaggeration. Our house was right outside the city limits, on a gravel road. I always tell people we had more cows than people.There were people in my classes growing up that I knew had some pretty harsh economic conditions right outside my doorstep. It didn’t strike me as something that was dramatic. People know their economic situation. People can also be very resilient and provide very happy upbringings for their children. But it’s always been troubling.After college, I left and was gone for 10 years. I worked at newspapers in North and South Carolina and Mississippi. They were closing my bureau in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I had a “Come to Jesus” moment and I thought, “I wonder if my local newspaper would have an opening?” [The Southern Illinoisan] brought me back here eventually.It took me a good year to reimagine reporting here and start to see what the issues were. I definitely saw it with different eyes than I did growing up. Over the last few years covering politics and elections and just getting out and talking to people, I feel that economic angst is increasing.We’ve had prison closures. The deep southern Illinois counties have continued to suffer from when I was a kid and continue to get worse. There’s never been anything to come in and replace the mineral extraction and fluorspar mining [industries]. They closed the Tamms Correctional Center. And now we’re seeing the evaporation of government and employment centers in southern Illinois.I came [back] here thinking it would be easier to report in a smaller area — but I have never been so busy in my life! I think that’s a product of a high-need area. There are lots of things people are anxious to have attention on. We have five reporters and we just can’t get to everything. All five of us will tell you we could work 24/7, 365 days, and never be out of stories or ideas. I mean, people have our cell phone numbers.We always try to remember that, despite all the needs, people want to celebrate their communities. There’s a lot of beauty. You can go out and report on something bad and difficult every day. But it’s not all gloom and doom here.The housing crisis is what brought us [to Cairo, Illinois]. While reporting there, people would stop me and ask, “Hey, would you do something on our violin program? It’s awesome!” And so we would make the time to do that. And I think that’s why we were able to establish relationships, or else we wouldn’t have been able to report the stories that we have.In Cairo, I was really touched by the people I met and the love they have for their community. And so I wanted to understand how [its housing crisis] happened at a local level, a state level and a federal level, and see how it all fit together. And I think once you know something, once you see something, you’re obligated to try to help address it.
A Border Wall’s Uncompensated Victims
by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Kiah Collier and Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
Lawsuit Targets Berrios Over Unfair, Error-Riddled Assessments
by Jason Grotto, ProPublica, and Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune A group of public-interest lawyers filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that embattled Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios violated state and federal civil rights and housing laws by knowingly producing inaccurate assessments that punished poor and minority homeowners across the county.The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, contends the county’s “residential property tax scheme is neither accurate nor uniform” and is “perpetuating institutional racism” by shifting the tax burden from wealthier, majority-white neighborhoods to poorer, minority neighborhoods.The lawsuit also alleges a lack of transparency in the office, contending the “secrecy is antithetical to democratic accountability and undermines public trust and confidence in the residential property tax system.”Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that county assessments overvalue low-priced homes while undervaluing high-priced ones. Known as regressivity, that flaw leads to deep inequities in property taxes that break down along racial and ethnic lines, with poor, black and Hispanic homeowners paying more than they should while wealthier and white residents pay less.As a result, the lawsuit argues, the county violated the Illinois Civil Rights Act, equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions, and the federal Fair Housing Act. Read the Full Complaint 2017 12 14 Complaint and Supporting Documents (PDF)
Chicago Police Win Big When Appealing Discipline
by Jennifer Smith Richards, Chicago Tribune, and Jodi S. Cohen, ProPublica A secretive appeals system has been knocking down the punishments of Chicago police officers no matter how serious their misconduct, undercutting the results of lengthy investigations and layers of review long after the public believes the cases were concluded.In the first examination of its kind, the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois found that 85 percent of disciplinary cases handled through the Chicago Police Department’s grievance process since 2010 led to officers receiving shorter suspensions or, in many cases, having their punishments overturned entirely.A suspension for punching a handcuffed arrestee, all caught on camera? Negotiable.Discipline for making racially insensitive comments during a traffic stop? Tossed out and expunged from the record.Punishments for making false statements, an offense for which the department says it has zero tolerance? Those, too, were wiped away as if they never happened.The result: the weakening of a police accountability system that rarely finds fault with officers’ actions in the first place.By the time an officer’s misconduct appeal reaches the Police Department’s Management and Labor Affairs Section, where grievances are handled, the officer has already been found at fault in an internal affairs investigation or after an inquiry by the city’s police watchdog agency, whose findings are public. In some cases, the discipline already has been upheld by the Chicago Police Board, whose decisions also are public.But the department’s labor office operates behind closed doors and according to requirements contained in the police union contract. Victims and complainants were not told when an officer filed a grievance nor were they notified of its outcome.The decisions that overturn discipline can have little to do with the facts behind the actual misconduct. The system’s notorious inefficiencies end up working in an officer’s favor, with punishments being dismissed because investigations took too long, the Tribune-ProPublica Illinois investigation found.The Police Department has no system to track cases, so reporters used data and records from the department and its oversight agency to follow more than 300 disciplinary cases, analyzing changes between the original discipline orders and the actual outcomes. Chicago Police GrievancesA Chicago Tribune-ProPublica Illinois investigation tracked more than 300 police disciplinary cases appealed through the department’s labor office, the Management and Labor Affairs Section. We analyzed changes between original discipline orders and what officers actually served.In 85 percent of cases, appeals led to officers receiving reduced punishment or seeing their punishment overturned.Explore the Data The department provided a data set of grievances in response to open records requests, including information that showed which cases were expunged. Reporters then used investigative reports, arbitrator opinions, settlement agreements and other records to examine the cases.Some of the documents were provided after the Tribune filed a lawsuit a year ago against the Police Department.The investigation found that, of 314 disciplinary appeals the police union pursued on behalf of officers between February 2010 and February 2017, 266 led to favorable outcomes for officers. Police had their punishments reduced or — in 58 of those cases — had them overturned entirely.About half of the 314 total grievances were decided by an independent arbitrator selected by the union and the city. In the others, union officials and city lawyers negotiated settlement agreements before arbitration began, typically for officers to receive a reduced punishment in exchange for withdrawing their grievances.Sharon Fairley, the former chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which investigates officer misconduct, said the frequency with which officers win grievances raises questions about the disciplinary system.“We should understand why this is happening and try to make sure that the process as it works has some integrity,” she said.Nearly all the grievances involved suspensions, and the total number of days officers were suspended was collectively cut by half. Officers can appeal punishments up to a yearlong suspension, but appeals of firings are decided by the police board, not through the grievance system.The department suspends an average of 192 officers a year, from a police force of 12,000 sworn officers. Depending on the year, between 13 percent and 47 percent challenged the punishment, the investigation found.Police successfully appealed discipline for all kinds of misconduct: neglect of duty, insubordination, drunken driving, domestic violence and excessive force.Officers were more likely to get their punishment overturned completely when the case went to an arbitrator, while they were more likely to see a reduction in discipline — or some of the findings tossed out — through a settlement.There is little to risk by seeking the review, and, in fact, 14 officers appealed multiple cases during the period analyzed by reporters. One officer filed four grievances and won three.“It doesn’t hurt to grieve it. Why wouldn’t I?” said Officer Jeffrey Kriv, who records show has successfully challenged at least two suspensions during his 21 years on the force.Kevin Graham, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents rank-and-file Chicago officers and that is in negotiations with the city over a new contract, said appeals are necessary because oversight investigators and the department sometimes overreach. “We are only looking to be treated fairly,” Graham said. “I do think that the arbitration system and independent arbitrators are a useful part of getting to the truth and to getting to fair discipline.”In a written statement, police spokesman Frank Giancamilli said the initial punishments served on officers are “carefully considered” to reflect the seriousness and nature of a case. They remain the department’s official stance, he said, even if they are later overturned or settled.Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, said city attorneys weigh each case individually, and that decisions to settle cases before arbitration are driven by the likelihood of winning, more than the nature of the misconduct. He said the city “is disappointed in any loss in the arbitration process” and sometimes agrees to settle — including in cases where police were found to have given false statements — when a careful analysis suggests the city might lose at arbitration and establish an unwanted precedent.“The Law Department,” McCaffrey said, “considers each case individually, and recognizes that some measure of discipline is often more important than letting an alleged infraction go unpunished.”But at a time when the city has promised greater police accountability, its grievance system potentially undermines that, especially since the punishments often have been agreed on by multiple police officials, said Mark Iris, a Northwestern University political science professor and former executive director of the police board.“The weaker cases, at this point, already have been filtered out. … These should be, in large part, slam dunks” for the department, said Iris, who studies police discipline. “The fact that officers’ discipline is frequently reduced, especially in serious cases, is very compelling. It basically undercuts the disciplinary process big time.”Zero ToleranceBy settling cases, the city avoids the cost of arbitration — and the chance it will lose entirely — and usually ensures the officer receives at least some punishment.During the past seven years, the department has settled 151 cases, the Tribune-ProPublica Illinois analysis shows. More than 75 percent of suspensions from those cases were cut by half or more through negotiations.In addition, some of the settlements include an agreement to drop one of the most serious findings against an officer: a violation of police Rule 14, making a false oral or written statement. Department officials have said they have zero tolerance for officers who aren’t truthful, and that those who violate the rule will be fired.But the Tribune-ProPublica Illinois investigation found that, since 2010, the city has negotiated settlements with at least 19 officers that included expunging from their records findings that they had given false statements during an investigation. About half of the violations were tied to excessive force cases or issues during arrests.The discipline recommendations in these Rule 14 cases were all made prior to the current police administration, and the department said that it now moves to fire officers who violate Rule 14, so they are not able to file a grievance to dispute it.A violation of police Rule 14 is problematic not only for the officer, but also for the department and the city. Lawyers have ammunition to challenge an officer’s credibility in court, and the officer might be viewed as dishonest in other aspects of the job, making it difficult to keep him on the street.The department considers it so serious that before investigators interview officers they warn them that “failure to provide a complete and accurate statement” could result in “disciplinary action up to and including separation.”When the city settles grievances with officers, including those that result in Rule 14 violations being dropped, the agreements provide no explanation for why a punishment is reduced or a charge eliminated. Fairley, the former COPA chief administrator, said the city and department “have to be careful” when they decide which cases to settle.“Our view is that a Rule 14 should never be settled,” Fairley said in an interview before she left COPA in October to run for Illinois attorney general.The department said it settled Rule 14 cases that it felt might not hold up if taken to arbitration, including because some cases were old or witnesses were no longer available. It said it also tries to gauge its odds of success by looking at whether similar cases were overturned in arbitration. But the settling of 19 cases is even more significant in context; few officers were found to have violated Rule 14 in the first place.“Enforcement in this area is rarely taken seriously and is largely ignored,” a U.S. Department of Justice investigation released early this year found.The Justice Department investigation found 98 Rule 14 violations were sustained during the past five years, and questioned whether the number was low because officers were rarely held accountable for being untruthful.As part of the settlements, the city agreed to keep the public from knowing about the Rule 14 violations. The department redacted the officer’s name, case number and all references to the Rule 14 finding from the settlement agreements, explaining to reporters requesting the information under the Freedom of Information Act that it had been stricken because an expungement is like it “never existed.”That’s why Officer Vincent Torres’ disciplinary record won’t show that police officials years ago concluded he provided a false statement about his conduct to the Independent Police Review Authority, COPA’s predecessor.Torres and his partner had stopped some teens in 2009 because they suspected the teens had just defaced a garage with graffiti and were driving the wrong way down a one-way street.Witness Ed Zotti said he heard a commotion while working in his Lakeview home and looked out to see Torres kick the teen in the head while he was lying facedown in the street. The kick was so strong, Zotti said, that the teen’s head snapped back.Disturbed by what he saw, Zotti, editor of the Straight Dope column in the Chicago Reader, wrote a letter to then-Superintendent Jody Weis saying, “I hope you will make clear to your officers that this kind of thing will not be tolerated.” He was interviewed by IPRA.The last he heard, several years ago, his complaint had been upheld.It was, not only by IPRA but also on appeal to the police board. Ed Zotti, of Chicago, told police officials he saw an officer kick a handcuffed teen in the head. The officer was originally given a 30-day suspension but it was reduced to 15 days and the finding that he made a false statement was expunged after he grieved the punishment and the city settled the case. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune) IPRA and the police board found Torres violated Rule 14 when he said he hadn’t kicked the teenager because both the teen and Zotti — who never spoke with each other — gave consistent accounts of what happened.Torres was given a 30-day suspension for kicking a handcuffed teenager and denying it to investigators.He filed a grievance in 2014. The case was headed to arbitration earlier this year when the city agreed to cut the suspension in half and drop the Rule 14 violation, and Torres agreed to drop his grievance, according to records from the department and IPRA. Torres could not be reached for comment.Settlements are subject to open records requests but otherwise are not posted or shared with the public. Victims are not informed of the agreements.Zotti, 66, said in a recent interview that he couldn’t understand how the city could drop the Rule 14 charge but uphold the excessive force.“Either he did it or didn’t do it,” Zotti said. “It is not like he half did it.”Wins and LossesCases that the city and union don’t agree to settle go to an arbitrator, whose decisions are binding and become the final word. Of the 147 suspension cases over the past seven years decided by an arbitrator, officers won 112, or about 76 percent of the time, records show.Officer Matthew O’Brien faced a misconduct investigation after he stopped a car of five young black men, most of them out-of-town college students here for the Taste of Chicago during the July Fourth weekend in 2009.He handcuffed the men together, wrist to wrist, searched their car, mocked their objections that they had done nothing wrong and made what investigative records called “racial comments.” Records show that O’Brien allegedly told them: “Johnnie Cochran is dead and Barack Obama can’t save you.”Police wrote tickets for tinted windows and not having a city sticker, then let them go.The men, two of whom had studied criminal justice in college, were so upset about how O’Brien treated them that they immediately lodged a complaint with IPRA and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which the city later settled for $9,500.Jontavious Pruitt, who was 26 and from Tallahassee, Fla., remembers feeling humiliated as O’Brien searched the trunk of the car, took bottles of unopened liquor from a bag and smashed them on the ground.“I don’t know if it was for laughs and giggles or jokes. I do know that's not the way a police officer, someone who is supposed to be protecting us, should treat us,” said Pruitt, an information technology manager for the Atlanta Aviation Department.O’Brien, IPRA determined, deserved a 10-day suspension for verbal abuse and a search of the car without justification, though the police superintendent disagreed.O’Brien took the case to the police board. He argued that he was alone in an unsafe neighborhood on the city’s South Side and acted because the car’s windows were tinted. He denied making any racially charged comments.The board upheld the suspension in October 2014 in a unanimous 6-0 ruling that concluded O’Brien’s “demeaning and unprofessional comments and his unauthorized search of the trunk are serious offenses.”O’Brien filed a grievance that December. The case was heard by George Roumell, who has ruled on more Chicago police grievances than any of the other nine arbitrators who have decided cases since 2010.Roumell sided with O’Brien. In a 15-page opinion issued last year, he said that taking five years to complete the investigation and serve the officer with a suspension “violated all concepts of fairness and all concepts of correction.”With those words, the suspension was thrown out. O’Brien was promoted to sergeant this year.Roumell and other arbitrators regularly overturned punishments because of the length of time it took to investigate the misconduct — a persistent problem for the Police Department and the city’s police oversight agencies.The IPRA investigator who examined O’Brien’s case interviewed witnesses and the officer within a year but didn’t issue her report until two years after that, Roumell wrote. He mentioned another case in which he threw out an officer’s 45-day suspension on similar grounds.“It’s like a slap in our face now,” said Xavier Hopkins, the driver of the car, now a call center manager and musician in Milwaukee. “Even if you try to do the right thing, you try to do it the right way by filing a complaint, there’s still no accountability.” Xavier Hopkins was driving a car full of friends when they were stopped by a Chicago police officer, handcuffed together and later let go. The men filed a complaint. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune) Another one of the men, Donya Jackson, then 23, said his desire to become a Chicago police officer ended that night. He now lives in Washington, D.C., and works in law enforcement for a federal agency.“It was about the principle. About not allowing him to get away with it,” Jackson said. “But clearly, he got away with it.”Roumell, who at 89 has been arbitrating cases for decades, declined to comment. A lawyer in Detroit and a former president of the State Bar of Michigan, he has ruled on at least 75 cases since 2010, siding with the officer 79 percent of the time. In 17 cases, he erased the punishment completely.A ‘House of Cards’While the grievance process is opaque, arbitrators’ written rulings offer some insight into the process and show that their rulings often are about more than officers’ conduct.In labor arbitrations, the Police Department and other government employers must prove there was “just cause” to discipline the officer. The department has to show the officer was afforded due process during disciplinary proceedings, that the evidence proved the misconduct and that the punishment was warranted.Arbitrator Daniel Nielsen, who has sided with officers in 22 of 26 cases he has decided since 2010, said officers succeed so often because the union backs only the strongest grievances. And, in fact, the union filed an additional 100 grievances since 2010 only to later withdraw them, the Tribune-ProPublica Illinois analysis found.The losing party pays the arbitrator’s fees.“You have to be very careful when you are looking at win-loss percentages because these cases aren’t randomly selected,” Nielsen said. “They are carefully screened. Nobody is going to pay thousands of dollars to take a dead loser in front of an arbitrator. It just doesn’t make any sense.”The union, for instance, took the case of an officer suspended five days for a minor paperwork blunder. The officer had written a parking ticket to an off-duty police sergeant but missed an additional paperwork step and the sergeant filed a complaint against him.The union argued that the penalty was “very heavy-handed.” Arbitrator Jacalyn Zimmerman agreed and threw out the suspension. “To discipline this officer in this manner for a technical violation is, quite simply, unconscionable,” Zimmerman wrote in her decision last year. Robert Perkovich, a DePaul University professor, has served as an arbitrator in Chicago police cases for the past two decades. He has decided nine cases in recent years, ruling in favor of the officer in four of them. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune) An arbitrator’s decision can be subjective, said Robert Perkovich, a DePaul University business professor who for 20 years has served as an arbitrator in Chicago police cases.“The arbitrator is ultimately deciding what he or she believes is the just result,” Perkovich said. “It is a lot like beauty. It lies in the eye of the beholder.”He likened a disciplinary case to a “house of cards” that can fall apart anytime depending on the evidence, even when the misconduct is not in dispute.When Officer Hugo Thurmond’s grievance came before arbitrator Zimmerman, the facts were set: Thurmond had shot a man while off-duty and then fled without securing the scene or witnesses or even reporting it. So Zimmerman was deciding whether Thurmond’s failure to follow protocol warranted his 10-day suspension.Thurmond and a woman he told investigators he had offered a ride to were parked in the Garfield Park neighborhood at 5:30 a.m. in June 2009, when a man tried to force the pair out of the car. Thurmond shot the man and drove off, leaving the man wounded and letting the woman out a few blocks away without getting her name or a statement.The man crawled through a vacant lot and an alley, looking for help. A homeowner saw him and called 911. Thurmond waited a half-hour to report the shooting.The Police Department argued before Zimmerman that Thurmond “should have been well aware of the importance of preserving the crime scene and rendering aid.”The union argued he made a reasonable decision to flee because he was “in fear for his life.”Zimmerman agreed with the union. In her decision, she cited the chaotic nature of the situation in concluding that Thurmond did not deserve a suspension.Securing the crime scene “would, of course, have been optimum,” she ruled, “but it was not worth the grievant’s life.”Zimmerman, a former chair of the Illinois Labor Relations Board who is married to arbitrator Nielsen, declined to comment. Thurmond could not be reached for comment.The written decisions also offer a window into why arbitrators would rule in favor of an officer even when there’s clear evidence of wrongdoing. They may find that the misconduct warranted punishment but the discipline process was unfair.That’s how Officer Jeffrey Kriv got a lesser punishment than he otherwise would have. Kriv was charged with misconduct for a 2008 incident caught on video in which he reached into the rear of his squad car and punched a man detained on suspicion of drunken driving. The man had spit on him.Kriv said he punched the man in self-defense after the man tried to kick him. But an IPRA investigator concluded that the video did not show that. Kriv, the investigator said, could have instead shut the door and asked for help.IPRA recommended a five-day suspension in 2014, nearly six years after the incident, and Kriv filed a grievance.The police superintendent agreed with IPRA that Kriv should be suspended, telling the arbitrator that Kriv “could simply have closed the door.” The union argued that Kriv used “reasonable force” to defend himself. It also pointed out that the man, who pleaded guilty to drunken driving, declined to cooperate with the IPRA investigation.Zimmerman agreed that Kriv was guilty of mistreating the detainee. But she decided five days was “excessive,” citing how much time had passed between the incident and when the officer was served with the penalty.“At this point, any corrective purpose has long expired,” she wrote in the January 2016 opinion. “This sort of conduct is still, however, sufficiently serious to warrant time off.”She gave him two days without pay. It wasn’t Kriv’s only discipline, or his only successful grievance. In 2004, in a settlement agreement, he had a different five-day suspension reduced to a reprimand, records show.“I was pissed I got suspended at all, to be honest with you,” Kriv said in an interview. “He starts spitting on me. It is disgusting. … What are my options? I am not going to duck and weave. I went in the back and clocked him. You are damn right I did. It got him to stop.“He could have spat all night. What am I supposed to do, wait until he runs out of spit?”
Chicago Police Department Grievances
by Jodi S. Cohen and David Eads, ProPublica, and Jennifer Smith Richards, Chicago Tribune
The Taking
by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Kiah Collier and Julián Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
Want to Host a Community Discussion on Maternal Health? Our Event Toolkit Can Help.
by Cynthia Gordy Why does the U.S. have the highest maternal death rate in the affluent world? This year, ProPublica and NPR have been investigating this question through our Lost Mothers series. We’ve explored myriad factors that contribute to the 700 to 900 American women who die each year from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, as well as the more than 50,000 women annually who suffer life-threatening complications.As we have continued to dig into this problem, we have focused on the personal stories of affected women and their families. Thousands of people have shared their experiences with us since our initial callout in February, and those stories hold critical lessons for hospitals, regulators and policymakers. Making such experiences visible and transparent — lifting them up not only as individual tragedies, but as part of a public health crisis that endangers all women — remains a vital aspect of this project.In addition to this tremendous response from families who have lost someone, or narrowly escaped tragedy, we have received numerous emails from people who want to push the conversation further. Your step-by-step guide to sparking community and change on maternal health. We’ve heard from expectant mothers seeking more specific advice on finding the best possible provider and preparing for an emergency.We’ve been contacted by advocates calling for a closer examination of where the health care system is failing women, including the areas of insurance companies and the responsibility of care providers.We continue to hear from professionals, who are eager to highlight the vital roles of midwives, mental health care services and other providers. Essentially, our readers are looking to engage with this material beyond our stories, and yearning to exchange more of their ideas.That’s why we’ve created the Lost Mothers Event Toolkit, a step-by-step guide designed to foster local conversation and connection around the U.S. maternal mortality crisis. Exploring these issues in your own community is a powerful tool to raise awareness, create opportunities to exchange perspectives and spark ideas for change.We encourage interested organizations, health institutions and individuals to host discussions on the most important issues around maternal health in their communities. ProPublica’s toolkit makes it easy to plan a local event, with resources including: Discussion Questions We encourage you to communicate what’s most important to you around the issues. Feel free to use these discussion questions as a starting point for your community.
Pedestrian Tickets Lead to Hundreds of Suspended Driver’s Licenses
by Topher Sanders, ProPublica, and Benjamin Conarck, Florida Times-Union More than half the 2,000 people who received pedestrian tickets in Duval County, Florida, from 2012 to 2016 saw their driver’s licenses suspended or their ability to obtain one limited, according to an analysis by the Florida Times-Union and ProPublica.The tickets, which carry what can seem like a modest $65 fine, can have more significant consequences for those who get them and refuse to pay or are unable to do so.Over five years, a total of 2,004 pedestrian tickets were issued in Duval County, which is comprised almost entirely by the city of Jacksonville. Of those tickets, 982 people who failed or were unable to pay the fine lost their driver’s licenses or their ability to obtain one, according to the analysis.The license suspensions help answer a question at the center of a Times-Union/ProPublica investigation of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville: What are the consequences for individuals swept up in the Jacksonville Sheriff Office’s aggressive enforcement of some two dozen often obscure pedestrian statutes?Last month, the Times-Union/ProPublica investigation showed that 55 percent of the tickets given in recent years went to blacks despite the fact that they make up only 29 percent of the city’s population. Blacks were similarly overrepresented in the 932 tickets that led to license suspensions — 54 percent.As of Tuesday’s City Council meeting, three elected officials on the body have called on Sheriff Mike Williams to order his officers to stop writing pedestrian tickets. Council member Garrett Dennis asked the Office of General Counsel to review what authority the council had to compel him to do so. In addition to voicing her support for that measure, council member Katrina Brown asked for a noticed meeting focused on pedestrian infrastructure and enforcement.The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has insisted that blacks have not been targeted in the issuance of pedestrian tickets, and said it saw no reason to review the investigation’s findings of a disproportionate impact on African Americans. The office said those receiving tickets could contest them before a judge, and that it would address any erroneous or improper ticketing with additional training of officers.Losing one’s license in a sprawling city like Jacksonville can make aspects of daily life seem near impossible, whether you’re a mother shuttling children to school or a trucker trying to secure your next job. Eboni Dekine stands by where she received a jaywalking ticket near the intersection of Ricker Road and 103rd Street on Jacksonville’s Westside. ProPublica and the Times-Union determined the ticket was given in error, but Dekine’s driver’s license was suspended after she didn’t pay the fine. (Dede Smith/Florida Times-Union) Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from Pinellas County who sits on the legislature’s criminal justice committee, has repeatedly introduced measures that would prohibit driver’s license suspensions for non-driving offenses.In an interview Monday, Brandes said that a driver’s license suspension is often a Floridian’s first experience with the criminal justice system. Then, he added, it can “snowball” from there.“You don’t pay the fine, or you can’t pay the fine, but you still have got to get to work — then you’re facing a Catch-22,” Brandes said. “Do I drive and not make it to work and get fired, or do I not drive and get fired? We just think that, unless it’s a driving-relating incident, you shouldn’t have to make that choice.”The state senator’s bill, which he plans to submit for the third time, would allow for those who demonstrate financial hardship to perform community service if they are unable to pay civil fines. He said the bill has never made it to a full vote by the legislature. Clerks of court in Florida stand to lose about $40 million annually if the law governing driver’s license suspensions is modified.“Unfortunately, the clerks of courts have been funded based on transaction volume, and one of their highest-margin transactions is driver’s licenses,” Brandes said.The Times-Union and ProPublica identified the 932 suspensions by using data from the Duval County Clerk of Courts and the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers.The tally is surely conservative. For instance, it does not include people who had their licenses suspended, but then reinstated after eventually paying the fine.“Who would have thought that someone who gets a walking infraction is going to be barred from getting a driver’s license?” said Samuel Brooke, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Economic Justice Program. “I think it shows the absurdity of linking the ability to drive to the ability to fulfill a financial obligation in the criminal justice system.” Read More One Officer, Scores of Tickets and a Familiar Racial Disparity C.J. Brown wrote four times as many pedestrian tickets as any other officer in Jacksonville over the last five years. Most of them went to blacks. His boss says he’s just “good at his job.” The Ticketed Feel Targeted A truck driver, a mother, a lawyer and a number of young men offer their accounts of walking while black. The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis also found that 68 juveniles between the ages of 12 and 17 had their chance of getting a driver’s license suspended — meaning any application for a license would require the ticketed youngster to pay off the fine.“The idea of suspending the ability of someone in the future from getting a license when at the time they are a juvenile, they are a child, and they are being punished for a child activity, a child behavior, in a way that is really severe,” said Brooke of the SPLC. “This isn’t go spend an hour in the principal’s office. This is you won’t be able to drive, you won’t be able to drive until you come up with a way to pay off this fine, and that’s just frankly unconscionable.”State Rep. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat, said that she, too, would be looking into ways to change the laws governing pedestrian citations and driver’s license suspensions.“This type of ticket that goes unpaid creates extreme negative situations for an African-American household already probably struggling,” Davis said.Davis added that people might not grasp the seriousness of the ticket, which then gets left unpaid, and leads to the suspensions.“It’s just extreme,” Davis said, “and it has extreme after-effects for people of color.”What’s more, 132 of the tickets, issued for crossing outside of a crosswalk, led to license suspensions, but didn’t conform with state law and should never have been issued, according to the analysis. The infraction applies only when people cross in between intersections with traffic lights, but was routinely cited without regard for traffic light placement.The sheriff’s office has previously said it has asked the local state attorney to give it guidance on the proper application of the crosswalk statute.
We Are Hiring an Engagement Reporting Fellow for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network
by ProPublica Are you interested in helping revitalize local reporting and reinventing journalism along the way?Then apply to be the engagement reporting fellow for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.The network is an initiative we recently announced to support local journalism. We’re going to be covering the salaries of, and providing editorial support for, reporters to do investigative journalism at seven news organizations across the country next year. Here are the organizations and reporters we’re going to be working with.In addition to hiring a senior editor to oversee see the initiative, we are hiring an engagement reporting fellow to help develop and execute ideas that give communities the opportunity to contribute to or participate in the work.You’ll work closely with the local reporters and their news organizations, as well as the senior editor and ProPublica’s award-winning engagement team. Some of our partner newsrooms are bigger than the others; in some instances, you might be in a more advising or consulting position. In others, you might be leading and managing the engagement portion of the project.You’ll be involved from the very beginning of our work in the project, thinking about how to find and reach the communities we need in order to tell the story, pull them into the work to help inform the story, and find ways to maximize the resonance of the project after publication.So what exactly are we talking about? Take a look at a project we’ve done about Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange. Unlike traditional investigations, we didn’t start with a story. We announced that we were doing an investigation with a callout to the community. We asked vets to tell us their stories, and we’ve now heard from nearly 8,000 of them. This community has fueled our reporting, and it’s gotten results.This isn’t a traditional social media job, but social media is very much part of the job. You’ll need to understand not just social media but how news organizations can use it to tell stories. Here is a tweetstorm we did on refugee vetting. Here’s a story we decided to do exclusively on social about a lobbyist now working at a federal agency he lobbied.Is all of this the kind of work you want to do? Yeah? Cool. We are looking for someone early in their career who has some of the following skills (or interest in building out them out):
Trump’s Mining Regulator Nominee Was Once Dropped by the Agency for Doing “Junk” Work
by Ian MacDougall President Donald Trump’s choice to head a federal coal mine regulator, like more than one of his nominees, is a vocal critic of the very agency he’s being asked to lead. Steven Gardner is a longtime coal industry consultant, and he has called the agency’s marquee Obama-era regulation the product of “one of the most disingenuous and dishonest efforts put forward by a government agency.”But in Gardner’s case, there is an unusual — and contentious — twist: He runs an engineering firm that produced a report as part of the process of preparing that regulation, and the agency deemed it so shoddy that it cut ties with Gardner’s company. Now he’s the nominee to head that agency, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. (In broad terms, OSMRE — pronounced “oz-muhr” — focuses on mining’s effect on the environment, while the other key regulator, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, focuses on the welfare of miners.)State and federal officials at the time harshly criticized a draft report produced jointly by Gardner’s firm, ESCI, and other contractors. They blasted it as “nonsensical,” “junk,” “inaccurate and incomplete,” and “a piece of crap.” Some OSMRE staff members went so far as to accuse Gardner of trying to sabotage the regulation his firm was hired to help develop.Acrimony and accusations flowed in both directions. Gardner charged that agency officials had pressured contractors to soften the projected economic impact of the regulation, the Stream Protection Rule. The stated purpose of the rule was to limit damage done by coal mining to waterways, but Gardner and other critics saw it as a strike at the heart of the coal industry. Gardner is expected to testify in the coming weeks at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Former Obama administration officials and a contractor who worked with Gardner have questioned how he will lead an agency that he has held — and that has held him — in something less than high regard.“It has been said that one of my biggest challenges will be winning the support of OSM staff I will oversee due to the past controversies,” Gardner said in an emailed statement. “While there may be some in OSM that differed with my opinions, many others sent me messages of support noting they did not agree with OSM management during that controversial period.” (The White House referred a request for comment to the Department of the Interior, OSMRE’s parent agency, which did not respond to a request for comment.)This was no backroom tiff. The conflict between Gardner and OSMRE played out in unusually public forums, including congressional hearings. On Capitol Hill, Republican opponents of the Obama administration’s ambitious environmental and energy agendas had branded its coal policy a “war on coal.” They seized on Gardner’s claims as evidence that the administration was fighting dirty.Gardner’s strained relationship with the agency can be traced to 2010. ECSI was among a group of contractors hired to analyze the environmental and economic impact of various proposals for the Stream Protection Rule. OSMRE officials hoped ECSI and another subcontractor, Morgan Worldwide, would serve as counterweights to each other. ECSI worked principally with the coal industry, while Morgan Worldwide tended to represent environmental interests.By the fall of that year, state and federal officials had begun to express doubts about whether the contractors were up to the task. “If this had come from one of my entry-level students (when I taught college hydro), I would have failed them,” OSMRE scientist Debbie Dale wrote in an email that November, describing a section of the draft report assigned to ECSI. She called it the “most poorly written ‘professional’ document” she had ever seen, according to the 2013 inspector general report. Eight state regulators wrote a letter to OSMRE Director Joseph Pizarchik, calling it “often nonsensical and difficult to follow.”At one 2011 meeting, Dianne Shawley, a senior agency attorney, laid the bulk of the blame at the feet of ECSI and the other subcontractors. “They’ve given you a piece of crap, really. To be blunt,” she told executives from the general contractor, Polu Kai Services. Former Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement director Joe Pizarchik speaks during a Natural Resources Committee hearing titled “Jobs at Risk: Waste and Mismanagement by the Obama Administration in Rewriting the Stream Buffer Zone Rule,” in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images) Agency officials were dismayed. “In my experience, it was very unusual to receive so much negative feedback about a contractor’s work,” said Pizarchik, who stepped down at the end of the Obama administration, in an interview with ProPublica. “I’m not aware of other instances where this has occurred.”Sean Jensen, the president of Polu Kai Services, defended the draft report, noting the contractors never had a chance to finish it. “We did our job,” he said. “I’m happy with the team’s work.”In the meantime, another concern had surfaced, this one limited to Gardner. Staff members, who have since left OSMRE, told Pizarchik they believed Gardner was trying to undermine the Stream Protection Rule. They accused him of being uncooperative, asserting that he was deliberately misreading parts of the draft rule so he could condemn it as an overly broad ban on underground mining. (In an email, Gardner described himself as cooperative and his reading of the rule as correct.)Gardner had spent decades consulting for coal companies and would later be elected president of a major professional association for the mining industry. A Kentucky native, he is fond of observing that, because he grew up on a tobacco farm, he has “the honor of being involved in the two most politically incorrect industries in the country.”The dispute between the contractors and the agency came to a head in January 2011. The Associated Press had published a leaked draft of the contractors’ initial analysis. It suggested that the Stream Protection Rule would have a devastating impact, wiping out 7,000 mining jobs nationwide.OSMRE officials disputed the accuracy of the projection, but by then it was too late. The job-loss figure had become a part of the public discourse around the agency’s incipient rule.The fallout from the leak prompted a series of at times heated meetings at which OSMRE officials and the contractors tried to resolve their differences. The endeavor proved unsuccessful, and in March 2011, agency officials declined to renew the contract. They hired a new set of contractors to complete the project, though they retained Morgan Worldwide. (John Morgan, president of Morgan Worldwide, said agency officials never complained about his company’s work.)Congress, however, wouldn’t let the issue rest. Republicans had found in the dramatic job-loss figure powerful ammunition for their fight against the Obama administration’s coal policy. “It was all about blocking everything the Obama administration wanted to do,” Pizarchik said. “Everything was a war on coal.”At congressional hearings in November 2011, the tensions between OSMRE and the contractors spilled into the open. When one congressman declared that the Stream Protection Rule “will kill jobs and stop coal mining,” Pizarchik accused the contractors of producing job-loss projections with “no basis in fact.” Incensed, Gardner testified two weeks later that OSMRE officials had put pressure on the contractors to manipulate their analysis to obscure the reality that the rule would decimate the American coal industry. The dispute attracted the attention of the inspector general for the Department of the Interior, which ultimately produced a report that criticized both sides. The IG concluded that OSMRE officials had managed the contracting process poorly, but found no evidence to support Gardner’s claim that administration officials had tried to improperly influence the contractors’ work. The contractors’ job-loss figures, investigators concluded in their 2013 report, weren’t fabricated, but they relied on little more than claims of expertise.“The contractor and subcontractor could not identify any of the assumptions they made,” Pizarchik said. “Staff reported to me they said, ‘We’re the experts. That’s our opinion. Rely on that.’ ... It was purely their opinion derived through the ‘expert elicitation process.’” (Gardner disputed this, saying the assumptions “were clearly identified.”)All these years later, Gardner has come out on top in one respect. In February, less than a month after the Stream Protection Rule went into effect, Congress nullified it. In the intervening years, Gardner had continued to denounce OSMRE and the Stream Protection Rule in lectures, on his Facebook page and in newspaper op-eds.It remains to be seen whether the victory proves Pyrrhic. “I think it’s a fatal flaw,” John Morgan, Gardner’s fellow subcontractor, said. “If you abused civil servants and accused them of the types of actions he did, it would be very difficult to be a leader.”
ProPublica Illinois Q&A: Meet Web Producer Vignesh Ramachandran
by Andrea Salcedo Vignesh Ramachandran, who came to ProPublica Illinois from the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab and Bay Area local news startup Peninsula Press, is in charge of making sure the look, feel and design of ProPublica Illinois’ content makes sense to readers. He strives for an almost invisible design that allows people to focus on the stories. In the 10th of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Ramachandran chatted with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.What inspired you to become a journalist and eventually a digital producer? Web Producer Vignesh Ramachandran. (Michael Schmidt, special to ProPublica Illinois) Storytelling was something that, even as a kid, I was always drawn to. When I was little, my parents would read stories to me every night. I started becoming a voracious reader and was always interested in this idea of stories. Journalism seemed to be this interesting intersection of storytelling, current events, history and the future, which is something I’m innately interested in. I was a kid reporter for The Denver Post’s kids section, which is my hometown paper. I really loved this idea that you could go interview someone and have the license to just ask them questions. I was also a fan of Radio Disney at the time, and we got to do segments on air. That really got me excited. I thought, “Hey, maybe journalism is something I’d want to do.” I was on my high school newspaper staff and ended up pursuing journalism in college. It’s been an element that has always been a part of me.How would you explain to readers your job as a digital producer?Basically, I help get our stories on the internet. That involves producing the story in our content management system and making sure we have multimedia assets, whether that’s art, prepping video embeds, things like that. Making sure the look, feel and design is something that will make sense for the reader. It’s working with the reporters and editors in Illinois and also coordinating with the design and production team in New York.What has been your most rewarding experience as a journalist and digital producer?The most rewarding experience is seeing stories that either I helped produce or I reported reach audiences. In my last job, I worked on a long-term investigation focused on police interactions with the public. We collected traffic stops data from around the country, and one of the most exciting parts for me was not necessarily the stories that our group did about possible racial bias, but the fact that we were able to clean and give that data to local newsrooms around the country. Then seeing those newsrooms reporting on how policing affects their community. I was excited to just see how you can break off a piece of a reporting project and help fellow local journalists around the country.What are you excited about producing with ProPublica Illinois?One thing that really excites me about web producing here is we’re really thinking about the reader. My interest in investigative journalism is why I wanted to come to ProPublica Illinois. I’m excited about the reporting that happens here, but also by this question: How do you make sure that really important reporting is being seen by audiences, having impact and also is in a form that makes sense? Right now, we’re producing for the web, but I’m interested in how might you translate an especially interesting investigation for when someone’s commuting by bus to their job, driving in the car or getting ready for work at home. How might we best serve readers on a single story beyond just our website?What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish had more coverage?I would say environmental topics. There’s a lot of opportunity for investigating both how the private sector and public sector interact when it comes to environmental policy and compliance with laws that protect our environment. That’s something to explore here in Chicago, but also all across the state. I’m interested in meeting people living here to better understand that.How do you hope the stories that you help produce at ProPublica Illinois will spark change?As a producer, I want to make sure we can create story packages where the design is almost invisible in a way, that it’s beautiful and the reader enjoys it, but it’s not ever in the way. It lets people focus on the stories because that’s ultimately what it’s about, whether someone is reading something on their phone or on their computer.What storytelling and/or web production techniques would you like to experiment with at ProPublica Illinois?I’m interested in exploring how we can deliver a story in the best way. How do you deliver one investigation in the way someone wants to consume it and based on the context they're in? And how are we putting together a story package in a way that someone from Chicago will be interested in and want to consume but also someone in Carbondale in southern Illinois. I’m also interested in starting to think about what devices or tools might everyday people be using in five, 10, 20 years. Are people actually going to be using smart speakers? Is it a fad now or would we all want to eat our waffles in the morning and listen to Alexa read us the news? If, 20 years from now, driverless cars are a mainstream thing and you don’t have to be at the wheel, how might a news story be presented there? Is it just going to be a TV news story or are there new ways to think about that? I’m really interested in the future.What has been the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?I know it’s cliché to say, but everyone has a story. I found early in my reporting career that some of the most interesting stories came from the most unexpected moments, whether that was having coffee with someone or sitting through a two-hour city council meeting. Oftentimes, some of the most interesting characters, stories or sources would come out of that. It’s being aware and listening at all moments and just being receptive. It often happens organically if you’re listening.
Suspect Evidence Informed a Momentous Supreme Court Decision on Criminal Sentencing
by Ryan Gabrielson More than 30 years ago, Congress identified what it said was a grave threat to the American promise of equal justice for all: Federal judges were giving wildly different punishments to defendants who had committed the same crimes.The worries were many. Some lawmakers feared lenient judges were giving criminals too little time in prison. Others suspected African-American defendants were being unfairly sentenced to steeper prison terms than white defendants.In 1984, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission with remarkable bipartisan support. The commission would set firm punishment rules, called “guidelines,” for every offense. The measure, signed by President Ronald Reagan, largely stripped federal judges of their sentencing powers; they were now to use a chart to decide penalties for each conviction, with few exceptions.Five years later, a legal challenge to the sentencing commission wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a case titled Mistretta v. U.S., the court was asked to consider whether Congress had overreached by taking on what seemed to be a role for the judiciary. In an 8-1 decision, the justices determined that the sentencing commission was constitutional. And they took care to say that the commission was also needed — to end the widespread and “shameful” sentencing disparities produced by the biases of individual judges.Mistretta was a momentous decision, but it’s now clear the high court relied on evidence that was flimsy and even flat-out wrong.The justices, in issuing the 1989 decision, had cited a single congressional report in concluding that there were disturbing and unacceptable sentencing disparities that needed to be addressed. That single report, in turn, was based primarily on two studies conducted in the early 1970s, both deeply flawed.One of the studies was an experiment that surveyed federal judges about sentences they might give in hypothetical cases. Asked what sentences they would give in a specific tax fraud case, for example, the prison terms recommended by the judges ranged from three to 20 years.That sounds significant. But the experiment ignored a basic fact about the real-life workings of the federal courts: Judges acted as the sole arbiter of sentences in a tiny fraction of cases. The vast majority of sentences were the result of plea bargains negotiated by prosecutors and defense lawyers, deals that were subject to a judge’s approval but that were not his or her handiwork. If fact, there was no evidence offered that judges around the country were signing off on vastly different plea bargain terms. And later research would debunk the claim.The other study compared average sentences in federal district courts and indicated prison terms for identical crimes were often years longer or shorter depending on where judges presided. But an examination by ProPublica shows that the study was riddled with sample size errors that should have rendered much of the data unusable.For example, the study said the average prison term for larceny in federal courts nationwide was three years and four months. In Maine, the average was listed as 12 years, more than three times as harsh. But our examination of the underlying data shows that only one person was sentenced to prison for larceny in Maine’s lone federal court that year; the “average” used by the congressional study was based on a single conviction.The study — done for a Senate committee working on sentencing reform and using data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts — was also distorted by an outright mistake. The study claimed Kentucky’s eastern district court sentenced burglary convicts to, on average, nearly 14 years in prison in 1972, which appears remarkably punitive for a property crime and out of whack with courts in the rest of the country. The study’s data, not the judges, was the problem, it turns out.ProPublica’s review shows Kentucky’s eastern district had only four prison sentences for burglary that year. Three of the convicts were adults who received an average prison term of three years and four months. The fourth case involved a juvenile defendant supposedly sentenced to 550 months — more than 45 years — in a cell. The maximum sentence for burglary was 15 years, making that an impossibility, but the mistake wound up in the report that helped shape the thinking of the nation’s highest court. Court officials in Kentucky told ProPublica they could not determine what the juvenile’s sentence had actually been.In recent months, ProPublica has fact-checked a sampling of the Supreme Court’s majority opinions from 2011 through 2015, and found a number of errors or glaring inaccuracies. The errors came from legal filings, from government records and from the independent research by the justices themselves.In the case of the sentencing commission, the court’s decision proved enormously consequential. The federal sentencing guidelines produced by the commission helped remake the nation’s prisons. During the following decade, far more people went to prisons to serve far longer sentences.“The guidelines did increase severity, pretty much across the board,” said Kate Stith, a Yale University law professor and expert on the federal sentencing commission.Individual states followed the federal lead and instituted sentencing guidelines for state offenses, similarly lengthening prison terms and inflating prison populations.Yet ample scholarship done over 30 years has only made clearer that the central rationale for the commission’s creation — large and pervasive discrepancies in sentencing imposed by judges — never existed.Multiple sophisticated analyses of court data have found that judges, when left to deliver sentences on their own, do not differ greatly. Before the guidelines took effect, the average difference between judges was roughly five to eight months — not years, as the congressional report claimed and the nation’s highest court believed. After the guidelines were instituted, additional analysis has shown, the difference between sentences shrank by roughly a month.Today, the sentencing commission’s guidelines are merely “advisory,” not mandatory, as a result of several subsequent Supreme Court decisions involving whether aspects of the guidelines violated a defendant’s right to trial. Today, judges can largely disregard the rules so long as they explain their reasoning.The purported sentencing disparities that spurred the guidelines in the first place were not considered in the later rulings that restored federal judges’ discretion.ProPublica requested comment from Chief Justice John Roberts and the other justices. As they had when presented with the earlier errors in opinions uncovered by ProPublica, the justices declined to respond.To a significant degree, the drive for sentencing reform started with Marvin Frankel, a veteran federal judge in New York in the early 1970s. Frankel believed he and his colleagues were too easily swayed by biases and passions — in short, judges were too human — to be trusted with handing out criminal penalties on their own. Frankel’s book, “Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order,” published in 1973, became a rallying-cry for a movement.“The almost wholly unchecked and sweeping powers we give to judges in the fashioning of sentences are terrifying and intolerable for a society that professes devotion to the rule of law,” Frankel wrote. The federal courts lacked strict rules for the appropriate punishment for each crime and individual judges reached wildly different sentences in similar cases, he argued. “The result is chaos.”Stith, the Yale professor and expert on the sentencing commission, said Frankel’s argument found an eager audience. Republicans and Democrats, she said, had for years been promoting their own narratives — of the too-punitive “hanging judge” or the too-lenient “bleeding heart judge” — to suit their agendas.Frankel wasn’t done after his book was published. He next helped to oversee an experiment that further fed such narratives. The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals — which includes New York, Connecticut and Vermont — sent 20 hypothetical criminal case files to its judges and asked them to choose sentences. The files described an array of convictions, including many white-collar and illegal drug trade crimes.The judges answered quite differently. On a financial fraud and tax evasion case, one judge chose a three-year prison term for the convict while two colleagues gave 20 years. For a case of theft involving interstate transport, the chosen punishments ranged from more than seven years in prison to mere probation.Ilene Nagel, then a law and sociology professor at Indiana University, said the conclusion to be drawn from the experiment was clear: Judges produced unacceptably divergent sentences.“It wasn’t a contested issue,” said Nagel, who was one of the first appointees to the sentencing commission.The calls for reform were bipartisan to a degree unthinkable today.The resulting legislation proved sweeping. It eliminated the federal parole system and formed a sentencing commission. The new agency would have seven members appointed to six-year terms by the president and then confirmed by the Senate. The commissioners would include judges, academics, prosecutors and defense lawyers. They’d write sentencing guidelines based on the criminal offenses, the defendants’ criminal histories and other factors related to the seriousness of the crime. Their word was binding.Sen. Strom Thurmond, the longtime Republican leader from South Carolina, introduced the bill, which included the sentencing overhaul among several changes in the criminal justice system. Sens. Edward Kennedy and Joe Biden, pillars of the Democratic party, were among the bill’s earliest co-sponsors. Only one senator voted against the measure when it went to the floor in 1984. The House of Representatives passed it easily, with almost 100 “yes” votes to spare.The Second Circuit survey went all but unquestioned for nearly 20 years, until researchers began examining the sentencing guidelines’ effect and gave Frankel’s arguments fresh scrutiny. Most notably, a U.S. Department of Justice study into racial disparities in sentencing in 1993 served as a takedown on the long-heralded experiment.“Defendants in many courts plead guilty only after various kinds of agreements are reached regarding charges, sentence recommendations, and even ‘sentence promises,’” the Justice Department report stated, evaluating the Second Circuit results.In real court cases, “it is likely that these dynamics constrained judges in their sentencing decisions,” the Justice Department report added.Federal judges were not, in general, sentencing erratically, said Douglas McDonald, an expert in health and criminal justice analysis at the global research firm Abt Associates. That became clear “when you looked at real data,” McDonald said, “not the made-up, simulated thing that Judge Frankel sent around.” The second study the Supreme Court relied on in Mistretta doesn’t fare well under scrutiny, either.It looked at sentencing data from actual federal criminal cases. A consultant to the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which was drafting the sentencing reform legislation in the late 1970s, and a pair of legal scholars from Yale and the University of Texas compiled the numbers from the federal courts system.The effort was intended to further prove that sentencing was chaotic, varying greatly by judge and just as significantly by region. The data compared average sentences for certain crime categories between individual district courts to averages for the rest of the country. The authors set out the numbers in easy-to-digest charts, which gave the stark impression that geography dictated the degrees of punishment.A prominent chart showed California’s northern district judges sentenced burglary convicts to an average of 10 years in prison in 1972, about twice as long as the national average.However, the California district’s “average” was not an average at all. Only one burglary convict was sentenced to prison there during that year, data from the study’s appendix shows.That problem with sample size was just one of many in the study, which ProPublica scrutinized as part of its reporting on misinformation in the Supreme Court’s majority opinions. ProPublica was fact-checking a 2013 ruling, Peugh v. U.S., that relied on information from the Mistretta opinion about the sentencing commission.ProPublica unearthed hundreds of pages containing four-decades-old federal courts data to test the sentencing averages study. It appears to be the first time the research has been rigorously checked.The study’s first criminal category — homicide and assault — is so riddled with sample size flaws its figures are useless. Averages for the Maryland and New Jersey judges are based on two cases in each case. (State courts generally handle violent crimes so it makes sense that federal courts did not hand out many such sentences.)While the Supreme Court's Mistretta opinion and lawmakers repeatedly said that judges’ sentencing disparities could not be explained by defendants’ criminal histories, the analyses of federal data they depended on did not address the question.For instance, the congressional report singled out the Illinois northern district court as unjustifiably lenient on robbery convicts; it averaged prison terms of less than seven years in 1972 compared to the national average of 10 years.But it turns out robbery convicts in the Illinois court were a lot different than those across the country. A majority had no criminal history at all, and only 28 percent had previously served time in prison. The shorter sentences, then, were easier to understand.Nationwide, most federal robbery convicts had substantial criminal histories, and 50 percent of them had previously served prison time.Further illustrating the point, judges in the Missouri eastern district averaged 15-year prison sentences for robbery, several years longer than the national average. But 85 percent of that court’s convicts had been in prison before. The underlying data suggests that defendants with bad criminal histories often received longer prison sentences.The sentencing guidelines took effect in November 1987. One month later, John Mistretta was indicted on drug trafficking charges in Missouri, for which he pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and received 18 months in prison under the new rules. He appealed his punishment, arguing that the commission and its work violated the separation of powers required in the Constitution.Lawyers for the federal government defending the guidelines provided the congressional report, containing the judge experiment and district sentencing averages, to the Supreme Court. The case centered on legal arguments, not questions about the statistical evidence.Rather, the justices and lawyers treated the crisis of sentencing judges as established fact. “Congress wanted to fetter the power that individual judges had been exercising, because they are the ones who created the problem,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said during oral arguments in Mistretta. “They are the ones who gave the disparate sentences all around the country.”Paul Bator, who represented the sentencing commission, described federal judges’ control of criminal punishment as being “very ugly days of discriminatory and arbitrary sentencing.”In the majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun referred to sentencing disparities among judges as “a serious impediment to an evenhanded and effective operation of the criminal justice system.”The consequences of the court’s ruling were considerable and have helped fuel sharp debates about issues such as mass incarceration.In 1984, the average prison term handed down by federal courts was two years. That more than doubled over the decade that followed, according to figures from the sentencing commission. About half of federal convicts received probation when judges controlled most of the sentencing. Only 7 percent got probation last year.Stith, the Yale professor, said the sentencing commission’s guidelines came to include sentencing “enhancements,” such as whether a defendant attempted to destroy evidence or had access to a weapon. They became a major part of the new punishment formula and had the effect of lengthening sentences.Those “enhancements” eventually became the focus of another case that wound up before the Supreme Court. Lawyers for defendants argued that the sentencing enhancements were akin to convictions for additional crimes, crimes that had not been proven as part of the criminal prosecutions. The Supreme Court eventually barred the use of the enhanced penalties. Read More It’s a Fact: Supreme Court Errors Aren’t Hard to Find A ProPublica review adds fuel to a longstanding worry about the nation’s highest court: The justices can botch the truth, sometimes in cases of great import. But the creation and legal endorsement of the commission preceded a variety of developments that led to harsher penalties in court. Congress, for instance, made the punishment for crack cocaine 100 times more severe than for powder cocaine. In 1985, the federal prison population consisted of just over 40,000 inmates, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons data. During the decade that followed, with fixed prison sentences and tough anti-drug laws, the prison rolls grew by 150 percent and topped 100,000 inmates in 1995.Nagel, the former commissioner and law professor, said the anti-drug laws are to blame for most of the severe penalties that swelled the federal prison population. Commissioners tried to prevent, or at least minimize, the harshest sentencing changes, she said.“On several occasions, the commission tried to get Congress to back away,” Nagel said. She and her colleagues argued to lawmakers that violent crimes should be the priority for long sentences, not drugs. Their lobbying failed.Drug prosecutions, in the end, produced their own set of disparities — disproportionate numbers of minority defendants. In 1996, 73 percent of those convicted for drug trafficking were black or Hispanic, roughly triple their share of the nation’s population. Researchers had struggled for decades to demonstrate racial disparities in federal sentencing. Suddenly, the gaps were glaring and repeatedly proven.Indeed, sentencing disparities by race remain prevalent as ever, according to an analysis the commission released last month. Black men’s prison terms the past two years were 19 percent longer, on average, than those received by white men, the study shows. The difference cannot be explained by the crimes or the defendants’ criminal histories. The sentencing commission says there is no sign the racial gap for incarceration is getting smaller.
We Are Hiring a Documenting Hate Reporting Fellow
by ProPublica We are looking for a reporting fellow to join our Documenting Hate team, which chronicles and investigates hate crimes and bias incidents in America — where they happen and to whom; how they are prosecuted, if at all; who in government is responsible for counting and combating them.You’ll work on stories based in part on the thousands of tips we’ve received, and you’ll collaborate with other reporters at ProPublica and in our partner newsrooms on longer projects.Reporting fellows at ProPublica have gone on to work at The New York Times, Bloomberg, Politico, NPR, Center for Public Integrity and the Chicago Tribune — as well as ProPublica itself.This is a special position located with the data team. No data experience is necessary, though you will likely acquire some!The fellowship runs until the end of 2018, pays $800 per week and includes full benefits. It will be based at our headquarters in New York, and may involve some travel.We’re looking for someone who:
When Buying Prescription Drugs, Some Pay More With Insurance Than Without It
by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Katie Thomas, The New York Times Having health insurance is supposed to save you money on your prescriptions. But increasingly, consumers are finding that isn't the case.Patrik Swanljung found this out when he went to fill a prescription for a generic cholesterol drug. In May, Swanljung handed his Medicare prescription card to the pharmacist at his local Walgreens and was told that he owed $83.94 for a three-month supply.Alarmed at that price, Swanljung went online and found Blink Health, a start-up, offering the same drug — generic Crestor — for $45.89.It had struck a better deal than did his insurer, UnitedHealthcare. "It's completely ridiculous," said Swanljung, 72, who lives in Anacortes, Washington.In an era when drug prices have ignited public outrage and insurers are requiring consumers to shoulder more of the costs, people are shocked to discover they can sometimes get better deals than their own insurers. Behind the seemingly simple act of buying a bottle of pills, a host of players — drug companies, pharmacies, insurers and pharmacy benefit managers — are taking a cut of the profits, even as consumers are left to fend for themselves, critics say.Although there are no nationwide figures to track how often consumers could have gotten a better deal on their own, one industry expert estimated that up to 10 percent of drug transactions involve such situations. If true nationwide, that figure could total as many as 400 million prescriptions a year. The system has become so complex that "there's no chance that a consumer can figure it out without help," said the expert, Michael Rea, chief executive of Rx Savings Solutions, whose company is paid by employers to help them lower workers' drug costs. Pharmacy benefit managers, the companies that deal with drug benefits on behalf of insurers, often negotiate better prices for consumers, particularly for brand-name medications, Rea said, but that's not necessarily true for some generic drugs. Insurers' clients are frequently employers overseeing large numbers of workers, and the companies are focused on overall costs. So when insurers seek deals for generic drugs, they do so in batches, reaching agreements for groups of different drugs rather than getting the lowest price on every drug.As a result of these complicated layers of negotiation, which are not made public, different insurers end up paying different prices for individual drugs. Further compounding confusion for consumers, some insurers require a set co-payment for each prescription — say, $15 or $20 — even when the insurer reimburses the pharmacy at a much cheaper rate.Several companies have emerged to capitalize on consumer anger over the confusing variations in price. The players include not only Blink Health and its better-known competitor GoodRx, but also veteran businesses like the benefit manager Express Scripts, which recently helped to start a subsidiary aimed at cash-paying consumers. Amazon, the online behemoth, is also said to be considering whether to join the fray.Last Sunday, CVS Health announced plans to merge with health insurer Aetna, a move that would create a corporate behemoth that many have said would have little incentive to serve the needs of regular people. Some consumers say their experience with CVS already demonstrates how easy it is to fall through the cracks. In one case, a customer whose plan was managed by CVS Caremark, the drug benefit manager, would have had to pay more for a drug through her plan at a CVS than what she ended up paying at the same store, with a coupon from GoodRx.Representatives for insurers and pharmacy benefit managers say cases like Swanljung's are "outliers." "There are three to four billion generic scripts written a year, and in the vast majority of cases, they are going to get a better deal by using insurance," said Mark Merritt, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which represents benefit managers. A spokesman for UnitedHealthcare, Swanljung's insurer, noted that while Swanljung got a lower price for generic Crestor by using Blink Health, he also takes four other prescriptions, for which he got a better deal through his insurance. (Swanljung gave UnitedHealthcare permission to discuss his situation.) Having insurance is clearly valuable, said the spokesman, Matt Burns. In addition, the co-payment for generic Crestor, also called rosuvastatin, in Swanljung's plan is set to decrease significantly in January, in large part because the price of the drug has dropped this year.Consumers also may face penalties if they don't use their insurance and pay cash to save money. In many cases, insurers won't let them apply those purchases to a deductible or out-of-pocket spending maximum.Still, many find that leaving their prescription card at home is worth it. Some have found a better deal even at pharmacies that are owned by their drug plan, like CVS.Susan Thomson, 55, a university lecturer who lives in Summit, New Jersey, is covered by a high-deductible plan through her former employer. Her drug benefits are managed by CVS Caremark, a subsidiary of CVS Health. For at least a decade, she's been using a prescription lotion called sulfacetamide sodium to treat rosacea, a skin condition.Last year, each time she filled her prescription at a CVS pharmacy, she paid $75.07. Checking the CVS Caremark website this year, she learned that the cost had gone up to $99.03 (or $81.51 if she used CVS's mail order service).Investigating further, she found that GoodRx offered the same prescription at the same drugstore for $75.57, without her insurance. The prices were even lower at other pharmacies."It just doesn't seem right," she said. "I just feel that the pharmaceutical industry and health care industry are pulling these numbers out of thin air."Michael DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS, did not dispute the details of Thomson's experience, but said it is rare and attributed the price disparity to her high-deductible plan. Because consumers are responsible for their costs in those plans until they hit their deductible, DeAngelis said it would take them longer to reach it and they might end up spending more in the long run. Prices can also vary widely from month to month when consumers pay cash, he said.Drug-discount cards have been around for decades, and retailers like Walmart have also offered cheap generic drug programs, but both were mainly used by people without insurance.That is changing. Even as more Americans have health insurance since the Affordable Care Act was passed, insurers are increasingly asking consumers to pay a larger share of their costs. In 2016, about five million people in Medicare hit a stage in which they had to pick up a greater share of their expenses.Reporters at ProPublica and The New York Times examined whether they could get better prices on 100 of the most prescribed drugs, identified by GoodRx, without using their insurance. ProPublica's prescription claims are managed by OptumRx, a large pharmacy benefit manager owned by UnitedHealth Group; The Times's medication coverage for reporters is managed by Express Scripts.Both reporters found lower prices on GoodRx for at least 40 drugs on the list (many were drugs that can be purchased for $4 at Walmart, without any coupon).Blink Health also sometimes beat the insurance out-of-pocket costs, but less often than GoodRx. Blink Health recently suffered a series of setbacks when two of the largest drugstore chains, CVS and Walgreens, stopped accepting its discounts, along with a grocery chain, Publix. In November, Blink Health sued its pharmacy benefit manager, which negotiates its prices, claiming that the company, MedImpact, had violated their agreement. MedImpact has not yet formally responded to the allegations in federal court in New York.GoodRx, a private company founded in 2010, displays the deals it has with nine pharmacy benefit managers, each offering different prices for different drugs."We said, let's see if we can gather all these prices and see if we can exploit the variation in these contracts," said Doug Hirsch, GoodRx's co-founder and co-chief executive, "to see if we can provide better value." Dr. Brad Wainer, a family-practice doctor in Berwyn, Illinois, said he frequently shows patients their options on GoodRx to see if they can get a better price. "Most of them don't believe me until they go and they find it out for themselves," he said.Consumers may also pay more if they are covered by plans that require them to pay a set co-payment, no matter the cash price. In some of those cases, the insurers require the pharmacies to send them the difference between what they collect from the consumer and what the insurers have agreed to reimburse the pharmacies.After a New Orleans television station, WVUE, reported last year on this practice, known as a clawback, lawyers across the country filed lawsuits accusing the insurers — including Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealthcare — of overcharging consumers. The companies are contesting the suits.Several independent pharmacists said there might be safety issues if consumers buy drugs at different pharmacies. If those prescriptions are filled without an insurance card, pharmacy systems may not catch dangerous drug interactions. "That, to me, is a recipe for disaster," said Craig Seither, who owns Fort Thomas Drug Center in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Mary Furman, a retired medical social worker in Charlotte, North Carolina, takes the drug celecoxib, the generic version of Celebrex, to treat her rheumatoid arthritis. When she went to fill a 90-day prescription in April, her pharmacy told her she would owe $96.89 if she used her Medicare plan, offered by SilverScript, run by CVS Health.Then the pharmacy offered her a deal — $72.25 if she paid cash, a price the worker said was the same the pharmacy would offer any customer. "I was flabbergasted," said Furman, who is 72.Furman took the deal, and afterward, her husband, Nelson, called SilverScript to report what happened. The representative told Nelson Furman he was "not surprised."The couple then reported the experience to a company hired by Medicare to investigate fraud, but a representative encouraged her to contact the health plan again.After reporters sent details of Furman's case to CVS, Nelson Furman said they received a call from the SilverScript president. DeAngelis, the CVS spokesman, blamed the pharmacy for charging the couple more than what their share should have been using their insurance. (Medicare rules require that consumers always get the lower price of their set co-payment and a pharmacy's cash price.)Now the Furmans are looking at drug coverage for next year, and once again, they see huge variation in prices for that drug and others."The prices are all over the map," Nelson Furman said.
How to Save Money on Your Prescription Drugs
by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Katie Thomas, The New York Times If you’re willing to do a little extra work, it is possible to lower your prescription bills.A reporter for The New York Times and a reporter for ProPublica both found instances this year in which drugs prescribed for family members could be purchased for less money without using their insurance coverage.Check Your CoverageBefore you go to the pharmacy, check to see what your cost will be. Most of the big pharmacy benefit managers (the companies that manage your drug benefits on behalf of your insurer) allow you to search for drugs on their websites to see what you’ll owe. This cost will vary depending on whether your plan requires you to meet a deductible, which is a fixed amount before your coverage kicks in, make a co-payment or pay a percentage of the list price. The major pharmacy benefit managers are Express Scripts, OptumRx and CVS Caremark.Brand or Generic?Determine whether your drug is a newer, brand-name drug that is sold by one drug maker at a premium, or whether it is a generic product that is often cheaper and sold by multiple companies. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor.Generic Drugs Give You OptionsSeveral large retailers, like Walmart and Costco, sell generics at discounted prices, like $4 a prescription, which may be less than your insurance is asking you to pay. Some grocery stores, like Publix and Meijer, even give away certain medications — like antibiotics — for free. Pharmacy chains like Rite Aid also offer discounted prices to people who sign up for savings clubs.GoodRx and Blink Health are two companies that offer discounted rates on generic drugs. GoodRx allows consumers to compare what local pharmacies are charging for a drug (it includes prices from discount stores like Walmart), while Blink Health quotes a single price that it has negotiated. GoodRx offers coupons that consumers bring to participating pharmacies, while Blink Health requires users to pay upfront, then collect their prescription at a nearby pharmacy.Brand-Name DrugsCheck the website of the drug you’re taking. Some companies offer discounts (often called copay coupon cards) to help cover insured patients’ out-of-pocket costs, at least for the first few months. But people who are covered by government programs like Medicare are prohibited from using these programs, and sometimes the discounts are capped for those without insurance. Depending on your income, you may also qualify for patient-assistance programs, which are either run by the drug maker or a charity that is financed by the drug maker.Drug makers do not necessarily offer these programs out of a sense of charity — the programs help boost their bottom line by ensuring that patients will continue on their drugs (while sticking insurers with the bulk of the drug’s bill). And sometimes the help is more trouble than it’s worth. Some discounts are valid for a limited period, leaving patients in the lurch when they expire. Other programs can end without notice. But for those with little other choice, every bit helps.Also, it never hurts to ask your doctor if there is a similar drug available that may cost you less.Ask Your Pharmacist for a DealMany pharmacies — especially independent ones — offer cash-paying customers prices that are lower than a drug’s sticker price. When handing over your insurance card, it’s worth asking if you can get a better deal by paying cash.
Here’s How to Find Out If Your Elected Officials Are Blocking Constituents on Facebook and Twitter
by Derek Kravitz, Terry Parris Jr. and Leora Smith Facebook and Twitter have become central parts of our political and civic lives. It’s not just President Donald Trump on Twitter and political ads on Facebook. Politicians and agencies across the country use social media to communicate policy, share information and hear from constituents. Those politicians and agencies also have the ability to block those who comment on their posts.We were curious about that. So, in August, we filed public-records request with every governor and 22 federal agencies for lists of people blocked on their official Facebook and Twitter accounts. We found that nearly 1,300 accounts were blocked — more than half by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. Bevin’s a Republican, but both Democrat and Republican governors block people. Read More Governors and Federal Agencies Are Blocking Nearly 1,300 Accounts on Facebook and Twitter We filed public-records requests with all 50 governors and 22 federal agencies. Here’s what we found. When the administrator of a public Facebook page blocks an account, the user can no longer comment on the page. That can create an inaccurate public image of support for government policies.If a city council member, mayor, state representative or governor is blocking or curating their constituents on Facebook and Twitter, that’s important for local reporters to know. Who are these elected officials blocking? Why? And how many? You don’t have to be a reporter, either. California paralegal Angela Greben has submitted dozens of requests for social media block lists and publicizes them on her blog, “Government Block Lists Revealed.”We’ve laid out below how you can find out if elected officials are blocking anyone. If you have questions about any step in the process, email us at getinvolved@propublica.org.Step 1: Figure Out the LawLook up the relevant open-records laws to make sure that your request includes everything the law requires and that the official or agency are subject to these requests. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press maintains a database of open-records laws by state.There are differences between states. For example, Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act exempts the governor’s office, legislature and others from the state’s open-records law. The Center for Public Integrity has a helpful state-by-state ranking of public access to government records.Step 2: Draft Your Record RequestsThe National Freedom of Information Coalition has sample open-records request letters for each state and both the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and MuckRock have online tools to create request letters. These governors’ offices and federal agencies at least partially responded to our requests for blocked social media accounts.Governors’ OfficesCalifornia Gov. Jerry Brown, DemocratColorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, DemocratGeorgia Gov. Nathan Deal, RepublicanFlorida Gov. Rick Scott, RepublicanKentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, RepublicanMaryland Gov. Larry Hogan, RepublicanMissouri Gov. Eric Greitens, RepublicanMontana Gov. Stephen Bullock, DemocratNebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, RepublicanNevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, RepublicanNew Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, RepublicanNorth Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, DemocratOregon Gov. Kate Brown, DemocratRhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, DemocratSouth Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, RepublicanSouth Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, RepublicanVermont Gov. Phil Scott, RepublicanWashington Gov. Jay Inslee, DemocratWest Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, RepublicanWisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, RepublicanWyoming Gov. Matthew Mead, RepublicanFederal AgenciesDepartment of EnergyDepartment of LaborDepartment of Veterans AffairsU.S. Small Business AdministrationU.S. Trade Representative Here’s the information we requested from the governor of Florida. You can use it as a template for your requests:
Governors and Federal Agencies Are Blocking Nearly 1,300 Accounts on Facebook and Twitter
by Leora Smith and Derek Kravitz Amanda Farber still doesn’t know why Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan blocked her from his Facebook group. A resident of Bethesda and full-time parent and volunteer, Farber identifies as a Democrat but voted for the Republican Hogan in 2014. Farber says she doesn’t post on her representatives’ pages often. But earlier this year, she said she wrote on the governor’s Facebook page, asking him to oppose the Trump administration’s travel ban and health care proposal.She never received a response. When she later returned to the page, she noticed her comment had been deleted. She also noticed she had been blocked from commenting. (She is still allowed to share the governor’s posts and messages.) On the left, a screenshot of what blocked user Amanda Farber sees when she accesses Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Facebook page. Blocked users can’t comment on posts. On the right, a screenshot from a user who is not blocked. Farber has repeatedly emailed and called Hogan’s office, asking them to remove her from their blacklist. She remains blocked. According to documents ProPublica obtained through an open-records request this summer, hers is one of 494 accounts that Hogan blocks. Blocked accounts include a schoolteacher who criticized the governor’s education policies and a pastor who opposed the governor’s stance against accepting Syrian refugees. They even have their own Facebook group: Marylanders Blocked by Larry Hogan on Facebook.Hogan’s office says they “diligently adhere” to their social media policy when deleting comments and blocking users.In August, ProPublica filed public-records requests with every governor and 22 federal agencies, asking for lists of everyone blocked on their official Facebook and Twitter accounts. The responses we’ve received so far show that governors and agencies across the country are blocking at least 1,298 accounts. More than half of those — 652 accounts — are blocked by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican.Four other Republican governors and four Democrats, as well as five federal agencies, block hundreds of others, according to their responses to our requests. Five Republican governors and three Democrats responded that they are not blocking any accounts at all. Many agencies and more than half of governors’ offices have not yet responded to our requests. Most of the blocked accounts appear to belong to humans but some could be “bots,” or automated accounts.When the administrator of a public Facebook page or Twitter handle blocks an account, the blocked user can no longer comment on posts. That can create an inaccurate public image of support for government policies. (Here’s how you can dig into whether your elected officials are blocking constituents.) Help Us InvestigateIf you’re interested in finding out who is blocked in your home state or municipality, check out our reporting recipe. ProPublica made the records requests and asked readers for their own examples after we detailed multiple instances of officials blocking constituents.We heard from dozens of people. The governors’ offices in Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska and New Jersey did not respond to our requests for records, but residents in each of those states reported being blocked. People were blocked after commenting on everything from marijuana legislation to Medicaid to a local green jobs bill.For some, being blocked means losing one of few means to communicate with their elected representatives. Ann-Meredith McNeill, who lives in western rural Kentucky, told ProPublica that Bevin rarely visits anywhere near her. McNeill said she feels like “the internet is all I have” for interacting with the governor.McNeill said she was blocked after criticizing Bevin’s position on abortion rights. (Last January, Bevin’s administration won a lawsuit that resulted in closing one of Kentucky’s two abortion clinics, the event that McNeill says inspired her comment.)In response to questions about its social media blocking policies, Bevin’s office said in a statement that “a small number of users misuse [social media] outlets by posting obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam. Constituents of all ages should be able to engage in civil discourse with Gov. Bevin via his social media platforms without being subjected to vulgarity or abusive trolls.” McNeill told ProPublica, “I’m sure I got sassy” but she made “no threats or anything.” Almost every federal agency that responded is blocking accounts. The Department of Veterans Affairs blocked 18 accounts as of July, but said most were originally blocked before 2014. The blocked accounts included a Michigan law firm specializing in auto accident cases and a Virginia real estate consultant who told ProPublica she had “no idea why” she was blocked. The Department of Energy blocked eight accounts as of October. The Department of Labor blocked seven accounts. And the Small Business Administration blocked two accounts, both of which were unverified and claimed to be affiliated with government loan programs.Many governors and agencies gave us only partial lists or rejected our requests altogether. Outgoing Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s office told us they would not share their block lists due to “privacy concerns for those people whose names might appear on it.” Alabama declined to provide public records because our request did not come from an Alabama citizen.Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ office declined to share records from his Facebook or Twitter accounts, arguing they are not “considered to be the ‘official’ social media accounts of the Governor of Missouri” because he created them before he took office.Increased attention on the issue of blocking seems to be having an impact. In September, the California-based First Amendment Coalition revealed that California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, had blocked more than 1,500 accounts until June, shortly before the organization submitted a request for his social media records.At some point before fulfilling the coalition’s request, Brown’s office unblocked every account.
Coming Soon From ProPublica and the Texas Tribune: The Taking
by ProPublica The government’s vast seizure of private property to build a border fence a decade ago provoked cries of abuse and unfairness. Will it all be repeated if Trump gets his wall? A ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation starts Dec. 14.Sign up to be notified when this investigation goes live.
Black Women Disproportionately Suffer Complications of Pregnancy and Childbirth. Let’s Talk About It.
by Adriana Gallardo About 700 to 900 women die each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. And for every death, dozens of women suffer life-threatening complications. But there is a stark racial disparity in these numbers. Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die than white mothers. Nevertheless, black women’s voices are often missing from public discussions about what’s behind the maternal health crisis and how to address the problems.It is estimated that up to 60 percent of maternal complications are preventable. One way to prevent them is to talk to and learn from women who have nearly died from these complications. So, we reached out to nearly 200 black mothers or families that shared stories of severe complications as part of our maternal health investigation Lost Mothers. Maternal Complications
The Trump Administration Is Scuttling a Rule That Would Save People From Dying of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
by Jesse Eisinger After Hurricane Irma hit three months ago in Orlando, Florida, the local police got a desperate 911 call from a 12-year-old boy reporting that his mother and siblings were unconscious. Fumes overcame the first deputy who rushed to the scene. After the police arrived at the property, they found Jan Lebron Diaz, age 13, Jan’s older sister Kiara, 16, and their mother Desiree, 34, lying dead, poisoned from carbon monoxide emitted by their portable generator. Four others in the house went to the hospital. If 12-year-old Louis hadn’t made that call, they might have died, too.Portable generators release more carbon monoxide — which is particularly dangerous because it is odorless and invisible — than most cars. As a result, the devices can kill efficiently and quickly, though accidentally. The Diaz family usually placed the generator properly, outside the house, a neighbor told local reporters. But for some reason, they had brought it into their garage. From there, the generator’s murderous byproduct spread silently through the house.During hurricanes, floods, and nor’easters, portable generators save lives — except when they take them. Irma, Harvey, and Maria all left thousands without power and reliant on their portable generators. The government has not yet done its official count, but 11 people using these generators died just from Irma, according to preliminary government estimates. Many more died from Harvey and Maria, experts say, especially in Puerto Rico, which has been without a functioning power grid for months.These deaths rarely merit more than short stories on local news sites. Civil servants then accumulate the statistics into dry reports that end up buried somewhere on .gov websites. The latest of these shows that portable generators have killed on average 70 people a year since 2005. That’s a small fraction of the toll from car accidents. Still, generators rank as one of the deadliest consumer products on the market. A further 2,800 people a year suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the equipment.Portable generator deaths are preventable, and for the past 16-plus years, the United States government has tried to do just that. The job has fallen to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which, with its $126 million budget and 520 employees, oversees almost every product Americans use in their home, office, or out in the yard, save for food, drugs, and cars. The CPSC, based in Bethesda, Maryland, is tiny, especially compared to many of the corporations it regulates, and hamstrung by Congressional rules that require it to seek voluntary standards before attempting to impose mandatory ones.But the problem of portable generators was so obvious that the little agency felt it needed to make a stand. They were one of the “persistent deadly hazards we felt we had to address,” says Elliot Kaye, who was the chairman of the CPSC from 2014 to February of this year and remains a commissioner. (The CPSC has five commissioners who vote on agency measures; the party that controls the White House tends to have the majority.)Throughout the 16 years the CPSC has been pushing the issue, the portable-generator industry fended off regulations that would have required it to reduce the carbon monoxide emissions of its devices. The companies argued such changes would be too costly, and that they lacked the technology to make the machines safer. The industry lobbied hard, and also wielded an arsenal of delaying measures and misdirection, not to mention occasional strong-arm tactics to enforce industry discipline, its critics say.But in early November 2016, during the final months of the Obama administration, the CPSC took one of the most significant steps it can take: The commission voted in favor of a rule to force manufacturers to lower their generators’ carbon monoxide emissions. The vote was 4 to 1, with one Republican joining the majority of Democrats.Donald Trump was elected a week later. In January, he elevated the only commissioner to vote against the rule — Ann Marie Buerkle, a 66-year-old former Republican congresswoman from upstate New York — to be the acting chair of the CPSC, and she took on the role in February. (She awaits Senate confirmation to become the chair.) The administration has nominated, as a potential commissioner, a lawyer from the corporate firm Jones Day who specializes in defending companies from product-liability cases; one other vacancy remains. So Buerkle will likely soon have new allies.Self-effacing and warm, Buerkle wins universal praise from agency employees and fellow commissioners as a pleasant colleague. Even the Democratic appointees feel she listens to them. Indeed, the CPSC took pride that it wasn’t riven by the partisan rancor that infects so much of Washington. Kaye, a Democrat, brought his family to visit fellow commissioner Buerkle and her family when they vacationed in upstate New York. Buerkle’s gentle personality, however, belies hardline views on regulation. Buerkle has never, in her fellow commissioners’ recollection, advocated for the agency to regulate a product that the CPSC staff thinks is unsafe. She is a government regulator who doesn’t appear to believe in government regulation.Voluntary standards are “a better way to go,” Buerkle told ProPublica. “They are quick to complete. There’s much more efficiency in implementation. And there’s much more buy-in from stakeholders.” Never mind that in this instance it took more than a decade, and ongoing government prodding, for companies to get close to adopting a voluntary standard of its own. Pressed on which product hazards are her priorities, Buerkle says: “Fidget spinners are a big deal.” (They should not be placed in the mouth, the commission warns.) She also mentions children’s products and toys, pool safety, and portable generators.Among her first actions as chair, Buerkle did two things. She sent a letter in August to Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, agreeing with his assertion that the CPSC does not have the legal authority to make a rule about carbon monoxide emissions from portable generators.In a second move, Buerkle appointed Patricia Hanz to be her general counsel. Hanz comes from Briggs & Stratton, a manufacturer of engines in Wauwautosa, Wisconsin, where she was the assistant general counsel. Briggs & Stratton, which brings in $1.8 billion a year, happens to be one of the biggest portable-generator manufacturers in the world. Hanz also served as the vice president of the portable-generator trade group.The rise of Hanz and Buerkle — and the issue of portable generators — has injected a new contentiousness into the CPSC. In an impassioned speech in October, decrying the future of her agency, CPSC commissioner Marietta Robinson called Hanz “the one person who fought the hardest against any safety measures” for portable generators.Hanz declined to comment on a detailed list of questions. In a statement from the CPSC’s public-affairs office attributed to Hanz, she said she has recused herself. “Under the Trump Administration Ethics Pledge I cannot have any involvement with my former employer, nor with PGMA (Portable Generator Manufacturers Association) for two years, including contracts and regulations. In addition, to avoid any appearance of partiality, I will have no involvement in matters related to any PGMA members,” she wrote in an email. Briggs & Stratton also declined to respond to detailed questions. The company said in a statement it “is and has always been committed to safe operation of generators.”While Trump has achieved few of his legislative priorities, his administration is succeeding in broadly eroding federal regulation. Having fought the long war, the portable generator industry is now poised to benefit from the president’s success. The government’s portable-generator rule has not been finalized — and now with Buerkle at the helm, it probably will never be.The Consumer Products Safety Commission’s efforts to fix portable generators owe their origins to what now seems like a silly panic just before the turn of the century. In the lead-up to the year 2000, people worried that computers wouldn’t be able to process, in their databases, the transition from the year 1999, a theoretical calamity referred to as the Y2K problem. If they went on the fritz, some predicted, the country might face catastrophes like mass blackouts. Regulators worried that people would rush out to buy portable generators, leading to a spike in carbon monoxide deaths.Y2K passed without incident, and those who purchased generators to protect against the apocalypse sheepishly stored them away unused. But the CPSC realized that it should do something about needless carbon monoxide deaths. Portable generators were killing more people than all heating systems combined.When the CPSC thinks about regulating products, it considers what it calls a “safety hierarchy.” The best solution is to design a product that is safe. Not all products, of course, can be perfectly safe — cars must go fast and table saws must be sharp. So the second-best remedy in the hierarchy is to mitigate the risk with, say, airbags or hand-guards. The third option is a warning label, but the CPSC staff typically views that as least desirable because people often don’t abide by the warnings.In 2002, the commission contacted Underwriters Laboratories, a private company that tests product safety and helps develop industry standards, to see if it would help companies make safer generators. Seeing the government moving, the manufacturers began, with reluctance, to place warning labels on the machines. At the time, the companies claimed, a label that cautioned people not to operate the machines indoors was as far as they were able to go: The technology, they asserted, did not exist to make a generator engine that emitted less carbon monoxide.The CPSC staff was happy enough at the time because third-best is better than nothing. Still, in the case of portable generators, the instructions can produce confusion. They tell consumers not to operate them indoors, but also not to let the machines get wet, which would seem to rule out placing them outside in many cases. Given that people tend to use their generators precisely when weather conditions are snowy or torrential, this is hard advice to follow. Some users solve this conundrum by doing things like putting the generator on their porch or in their garage. Sometimes people have not put their generators far enough outside: More than a quarter of portable generator deaths occur from these sorts of placements.The companies were not sympathetic, says CPSC commissioner Kaye. His impression of the industry view was: “If consumers are too stupid to read the label and they die, that’s their fault.” In the short term, adopting the labels had one positive effect — at least for the manufacturers: It staved off stricter regulation for several years. Unfortunately, it was a different matter for consumers. The labels had no apparent effect. The number of carbon monoxide deaths and injuries caused by generators did not decline.The continuing deaths were disturbing enough that in 2006, under the George W. Bush administration — no fan of regulation — the CPSC decided to take more significant steps. The CPSC began work on a mandatory rule requiring manufacturers to make their machines safer. How the industry got there would be up to them. Companies could develop engines with lower emissions or install switches that automatically shut off the engine when carbon monoxide levels got too high. The agency produced what it calls an “Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” announcing its intentions and allowing the public to comment.Comments flowed in, especially from the industry. In February 2007, manufacturers wrote to the CPSC urging it not to impose a mandatory standard. They said it would be costly. They also raised questions of whether the CPSC even had the power to require engines with low emissions. As for shut-off switches, the companies warned that “the presence of such [carbon monoxide] detections capability may create a false sense of security,” lulling consumers into thinking they don’t need to take other precautions. One of the three signatories was Patricia Hanz, then working for Briggs & Stratton.But with the warning label clearly no longer placating the government, the industry gave some ground, agreeing to begin developing its own voluntary standard in the hopes of avoiding a stricter mandatory standard from the government.For the next three years, little happened. Underwriters Laboratories, today known as UL, again tried to help the industry come up with its voluntary standard, but in 2009, as UL worked toward guidelines manufacturers considered too stringent, they decided to go their own way.The companies created their own trade group, the Portable Generator Manufacturers Association. The PGMA launched its own initiative to create a voluntary standard. But the CPSC remained skeptical. One problem was that the PGMA’s members don’t sell all the generators purchased in the U.S. Other makers wouldn’t be bound by anything that body came up with. (Today, the PGMA says it represents 80 percent of the market, which manufacturers I spoke to estimate to be anywhere from $700 million to $1 billion.)The following year — a decade after the CPSC began trying to prevent deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning — the PGMA held its first technical committee meeting to discuss the safety of portable generators. Among the attendees was Michael Gardner, the vice president of new product development at Techtronic Industries, a maker of generators and other products (including Hoover and Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners). He waited for a discussion of carbon monoxide emissions. And waited.Nobody ever brought them up. “The one topic the technical committee was not talking about — the elephant in the room — was the roughly 70 people dying [each year],” Gardner says. “The technical committee was established to write the safety standard but it did not include carbon monoxide in that standard.”Carbon monoxide poisoning is far and away the chief safety concern from portable generators. Nothing else comes close. But Hanz, then on the PGMA board of directors, argued that the industry should figure out all the easy things first, rather than tackle the most contentious issues right away.With the voluntary standard going nowhere, the CPSC decided it needed to conduct the manufacturers’ research and development for them. It sent out a proposal asking for engineers to try to solve the problem. The University of Alabama answered, and came up with a prototype for a safer generator. In October 2012, the CPSC gave a technology demonstration to the industry showing the new engine could lower emissions by more than 90 percent.Many of the companies scoffed. They argued the prototype was unproven and unreliable, and that the University of Alabama results were obtained in unrealistic conditions. They even suggested the new engine might be dangerous, giving users the sense that they needn’t worry. One company, however, embraced the new ideas: Techtronic. “That was a tipping point for us to say it can be done,” Gardner says. Not until September 2014 did the PGMA release an initial voluntary technical safety standard for manufacturers. The detailed list included provisions for durability (generators had to survive being dropped from a height of eight inches onto a concrete surface); temperature tolerance (wind speed less than 6.7 miles per hour during testing), and rain resistance (a generator must be soaked, wiped off, and then run for 15 minutes).But the standard was mute about the emissions that could kill customers. The CPSC sent a politely worded letter in January 2015 that the “staff notes with concern” that the proposal’s only mention of carbon monoxide was in the context of warning labels and external carbon monoxide monitors. On average in the three years through 2012 (the most recent year for which official data is publicly available — the government’s death-count lags as the tally only becomes official years later), carbon monoxide from portable generators killed 63 people per year. The CPSC’s displeasure carried a threat to the industry: If it didn’t get moving, the commission would move forward on its own mandatory standards effort.To confront this threat, the industry countered with one of its own. In March 2014, the PGMA sent a letter to the commission insisting that it was “not appropriate” for the CPSC “to establish a working group” on the issue, statements that carried the implication it might sue the government if the commission tried to implement a mandatory rule. At that point, the PGMA finally formed two groups of its own to examine two engineering solutions: a low-emissions engine based on the University of Alabama prototype and an automatic shut-off valve. Most of the manufacturers, if pressed, preferred adding shut-off valves; they’re much cheaper. After two meetings, the PGMA picked that option and discontinued the group aimed at looking at lowering emissions.A year later, the PGMA was ready to show off its progress. In March 2016, the trade group hosted a technical summit. Representatives from manufacturers flew in from all over the country. But only one PGMA member made a presentation regarding a new low-emission generator: Techtronic’s Gardner. In front of a crowd that included manufacturing employees, lobbyists, CPSC staff, and one CPSC commissioner, Republican appointee Joseph Mohorovic, Gardner demonstrated that the low-emissions technology worked. Techtronic’s engine produced 90 percent less carbon monoxide than a similar machine.When Gardner finished, he looked around the room and heard nothing but silence. Then, in a scene out of “Citizen Kane,” he heard one lone person begin to clap: Mohorovic. After the talk, the commissioner stood up, came over, and shook Gardner’s hand.At the meeting, someone asked whether companies were going to introduce a low-emissions engine, and if so when. Briggs & Stratton’s Hanz said it would be many years, perhaps five or six. Not so, Techtronic said. It was planning to introduce one in 2017.Finally, in October of last year the time had come. American society makes bargains with its machines. The country is willing to pay, sometimes in lives, for less expensive and more convenient products. But this deal seemed, to the government, too costly.To make any rule, the CPSC is required to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. In this case, the commission estimated that new portable generator restrictions would save $145 million annually, accounting for the government-computed value of the lives saved. (The industry took issue with those figures.) The commission rarely votes on mandatory rules. Indeed, Congress requires the agency to try to get industries to implement voluntary standards first. But the portable generator makers had not done so.The commissioners concluded they had no choice. They voted on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPR), a big — but not final — step toward a mandatory rule. It required manufacturers to build low-emissions machines. The CPSC staff said it was the best alternative. After investigating four different shut-off technologies, they determined that option was “not feasible.” With Mohorovic joining the Democrats, the vote was 4 to 1.“Our staff engineers spent well over a decade trying to get manufacturers to make portable generators safer and all but a couple steadfastly refused to do so,” says Marietta Robinson, a commissioner appointed by President Obama. “This NPR was absolutely essential in forcing manufacturers to do the right thing to save lives.”Meanwhile, the manufacturers were still dithering on a voluntary standard. They couldn’t even agree on how to measure how much carbon monoxide their engines emitted. In April of this year, UL tried to take a preliminary step; it proposed a uniform method for measuring emissions. Techtronic lobbied for it. Briggs & Stratton pushed against it. Things got heated: At one point, a Briggs & Stratton employee labeled Techtronic a “rogue company” in an email circulated to PGMA members. During the voting, some manufacturers changed their position, from being for the standard to being against. Briggs won and the measure was narrowly defeated. Today, with Buerkle as chair, the fate of the mandatory standard seems doomed. She has already voted against it once, and stated that the CPSC has no power to regulate generators’ carbon monoxide emissions. Installing Hanz as general counsel has only made some CPSC officials more pessimistic about regulating portable generators. Buerkle says Hanz is qualified and that her appointment was fully vetted by ethics officials.Nearly two decades after carbon monoxide concerns first arose, the industry says it is close to a voluntary standard. Even this move has twists and turns. PGMA is working on a less stringent guideline, only requiring a shutoff sensor. It is aiming to have it completed by this year.At the same time, UL circulated a competing, stricter measure, requiring both a shutoff sensor and a low-emission engine. Again, members lobbied intensely. The nay votes had a surprising supporter: Mohorovic. The Republican commissioner has left the CPSC and taken a job at the law firm Dentons. And he has flipped from the position he held as a public servant. He now is against a low-emissions engine, sending a series of emails attacking UL’s standard and urging members to vote against. “There is no evidence, data or modeling” that UL’s standard will save lives, he wrote recently in an email to one voter. (He did not respond to questions about why or who his client was.)Buerkle, too, advocates for a shutoff sensor. She contends they are the safer alternative. “I’m told by CPSC staff,” she says, that “shutoff technology will be far more effective” in saving lives. She says the staff told her that shutoff switches would reduce the figure by somewhere around 99 percent.But in fact that 99 percent figure is an industry estimate. The CPSC acknowledges that it has neither calculated how many deaths the shutoff valves will save, nor concluded that they’re more effective at saving lives than low-emission technology. The staff at the commission has worried that carbon monoxide can migrate away from a machine such that it kills without ever triggering the shutoff switches. And staffers worry that the switches might trigger bothersome shut-offs, leading consumers to disable the switches. The industry says it has resolved those concerns, but Techtronic takes issue with the figure. Calling PGMA’s 99 percent claim “misleading,” the company says it has not been peer-reviewed and doesn’t account for many scenarios when portable generators are used.Buerkle is satisfied with the industry’s progress: “I’m just happy where we are right now. We are on the verge with technology that will save lives.”Others at the CPSC remain skeptical. “I am extremely concerned that backing off now, as our chair and general counsel have made clear they intend to do, will, at a minimum, delay these life-saving efforts and, perhaps stop them altogether,” says Robinson, the Democratic commissioner whose term has expired. (She will leave when her replacement is confirmed.) But with Buerkle’s ascendancy, there’s not much Democratic commissioners can do.The industry says some manufacturers aim to start marketing machines with shutoff switches next year. “This should be a good news story that industry stepped up to do the right thing,” says Edward Krenik, a lobbyist who represents the PGMA. “Though it took a while.”For its part, Techtronic kept its promise to put a low-emissions generator on the market. They’re available now — and they sell for less than many other competing products. But to the industry, that makes Techtronic an outcast.
ProPublica Local Reporting Network Selects Seven Newsrooms Across U.S.
by ProPublica ProPublica today named the seven newsrooms and local reporters that will participate in the inaugural ProPublica Local Reporting Network.The yearlong initiative, which kicks off in January, was created to support investigative journalism at local and regional news organizations, particularly in cities with populations below 1 million. ProPublica will reimburse the newsrooms for salary for the selected reporters and provide extensive support and guidance for their stories.Winners were selected from a pool of 239 applications from 45 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The projects selected by editors should surprise and probe deeply, with the potential to spur positive change. Topics covered, among others, will include conflicts of interest, housing, mental health care, criminal justice and workplace safety. The selected newsrooms and reporters are:
I Spent Years Reporting on Chicago’s Property Tax System. Here’s What Got Me Out of the Weeds.
by Jason Grotto Coefficient of dispersion, price-related differential, first-pass, second-pass, assessment level, effective tax rate ... I’d use these terms in meetings with my editors, and I could feel my own eyelids getting heavy.For about 2 1/2 years now, I’ve been reporting on the Cook County property tax assessment system, uncovering inequities and explaining them to readers. At times, the work has been mind-numbing, with long stretches when I was lost in the weeds. But one thing was certain: Behind all the technical terms and the statistics was a story about the simple concept of fairness.In many ways, the assessor’s office is a black box. Not even attorneys who have worked in the field for decades understand how the office derives values. And Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios has refused to make that information public. My work, to some degree, involves poking holes in the box so we can shed light on how the office operates. My story this week on commercial and industrial assessments is the latest, following work I did on residential assessments for the Chicago Tribune.In the early days of reporting these stories, I found Illinois Department of Revenue studies that suggested the property tax assessment system was deeply unfair. I wanted to determine if the evidence supported that assertion and proved the system was broken. As my reporting — and my work with colleague Sandhya Kambhampati — progressed and I learned more, I began to see how those with the least were paying more than they should while the wealthy paid less.At a time when income inequality has grown to staggering proportions in our country, I came to see that the property tax system aggravated those disparities. Many of those who benefited were political heavyweights who also work as property tax lawyers.How could I present this information in a way that would move readers and, perhaps, drive change? I knew the key was getting behind the numbers and finding the people who were harmed by the system. Their compelling stories fueled the narrative as we presented the nuts and bolts of this arcane system and our investigative findings about it. I found people like Brenda Doyle, owner of Sweet Pea Academy day care, in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the South Side. She ran the day care with her husband, Larry, and daughter Jamilah. Sweet Pea is exactly the kind of small, family-owned business that should get a fair shake. Instead, its tax bill was far higher than it should have been, which made it hard for the family to stay afloat. The story about the Doyles’ business was similar to ones I discovered when reporting on residential assessments for the Chicago Tribune. For that project, I found a block in North Lawndale where nearly every property was overvalued. Many of the people I met grew up in their homes, having inherited them from their parents, and now are having trouble paying their property taxes because they were overvalued. People like Joan Clark, who struggled to pay the property tax bill on the home she grew up in because it was overvalued by 40 percent. She told me she was worried about losing her house.These are the people who matter. They are why we worked so hard to shine a light on this issue.
Meet the Seven Reporters Joining Us on ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network
by Charles Ornstein There are two types of police reporters, Christian Sheckler recalls his executive editor telling him not too long ago: Those who try to make friends with officers and get rewarded with juicy tips about crimes, and those who press for answers on such thorny topics as civil rights, misconduct and accountability.In his four years covering criminal justice at the South Bend Tribune, Sheckler said he’s chosen the second approach.“That hasn’t gotten me invited to any barbecues,” he wrote in an application to be part of ProPublica’s new Local Reporting Network, “but I believe I’ve better served my readers with aggressive reporting on issues such as excessive force, the imperfect protective order system for domestic battery victims and policies on deadly high-speed police chases.”Sheckler and the South Bend Tribune are among seven applicants we selected to be part of our inaugural local reporting project. With support from a new three-year grant, we’re covering the salary and benefits of a reporter at each of these news organizations. The reporters will spend next year working on an investigative project in their home newsrooms and they will receive extensive guidance and support from ProPublica. Their work will be co-published by their home newsroom and by ProPublica.They were selected from a pool of 239 applications and will cover a diverse array of topics, including conflicts of interest, housing, workplace safety, mental health and criminal justice.The other reporters and newsrooms chosen to take part in the reporting network include:
Covering the Midterms With Election DataBot
Derek Willis The midterm elections are less than a year away, and with the balance of power of both houses of Congress at stake, they seem likely to be closely fought. To help local journalists use election data to keep a close eye on candidates and races, we’re today announcing an update to our Election DataBot app.A partnership with the Google News Lab, Election DataBot helps reporters, researchers and citizens keep track of campaign activity. The update adds a host of new information from ProPublica’s political data collection that will help users understand races in even more detail, and provide an even broader picture to their readers. DataBot users can sign up for email alerts for a particular candidate, committee or race, using a Google account. The core feature of Election DataBot remains its firehose of activity about federal candidates and committees, including campaign finance filings, congressional votes and Google Trends data. To those we’ve added congressional press releases from our Represent news application, news stories about incumbents from Google News, campaign videos from YouTube and deleted tweets from Politwoops.Right now, DataBot’s most complete set of information is about congressional incumbents running for re-election. The press releases and news stories are about those lawmakers, while campaign videos and deleted tweets cover challengers and open seat candidates, too.That means an even richer stream of data about high-profile contests such as the Nevada Senate race or the special Senate election in Alabama on Dec. 12. Election DataBot has a page for each race showing the most recent activity, meaning that reporters quickly can track super PACs spending money to support or oppose a candidate and delve more deeply into Roy Moore’s or Doug Jones’ pages or click on an item to see the FEC filing for each expenditure. Or you can search for a committee such as the Proven Conservative PAC, which backs Moore, and sign up for an alert each time Election DataBot gets updated information about its activities. Election DataBot's Firehose feed for the Alabama Senate race We’ve also beefed up campaign finance filings from Senate candidates, which are filed on paper, thanks to the Federal Election Commission’s API. We’ve also updated candidate information for 2018 Senate and House races, and will be adding Twitter and YouTube accounts for candidates as they appear. This far in advance, the field in many contests is still far from clear. The candidate filing deadline in many states is still months away. But with congressional candidates raising more than $386 million in the first six months of 2017, it is not too early to be keeping an eye on key races.In the meantime, Election DataBot will get new information throughout each day, updating FEC filings every 15 minutes and other information several times a day. Because we have more information coming in, we’ve tightened up the main feed, called the Firehose, on the homepage, to cover activity from the past three days.Existing users of the DataBot will notice that we’ve removed a few items, including election forecasts from FiveThirtyEight.com and recent polls. Because the Pollster API we used in the past only contains polls on presidential approval and generic House of Representatives election questions, race-specific polls no longer appear. We are looking for data sources that will let us return polling data to Election DataBot.
Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth
by Nina Martin, ProPublica, and Renee Montagne, NPR On a melancholy Saturday this past February, Shalon Irving’s “village” — the friends and family she had assembled to support her as a single mother — gathered at a funeral home in a prosperous black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta to say goodbye and send her home. The afternoon light was gray but bright, flooding through tall arched windows and pouring past white columns, illuminating the flag that covered her casket. Sprays of callas and roses dotted the room like giant corsages, flanking photos from happier times: Shalon in a slinky maternity dress, sprawled across her couch with her puppy; Shalon, sleepy-eyed and cradling the tiny head of her newborn daughter, Soleil. In one portrait Shalon wore a vibrant smile and the crisp uniform of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, where she had been a lieutenant commander. Many of the mourners were similarly attired. Shalon’s father, Samuel, surveyed the rows of somber faces from the lectern. “I’ve never been in a room with so many doctors,” he marveled. “… I’ve never seen so many Ph.D.s.”At 36, Shalon had been part of their elite ranks — an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the preeminent public health institution in the U.S. There she had focused on trying to understand how structural inequality, trauma and violence made people sick. “She wanted to expose how peoples’ limited health options were leading to poor health outcomes. To kind of uncover and undo the victim blaming that sometimes happens where it’s like, ‘Poor people don’t care about their health,’” said Rashid Njai, her mentor at the agency. Her Twitter bio declared: “I see inequity wherever it exists, call it by name, and work to eliminate it.”Much of Shalon’s research had focused on how childhood experiences affect health over a lifetime. Her discovery in mid-2016 that she was pregnant with her first child had been unexpected and thrilling.Then the unthinkable had happened. Three weeks after giving birth, Shalon had collapsed and died.The sadness in the chapel was crushing. Shalon’s long-divorced parents had already buried both their sons; she had been their last remaining child. Wanda Irving had been especially close to her daughter —role model, traveling companion, emotional touchstone. She sat in the front row in a black suit and veiled hat, her face a portrait of unfathomable grief. Sometimes she held Soleil, fussing with her pink blanket. Sometimes Samuel held her, or one of Shalon’s friends.A few of Shalon’s villagers rose to pay tribute; others sat quietly, poring through their funeral programs. Daniel Sellers, Shalon’s cousin from Ohio and the baby’s godfather, spoke for all of them when he promised Wanda that she would not have to raise her only grandchild alone. “People say to me, ‘She won’t know her mother.’ That’s not true,” Sellers said. “Her mother is in each and every one of you, each and every one of us. … This child is a gift to us. When you remember this child, you remember the love that God has pushed down through her for all of us. Soleil is our gift.”Underneath the numb despair was a profound sense of failure — and an acute understanding of what Shalon’s death represented. The researcher working to eradicate disparities in health access and outcomes had become a symbol of one of the most troublesome health disparities facing black women in the U.S. today, disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality. The main federal agency seeking to understand why so many American women — especially black women — die and nearly die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth had lost one of its own. Even Shalon’s many advantages — her B.A. in sociology, her two master’s degrees and dual-subject Ph.D., her gold-plated insurance and rock-solid support system — had not been enough to ensure her survival. If a village this powerful hadn’t been able to protect her, was any black woman safe?The memorial service drew to a close, the bugle strains of “Taps” as plaintive as a howl. Two members of the U.S. Honor Guard removed the flag from Shalon’s coffin and held it aloft. Then they folded it into a precise triangle small enough for Wanda and Samuel to hold next to their hearts.Shalon MauRene Irving was a lieutenant commander in the uniformed ranks of the U.S. Public Health Service. (Courtesy of Wanda Irving) In recent years, as high rates of maternal mortality in the U.S. have alarmed researchers, one statistic has been especially concerning. According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health. Put another way, a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 300 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes. In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition.That imbalance has persisted for decades, and in some places, it continues to grow. In New York City, for example, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers, according to the most recent data; from 2001 to 2005, their risk of death was seven times higher. Researchers say that widening gap reflects a dramatic improvement for white women but not for blacks.The disproportionate toll on African Americans is the main reason the U.S. maternal mortality rate is so much higher than that of other affluent countries. Black expectant and new mothers in the U.S. die at about the same rate as women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan, the World Health Organization estimates.What’s more, even relatively well-off black women like Shalon Irving die or nearly die at higher rates than whites. Again, New York City offers a startling example: A 2016 analysis of five years of data found that black college-educated mothers who gave birth in local hospitals were more likely to suffer severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school.The fact that someone with Shalon’s social and economic advantages is at higher risk highlights how profound the inequities really are, said Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who met her in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and was one of her closest friends. “It tells you that you can’t educate your way out of this problem. You can’t health-care-access your way out of this problem. There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of black women equally to white women.”For much of American history, these types of disparities were largely blamed on blacks’ supposed innate susceptibility to illness — their “mass of imperfections,” as one doctor wrote in 1903 — and their own behavior. But now many social scientists and medical researchers agree, the problem isn’t race but racism.The systemic problems start with the type of social inequities that Shalon studied — differential access to healthy food and clean drinking water, safe neighborhoods and good schools, decent jobs and reliable transportation. Black women are more likely to be uninsured outside of pregnancy, when Medicaid kicks in, and thus more likely to start prenatal care later and to lose coverage in the postpartum period. They are more likely to have chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension that make having a baby more dangerous. The hospitals where they give birth are often the products of historical segregation, lower in quality than those where white mothers deliver, with significantly higher rates of life-threatening complications. Looking over Shalon’s medical records, her friend Raegan McDonald-Mosley saw many missed opportunities “at multiple parts of the health care system.” (Ariel Zambelich for ProPublica) Those problems are amplified by unconscious biases that are embedded throughout the medical system, affecting quality of care in stark and subtle ways. In the more than 200 stories of African-American mothers that ProPublica and NPR have collected over the past year, the feeling of being devalued and disrespected by medical providers was a constant theme. The young Florida mother-to-be whose breathing problems were blamed on obesity when in fact her lungs were filling with fluid and her heart was failing. The Arizona mother whose anesthesiologist assumed she smoked marijuana because of the way she did her hair. The Chicago-area businesswoman with a high-risk pregnancy who was so upset at her doctor’s attitude that she changed OB-GYNs in her seventh month, only to suffer a fatal postpartum stroke.Over and over, black women told of medical providers who equated being African American with being poor, uneducated, noncompliant and unworthy. “Sometimes you just know in your bones when someone feels contempt for you based on your race,” said one Brooklyn woman who took to bringing her white husband or in-laws to every prenatal visit.Hakima Tafunzi Payne, a mother of nine in Kansas City, Missouri, who used to be a labor-and-delivery nurse and still attends births as a student midwife, has seen this cultural divide as both patient and caregiver. “The nursing culture is white, middle-class, and female, so is largely built around that identity. Anything that doesn’t fit that identity is suspect,” she said. Payne, who is also a nurse educator lecturing on unconscious bias for professional organizations, recalled “the conversations that took place behind the nurse’s station that just made assumptions — a lot of victim blaming, ‘If those people would only do blah, blah, blah, things would be different.’”Black expectant and new mothers frequently told us that doctors and nurses didn’t take their pain seriously — a phenomenon borne out by numerous studies that show pain is often undertreated in black patients for conditions from appendicitis to cancer. When Patrisse Cullors, a cofounder of the Black Lives Matters movement who has become an activist to improve black maternal care, had an emergency C-section in Los Angeles in March 2016, the surgeon “never explained what he was doing to me,” she said. The pain medication didn’t work: “My mother basically had to scream at the doctors to give me the proper pain meds.” When white people advocate for themselves or their family members, she said, providers “think they’re acting reasonably. When black people are advocating for our family members, we’re complaining, we’re being uppity, we don’t know what we're talking about, we’re exaggerating.”Limited diversity in the medical profession contributes to the black mothers’ sense of alienation. Blacks make up 6 percent of doctors (though 11 percent of OB-GYNs), 3 percent of medical school faculty and less than 2 percent of National Institutes of Health-funded principal investigators. “That's a real problem that across the spectrum that [black women] are not feeling listened to and respected—that’s a structural problem,” said Monica McLemore, a nursing professor at the University of California­, San Francisco, who has conducted focus groups with dozens of mothers as part of a $50 million initiative to reduce preterm births. “The health sector doesn’t want to admit how much of this is about us.”But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double-whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes. An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a significant physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth. Watch the Video The U.S. medical system is still haunted by slavery. “It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it, it’s everywhere, it’s in the air, it’s just affecting everything,” said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher and member of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance who studies disparities in birth outcomes.It’s a type of stress from which education and class provide no protection. “When you interview these doctors and lawyers and business executives, when you interview African-American college graduates, it’s not like their lives have been a walk in the park,” said Michael Lu, a longtime disparities researcher and former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, the main federal agency funding programs for mothers and infants. “It’s the experience of having to work harder than anybody else just to get equal pay and equal respect. It’s being followed around when you’re shopping at a nice store, or being stopped by the police when you’re driving in a nice neighborhood.”Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, coined the term “weathering” for how this continuous stress wears away at the body. Weathering “causes a lot of different health vulnerabilities and increases susceptibility to infection,” she said, “but also early onset of chronic diseases, in particular, hypertension and diabetes” — conditions that disproportionately affect blacks at much younger ages than whites. It accelerates aging at the cellular level; in a 2010 study, Geronimus and colleagues found that the telomeres (chromosomal markers of aging) of black women in their 40s and 50s appeared 7 1/2 years older on average than those of whites.Weathering can have particularly serious repercussions in pregnancy and childbirth, the most physiologically complex time in a woman’s life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday). Here again, income and education aren’t protective.The effects on the mother’s health may also be far-reaching. Maternal age is an important risk factor for many severe pregnancy-related complications, as well as for chronic diseases that can affect pregnancy, like hypertension. “As women get older, birth outcomes get worse,” Lu said. “If that happens in the 40s for white women, it actually starts to happen for African-American women in their 30s.”This means that for black women, the risks for pregnancy likely start at an earlier age than many clinicians — and women— realize, and the effects on their bodies may be much greater than for white women. This doesn’t mean that pregnancy should be thought of as inherently scary or dangerous for black women (or anyone). It does mean, in Geronimus’ view, that “a black woman of any social class, as early as her mid-20s, should be attended to differently” — with greater awareness of the potential challenges ahead.That’s a paradigm shift that professional organizations and providers have barely begun to wrap their heads around. “There may be individual doctors or hospitals that are doing it [accounting for the higher risk of black women], but ... there’s not much of that going on,” Lu said. Should doctors and clinicians be taking into consideration this added layer of vulnerability?“Yeah,” Lu said. “I truly think they should.”Shalon, her baby brother Simone and her older brother Sam III, in a photo taken in the mid-1980s (Courtesy of Wanda Irving) Shalon Irving’s history is almost a textbook example of the kinds of strains and stresses that make high-achieving black women vulnerable. The child of two Dartmouth graduates, she grew up in Portland, Oregon, where her father’s father was pastor of a black church. Even in its current liberal incarnation, Portland is one of the whitest large cities in the U.S.Thirty years ago, Portland was a much more uncomfortable place to be black. African-American life there was often characterized by social isolation, which Geronimus’ research suggests can be especially stressful. Samuel Irving spent years working as a railroad engineer; he got a law degree and later ran a city agency, but felt his prospects were still constrained by his race. Wanda held various jobs in marketing and communications, including at the U.S. Forest Service. In elementary school, Shalon was sometimes the only African-American kid in her class. “There were many mornings where she would stand outside banging on the door wanting to come back into the house because she didn’t want to go to school,” her mother recently recalled.Shalon’s strategy for fitting in was to be smarter than everyone else. She read voraciously, wrote a column for a black-owned weekly newspaper and skipped a grade. Books and writing helped her cope with trauma and sorrow — first the death of her 20-month-old brother Simone in a car accident when she was six, then the fracturing of her parents’ marriage, then the diagnosis of her beloved older brother, Sam III, with a virulent form of early-onset multiple sclerosis when he was 17. Amid all the family troubles, Shalon was funny and driven, with a fierce sense of loyalty and “a moral compass that was amazing,” her mother said. She was also overweight and often anxious, given to daydreaming (as she later put it) about “alternative realities where people hadn’t died and things had not been lost.” When it came time to go away to college, she chose the historically black Hampton University in Virginia. “She wanted to feel that nurturing environment,” Wanda said. “She had had enough.”By then, Shalon had noticed that many of her relatives — her mother’s mother, her aunts, her far-flung cousins — died in their 30s and 40s. Her brother, Sam III, sardonically joked that the family had a “death gene,” but Shalon didn’t think that was funny. “She didn’t understand why there was such a disparity with other families that had all these long lives,” Wanda said. Shalon nagged her father to stop smoking and her mother to lose weight. She set an example, shedding nearly 100 pounds while managing to graduate summa cum laude. At the start of graduate school at Purdue University, she was a svelte 138 pounds, “very classy and elegant, a lot like her mom,” said Bianca Pryor, a master’s student in consumer behavior who became one of what Shalon called her cherished circle of “sister friends.”They were all bearing the same burden. “There’s this feeling that we’re carrying the expectations of generations, the first ones trying to climb the corporate ladder, trying to climb in academe,” said Pryor, now a marketing executive in New York City. “There is this idea that we have to work twice as hard as everyone else. But there’s also, ‘I’m first-generation, I don’t know the ropes, I don’t how to use my social capital.’ There’s a bit of shame in that … this constant checking in with yourself — am I doing this right?”Shalon set the bar especially high: She was pursuing a double Ph.D. in sociology and gerontology, focusing on themes she would return to often — the long-term effects of early childhood trauma and maltreatment, the impact of the parent-child relationship on lifelong health. She finished in under five years, once again with top honors — “one of the best writers I’ve had in my academic career,” her adviser, sociologist Kenneth Ferraro, said. Wanda and Shalon were so close, “they were like the ‘Gilmore Girls,’” one friend said. (Courtesy of Wanda Irving) She tried teaching, then decided to pursue a second master’s degree, this time from Johns Hopkins. She was also juggling family responsibilities. Wanda had followed Shalon around the country, earning her own master’s degree and working in nonprofit management. “They were like the ‘Gilmore Girls,’” Pryor said. In 2008, Sam III joined them in Baltimore to take part in a study on an experimental MS therapy. With his family’s support, he’d managed to finish college and run a poetry-slam nonprofit for kids. His next goal was to walk across the stage to receive his diploma instead of using his wheelchair. In February 2009, while he was doing physical rehab to regain strength in his legs, a blood clot traveled to his lung, killing him at the age of 32. Afterward, Wanda and Shalon clung to each other more tightly than ever.In 2011 came what Ferraro called Shalon’s “change-the-world opportunity” — a consulting gig at the CDC with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. Soon she joined the agency’s prestigious Epidemic Intelligence Service, a training program in applied epidemiology — in her case, with a focus on community health — whose members served as first responders in health emergencies. As part of the uniformed ranks of the U.S. Public Health Service, she could eventually discharge her student debt — more than $165,000 for Hopkins alone — travel, buy a house. “The permanence was very appealing,” Pryor said.What Shalon wasn’t prepared for was how unfulfilled she was. After Johns Hopkins, she had worked on the frontlines helping at-risk infants, teenage girls and mothers with HIV/AIDS. She was passionate about improving food and housing security to reduce people’s risk for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, but felt like much of her CDC research ended up sitting on a shelf. It bothered her that she rarely met the people behind the data she was analyzing. “She might see the numbers, but I don’t think she actually saw that little girl or little boy have a healthier lunch,” Pryor said.The stress and frustration triggered the old corrosive self-doubts. But gradually, Shalon saw a way out of the box. She joined the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention, refocusing on issues around trauma and domestic abuse— a mission she saw as “liberating” for African-American women, Wanda said. She started a coaching business called Inclusivity Standard to advise young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who wanted to get into college or grad school, as well as organizations seeking to become more diverse. She enlisted her mother, now working as a consultant, and Pryor to join her team. And she decided to write a self-help book, on the theory that many people in the communities she cared about couldn’t afford psychotherapy or didn’t trust it. “She was one of those people — one thing is just not enough,” said her coauthor Habiba Tran, a therapist and life coach with a multicultural clientele. “One modality is just not enough. One way of [reaching people] is just not enough.”“No words have been created to adequately capture the fear and love and excitement that I feel right now,” Shalon, shown here with her puppy Lady Day, wrote to her daughter. (Courtesy of Wanda Irving) Shalon couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a mother. But her romantic life had been a “20-year dating debacle,” she admitted in the manuscript of her self-help book, in part because “I am deathly scared of heartbreak and disappointment, and letting people in comes with the very real risk of both.”In 2014, when Shalon was 34, medical problems forced the issue. For years she’d been suffering from uterine fibroids — non-malignant tumors that affect up to 80 percent of black women, leading to heavy menstrual bleeding, anemia and pelvic pain. No one knows what causes fibroids or why blacks are so susceptible. What is known is that the tumors can interfere with fertility — indeed, black women are nearly twice as likely to have infertility problems as whites, and when they undergo treatment, there’s much less likelihood that the treatments will succeed. Surgery bought her a little time, but her OB-GYN urged her not to delay getting pregnant much longer.Shalon had spent her adult years defying stereotypes about black women; now she wrestled with the reality that by embracing single motherhood, she could become one. The financial risk was substantial — she’d just purchased a town house in the quiet Sandy Springs area north of Atlanta, and her CDC insurance only covered artificial insemination for wives using their husbands’ sperm. In Portland, no one would have blinked an eye at an unmarried professional woman having a child on her own, but in Atlanta, “there is very much a vibe there that things should happen in a certain order,” Pryor said. “And Shalon was not having that at all. She was like, ‘Nope, this is what it is.’”The gamble — funded with her parents’ help — ended in a series of devastating failures. In September 2015, in the midst of one unsuccessful insemination treatment, Shalon was alarmed to discover that her right arm had become swollen and hard. Doctors found a blood clot and diagnosed her with Factor V Leiden, a genetic mutation that makes blood prone to abnormal clumping. Suddenly a part of the family’s medical mystery was solved. Wanda’s mother had died of a pulmonary embolism, so had Sam III, so had other members of their extended family. But no one had been tested for the mutation, which is primarily associated with European ancestry. Had they known they carried it, maybe Sam’s deadly blood clot could have been prevented. It was a what-if too painful to dwell on.By April 2016, Shalon had given up. She had a new boyfriend and she was on her way to Puerto Rico to help with the CDC’S Zika response, working to prevent the spread of the virus to expectant mothers and their unborn babies. There she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by accident. Her excitement was tempered by fear that the baby might have contracted Zika, which can cause microcephaly and other birth defects. But a barrage of medical tests confirmed all was well.More good news: A few weeks later Pryor learned she was pregnant, too. “All right,” she told Shalon, “let’s finally go after our rainbows and unicorns! Because for so long it was just dark clouds and rain.” A worried Bianca Pryor quizzed her best friend from grad school: “Are you getting out of the house? Are you going for your walks?” (Melissa Bunni Elian for ProPublica) In reality, Shalon’s many risk factors — including her clotting disorder, her fibroid surgery, the 36 years of wear and tear on her telomeres, her weight — boded a challenging nine months. She also had a history of high blood pressure, though it was now under control without medication. “If I was the doctor taking care of her, I'd be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one,’” her OB-GYN friend Raegan McDonald-Mosley said.Shalon got though the physical challenges surprisingly well. Her team at Emory University, one of the premier health systems in the South, had no trouble managing her clotting disorder with the blood thinner Lovenox. They worried that scarring from the fibroid surgery could result in a rupture if her uterus stretched too much, so they scheduled a C-section at 37 weeks. At several points, Shalon’s blood pressure did spike, Wanda said, but doctors ruled out preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension) and the numbers always fell back to normal.Wanda blamed stress. There was the painful end to Shalon’s romance with her baby’s father and her dashed hopes of raising their child together. There were worries about money and panic attacks about the difficulties of being a black single mother in the South in the era of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Shalon told everyone she was hoping for a girl.Steeped in research about how social support could buffer against stress and adversity, Shalon joined online groups for single moms and assembled a stalwart community she could quickly deploy for help. “She was all about the village,” Rashid Njai said. “She’d say, ‘I’m making sure that when I have my baby, the village is activated and ready to go.’”She poured more of her anxious energy into finishing the first draft of the book. She sent Tran the manuscript on Jan. 2, the day before the planned C-section, then typed one last note to her child. Boy or girl, its nickname would be Sunny, in honor of her brother Sam, her “sunshine.”“You will always be my most important accomplishment,” she wrote. “No words have been created to adequately capture the fear and love and excitement that I feel right now.”Until recently, much of the discussion about maternal mortality has focused on pregnancy and childbirth. But according to the most recent CDC data, more than half of maternal deaths occur in the postpartum period, and one-third happen seven or more days after delivery. For American women in general, postpartum care can be dangerously inadequate — often no more than a single appointment four to six weeks after going home. “If you’ve had a cesarean delivery, if you’ve had preeclampsia, if you’ve had gestational diabetes or diabetes, if you go home on an anticoagulant — all those women need to be seen significantly sooner than six weeks,” said Haywood Brown, a professor at Duke University medical school. Brown has made reforming postpartum care one of his main initiatives as president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.The dangers of sporadic postpartum care may be particularly great for black mothers. African Americans have higher rates of C-section and are more than twice as likely to be readmitted to the hospital in the month following the surgery. They have disproportionate rates of preeclampsia and peripartum cardiomyopathy (a type of heart failure), two leading killers in the days and weeks after delivery. They’re twice as likely as white women to have postpartum depression, which contributes to poor outcomes, but they are much less likely to receive mental health treatment. If they experience discrimination or disrespect during pregnancy or childbirth, they may be more likely to skip postpartum visits to check on their own health (they do keep pediatrician appointments for their babies). Lack of paid maternity leave and childcare can create additional hurdles. In one study published earlier this year, two-thirds of low-income black women never made it to their doctor visit.Meanwhile, many providers wrongly assume that the risks end when the baby is born — and that women who came through pregnancy and delivery without problems will stay healthy. In the case of black women, providers may not understand their true biological risks or evaluate those risks in a big-picture way. “The maternal experience isn’t over right at delivery. All of the due diligence that gets applied during the prenatal period needs to continue into the postpartum period,” said Eleni Tsigas, executive director of the Preeclampsia Foundation.It’s not just doctors and nurses who need to think differently. Like a lot of expectant mothers, Shalon had an elaborate plan for how she wanted to give birth, even including what she wanted her surgical team to talk about (nothing political) and who would announce the baby’s gender (her mother, not a doctor or nurse). But like most pregnant women, she didn’t have a postpartum care plan for herself. “It was just trusting in the system that things were gonna go okay,” Wanda said. “And that if something came up, she’d be able to handle it.”The birth was “a beautiful time,” Wanda said. Shalon did so well that she convinced her doctor to let her and Soleil — French for “sun” — leave the hospital after two nights (three or four nights are more typical). Then at home, “things got real,” Pryor said. “It was Shalon and her mom trying to figure things out, and the late nights, and trying to get baby on schedule. Shalon was very honest. She told me, ‘Friend, this is hard.’” When Pryor found she was pregnant, too, with her son Everton, she told Shalon, “Let’s finally go after our rainbows and unicorns!” (Melissa Bunni Elian for ProPublica) C-sections have much higher complication rates than vaginal births. In Shalon’s case, the trouble — a painful lump on her incision — emerged a few days after she went home. The first doctor she saw, on Jan. 12, said it was nothing, but as she and her mother were leaving his office, they ran into her longtime OB-GYN, Elizabeth Collins. Collins took a look and diagnosed a hematoma — blood trapped in layers of healing skin, something that happens in about 1 percent of C-sections. The OB-GYN drained the “fluctuant mass” (as her notes described it), and “copious bloody non-purulent material” poured out from the one-inch incision. Collins also arranged for a visiting nurse to come by the house every other day to change the dressing. Collins didn’t respond to a request for comment.Over the next two weeks, Shalon’s records show three more visits to Emory and two nursing visits at home. She feared that the incision wasn’t healing fast enough, perhaps because the blood thinners she was taking to prevent an embolism —another C-section risk — were hampering coagulation. But a wound specialist said everything looked OK. Shalon was worried about Soleil, too: Breastfeeding was harder than expected, and she’d stopped taking narcotic painkillers because she thought they were making the baby groggy. But less powerful painkillers weren’t working; between the pain and the anxiety, she was hardly sleeping. “Patient has poor endurance,” the visiting nurse noted on Jan. 16. “Leaving the home is a TAXING and CONSIDERABLE effort.”What troubled the nurse most, though, was Shalon’s blood pressure. On Jan. 16 it was 158/100, high enough to raise concerns about postpartum preeclampsia, which can lead to seizures and stroke. But Shalon didn’t have other symptoms, such as headache or blurred vision. She made an appointment to see the OB-GYN for the next day, then ended up being too overwhelmed to go, the visiting nurse noted on Jan. 18. In that same record, the nurse wrote that Shalon had to change the dressing on her wound “sometimes several times a day due to large amounts of red drainage. This is adding to her stress as a new mom.” Her pain was 5 on a scale of 10, preventing her from “sleeping/relaxing.” Overall, Shalon told the nurse, “it just doesn’t feel right.” When the nurse measured her blood pressure on the cuff Shalon kept at home, the reading was 158/112. On the nurse’s equipment, the reading was 174/118.“We provide caring and compassionate care to all of our patients,” the Visiting Nurse Health System said in an email. “She was in our care for less than four days but we gave the very best care we could.”Under current ACOG guidelines, blood pressure readings that high should trigger more aggressive action, such as an immediate trip to the doctor for further evaluation, possibly medication and more careful monitoring. A history of hypertension and multiple other risks should raise more red flags, Tsigas said. “We need to look holistically at the risk factors irrespective of whether or not she had a diagnosis of preeclampsia,” she said. “If somebody has a whole plateful of risk factors, how are you treating them differently?” High blood pressure in the postpartum period should always be considered an emergency, she said.“It would have made sense to admit her to the hospital for a complete work-up, including chest xray, an echocardiogram to evaluate for heart failure, and titration of her medication (both pain meds and hypertension meds) to sort out what she needed to feel OK and get [her] blood pressure out of the severe range,” wrote one doctor, a leading expert on postpartum care, who agreed to look at Shalon’s records at ProPublica’s request, but asked not to be identified. “Education on signs / symptoms of stroke seems insufficient — we don’t want to wait until someone is having a stroke to get their BP treated. A next-day follow-up for a BP of 174/118 seems questionable for a postpartum woman. Same-day assessment in her provider’s office, or in the ER, would have been very much within the bounds of common practice.”Instead, Shalon was given an appointment for the following day, Jan. 19, with an OB-GYN at Women’s Center at Emory St. Joseph’s, which handled her primary care. By then, Shalon’s blood pressure had fallen, and there were “no symptoms concerning for postpartum [preeclampsia],” the doctor wrote in his notes. He wrote that Shalon was healing “appropriately” and thought her jumps in blood pressure were likely related to “poor pain control.” Wanda and Shalon left feeling more frustrated than ever.At home over the next couple of days, Wanda noticed that one of Shalon’s legs was larger than the other. “She said, ‘Yeah, I know, Mom, and my knee hurts, I can’t bend it.”When McDonald-Mosley looked over the voluminous medical records a few months later, what jumped out at her was the sense that Shalon’s caregivers didn’t seem to think of her as a patient who needed a heightened level of attention, despite the complexity of her pregnancy.“She had all these risk factors. If you’re gonna pick someone who’s going to have a problem, it’s gonna be her. … She needs to be treated with caution.” The fact that her symptoms defied easy categorization was all the more reason to be vigilant, McDonald-Mosley said. “There were all these opportunities to identify that something was going wrong. To act on them sooner and they were missed. At multiple levels. At multiple parts of the health care system. They were missed.”Shalon’s other friends were growing uneasy, too. Back in New York, Bianca Pryor had her own pregnancy emergency — her son was born very prematurely, at 24 weeks — so she couldn’t be in Atlanta. But she and Shalon talked often by phone. “She knew so much about her body one would think she was an M.D. and not a Ph.D. To hear her be concerned about her legs — that worried me.” Pryor encouraged her, “‘Friend, are you getting out of the house? Are you going for your walks? She told me, ‘No, I’m on my chaise lounge, and that’s about as much as I can do.’”Habiba Tran was so upset at Shalon’s condition that she took her frustrations out on her friend. “I was cussing her out. ‘Go to the f— ing doctor.’ She’s like, ‘I called them. I talked to them. I went to see them. Get off my back.’”Shalon took this selfie with her dad, Samuel, and her newborn daughter on the morning of Jan. 24, 2017. Twelve hours later, she collapsed. (Courtesy of Wanda Irving) On the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 24, Shalon took a selfie with her father, who’d been visiting for a week, then sent him to the airport to catch a flight back to Portland. Towards noon, she and Wanda and the baby drove to the Emory Women’s Center one more time. This time, Shalon saw a nurse practitioner. “We said, ‘Look, there's something wrong here, she’s not feeling well,’” Wanda recalled. “‘One leg is larger than the other, she’s still gaining weight’— nine pounds in 10 days — ‘the blood pressure is still up, there’s gotta be something wrong.”The nurse’s records confirmed Shalon had swelling in both legs, with more swelling in the right one. She noted that Shalon had complained of “some mild headaches” and her blood pressure was back up to 163/99, but she didn’t have other preeclampsia signs, like blurred vision. She checked the incision — “warm dry no [sign/symptom] of infection” — and noted Shalon’s mental state (“cooperative, appropriate mood & affect, normal judgment”). She ordered an ultrasound to check the legs for blood clots, as well as preeclampsia screening.Both tests came back negative. As Wanda remembers it, Shalon was insistent: “There is something wrong, I know my body. I don’t feel well, my legs are swollen, I’m gaining weight. I’m not voiding. I’m drinking a lot of water, but I’m retaining the water.” Before sending Shalon home, the nurse gave her a prescription for the blood pressure medication nifedipine, which is often used to treat pregnancy-related hypertension.Emory Healthcare “is dedicated to the highest quality patient care,” it said in an email. It declined to answer questions about Shalon’s care, citing patient confidentiality.Shalon and Wanda stopped at the pharmacy, then decided to go out to dinner with the baby. While they ate, they talked about a trip Shalon had planned for the three of them to take in just a few weeks. Ever since Sam III had died, Wanda and Shalon made a point of traveling someplace special on painful anniversaries. To mark his 40th birthday and the eighth anniversary of his death, Shalon had gotten the idea of going to Dubai. (“It’s cheap,” Shalon had told Wanda. “The money is worth so much more there. It’s supposed to be beautiful.”) She had long ago purchased their tickets and ordered the baby’s passport. Now Wanda was worried — would she be feeling well enough to make such a big trip with an infant? Shalon wasn’t willing to give up hope just yet. Wanda recalls her saying, “I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.”They got home and sat in Shalon’s bedroom for a while, laughing and playing with the baby. Around 8:30 p.m., Shalon suddenly declared, “I just don’t know, Mom, I just don’t feel well.” She took one of the blood pressure pills. An hour later, while she and Wanda were chatting, Shalon clutched her heart, gasped and passed out.Paramedics arrived to find Shalon on the floor near the foot of her bed “pulseless and not breathing…” They tried to stabilize her, then rushed her to Atlanta’s Northside Hospital, just a couple of miles from her home. In the emergency room, doctors discovered that the breathing tube had been “incorrectly placed,” according to the ambulance service report — into her esophagus instead of her lungs. She never regained consciousness. Four days later, on Jan. 28, Wanda and Samuel withdrew life support and she died.The news spread quickly among her colleagues at the CDC. William Callaghan, chief of the maternal and infant health branch, recalled in March that his boss, who had visited Shalon at the hospital, called to let him know. “It was a chilling phone call,” said Callaghan, one of the nation’s leading researchers on maternal mortality. “It certainly takes, in that moment, what I do, it made it very, very, very concrete. ... This was not about data, this was not about whether it was going up or it was going down. It was about this tragic event that happened to this woman, her family.”Northside declined to do an autopsy, telling Wanda and Samuel that none was required, they recalled. (The hospital declined to comment.) So Wanda paid $4,500 for an autopsy by the medical examiners in neighboring DeKalb County. The report came back three months later. Noting that Shalon’s heart showed signs of damage consistent with hypertension, it attributed her death to complications of high blood pressure.Wanda always knew she would be spending a lot of time caring for her granddaughter. She and Shalon loved the idea of the three of them making their way in the world together, trying to change it for the better. The flag that covered Shalon’s casket is now in a memorial case with other mementos and photos (Sheila Pree Bright for ProPublica) Instead, Wanda has had to find a way to go on without her daughter and best friend. She took a break from her consultant work and moved into Shalon’s cozy townhouse, now crowded with baby books and gear, to assume her new role. Soleil was colicky, prone to gastric problems that kept both of them up all night. Shalon’s villagers stopped by often to help, but much of the time Wanda was on her own. Her grief was most acute at nights, but she couldn’t let it interfere with her duties to Soleil.Eventually the colic went away and Soleil thrived. In June, Wanda and her five-month-old granddaughter went to Chattanooga for the annual meeting of U.S. Public Health Service scientists. A new honor — the Shalon Irving Memorial (Junior) Scientist Officer of the Year Award — had been created to celebrate Shalon’s legacy, and Wanda had been asked to say a few words. She handed the baby to one of Shalon’s CDC colleagues and took the small stage.“Striving for excellence is a choice,” she told the audience through barely suppressed tears. “It is a commitment. … It’s a struggle to become the person you want to be. It’s harder than you want. It takes longer than you want. And it takes more out of you than you expected it should.”Shalon personified excellence, Wanda said. “I don’t know if Shalon became the woman that she ultimately wanted to be. But I do know that she wanted to be the woman she was.”She also knew how Shalon wanted to raise her daughter, and she was determined to do the same: reading to her, traveling with her, taking her to gymnastic and music classes. “She wanted Soleil to go to Montessori school, so I’m looking for a Montessori school for her,” Wanda said. “She wanted her to be christened, we got her christened.” Wanda and Soleil have developed a routine: Every morning they say hello to the photos of Shalon on the living room walls. Every evening they say goodnight. Sometimes Wanda shows Soleil the flag from her mother’s casket, now encased in a wooden frame. She set aside other mementos for later — the academic writings, the certificates and awards, the manuscript of her book with Tran. If all goes according to plan, it will be published early next year.One Saturday afternoon in October, Wanda received another book, this one compiled by Shalon’s friends from the Epidemic Intelligence Service and entitled “Letters to Soleil.” She put the baby on her lap and said, “I’m gonna read you some letters about your mom.” One thing Wanda has tried never to do is cry in front of Soleil. But as she began reading aloud, she was sobbing. “And Soleil just kept looking at me — she couldn’t understand what was going on. And about a minute later she took my glasses off with her hands and put them down and then laid her head right on my chest and started patting me. Which made me cry all the more.” Wanda in the living room of the town house she shares with Soleil. A photo of Shalon is in the background. (Sheila Pree Bright for ProPublica) Shalon was a letter-writer too. One day not long after the funeral, Wanda found a note that her daughter had written to her two years earlier, around the sixth anniversary of Sam III’s death. Shalon had left it among the other important items in her computer, trusting that if something ever happened to her, Wanda would find it. The letter reads like a premonition of her own death: Shalon wasn’t afraid for herself, but agonized over how it would affect her mother.
How the Cook County Assessor Failed Taxpayers
by Jason Grotto and Sandhya Kambhampati
How We Analyzed Commercial and Industrial Property Assessments in Chicago and Cook County
by Sandhya Kambhampati and Jason Grotto
Illinois Legislators Pledge to Deal with ‘Pipeline to Prison’ at Juvenile Correctional Facility
by Duaa Eldeib A top juvenile official testified Tuesday that guards at a southern Illinois youth correctional facility have created a “pipeline to prison” that is hampering the state’s ability to fulfill its juvenile justice mission.More than 100 people gathered at a nearly five-hour hearing before the House Appropriations-Public Safety Committee to address reports of violence in Department of Juvenile Justice facilities and the state’s adult prisons.Kathleen Bankhead, the state’s independent juvenile ombudsman, focused her testimony on a series of alleged assaults by teenagers on staff at the Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg in southern Illinois.ProPublica Illinois reported in October that guards and other employees there have pursued more criminal charges for youth-on-staff assaults since 2016 than all other state juvenile correctional facilities combined.Those assaults included spitting on, pushing or punching guards.Typically, the cases would have been handled internally, with youths losing privileges, spending time in solitary confinement, or having their sentences extended instead of being charged criminally.They were charged as adults because they had turned 18 while in juvenile custody. Those who were convicted received sentences in adult prisons that range from three to eight years, meaning they will be convicted felons when they are released.“IYC Harrisburg’s pipeline to prison is undermining DJJ’s reform efforts to rehabilitate youth and increase public safety,” Bankhead told lawmakers.Bankhead said she had difficulty reconciling the department’s efforts to create a more positive, rehabilitative environment for youths with the pattern of criminal charges for staff assaults. The overwhelming majority of the incidents, she said, did not “involve bodily harm to staff.” She said she believed guards and other employees were reluctant to adopt reform measures.“I’m left with one conclusion,” Bankhead said. “A resistant prison culture.”Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the Chicago Democrat who called the hearing, opened by saying providing a safe environment in which guards and other staff feel respected should not mean sacrificing the security or rehabilitation of those in custody.“I don’t think that any of those things are mutually exclusive,” she said.The juvenile justice department has implemented a number of reforms over the past several years, including eliminating the use of solitary confinement as punishment. Guards say some of those reforms have left them without the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.Anne Irving, the director of public policy with AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents correctional officers at the juvenile facility in Harrisburg and across the state, said at Tuesday’s hearing that the policy changes have created safety challenges for her members and resulted in a significant rise in violence and assaults.“I hope we can begin today with a common agreement,” Irving said, “that no one in this room believes it is acceptable that anyone’s job would include being routinely spit on, groped, splashed with urine or feces, or for that matter, punched or stabbed or otherwise assaulted.”Several speakers referenced the ban on the use of solitary as punishment. Department policies now only allow for its use under limited circumstances.The move away from solitary came as part of a federal consent decree after the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois sued the department for not adequately serving or treating the youths in the department’s custody.“We share in the concerns about violence in the DJJ facilities,” ACLU attorney Lindsay Miller said. “Institutional violence not only presents an immediate threat to the safety and well-being of the staff and youth, but also interferes with the successful treatment and rehabilitation of our clients.”Two speakers went even further. Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for youths in the justice system, called for an end to sending youths to large juvenile correctional facilities, which include Harrisburg and a facility in St. Charles. Citing ProPublica Illinois’ article, Clarke said in written testimony that the story revealed “a stunning indication of the failure” to adapt to the reform.Heidi Mueller, director of the juvenile justice department, said there was “no quick fix” to the agency’s issues.“There is no replacement for rolling up our sleeves and digging in and building a safer and healthier climate step by thoughtful, informed step,” she said.Panelists agreed on possible solutions. They included hiring more workers, improving communication between the department and staff, increasing programming for the youths and training for staff, particularly in dealing with youths with mental health issues.Cassidy said she plans to hold additional hearings on the issue in 2018 and to continue monitoring the situation in Harrisburg.“Whether they’re right or wrong to do it, the staff that are going around the department to make these charges are acting out of a sense of helplessness, too.” Cassidy said. “I don’t think it’s the right way to go, but we have to look at why they’re doing it and address that.”
Jared Kushner By Day: Mideast Peace. Kushner Companies By Night: Donating to a West Bank Settlement.
by Justin Elliott As Jared Kushner leads the U.S. government’s effort to develop an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, the Kushner Companies Charitable Foundation is funding a hardline Israeli settlement in the West Bank.The charitable fund made a donation of at least $18,000 at the “Master Builders” level to American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center, according to a donor book distributed at the group’s annual gala Sunday evening.The Kushner family has given money in past years to the group, which funds construction of the Bet El settlement outside the Palestinian city Ramallah, as Haaretz first reported. But this appears to be the first time they’ve done so while Kushner, whose title is senior adviser to the president, is the lead administration official brokering a peace plan.Advocates of a two-state solution said the donation was troubling given Kushner’s role.“Under normal circumstances you would expect someone who has a background of activism related to Israel to be working very hard to take a step back from that to show that he can be a credible mediator. Not only is that not the case, it’s the opposite,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which eat away at any future Palestinian state, are one of the main obstacles to a two-state solution. Bet El, which was built on private Palestinian land seized by the Israeli military in the 1970s, is considered one of the most politically radical settlements. President Donald Trump has changed U.S. policy by saying he does not believe a two-state solution is a necessary part of a peace deal. In a move expected to exacerbate tensions, Trump will reportedly declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital today.The donation to Bet El came from a charitable fund “solely controlled” by Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, according to Kushner Companies spokeswoman Chris Taylor. Kushner’s White House spokesman declined to comment.Kushner stepped down from his job as CEO of Kushner Companies earlier this year but still has significant financial interests in the family empire, which mainly consists of real estate.The mood of the 1,300 attendees at the Bet El dinner, held at a midtown Manhattan Marriott Sunday, was celebratory. “2017 is a year of construction starts for Bet El Institutions,” said a glossy book distributed at each table. “Facing a new policy of zero condemnations from the US State Department, Bet El is not wasting a minute.”The former president of the Bet El group, David Friedman, is now the Trump administration’s ambassador to Israel. Guests posed for pictures with a smiling John Bolton, the former Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations. A short film set to action-movie music showed high-school-age youth training in the settlement’s military academy. “Bet El is very important because it establishes our claim that God gave us this land,” said Karen Frager, an activist who spoke on a video shown on stage.Earlier Sunday, Jared Kushner made a rare public appearance in Washington, striking a different tone.“Our team has tried very hard to do a lot of listening — not just with Israelis, with Palestinians. [It] understands what their views and red lines are,” Kushner said at the Saban Forum.The Kushner Companies donation to Bet El comes at a time when Jared Kushner is under scrutiny for his unsuccessful effort last December to block a United Nations resolution to condemn Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank. That effort, which was outlined in the charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, came after the election but before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president.The Kushner family is associated with at least two other charitable funds, including the Charles and Seryl Kushner Foundation. A recent report in Newsweek raised questions about whether Kushner properly disclosed his role in the nonprofits on his official ethics disclosure.
How Students Get Banished to Alternative Schools
by Heather Vogell In October 2014, less than two months after entering North Augusta High School in Aiken County, South Carolina, Logan Rewis paused to drink from a fountain in the hallway between periods. As he straightened up, water fell from his mouth onto the shoe of his social studies teacher, Matt Branon, who was standing nearby. Logan says it was an accident, but Branon thought Logan had spat at him.“My bad,” the 15-year-old with bushy sandy-brown hair and blue eyes says he told Branon after the teacher confronted him.Branon, who is also the school’s baseball coach, was incensed. “Freaking disgusting,” he shouted at Logan as the teen walked away. Branon pursued Logan and grabbed the freshman by his backpack.“Get your freaking hands off me,” Logan recalls yelling. School officials say he used a different “f” word.Though Branon had arguably escalated the conflict, he wasn’t disciplined — but Logan was. In a decision that changed the course of his education and life, the school district banished Logan to its alternative school, the Center for Innovative Learning at Pinecrest.The word “alternative” implies a choice. But in an era when the freedom to pick your school is trumpeted by advocates and politicians, students don’t choose the alternative schools to which districts send them for breaking the rules: They’re sentenced to them. Of 39 state education departments that responded to a ProPublica survey last year, 29, or about three-quarters, said school districts could transfer students involuntarily to alternative programs for disciplinary reasons.Like Logan, thousands of students are involuntarily reassigned to these schools each year, often for a seemingly minor offense, and never get back on track, a ProPublica investigation has found. Alternative schools are often located in crumbling buildings or trailers, with classes taught largely by computers and little in the way of counseling services or extracurricular activities.The forced placements have persisted even though the Obama administration in 2014 told schools they should suspend, expel or transfer students to alternative schools only as a last resort — and warned them that they risked a federal civil rights investigation if their disciplinary actions reflected discrimination based on race. Federal data shows that black and Hispanic students are often punished more than white students for similar violations.Moreover, despite legal protections afforded students with disabilities, a disproportionate number of those exiled in some districts have special education plans — like Logan, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning problems.School administrators “hang these children out to dry,” says Logan’s mother, Lisa Woodward. “They don’t want nothing else to do with them.”Now, the Trump administration is being pressed to view such removals more favorably. In November, a group of teachers and conservative education advocates met with aides to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to express concerns about the 2014 guidance. The group said the Obama-era approach made schools less safe, allowing disruptive students to hijack classrooms.That meeting has raised fears among civil rights advocates that the Trump administration will rescind the guidance, prompting schools to increase the number of children excluded from regular classrooms. “We’re deeply concerned this administration is not committed to protecting the civil rights of students,” says Elizabeth Olsson, senior policy associate for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She cited reports that DeVos may scrap a rule aimed at preventing schools from unnecessarily placing minority students in special education.A federal education spokesman on Nov. 29 declined to comment on the issue.To be sure, many students are sent to alternative schools for major offenses involving drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence. But others are forced to go for reasons that include rudeness, using their cellphones at inappropriate times, or — in about half of the states ProPublica surveyed — nondisciplinary problems such as bad grades. In states like Florida, students who fall academically have been pushed to transfer to alternative schools as a way to game the state’s accountability system. Pennsylvania law lets school officials relegate students to that state’s Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth program for showing “disregard for school authority.” In Aiken, about 40 percent of transfers in 2014-2015, the year Logan was reassigned, were for lesser offenses, including 13 for using profanity, 27 for truancy, 28 for not following an adult’s instructions and 18 for showing disrespect. AASA, The School Superintendents Association — which has at times fiercely defended local administrators’ discretion in handling disruptive students — says alternative schools should not typically be used as a disciplinary placement for non-serious offenses.“We don’t want to send a student there because they didn’t take their hat off or they drank poorly from the water fountain, or they’re not as mannered as we’d like them to be,” says Bryon Joffe, the association’s project director for education and youth and development. “What we don’t want our alternative schools to be is a place to put kids we’d rather not have in class.”Aiken County Schools attorney William Burkhalter Jr. says that, under the direction of a new superintendent, Sean Alford, the school system reduced its expulsions, suspensions, and involuntary alternative school transfers in recent years. Still, district officials were acting within their rights in Logan’s case, he says. “He denies it but he spit a huge amount of water on this teacher,” says Burkhalter, who didn’t witness the incident himself. “His shoes, pant legs, whatever. It was gross.” (During a disciplinary hearing, a district official described the incident by saying: “The student spit water on a teacher's shoe as he left the water fountain.”)Burkhalter says Branon has worked for the district since 2012 without receiving any write-ups or reprimands. “The principal has had no problems and says he is a team player, a willing participant in anything he is asked to help with and a solid guy,” Burkhalter wrote in an email. He quoted the principal as saying, “‘I love having him on the staff.”Branon did not respond to emails or phone messages from ProPublica.Discipline wasn’t the original mission of alternative schools. They emerged in the late 1960s as less competitive, more child-centered learning environments that aimed to offer flexible instruction for kids who weren’t thriving in traditional classrooms. But within two decades, their role evolved as school districts began to see them as places to warehouse students who had broken zero-tolerance policies. Under those policies, which were based on the notion that schools could only keep order by refusing to tolerate any potentially unsafe behavior, even first-time or minor incidents were more likely to result in an expulsion or suspension. When students challenged their removal, some courts ordered schools to find a place to educate them — fueling a proliferation of alternative classrooms through the 1990s and 2000s. Even as zero-tolerance policies have fallen out of fashion, involuntary placements in alternative schools for disciplinary reasons have persisted, with districts such as Miami recently introducing “success centers” for students who otherwise might have been suspended. Tasked with educating roughly half a million of the nation’s most vulnerable students, alternative schools generally lack academic rigor. Barbara Fedders, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the schools, says some districts assign their worst teachers to alternative classrooms, and students may not even receive textbooks. “They aren’t given anything that makes schools schools,” Fedders says. “There’s no clubs, no sports.”Many students become discouraged and drop out. While just 6 percent of regular schools have graduation rates below 50 percent, ProPublica’s analysis found, nearly half of alternative schools do.“There is an enormous change in the quality of education that the student has a shot at when they’re moved from regular school to alternative school,” says Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor who wrote a book on school discipline.A middle child, Logan grew up with two sisters in North Augusta, a few miles from the Georgia border. When he was a toddler, his mother and father split up, and she married his stepfather. She worked in customer service at a car dealership; his stepfather was in construction, later taking a job as an automotive technician.Logan had little contact with his father, and his relationship with his stepfather was turbulent. When he wasn’t in school, he enjoyed swimming in nearby lakes or the Savannah River and displayed a knack for hands-on tasks. For a time, he and a friend liked to fix up and re-paint old bicycles. As he became a teenager, he wore shirts with the Polo insignia, an ever-present baseball hat and a wide smile that hinted of mischief.Because of his ADHD, which was diagnosed in third grade, Logan struggled to focus on schoolwork. He had difficulty reading and sometimes acted impulsively. He could get boisterous, wasn’t great at following directions and mouthed off to adults who called him out in front of peers. He took medicine for his attention disorder for several years, but Woodward stopped it when he was in seventh grade because she thought the side effects made him act up more.He was repeatedly disciplined for outbursts in class, disrespect, swearing, silliness and horsing around with other students. As the incidents piled up, Logan became acquainted with the district’s alternative school, the Center for Innovative Learning at Pinecrest. Located a couple of miles from downtown Aiken, the low-slung brick building has long grass, a chain-link fence and a “No Trespassing” sign out back. With a fluctuating enrollment that sometimes exceeds 200 students in grades three and up, the center sits in a neighborhood beset by crime, with pockets of boarded up homes and unkempt yards.In sixth grade, school officials sent Logan to Pinecrest for more than two months after he was accused of pushing another student. The next year, he returned for about a month for repeatedly forgetting his gym clothes. His grades suffered each time.For high school, his mother thought he should go to a small charter school, where he could receive individualized attention, rather than North Augusta. One of Aiken’s larger high schools, North Augusta has 1,500 students and a sprawling campus in an older subdivision dotted with midcentury brick ranch homes. But Logan assured her he would be fine. He was already planning to pursue a vocational track after his freshman year and had his eye on a welding program. As he left middle school, educators created an Individualized Education Program for him that, among other things, said teachers at North Augusta should first remind him of the rules and give him a chance to comply before issuing a citation and should avoid embarrassing him by criticizing him in public. Logan’s first couple of months at North Augusta went relatively well. He made B’s in Algebra 1 and mostly kept out of trouble. He did rack up tardies, repeatedly failing to get from one end of the school to the other in time for class. Another teacher chastised him for saying he didn’t have a book when he actually did. But his mother had met with his teachers and they all talked with Logan about hurrying up. He promised to.Then came the water fountain incident. Afterwards, an assistant principal called Woodward, telling her Logan had spat on a teacher and could be arrested for assault if charges were pressed. “I was like, ‘What in the world has happened to my child?’” she recalls. “Because it’s not out of character for him to mouth off at somebody, but for him to spit on somebody, that was out of character.” She was so upset she hardly spoke to Logan on the drive home. That night, he fled from the house and wandered their working-class neighborhood alone, while she anxiously waited up.When they finally talked over what happened, Woodward says she was crestfallen. “It broke my heart that I had reacted the way I did,” she says.The school referred Logan’s case to a disciplinary tribunal, a group of retired educators who determined punishment for violations of the district’s code of conduct. Branon went to great lengths to bolster his account, collecting statements from nine students about the incident. Most agreed that Logan spat on the shoe of “Coach Branon,” but couldn’t say for sure whether it was intentional.At a hearing a few days later, Woodward pleaded for leniency.“He has progressively gotten better,” Woodward told tribunal members, according to a recording of the hearing obtained by ProPublica. “He's not a bad kid, he's a good kid.” But the chairwoman told Logan his behavior would not be tolerated. “You ain't never going to win being disrespectful to people in charge,” the chairwoman told Logan. The preponderance of evidence supported that he spat and cursed at the teacher, she said as the hearing closed, but even “if you didn't, then it's a lesson that giving the impression that you did sometimes can be just as painful as if you did it. You got it?” She warned him that if he came back before the tribunal for another offense, it would likely expel him.The panel sentenced him to a short-term stint at Pinecrest, which is usually four to five weeks. However, while Woodward was registering him at the alternative school, she says school officials at his old high school met to talk about his IEP without her. At this meeting, despite the tribunal’s recommendation, school officials decided Logan should stay at Pinecrest longer — for at least nine to 10 weeks. “He was doing so good, then because of this little incident that they blew out of proportion, they basically kicked him while he was down,” Woodward says.School administrators “did not feel the mother ever understood what they were putting up with and how much they wanted Logan to succeed,” attorney Burkhalter says.Pinecrest was much smaller than North Augusta High, and Logan knew some of the other students there. His mother usually drove him, even though the route took her an hour out of her way and she feared jeopardizing her job at the dealership.The Center for Innovative Learning was anything but. While the small classes at Pinecrest took pressure off Logan, he wasn’t learning much. His computer-based courses in social studies and science required him to absorb screens and screens of text. “There was a lot of stuff to read and I wasn’t really good at reading,” he recalls. Some kids figured out a way to get around the school’s academic software to surf outside websites, such as Facebook, he says. Other classes taught by teachers were too easy for a high school freshman, he says — his math class spent the period doing multiplication with calculators.“They didn’t teach me anything at all,” Logan says. His grades in the computer-based courses tanked.States and school districts have created a patchwork of rules on who should attend public alternative schools and why. Some set a higher bar than others. In Delaware, students must face expulsion or “seriously” violate the district discipline code before being sent to alternative programs. In Austin, Texas, students who commit one of a list of offenses — including felonies, assaults with injuries and marijuana or alcohol possession — must be transferred to alternative classrooms.Miami-Dade County Public Schools turned to alternative schools after facing pressure from parents and activists to reduce the number of students it suspends and expels. In 2015, the district opened 10 “Student Success Centers” for students who in the past would have been sent home on suspension. Under the district’s plan, such students would report to the centers and receive schoolwork from their teachers — so they didn’t fall behind — along with character education and counseling, if needed. The move dramatically reduced the number of off-campus suspensions. But news media and civil rights advocates soon reported that many students weren’t showing up at the success centers or, if they did, schoolwork from their current classes often didn’t arrive. “Student Success Centers are out-of-school suspensions by another name,” the Advancement Project and a student advocacy group said about their findings in an October report.A Miami-Dade district spokesman said the centers have improved as a result of recommendations from a task force that includes administrators, teachers, counselors and parent-teacher groups. “We will continue to use feedback from all stakeholders to inform decisions,” the spokesman wrote in an email.Regardless of the formal eligibility rules for alternative schools, local officials are commonly afforded wide discretion. That, critics say, allows bias to creep in.In Pennsylvania, a complaint filed by education advocates with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in 2013 alleges the state’s alternative schools are substandard educationally and disproportionately composed of students who have disabilities or are African American. The percentage of students with disabilities sent to the state’s alternative programs was nearly triple the state average — making up 44 percent of the alternative population in the 2012 school year, according to the complaint, which is pending. In 82 Pennsylvania school districts, disabled students made up half or more of the alternative population, with one district assigning only disabled students to the programs. Between 2008 and 2011, African-American students were placed in alternative programs at a rate more than double that of the general student population. Charges of bias in alternative placements have also surfaced in the largest school district in Mississippi — DeSoto County Schools just south of the Tennessee border. Cynthia Lewis says that her daughter A’riauna McMillian’s involuntary transfer to an alternative school last school year in DeSoto County was an unduly harsh punishment that set the African-American teen back academically.Toward the end of her freshman year, A’riauna told ProPublica, she took out her cellphone while in the ladies’ room to use the Snapchat app. Then she dangled the phone over a stall she thought was occupied by a friend she had been goofing around with. The phone’s light flashed as a warning that it was about to start recording. A’riauna’s friend noticed it and yelled that she was in a different stall. A’riauna says she snatched her phone back and started hitting delete, just in case. When the girl in the stall, who was white, came out, A’riauna let her look at the phone — and scroll through A’riauna’s Snapchat feed — to check that nothing was posted or saved. The girl complained to administrators anyway.A’riauna was a good student who had never been in trouble before. The school not only suspended her for three days but also referred her to a disciplinary hearing to consider additional punishment. The hearing officer ordered A’riauna to spend 30 school days in the district’s alternative school for “acts which threaten the safety or well-being of others,” “possession or use of obscene, immoral, or offensive materials” and three lesser offenses, including having a cellphone. Lewis says the district’s code doesn’t recommend an alternative placement for a first offense on such a charge. “I felt like they were railroading her,” says Lewis, who has worked as a bus driver and substitute teacher for the district. She worried her daughter would fall behind in biology and English — classes that had mandatory state tests that spring.When A’riauna entered the DeSoto County Alternative Center that fall, she was scared. “It was like, ‘Oh my God Ma, it’s like they’re in prison,’” she told Lewis. She was subjected to pat-downs each morning that included being required to shake her bra to show she wasn’t carrying contraband. She told her mother that on most days she would do worksheets and spend much of the rest of her time coloring pictures with crayons and markers. When her stint at the alternative center was over, her mother moved her to another high school, fearing that her old one wouldn’t treat her fairly. A’riauna found she needed extra help from teachers to get back on track. The transition was difficult. “She was very depressed in the beginning,” her mother says. With teachers’ help and hard work, she managed to raise her grades, Lewis says.Working with the Advancement Project, the same group that criticized the Miami Success Centers, Lewis and other DeSoto parents have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. “The punishments A’riauna received were harsher than and inconsistent with those allowed by District policy,” her mother wrote in the complaint. The parents say DeSoto’s overwhelmingly white administration and school board have routinely meted out harsher punishments to black students than white students who commit similar offenses. The complaints are pending.Katherine Nelson, a spokeswoman for the school district, which has about 34,000 students, declined to discuss A’riauna’s experience or the parents’ complaints about bias. “We cannot discuss student discipline issues,” she said.There’s little available data comparing how often students of different races are sent to alternative schools for the same offense. But federal data from 2012 documents racial bias in suspending students for lesser offenses, according to Joffe, of the superintendents’ association. In the 5 percent of offenses that would be considered most serious — when punishments were mandatory under state law or rule because they involved drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence — students of different races were treated similarly, Joffe says. But in the larger pool of offenses, for which officials had more discretion in deciding whether to suspend students, their decisions revealed vast racial disparities. “We know children of color face discipline more often and, more importantly, more harshly for the same sorts of infractions than their white and Asian peers,” Joffe says.The Obama administration has told educators to avoid overly punitive responses to misbehavior by disabled students, too. In a letter to educators in 2016, it said that repeated disciplining of children with disabilities may signal that they are not receiving appropriate support in school. Regular schools should have “release valves” for students who disturb classes — such as sending them to a guidance counselor’s office or giving them in-school suspension — that don’t involve removing them from regular school, Joffe says. Alternative schools should be reserved for students who need services beyond what a regular school can offer, he says — such as substance abuse treatment, anger management or trauma counseling.In recent years, facing criticism for excluding students, some schools have turned to gentler approaches for managing disruptive behavior. One method, called “positive behavior supports,” involves coaching students to improve behavior through rewards, encouragement and changes in their environment and routines. Restorative justice, in which students make amends for bad behavior in lieu of harsh punishment, has also gained proponents.The Aiken school district — which serves roughly 25,000 students, about a third of whom are African American — has not formally adopted either positive behavior supports or restorative justice. But the district has reformed both its code of conduct and the tribunal system in the past two years, with Superintendent Alford telling parents discipline should be instructive and not simply punitive. Because of the changes, fewer offenses result in automatic referrals for severe punishment. And school administrators now must first document what they did to try to help a child correct misbehavior before referring them for expulsion, suspension or an alternative school transfer. The district hired a full-time hearing officer, who has taken the place of the tribunal and has more flexibility in working with families after a disciplinary incident. The goal, Burkhalter says, was to reduce expulsions, decrease the number of hearings and appeals and give school administrators and teachers more discretion in handling discipline problems “with a view toward trying to get students back on track and not trying to push them out the door.”While the number of students in Pinecrest has remained about the same, Burkhalter says, more of them arrive as a result of negotiated agreements between parents and the district after a disciplinary incident. Overall, he says, students are spending fewer days out of school altogether for disciplinary reasons — resulting in fewer lost instructional hours.When he returned to North Augusta after 13 weeks at Pinecrest, Logan found himself far behind peers. “I don’t know any of this, you are way further ahead of me,” he told his math teacher. “I wasn’t doing anything like this in alternative school.” A few weeks later, Logan got caught taking his cellphone out of his pocket twice on one day — though students were supposed to leave it in their locker or a car. This time, the school recommended expulsion and held a special hearing to decide whether the violations stemmed from his disability — which would have precluded the drastic punishment. Though his mom argued that taking out his cellphone was an impulsive act directly connected to his ADHD, staff disagreed. Woodward and her son didn’t bother presenting their case at the tribunal. They had had enough. Feeling defeated, Logan dropped out of high school in the spring of 2015, at age 15.At the time, Logan told himself and his mother that he’d just get an equivalency diploma or attend a special school for at-risk kids in Columbia. Instead, he started working right away, moving down to south Georgia to build chicken houses for his uncle’s company, which supplies them to farms. After a few months, he moved back home, taking another job repairing heating and air conditioning units — and sometimes working 55- to 60-hour weeks. His family moved across town to a subdivision, where they live in a neat brick home with a manicured lawn at the end of a cul-de-sac. Logan contributed $100 of his pay each week to household expenses. Logan Rewis operates a forklift at his uncle's business in rural Georgia. (Travis Dove for ProPublica) On his days off, he shot skeet or hunted deer with family and friends or went down to the drag strip to watch the races. He reached out to his father, who had fallen on hard times. The two met and started to develop a relationship. But this time, his mother says, Logan tried to be the role model, urging his father to face his problems.“He fell into adulthood,” Woodward says. “He’s just taken it and run with it.”In late November, Logan decided to move back to South Georgia and join his uncle’s company, repairing the equipment in the chicken houses. He is living with his cousin near rural Reidsville, making $14 an hour. “He’s a hard worker, I think that’s what he’s got going for him,” his aunt, Dawn Floyd, says. “We couldn’t wait for him to get to us.”Woodward says she’s proud of her son’s determination since he left school, but she still grieves that he will likely never hold a traditional high school diploma and missed out on high school rituals like the class ring ceremony, graduation and prom. “I think it hurts me more than it hurt him,” she says.The weekend he left South Carolina for Georgia was emotional. Afterward, his mother sent him a text, telling him his younger sister missed him.It wasn’t easy for him either, Logan texted back, but he was determined to succeed, for all their sakes. “I’m going to be a millionaire,” he wrote, so that “we won’t have to struggle ever again.”
Local Lawmakers and Civil Rights Groups Call for Suspending Pedestrian Tickets in Jacksonville
by Topher Sanders, ProPublica, and Benjamin Conarck, Florida Times-Union Jacksonville, Fl. — Several local lawmakers and civil rights organizations have called for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to suspend all pedestrian ticket writing over concerns officers are targeting blacks and other residents of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.Isaiah Rumlin, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and Reverend Levy Wilcox of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s local branch, said in a news release made public Tuesday that while public safety was a great concern, so was the possibility that the sheriff’s office had been discriminating against African Americans by selectively enforcing sometimes obscure pedestrian statutes.The calls from the civil rights organizations come two weeks after the Times-Union and ProPublica reported that a disproportionate number of the more than 2,200 pedestrian tickets issued from 2012 to 2017 had been given to blacks. Those tickets, issued for everything from jaywalking to walking on the wrong side of the road, can have an impact on people’s driver’s licenses and, if unpaid, their credit ratings. In the last five years, according to an analysis by the Times-Union and ProPublica, blacks received 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville, while only making up 29 percent of the population. Blacks receive a higher percentage of tickets in Duval County than any other large county in Florida. Blacks in Jacksonville were nearly three times as likely as whites to be ticketed for a pedestrian violation. Residents of the city’s three poorest ZIP codes were about six times as likely to receive a pedestrian citation as those living in the city’s other, more affluent 34 ZIP codes.Tickets for some of the less well-known pedestrian statutes were issued even more disproportionately to blacks. Seventy-eight percent of all tickets written for “walking in the roadway where sidewalks are provided” were issued to blacks. As well, blacks were issued 68 percent of all tickets for “failing to cross the road at a right angle or shortest route.”While the sheriff’s office said tickets were primarily written to help limit deadly accidents in a city with dangerously high numbers of fatal crashes, the analysis showed there is no strong relationship between where tickets are being issued and where pedestrians are being killed.Williams said last month that there was no effort to target African Americans, and his office argued that the racial breakdown of those receiving tickets was merely a reflection of who was committing the violations. The sheriff’s office also said the tickets could be a useful tool for fighting crime. Stopping people for pedestrian violations, the office said, gave officers probable cause to question and sometimes search individuals suspected of having drugs or weapons.Ben Frazier, a spokesman for the Northside Coalition, a community advocacy group, said in a statement that the authorities “should stop tap dancing around the truth,” and admit officers were engaging in “racially discriminatory police tactics.”“The numbers don’t lie,” Frazier said. Frazier said he had sent a letter to Mayor Lenny Curry expressing the same concern. Curry responded to the letter with an email saying he was confident Williams had seen the analysis and would take any action necessary.Asked about the calls for suspending the pedestrian ticket enforcement, a spokeswoman for the mayor said:“As the sheriff and his team continue their review of data and enforcement of policies within the JSO organization, the mayor will continue to work with them on efforts they are leading to build and improve public safety and public trust.”City Councilman Reggie Brown said Tuesday that he and state Rep. Kim Daniels had met with the sheriff shortly after the ticket analysis was published. Daniels is interested in pursuing legislation that would require warnings be issued before any ticket is written, according to Brown. Brown said Daniels also wanted to review policies governing the suspension of driver’s licenses. Pedestrian tickets, both paid and unpaid, can lead to penalties on one’s license.The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showed hundreds of tickets for failing to cross the street in a crosswalk were given in error. It is possible officers simply didn’t understand the applicable statute. Williams told the Times-Union and ProPublica that he had asked the local state attorney to give his office guidance on the proper enforcement of the statute.Both the sheriff and the mayor have said the primary goal of the tickets is saving lives. However, despite a sustained effort at enforcing pedestrian statutes, the number of pedestrians killed each year in Jacksonville has gone up.Williams appeared before a city council committee on Monday, and sought to reassure lawmakers that African Americans were not being targeted. “We base our enforcement on traffic complaints from citizens or data,” he said. “We don’t have ticket quotas.”Williams, though, said he thought it was wise for his office to examine its operations “to make sure that we’re doing things the right way.”“We want to do that and we’re committed to doing that,” Williams said. “And every citation that we issue has got to be correct.”Still, two members of the city council, Brown and Garrett Dennis, said in the news release Tuesday that they supported the idea of suspending the writing of pedestrian tickets until the issue of disproportionate enforcement against African Americans had been addressed.“The racially disproportionate ticket writing statistics are troubling,” Dennis said. He called the idea of suspending the ticket writing “a reasonable request.”
How We Are Monitoring Political Ads on Facebook
by Jeff Larson, Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries Political ads on Facebook have come under scrutiny since it was revealed that Russia used such messages to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election. But online political ads are often seen only by a small target audience — making it difficult for the public to check them for accuracy. In order to shine a light on political advertising on Facebook, we built a tool that allows Facebook users to automatically send us the political ads that were displayed on their news feeds. (You can install the tool, known as a web browser extension, for Chrome or Firefox.)The extension, which we call the Political Ad Collector, is a small piece of software that users can add to their web browsers. When a user logs into Facebook, the extension will collect the ads displayed on the user’s news feed and guess which ones are political based on an algorithm built by ProPublica. Ads that are found likely to be political are made public in a searchable database. Our tool collects basic information about each ad, such as the Facebook ad identification number and the dates we saw the ad in our system. However, to protect the privacy of users, we automatically remove any personally identifiable information from the ads we collect, including Facebook ID numbers and tracking identifiers, which are tiny images that can be used to identify users. We also remove the names and profile links of the user's friends who have liked the ad and any comments on the ad.We collect targeting information that Facebook provides with the ad, but we do not connect that information to any data that could be used to identify a user. The targeting data tells users some of the criteria used to decide which ads to display to which user, such as age and location. Facebook users can see targeting information if they click the dots at the top right corner of any Facebook ad and select “Why am I seeing this?” To determine which ads are political, ProPublica built a machine-learning algorithm to calculate the statistical likelihood that an ad contains political content. This algorithm, called a Naive Bayes classifier, has long been used for identifying spam emails. It works particularly well on classifying text into one of two groups, such as spam or not spam, or, in this case, political and not political.Before we launched the tool, we trained this algorithm on a list of Facebook posts that we knew were political — posts from parties and candidates, and posts about political issues — and a list of posts that weren’t political — published by big stores and other companies.If we relied solely on these initial hand-selected posts, our classifier would have been able to reliably find ads published by the Democratic or Republican parties, but it would have missed ads from groups that we didn’t include in our training data. It also would miss how politically charged language and subjects change over time.So, for our algorithm to distinguish more accurately between political and non-political ads, our tool regularly shows users a selection of ads and asks them to identify which ones they think are political and which ones they think aren’t. These include the ads that appeared on the user’s own feed as well as ads that were shown to other people. Just because a single user tells us an ad is non-political doesn’t mean it will get dropped from our database of political ads, but the algorithm will take that vote into account.The tool is already being used in several countries, including Germany, Italy, Australia, Austria and the U.S. For each country, we customize the the algorithm to learn to identify political content. The open source code behind our project is available to the public.
Political Ads on Facebook
by Jeff Larson, Rob Weychert, Julia Angwin and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries
Facebook Allowed Political Ads That Were Actually Scams and Malware
by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Jeff Larson and Julia Angwin In September, an ad with the headline, “New Approval Ratings For President Trump Announced And It’s Not Going The Way You Think,” targeted Facebook users in the U.S. who were over 40 and labeled as “very liberal” by the tech company.“Regardless of what you think of Donald Trump and his policies, it’s fair to say that his appointment as President of the United States is one of the most…,” ran the text. “Learn more.” At least some people who clicked on this come-on found their computers frozen. Their screens displayed a warning and a computer-generated voice informed them that their machine had been “infected with viruses, spywares and pornwares,” and that their credit card information and other personal data had been stolen — and offered a phone number to call to fix it.Actually, the freeze was temporary, and restarting the computer would have unlocked it. But worried users who called the number would have been asked to pay to restore their access, according to computer security experts who have tracked the scam for more than a year. This ad, which targeted Facebook users in the U.S. who were over 40 and labeled as “very liberal” by the tech company, led some people to a scam site that froze their computers and tried to trick them into paying for bogus tech support. Russian disinformation isn’t the only deceptive political advertising on Facebook. The pitch designed to lure President Donald Trump’s critics is one of more than a dozen politically themed advertisements masking consumer rip-offs that ProPublica has identified since launching an effort in September to monitor paid political messages on the world’s largest social network. As the American public becomes ever more polarized along partisan lines, swindlers who used to capitalize on curiosity about celebrities or sports are now exploiting political passions.“Those political ads, especially right now if you look at the U.S., they are actually getting more clicks,” said Jérôme Segura, lead malware intelligence analyst at anti-malware company Malwarebytes. “Where there are clicks, there is going to be interest from bad guys.”The ads, supplied by ProPublica readers through our Political Ad Collector tool, lured Facebook viewers with provocative statements about hot-button figures such as former President Barack Obama, Ivanka Trump, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway.Clicking on the headline, “Sponsors Pull out From His Show Over This?” — over a photo of Hannity with MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow — led to a page styled to look like the Fox News website. It offered a free bottle of Testo-Max HD, which it described as a cure for erectile dysfunction, although it isn’t approved by the FDA. People who sign up for such free nostrums are typically asked to provide credit card information to pay for shipping and are then automatically charged almost $100 a month, according to reviews online. Another ad we collected led people to a webpage styled to look like the Fox News site. The scam site falsely said commentator Sean Hannity was hawking free trials of a pill called Testo-Max HD, which it claimed could cure erectile dysfunction. Although these scams represent only a tiny fraction of the more than 8,000 politically themed advertisements assembled by the Political Ad Collector, they raise doubts about Facebook’s ability to monitor paid political messages. In each case, the ads ran afoul of guidelines Facebook has developed to curb misleading and malicious advertising. Many of the scams had also been flagged by users, fact-checking groups and cybersecurity services — even the Federal Trade Commission — long before they appeared on the social network.Moreover, most of the sites may have warranted special attention because they had been registered within the 30 days before users sent them to our Political Ad Collector. Paul Vixie, the co-founder of San Mateo, California-based computer security company Farsight Security, said new website domains are more likely to be shady, because fraudsters often shut sites down after days or even minutes and open new ones to stay ahead of authorities looking to catch them.As the midterm elections heat up, such cons are likely to proliferate, along with more devious forms of information warfare. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recently said in an interview with Axios that the social network had missed “more subtle” election interference in part because its security team had been focused on “the biggest threats” of malware and phishing — tricking people into revealing their personal information. Based on ProPublica’s findings, it’s unclear if the world’s largest social network can handle either challenge.Facebook officials told ProPublica that the company is trying to improve its ability to stop harmful advertising, including malware and frauds, but is aware some bad ads get through its defenses. “There is no tolerable amount of malware on the site. The tolerance is zero, but unfortunately that’s not the same as zero occurrence,” said Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of ads. Goldman said of the 14 deceptive ads ProPublica identified, 12 were removed by Facebook before ProPublica contacted the company in November. Facebook took down the other two after ProPublica alerted it to the ads.He declined to identify the specific tools, such as computer virus databases or popular fact-checking website Snopes.com, that Facebook uses to inspect ads. “It’s bad if the bad guys learn how we enforce,” he said.To be sure, malicious advertising — also called “malvertising” — likely will never be stopped fully, several cybersecurity researchers said. Segura said other internet ad companies, not just Facebook, showed similar lapses by letting such ads through. Still, the persistence of these ads on Facebook suggests the company doesn’t have adequate oversight in place to stop problematic ads before they run.Malvertising tactics that have been reported publicly, “should be dealt with and done,” Segura said. Instead, they continue to show up — including in the Facebook ads collected by ProPublica — indicating that “the core issue hasn’t been addressed,” he said.Traditionally, Facebook has been reluctant to manually review ads before they show up on its platform. In a recent video announcement outlining the company’s response to misleading political ads from Russia during the 2016 election, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated that stance. “Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and website without an advertiser ever speaking to someone at Facebook,” he said. He can’t guarantee, he added, that Facebook will “catch all bad content” in its system. “We don’t check what people say before they say it and frankly, I don’t think society should want us to. Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want.”Under pressure from its users and lawmakers, Facebook has said it is trying to become more proactive, instituting rules to evaluate ads and posts and block or limit those it deems misleading. The social networking giant has long had rules against fraudulent ads and those that lead people to “any software that results in an unexpected or deceptive experience.” Last year, it rolled out a policy to prevent “low quality or disruptive content” providers from placing ads, saying that ads should “link to landing pages that include significant and original content that is relevant” to the ad, and that they should not "include deceptive ad copy that incentivizes people to click.” In May, Facebook announced it had stepped up measures against “misleading, sensational and spammy” ads and posts. The company said it had used artificial intelligence to figure out which new pages shared on Facebook were likely to be low quality, which the company defined as having “little substantive content” or a lot of shocking or scammy ads. If its algorithms determined a post was likely to link to that sort of web page, it said, the post “may not be eligible” to be used in advertising.Since 2014, Facebook has also intensified its efforts to crack down on so-called “clickbait,” which it says includes “headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer.”All the consumer rip-off ads recorded by ProPublica violated one or more of these rules.It is unclear how many people have been cheated by such ads on Facebook. ProPublica’s sample is not random or representative, and the vast majority of politically themed ads ProPublica saw were legitimate. But what seems like a small annoyance for the social network can be a big headache for hundreds or thousands of people. For example, Facebook recently told lawmakers that only about 0.004 percent of the content on its news feed from June 2015 to August 2017 was related to the Russian Internet Research Agency’s influence campaign — but that meant 126 million Americans may have seen such items.The Facebook scams are the latest in a long line of deceptive campaigns using digital ad technology, said Robyn Caplan, a researcher who studies algorithms and media at the New York-based Data & Society Research Institute.They are “building off of really well-worn techniques with advertising in the ’90s,” she said. At that time, scammers started using techniques to manipulate search engine algorithms and promote their own pages. “Clickbait” and similar tactics arose as a way to entice web users.On Facebook, though, hucksters can take their manipulation to the next level because the company gathers so much data about people and allows advertisers to target messages based on that data. So scammers can ensure their clickbait is seen by the people they think are most likely to fall for their outrageous headlines.The political scam ads identified by ProPublica had certain traits in common. At least seven were associated with a scheme that sends readers to a web page containing a snippet of malicious computer code, or malware, to lock up the user’s computer. Those included the ad featuring Trump’s approval rating, as well as ones headlined “Ivanka Trump Has Actually Responded to Her Dad’s ‘Incestuous Comments’ About Her” — which were also targeted at “very liberal” people over 40 — and “This Barack Obama Quote About Donald Trump Is Absolutely Terrifying,” for which we couldn’t identify the target audience.Typically, after their computers are frozen, users are instructed to call a toll-free number. Our calls to that number in the weeks after the ads ran went unanswered, but people who track this particular hoax say the perpetrators usually ask for money or login information to fix the person’s machine.These attacks, known as “tech support scams,” have been a common problem for several years, said Will Maxson, the assistant director of the division of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission who has been fighting them since 2013. When Facebook users clicked on some of these fraudulent ads, they were taken to a page with a snippet of malicious computer code, or malware, to freeze their computers. They were then instructed to call a number for tech support, even though they could have unlocked the screen by simply restarting the computer. Maxson said when he started, the scammers called potential victims on the phone and claimed to be from Microsoft or Apple. They have since also adopted more sophisticated techniques, including the computer-locking code seen by ProPublica.We couldn’t figure out who was behind the tech support scams we found. The accounts used fake names such as Facts WorldWide and News Express. Website registrations for the sites used in the ads, which had addresses such as poolparty9.info and factsforyou.info, used a service that masked the actual address. Clues on one related site and in the malicious code pointed to people in India, but such details can be easy to fake, and attempts to contact the people went unanswered.Facebook isn’t the only company to have overlooked the tech support scam. The ad about Trump’s approval rating used a known flaw in web-browsing software that can be exploited to eat up all available memory, making the computer freeze. This browser vulnerability was first reported in 2014 and has been used by tech-support fraudsters for about a year, Segura, the malware researcher, said. But Safari and Microsoft’s newest browser, Edge, were the only ones with a fix when the ads ran. A spokesman for Google, which makes the Chrome browser, said the company had introduced an “initial patch” for the bug in September but was still working on improving protections against the flaw. A spokesman for Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser, said the organization plans to fix the problem in an upcoming version.Even if this flaw were fixed, there are other vulnerabilities that tech support fraudsters commonly use to lock up computers, such as trapping a user in a pop-up screen.To hide their activities from Facebook’s automated scanning tools, almost all of the scammers used a technique called cloaking. Typically, cloaking involves running bad content only at certain times or to selected audiences, redirecting some people to a separate website, or automatically altering the content depending on who is looking. In August, Facebook issued a press release detailing how the company was using artificial intelligence to uncover cloaking.One version of the ad about Trump’s approval ratings sent users to a site named poolparty9.info. When we first saw it on Sept. 25, that site automatically funneled many users to another site — more-updates.tech — which had the bad code to lock up their machines. When we rechecked the ad later, poolparty9.info was blank and didn’t send people anywhere else. Presumably, computer security experts told us, poolparty9 would have kept any Facebook scanners it detected on the same blank page, rather than referring them to more-updates.tech. The shady ads we saw used outrageous headlines about political figures to lure people to click. Facebook said all the ads violated at least one of its policies, including those against fraud and malware. Cloaking also protected a set of ads proclaiming that Kellyanne Conway was leaving the White House. The reasons for her departure given in the linked article changed depending on the user’s choice of browser. In Firefox, the site said she quit her job to sell Allura Skin cream, but when an automated internet archiving service — similar to a tool that a company like Facebook might employ to scan ads —visited the same site, the story merely said Conway had left, and didn’t say what she planned to do.ProPublica’s tool collected at least five different versions of the Conway-related ad. They linked to sites such as cashmillionaire.info and jumping-jimmies.info, which were registered using the email address freemoneyteam@hotmail.com, according to DomainTools, a Seattle-based computer forensics service. These sites encourage visitors to sign up for a free trial of skin cream and ask for credit card information to pay only for shipping. But consumers are then charged nearly $100 automatically for each small vial of cream, according to Snopes.Cloaking is supposed to trick companies like Facebook by showing them legitimate websites and pages. But in these cases, even the sites that were supposed to pass inspection actually violated Facebook’s rules against clickbait and low-quality content and could have indicated to Facebook that something was amiss.Many of the decoy sites offered outlandish or false information. For example, another version of the Trump ad sent people to liveyourpassion9.info, which offered content such as “10 Fantastic and Bizarre Caterpillar Facts” and “10 Most Bizarre Planets You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.”Most of the ads affiliated with the scam that locked people’s computers included links to Facebook pages, not just outside websites. While these Facebook pages may have been intended to enhance credibility, they typically posted either almost no content, or content that was just copied from elsewhere on the web. Many of the Facebook pages and the outside websites used for cloaking featured similar teasers, such as “GET ALL THE LATEST FACTS ALL OVER THE WORLD.” A Google search for that phrase turns up a handful of dubious Facebook pages and outside websites operating since June, suggesting that the scam was rolling months before ProPublica saw the ads this fall.In addition, several of the decoy websites were associated with computer servers known to be problematic. DomainTools gave several of them a “risk score” that indicates they are worth further security review. One was classified as actively dangerous by an antivirus company nearly a month before ProPublica’s tool saw the ad.Facebook failed to unveil the cloaking and detect the flimflams despite many prior specific warnings about the ads. Most notably, the Conway scam had been reported in May by Snopes, with which Facebook has partnered in an effort to block advertising by purveyors of fake news. Snopes found an overwhelming number of almost identical advertisements that falsely claimed Conway and other celebrities had started careers in skin care. Snopes pointed out that the free trials of skin care products could actually cost consumers almost $100. The Federal Trade Commission has fined advertisers for similar behavior.A Facebook page associated with another ad carried more than 100 comments from users warning that this was “fake fake fake” and “clearly a scam!,” including comments posted weeks before ProPublica gathered the ad. This ad, aimed at users who were over 18 and had recently been in Switzerland, trumpeted, “Anonymous shocks Donald Trump by revealing system which made him rich!” The advertisers claimed to offer access to a stock-trading scheme promoted by the hacker collective Anonymous. They sought a minimum deposit of $250 and said “our system will quadruple this in just 24 hours.” They described their “system” as “limited to binary options,” a scheme that involves betting on whether a stock or commodity will go above or below a certain price. The FBI cited binary options earlier this year as a common vehicle for identity theft and other fraud. Advertisers who trumpeted “Anonymous shocks Donald Trump by revealing system which made him rich!” offered access to what they portrayed as a stock-trading tool promoted by the hacker collective Anonymous. They sought a minimum deposit of $250 and said “our system will quadruple this in just 24 hours.” The FBI has cited this type of scheme as a common vehicle for fraud and identity theft. “I just wonder why Facebook keeps suggesting these. This should be checked before actually sending this to people,” one Facebook user complained.The audio file used in the Trump approval ad and other tech support scams to tell people that their computers were infected was flagged as a cybersecurity risk over a year ago. And one of the sites hosting the bad code, more-updates.tech, had been marked as malicious by a widely used service almost two weeks before our tool collected it.Goldman, the Facebook official, would not specify which services Facebook relies on to tell it whether an ad might be a problem. He also said the company doesn’t make decisions on an ad based on any one indicator.Facebook users have been complaining for more than a year about fake political headlines leading to sites that locked their computers, according to a review of Facebook’s online help forums.Cath Nelesen, an Arizona retiree, posted on such a help forum in October 2016, asking “how to stop a hack” that she had seen two times in one week. Nelesen, who describes herself as a “staunch Hillary supporter,” told ProPublica she clicked on an “unbelievable” link about the election. She didn’t recall exactly what it said but thought it may have falsely asserted that Hillary Clinton had been arrested.She clearly remembered what happened next, though: “Immediately there was a message that I was infected by malware and needed to call an 800 number affiliated with Microsoft,” Nelesen said. Her son-in-law had worked for Microsoft, and had told her of swindlers claiming to be Microsoft tech support. So she realized it might be a hoax, but she didn’t know how to regain control of her computer.“Finally I turned off and prayed,” she said. When she turned the computer back on, it worked — possibly due to the prayer, but more likely because the code that locked up the screen only works when the harmful webpage is open.She complained to Facebook and received a generic answer about the importance of reporting problems and avoiding spam. “It was completely worthless to me,” Nelesen said. “You’d think if you report something to somebody the problem would stop, but that isn’t the way it goes. I wouldn’t depend on Facebook for any help.”
ProPublica Illinois Q&A: Meet Reporter Jason Grotto
by Andrea Salcedo Jason Grotto, who came to ProPublica Illinois from the Chicago Tribune, believes journalists must fight to get to the bottom of an issue because “if you’re complacent and just take things at face value, you’re going to miss the truth.” In the ninth of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Grotto talked with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.What inspired you to become a journalist?I actually stumbled into journalism. Originally, I wanted to be a high school history teacher. After graduating from school and bouncing around doing a bunch of jobs, I ended up getting an internship at a nonprofit magazine called Catalyst, which covers public education in Chicago, because I was interested in writing. I started working for them and, in doing so, caught the journalism bug. I’d always been very interested and passionate about social justice issues. Reporter Jason Grotto. (Michael Schmidt, special to ProPublica Illinois) I grew up in Chicago and was a bit of a problem child. I went to public schools and did not do well. My mother was remarried, and I ended up moving to the suburbs and got a lot more attention. I used to ditch a lot of school, and I couldn’t do that in the suburbs because they had systems in place. I personally had an experience where I was able to see firsthand the contrast — and I went to a good public school in Chicago. It always made me realize some of the notions that we have about living in a meritocracy are suspect. It just raised a lot of questions for me. That’s kind of been a driving force behind my journalism.What’s been your most rewarding experience as a journalist?Whenever you see impact from your work, it’s really rewarding. When I was at the Miami Herald, I did a series of stories on a poverty program that funded a massive redevelopment project in a poor neighborhood. The developer was from Boston. What this developer was going to do was supposedly build a pharmaceutical park there. One of the things that he said he would do was build a clinic. It turns out there was nobody coming. He was just taking the money and living large. After our stories ran, the developer ended up going to prison. Years later, I got a call from the director of the State Department of Health. She thanked me and said, “We want to let you know that we’re building a clinic on that spot, and your story is what drove us to do that.” That’s the kind of thing you live for.What are you interested in investigating with ProPublica Illinois?I’m very interested in issues of equity, financial issues in particular. For the past five years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of stories on municipal finance. The last couple of years, I’ve focused on property taxation. I think taxation, in general, is very important. I’m interested in ferreting out financial issues that impact poor people in a disparate way.Who are some of your role models in the field?My biggest role model is this pair of journalists who started at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Donald Barlett and James Steele. They wrote a lot about taxation and financial issues. Ever since, I’ve been reading investigations the way you would read a novel. I’ve always looked at those two as models for what I wanted to do. They took very complex issues like income tax and boiled them down and expressed them in a way your average reader can not just understand but also viscerally react to. That’s a huge feat and something I’ve always tried to do with my journalism. I like to think that what we’ve been able to do is write those stories and convey the information in a way that makes people sit up in the chair or spit up their Cheerios.What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish had more coverage?I think some of the forces behind the demographic shifts are among the biggest stories. You’ll see stories headlined, “African-American population is down ‘x’ percent,” but there’s not a lot behind those stories. What I think is important is to try to get behind some of the public policy forces that may be driving some of that. I think that’s one big underreported story here. What we often look at as investigative journalists are ironies. Why something is presented one way but really when you peel back the onion, it’s something else. There’s a lot of that in Chicago, in Cook County and in the state of Illinois.What’s the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?The biggest lesson journalism has taught me is that often you have to fight and work hard to get to the truth. That things that appear a certain way on the surface are not always that way. If you’re complacent and just take things at face value, you’re going to miss the truth. Our job is to get as close to that truth as we can and, in doing so, you have to fight and you have to work really hard because there are some people and some institutions that don’t want you to get there.
Why America Fails at Gathering Hate Crime Statistics
by Ken Schwencke In the early hours of June 5, 2015, Gary Bravo was leaving Sammy T’s in downtown Huntsville, Alabama. The club was hosting a gay night because the last of the city’s few gay bars had closed and some downtown bars were picking up the slack.As Bravo walked out with two co-workers, they encountered a group of young men. One grabbed Bravo’s friend, and Bravo intervened. The next thing he remembers, someone spun him around, and he was on the ground being punched and kicked while his attackers shouted homophobic slurs. Faggot. Cocksucker.“A couple more hits and I would have ended up being brain dead,” he recalled.Bravo suffered extensive injuries from the attack. His right eye was bloodied and swollen, and he couldn’t see from it for weeks. His eye socket had to be reconstructed.Despite his attackers’ words during the beating, police did not investigate it as a hate crime, or report it to state or federal authorities as one.Bravo’s case is just one of thousands lost each year to a deeply flawed system for collecting hate crime data, one that has left the U.S. with unreliable, incomplete official counts and little handle on the true scope of bias-motivated violence.Under a federal law passed in 1990, the FBI is required to track and tabulate crimes in which there was “manifest evidence of prejudice” against a host of protected groups, including homosexuals, regardless of differences in how state laws define who’s protected. The FBI, in turn, relies on local law enforcement agencies to collect and submit this data, but can’t compel them to do so.The evidence suggests that many police agencies across the country are not working very hard to count hate crimes. Thousands of them opt not to participate in the FBI’s hate crime program at all. Among the 15,000 that do, some 88 percent reported they had no hate crimes. According to federal records, the Huntsville Police Department has never reported a hate crime.Local law enforcement agencies reported a total of 6,121 hate crimes in 2016 to the FBI, but estimates from the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the federal government, pin the number of potential hate crimes at almost 250,000 a year — one indication of the inadequacy of the FBI’s data.“The current statistics are a complete and utter joke,” said Roy Austin, former deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. Austin also worked at the White House on data and civil rights and helped develop an open data plan for police data.It’s true that many hate crime cases fall away before they start because about half the victims never report them to authorities.But to understand why so many cases that are reported to authorities still fall through the cracks, ProPublica requested incident reports or aggregate data from more than 350 law enforcement agencies in 48 states, including the 50 largest agencies nationwide, on the bias-motivated crimes they had investigated since 2010.More than 280 agencies responded, but in many cases only to say they hadn’t investigated any such incidents, or had no records, or that their records were bad. When we followed up with agency public information officers, they acknowledged that investigators frequently did not mark down incidents as motivated by bias, even if there was evidence suggesting this was so — a spray-painted swastika, for example, might be classified simply as vandalism and not also as a hate crime.The FBI and some larger agencies champion a two-tiered process in which incidents classified by the first responding officer as potentially bias-motivated are re-evaluated by a second investigator, who determines if the incident should be counted officially as a hate crime. Few of the agencies that responded to our records request appeared to follow this procedure. In most states, local law enforcement agencies send their hate crime data to the state, which is then supposed to submit it to the FBI, but we found several instances in which this chain broke down. The Orlando Police Department, for example, told us it had reported five hate crimes for 2015 to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but the FBI data shows no hate crimes investigated by Orlando that year. Orlando police say FDLE acknowledged the city’s data hadn’t been sent to the FBI “due to a system error,” but an FDLE spokesperson told ProPublica the Orlando police hadn’t submitted the information on time.Variations in how states define hate crimes also cause confusion that contributes to the undercount. That appears to be one factor in what happened with the Huntsville case.Alabama has a hate-crime statute, but it only applies to acts of bias based arising from “race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability,” not sexual orientation. A prosecutor on Bravo’s case acknowledged Bravo’s sexual orientation clearly played a role in his attack, but a spokesman for the Huntsville police said the assault couldn’t be reported as a hate crime because gay people aren’t protected under the state’s law.The 1990 federal law, however, includes crimes against gay people among those it tracks and asks agencies to report such cases even if no hate crime charge was prosecuted.Jack McDevitt, a longtime hate crimes researcher and the director of Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice, has reviewed police incident reports to check if investigators missed indicators that assaults or vandalism were actually hate crimes.“We’ve found quite a bit of misclassification or missed cases that could have been investigated,” he said. “You’ve got police officers who aren’t trained to ask the right questions.”It might not seem like being left out of the official hate crime count would rank high among Bravo’s concerns, but he said it did. Not being counted made him feel as though he and victims like him are being erased — and that there’s no accountability for the bias that motivates their attackers.“If it happens to someone else, they’re going to be treated the same exact way, and it’s going to be unfair,” he said.When we asked local law enforcement agencies across the country for their hate-crime reports and data, it quickly became clear that this was an area of substantial uncertainty and discomfort for many of them.In Omaha, Nebraska, Deputy City Attorney Bernard J. in den Bosch said he couldn’t release older hate crime records in response to ProPublica’s request because the police department suspected that former employees had classified such crimes incorrectly in reporting them to the FBI.“The Omaha Police Department does not feel comfortable providing the numbers since they are concerned about their accuracy,” in den Bosch said, adding that it was difficult to identify hate crimes properly and that the employees entrusted to do so had done a job the department was now “leery of.” Have You Witnessed or Been the Victim of a Hate Incident?ProPublica is collecting accounts of hate crimes from victims and witnesses. Tell us your story. A spokesman for the Madison, Wisconsin, police department acknowledged its officers weren’t trained in identifying bias-motivated incidents and had not been submitting reports properly as a result.For one thing, officers weren’t sure if an incident had to be prosecuted as a hate crime to be counted (it doesn’t). After receiving ProPublica’s information request, department officials said they altered their policies on reporting such crimes to the FBI and reclassified dozens of incidents.In several cases, the information agencies sent ProPublica about hate crime investigations since 2010 was at odds with what they had submitted to the federal government.According to FBI data, the Anne Arundel County Police in Maryland, which polices half a million people between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., reported no hate crimes between 2012 and 2015. But the department sent us 68 pages of reports for the past 5 years, showing that county police responded to well over 100 incidents, including many in which there was evidence of crimes motivated by bias.In one case, a woman brought her new boyfriend, a black man, to the home of her ex-boyfriend. He allegedly swung a hammer at the visitor, saying “I don’t want any niggers in my house, get this nigger out of my house.” According to another report, someone scratched the same word into the side of a black man’s car and stole from it.Officials with the Maryland State Police said many of these cases weren’t reported to the FBI because the Anne Arundel County Police — unsure if they were hate crimes — had flagged them as “inconclusive” in paperwork. Lt. Ryan Frashure, a spokesman for the county police, said the agency has started marking more of its reports as conclusive if they have the appearance of a bias motivation. Indeed, in the 2016 FBI hate crime report, the most recent available, the Anne Arundel County Police reported 16 hate crimes.Officials at some police departments acknowledged that their officers were simply not in the habit of classifying incidents as possible hate crimes, even when there was evidence that this was the case.The Miami-Dade Police Department, Florida’s largest law enforcement agency, reported just two hate crimes to the state since 2010. Records officials told us they could not find any reports from that period in which investigating officers noted that a crime had a bias motivation.“I was on the road for 9 years, but when I wrote a report, I don’t ever remember titling it a hate crime,” said Detective Argemis Colome, a spokesman for the department. “If they would have done graffiti on a wall, it would have been titled a vandalism.” On Jan. 5, 2015, Gary Bravo was assaulted while leaving Sammy T’s in downtown Huntsville, Alabama. According to Bravo, his attackers hurled anti-gay epithets while they punched and kicked him. (Andrea Morales for ProPublica) After speaking with ProPublica, the department’s director ordered an audit to see whether the department had failed to identify hate crimes properly and, thus, to report them to the state and the FBI.In general, police departments nationwide have embraced data in the last 20 years, using an ever-more sophisticated array of it to track where crimes are happening, to allocate resources, and to hold commanders accountable for results. The New York Police Department’s CompStat initiative is among the most prominent of such efforts and has been credited with playing a role in broad, lasting reductions in violent crime in what was once considered an ungovernable city.Yet, for many law enforcement agencies, collecting and using data on hate crimes has remained a stubborn exception. According to Brian Levin, a former New York City police officer who studies hate crimes, some law enforcement agencies lack a commitment from the top to properly investigate such incidents and collect data on them.“You have to have a combination of training, executive leadership, and some kind of infrastructure that is sustained and continuing,” Levin said.Myesha Braden, a former civil rights prosecutor in the Department of Justice, said police departments often miss opportunities early on to communicate to officers that hate crimes are a priority. “If an officer knows coming into the police academy that hate crime is one of the important crimes they’ll be investigating, at least the seed is planted,” she said.A recent ProPublica review of training academy standards found that only 12 states have laws requiring police to learn how to identify and investigate hate crimes at that stage; few agencies provide such training once officers leave the academy.Officers at several police departments told ProPublica they thought it was up to prosecutors to decide if an incident was a hate crime, or that they needed a suspect in custody to categorize an offense as a hate crime in their reports.Such misconceptions stop officers from classifying hate crimes as they should, said Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League’s counsel in Washington, D.C.“To say that there’s not enough to prosecute it, that’s not the question. The question is what happened at the scene of the crime,” he said. It wouldn’t take much to encourage better reporting, he added — for starters, more police departments could add a field to incident report forms allowing officers to mark that a crime had a bias motivation.“What’s on the form is what’s important,” Lieberman said. “You have to have a dropdown box that says ‘hate crime.’”The Boston Police Department is frequently held up as a model because it has a dedicated civil rights unit that handles hate-crime investigations. Officers in the unit train BPD recruits to identify bias motivations when they fill out crime reports, and the unit serves as secondary investigators on every potential hate crime, Sgt. Det. Carmen Curry, a supervisor in the unit, said in an email. On top of that, officers in the civil rights unit search through police reports daily for terms like “gay,” so that potential hate crimes don’t get missed.BPD has reported 996 hate crimes to the FBI since 2010, averaging about 142 a year. “It’s a very difficult thing to maintain trust in law enforcement right now,” Curry said. “The fact that the BPD goes out front and has a unit to respond to these types of incidents sends an important message.”Momentum to pass a federal law to count hate crimes started to build in the late-1980s, spurred in part by a notorious case in New York.In 1986, Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black man, was killed by a car in Howard Beach, Queens, while running in terror from four white men who hurled epithets as they chased him from their neighborhood. Ed Koch, then the mayor of New York, called it a “modern-day lynching.”When the House debated a bill in 1989, Democratic Rep. Barbara Kennelly called Griffith’s death an example of why crimes motivated by bias needed to be distinguished from other crimes, tracked and counted separately.“These crimes of prejudice must be recorded as such if we are to come up with informed ways to prevent them in the future,” she said. “The basic idea behind hate crime legislation is simple: The more we know about these crimes of hate, the better chance we have to prevent them. Accurate data on when, where and how often these crimes occur will help.”Legislation to collect hate crime statistics encountered stiff resistance from the Justice Department, which said requiring police to divine criminals’ intentions would “discredit” the agency’s overall data efforts, and from the White House, which said it would “impose unnecessary burdens” on police. There were also those who opposed including crimes against gay people in the count.“In my opinion, our society should not enshrine homosexuality on a pedestal alongside race and religion as the primary focus of our civil rights laws,” Rep. William Dannemeyer, R-Calif., said before a debate on the bill. “Do not let the sexual revolutionaries hijack the freedom train.”Ultimately, the Hate Crime Statistics Act that passed in 1990 directed the attorney general to keep track of crimes motivated not only by race, color, religion or national origin — the groups protected by the federal hate crime statute at the time — but also those based on sexual orientation.The Justice Department assigned the task to the FBI, which asked local law enforcement agencies to submit detailed information — including the bias motivation, offender’s race, type of offense and date of each possible hate crime — as an addendum to the information they submitted to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program on a variety of crimes, from burglary to homicide. To help police understand what to do, the FBI organized training sessions and put together two large gray books packed with information on investigating hate crimes. By 1996, the FBI had held 61 regional conferences, training more than 3,600 law enforcement officers from nearly 1,200 agencies. The conferences covered “investigation, identification, reporting and appropriate handling” of hate crimes, according to congressional records from that period.The first hate crime data released by the FBI in 1991 had information from 2,771 law enforcement agencies in 32 states. By the next year, that jumped to 6,181 agencies in 41 states and the District of Columbia. By 1999, the number had nearly doubled to 12,122 agencies. In the latest release, 2016, the FBI reported that 15,254 agencies participated. Still, participation just means agencies submitted information of any kind — even if it’s only the form that says they had no hate crimes. The percentage of agencies reporting zero hate crimes has grown from 73 percent in 1991 to 88 percent in 2016.Today, the government does little to help local law enforcement to collect accurate and complete hate crime statistics.The Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, once sent hate crimes specialists around the country to work with state and local cops, but no longer does so.While the FBI still does technical training on how to send data to the UCR program, “the UCR trainers do not provide training regarding the investigation of hate crimes,” according to Stephen Fischer, a spokesperson for the division that used to run hate-crime-specific training. Fischer said the agency is working with local police to modernize their computer systems, which is designed to facilitate all reporting.Cynthia Deitle, the chief of the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit from 2008 to 2011, is now program director for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which has sponsored a handful of hate crime conferences for police similar to those she used to organize at the FBI. In October, she held one at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis that was attended by about 50 people, some in law enforcement, others from community groups like OUTMemphis, a local LGBT group.Six officers came from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, in part because the state noticed the agency’s hate crime statistics were wrong. According to Chief Deputy Floyd Bonner, the sheriff’s office had wrongly classified several incidents as hate crimes, but further review revealed they were not. For example, he said, when two African-American kids got into a fight at school, the reporting officer checked off the box for a hate crime “for some reason.” Those incorrectly categorized crimes amounted to more than half of the hate crimes the agency reported for the year, a problem Bonner attributed to a lack of training.“Time and time again reporting issues come up. So it’s about teaching officers what to recognize,” he said. “We all think that hate crime is on the rise because of the news. But it’s still very important because we should know exactly.”Dennis and Judy Shepard gave the keynote address at the conference, telling attendees about their son, Matthew, who died in 1998 after being beaten and tortured by two men because he was gay, and how they had worked for a decade to push for legislation that expanded the federal hate crime law to cover crimes motivated by a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The Shepard/Byrd Act passed in 2009.After their speech, they spoke with me about their frustration that attacks like the one that took their son’s life continue not to be reported as, or labeled, hate crimes, even since the new law took effect. When communities don’t know the full toll that bigotry exacts, they have no way to defend themselves, they said. They said the 1990 hate crime statistics statute should have made it mandatory for law enforcement agencies to report to the FBI, not voluntary.“The one real flaw of the law is not requiring reporting,” Dennis Shepard said. “If they don’t mark it, then they can’t prosecute it.”The headquarters of the Huntsville Police Department, which has never reported a hate crime to the FBI. (Andrea Morales for ProPublica) Four months after Gary Bravo’s June 2015 assault, the Huntsville Police Department quietly made a single arrest in the case, charging a southern Alabama man with second-degree assault. They said their investigation had led to only one assailant. Since the man was 18 at the time of the attack and had no prior felonies, he cut a plea deal under Alabama’s youthful offender statute, receiving up to three years of probation. His criminal record remains sealed.Publicly, the outcome of the case drew almost no attention. The police and prosecutors had not labeled it a hate crime and dispensed with it as they would any routine street fight.The incident did prompt Marianne Landers to open Deja Vieux, a new gay bar — and now the oldest operating one in the city — in a cavernous, windowless space just across a highway from the Huntsville Police Department. Landers said she felt compelled to open a place for gay people after she read about Bravo’s beating and filed paperwork to form a company just 24 days after the attack. She said she thought of her nephew, who doesn’t live in Huntsville, but is also gay.Still, the bar’s operator, Cecil Gordon, insisted Bravo’s attack couldn’t have been a hate crime. He said local law enforcement agencies were always good to leaders of the gay community and surely would have given Bravo’s case more attention and been tougher on the perpetrators if they knew Bravo was attacked because he was gay.“You can’t fall back on the gay card,” Gordon said of Bravo’s story.On an October visit to Deja Vieux, the talk turned to the attack on Bravo. Several of the men who had come for drinks said they did not know if Bravo had been the victim of a hate crime or agreed with Gordon that he wasn’t.This is what happens when bias crimes aren’t counted and publicly called out as acts of hate, said James Robinson, the CEO of Free2Be, a statewide LGBT advocacy group that does counseling in Huntsville.Robinson tried to publicize the attack on Bravo and helped raise funds for his recovery. He understood the assault couldn’t be prosecuted as a hate crime under Alabama law, but nonetheless thought the police should acknowledge that anti-gay bias had motivated the attack. Otherwise, how would anyone know the violence was aimed not only at Bravo, but at the larger community to which he belonged?“Words have power in two kinds of ways: They have power when you speak them and power when you don’t,” Robinson said. “The words need to be said. This community needs to be recognized.”
A Dubious Arrest, a Compromised Prosecutor, a Tainted Plea: How One Murder Case Exposes a Broken System
by Megan Rose The case of Demetrius Smith reads like a preposterous legal thriller: dubious arrests, two lying prostitutes, prosecutorial fouls and a judge who backpedaled out of a deal.It also delivers a primer on why defendants often agree to virtually inescapable plea deals for crimes they didn’t commit.ProPublica has spent the past year exploring wrongful convictions and the tools prosecutors use to avoid admitting mistakes, including an arcane deal known as an Alford plea that allows defendants to maintain their innocence while still pleading guilty. Earlier this year, we examined a dozen such cases in Baltimore.Smith’s troubling ordeal, Alford plea included, is a road map of nearly every way the justice system breaks down — and how easily a cascade of bad outcomes can be triggered by one small miscarriage of justice. For Smith, a young black man in Baltimore, it started with a questionable collar. Nine years later he’s still struggling to clear his name.The ArrestSmith’s saga began in the summer of 2008 in the low-income, high-crime neighborhood in southwest Baltimore where he lived. A man named Robert Long had been shot twice in the head execution-style that March. Long was a cooperating witness in a police investigation, and the killing had all the makings of a hit.A man and a female prostitute both claimed to have seen the murder and fingered Smith. At the time, Smith was 25 and had a record of minor drug and assault offenses. When he was arrested about three months after the murder, Smith was adamant that he had nothing to do with it.At this point, the justice system appeared to work as it should. Smith had a bail hearing before a judge who said the prosecution’s evidence was nothing more than “skeletal allegations.” In a rare move for a murder case, Baltimore District Judge Nathan Braverman released Smith on $350,000 bond.“It was probably the thinnest case I’d ever seen,” Braverman, now retired, said recently. Smith’s alleged crimes were the most heinous of the cases before him that day, he said, but Smith was the only one granted bail — a sign of how weak the evidence was. Smith has tried unsuccessfully to get the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office to clear his name in a criminal case in which even a top prosecutor said there were “some issues about the facts.” (Lexey Swall for ProPublica) But what should have been the first step in freeing Smith from a misguided murder charge instead further ensnared him. Braverman’s bail decision drew sharp public criticism, and Smith was soon back in the sights of the same detective who investigated the murder.About a month later, Detective Charles Bealefeld arrested Smith again, this time for allegedly shooting a man in the leg during a late-night robbery. Bealefeld, the brother of the then-police commissioner, wrote in his report that “word on the street” was that Smith was the assailant.Smith lived near the victim and told police he knew the victim’s parents well enough to call them by nicknames. But the victim never named Smith or described his assailant as someone he’d seen before. He said only that a black male in his 20s shot him. Later that night at the hospital, the victim identified Smith from a photo array. Bealefeld then found a second witness, another prostitute, who he said also picked Smith out of an array.At this point, Smith was convinced Bealefeld was targeting him. He told his lawyers that the detective had admitted during the arrest that he knew Smith didn’t do it. Bealefeld left the Baltimore police in 2008 amid a federal investigation into a racial incident in the department in which he was named publicly by a city councilman and local media. He declined to comment. Bealefeld is now an officer with the Annapolis Police Department.After Smith’s second arrest, the head of the police union told the local press that it proved Braverman had been reckless in releasing Smith. “It’s frustrating to police officers who did the hard work to get this guy charged,” the union head said, calling for the judge to be banned from presiding over bail hearings.The TrialSmith was jailed until his murder trial 18 months later, and unwaveringly maintained his innocence. The cases against him were remarkably similar: The prosecution relied almost exclusively on eyewitness testimony — and in each case a key witness was a prostitute.In January 2010, Smith went on trial for Long’s murder. Prosecutor Rich Gibson, a six-year veteran of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, hung his case on the testimony of the man who’d first identified Smith as the killer. The witness claimed he’d not only seen the murder from a nearby pay phone, but knew why it was done. Long, he said, had stolen drugs from Smith. Gibson ran with that theory, building Smith’s history of minor offenses into a story of a neighborhood kingpin slaughtering the victim to send a message about what happens to those who steal from him. The Informant View note What Gibson didn’t tell the jury was that the witness was an informant for the police whose assistance on multiple cases had repeatedly kept him out of trouble. The witness only told police he’d seen the murder after he was arrested on an unrelated charge, according to police files. And, court records show, the witness had a clear understanding that any breaks he got for his testimony would best be hidden from the defense. At one point, he even wrote the judge in his case directly to ask for a sentence modification for his participation in Smith’s murder trial, saying “as you already know, the detective nor the state’s attorney can contact me about my matter because that would be promising me something for my testimony.”Even more troubling, there was evidence that the witness wasn’t at the scene of the murder at all. Baltimore has cameras panning much of the city 24 hours a day, and the murder was caught on tape. The shooter couldn’t be seen, but what was clear is that no one was at the pay phone at the time of the shooting, said Michele Nethercott, the head of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore Law School. The prostitute who also said she witnessed the murder wasn’t on the video either, Nethercott said. It’s unclear why the video footage wasn’t addressed in detail at Smith’s trial. Gibson declined to comment about his actions in the case.The jury found Smith guilty. When he was sentenced to life plus 18 years, Smith told the judge, “They know I didn’t do this.”That conviction did more than send Smith to prison. It pushed him into choices he never would have made.The PleaA year after his murder trial in February 2011, Gibson offered Smith a plea deal on the still pending charges for the shooting. Smith, proclaiming his innocence, reluctantly agreed. The system had failed him so badly once, he felt like he was “in a no-win situation,” Smith told the court.The deal Smith made is known an as Alford plea. It allows a defendant to say for the record that he’s innocent of the crime but believes the state has enough evidence to convict him. Still, Smith railed against a central piece of Gibson’s evidence — that the victim had identified Smith from a photo array. That didn’t make any sense, Smith told the judge, since the victim “was my neighbor. He didn’t say ‘my neighbor did it.’ He didn’t say, ‘Well that guy across the street did it.’”Under the plea, Smith would serve 10 years concurrently with his life sentence. But Smith was worried about what would happen when he was exonerated, which Smith fervently believed would happen eventually. If he was no longer serving a life sentence, he didn’t want to be stuck serving the 10 years for another crime he didn’t commit. So, he wanted his plea deal to have an escape hatch: He must be allowed the chance to get out of the 10-year sentence if he was found innocent of the murder.Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry Williams called the deal “strange,” but agreed that under those circumstances Smith could come back to his courtroom to revisit the plea. Gibson also agreed, according to a transcript, and that unlike most plea deals he would allow Williams full discretion.The agreement was also laid out the next day by Smith’s public defender in a court filing. It said that although Williams made no promises about what his ruling would be, the judge would nevertheless be the one to “determine whether to change the sentence” and “the assistant state’s attorney agreed not to oppose the judge’s ruling.”“I’m copping out to something I didn’t do,” Smith said at the hearing. “I just want to get it over with.”The ExonerationAstonishingly, mere months later in the spring of 2011, Smith’s stubborn faith seemed validated.During a related investigation, the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland had turned up Long’s real killer and informed Baltimore prosecutors that they had the wrong man. Federal agents quickly unraveled the case against Smith. It wasn’t about drugs, as Gibson had argued. Instead, the victim, Long, had been killed in a murder-for-hire plot to keep him from testifying about crimes committed by his boss. Long had also specifically warned the Baltimore authorities not to include his lawyer in a meeting about cooperating because the lawyer worked for his boss. But they did it anyway. Six days after police searched his boss’ home based on Long’s information, Long was dead.At Smith’s murder trial, however, Detective Steve Hohman had testified that there was no reason to investigate Long’s boss. He left out that police had done several interviews with Long’s associates that pointed to the boss as a suspect, Long’s family had told them that the boss threatened to kill Long days before his death, and the police had requested the boss’ phone records. But that information wasn’t turned over to Smith’s defense, a violation of Smith’s constitutional rights. Gibson told the jury that “no stone was left unturned.”Federal agents also discovered that the prostitute who’d identified Smith had been six miles away receiving methadone treatment around the time of the murder. She recanted her statement, telling federal investigators that Hohman had yelled, banged the table and generally pressured her into her testimony. (By this time, the state’s other key witness, who supposedly saw Smith from a pay phone, was dead.) Michele Nethercott, head of the Innocence Project Clinic in Baltimore, helped Smith fight to be cleared of a murder he didn’t commit and then to be released from a prison sentence for another crime he said he didn’t do. (Lexey Swall for ProPublica) Hohman has since been promoted, and the Baltimore Police Department said it stands by its investigation.Gibson and the state’s attorney’s office continued to insist to Smith’s lawyers that Smith had been justly prosecuted, according to Smith’s public defender and Nethercott, the innocence lawyer who later took up Smith’s case.A year and a half went by while Smith remained locked up, serving a life sentence for a murder someone else had committed. Under pressure from federal prosecutors, the state finally and quietly dropped the case against Smith in August 2012.“What was driving this case really was the U.S. attorney,” Nethercott said recently. The federal government was about to indict and prosecute another person “while Demetrius was sitting there serving life on a theory that was completely different.”Rod Rosenstein, the top federal prosecutor in Maryland at the time and now the deputy attorney general of the United States, announced that the federal case had “resulted in the exoneration of an innocent man and the conviction of the real killer.”No such declaration came from Baltimore prosecutors.“What they were not willing to do,” Nethercott said, “was to say: ‘We clearly made a mistake.’”Their error didn’t just damage Smith. Braverman, the judge who’d scoffed at the prosecution’s case, had been shortlisted to move up to the circuit court at the time of the bail hearing, according to The Baltimore Sun, but he wasn’t selected. After Smith’s case, the local press closely covered Braverman’s subsequent bail decisions. There was no follow-up acknowledgement from the police or others that his instincts had been right about Smith.And even though Smith was cleared of Long’s murder, he was still in maximum security prison in Hagerstown, Maryland, serving his 10-year sentence for the robbery shooting.The Half MeasureIn May 2013, as promised, Smith went back before the judge to revisit the terms of that deal. By this time, he’d been in prison for nearly five years.The case was now being handled by Tony Gioia, then head of the state’s attorney’s conviction integrity unit. Gioia made no mention of Smith’s innocence on the murder charge, telling the judge that the prosecution had “moved to vacate the murder conviction for a Brady violation” by the original prosecutor, Gibson. Brady refers to the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that said prosecutors must turn over evidence of innocence to the defense for a trial to be fair.Gioia said he’d reviewed the police documents about the shooting, and had “some issues about the facts.” He agreed to modify Smith’s sentence to time served and release him immediately on three years’ probation. Smith was free.But on paper he was still a convicted felon for the shooting, limiting his ability to get a lease and a job — he had three offers revoked after a background check. Smith wanted a clean record and to be completely free of the system that had now eaten up nearly a decade of his life. Smith works with Natural Concerns Landscape Contractors in Maryland. Smith had three job offers revoked because his record still lists a felony for a crime he says he didn’t commit. (Lexey Swall for ProPublica) In the four years since his release, damning new evidence had emerged that echoed the murder case. The prostitute recanted her statement implicating Smith and said she’d been coerced into identifying Smith by Bealefeld, the detective who investigated both of Smith’s cases.The night of the shooting, the prostitute had told police she heard gunshots and saw a man she’d been with earlier flee the scene. Bealefeld, she said, showed her an array of photos and repeatedly pointed to a picture of Smith, saying “That’s him, isn’t it?” When she continually denied that Smith was the man she saw, Bealefeld threatened to arrest her.“I was afraid I’d be locked up, and so I finally signed the array as he had directed me,” she said in an affidavit in June 2013.But the new evidence had come too late. Maryland gives defendants a special path to challenge their conviction with new evidence of innocence, but those who take plea deals are barred. Smith’s Alford plea meant he couldn’t get the conviction vacated.He had one last option: Ask Judge Williams to modify his plea deal again.The Final AttemptWith the help of new pro bono lawyers, Smith filed a motion to change his sentence for the shooting from “time-served” to “probation before judgement,” which means a judge withholds finding a defendant guilty so long as the defendant successfully completes a period of probation. Since Smith had finished his three years of probation, the change would essentially wipe the conviction off his record.On July 28, Smith walked back into Williams’ courtroom in a light blue blazer with hope that the judge would finally end his ordeal.When Smith’s case was called, a familiar face stood up for the prosecution. Gibson, the original prosecutor, was back and he told the judge he opposed any changes.“What’s your basis for saying ‘no’?” Williams asked him. “You acknowledge” that on the murder charge “he was exonerated; is that correct?” “The State acknowledges,” Gibson responded, “that — that after the case was tried, and the defendant was convicted of murder, and after the — the Court of Appeals affirmed that conviction, my office, after discussions with federal authorities, chose to vacate that conviction to allow the federal prosecution to go forward the way they envisioned it.”Williams looked taken aback. “So, you’re stating in open court that your office isn’t saying that he wasn’t guilty. You just did it for other reasons?”Gibson offered only a vague reply, and Williams kept pressing him, at one point interjecting with exasperation that “it’s a simple question.”In all, Gibson evaded the question five times before Williams abruptly stopped and ruled that Smith’s original guilty plea was a binding plea — meaning that the only way it could be changed was with the support of the prosecutor.That contradicted how both the judge and the prosecutor had defined the plea six and a half years earlier. At the time in 2011, Gibson said that the terms of the deal meant Smith could “come back and put it before the judge and the judge can do whatever he’s going to do with it.”And Williams had specifically noted the plea meant that the prosecution was “giving up the right to say to this court, ‘Judge, you cannot change it.’ He now has acknowledged that. ... It will be up to me to make a decision.”But now, for reasons he didn’t explain, Williams said, “I have not the authority ... despite what I would, what I may or may not want to do it’s irrelevant.”“Motion is denied.”Smith’s lawyer, Adam Braskich, jumped up to argue that was incorrect, but the judge cut him off with a curt “thank you.”In the hallway outside the court, Smith shook his head, not entirely surprised. His gold teeth flashed through a smile. “It is what it is,” he said. “You keep fighting.”Braskich and Smith’s other lawyer, Barry Pollack, thought it was clear the judge had the legal authority to change Smith’s sentence.“After being wrongfully convicted of murder and then convicted for an assault he didn’t commit, Demetrius served five years in prison,” Pollack said. “He should not also be saddled with a felony conviction. We didn’t think a fresh start was too much to ask, and we’re disappointed that Demetrius still can’t put this behind him.”
Carried Interest Reform Is a Sham
by Allan Sloan Donald Trump isn’t exactly shy when it comes to denouncing things he doesn’t like. And there’s one particular part of the tax code that he denounced over and over both during the campaign and after taking office.He said that the people benefiting from this portion of the code were “getting away with murder.”So you’d think that the tax bill being pushed through Congress with Trump’s eager backing would be closing this loophole. But you’d be wrong. As you’ll see in a bit, talking about closing the loophole isn’t the same as closing it.The loophole is called “carried interest.” That’s tax jargon for the share of investors’ profits that goes to the managers of private equity funds, venture capital funds and hedge funds. The standard rate is 20 percent of a fund’s profits, although there’s wide variation, both up and down. About This ColumnAllan Sloan is an editor-at-large at ProPublica and a seven-time winner of the Loeb Award, business journalism's highest honor. This column was written for The Washington Post. The loophole is that the managers’ piece of the action comes from owning a piece of the partnership called a “profits interest” rather than getting a fee from the partnership.When an investment has been held for more than a year before being sold, the managers’ “profits interest” proceeds, like the gains that go to the “capital investors” who put up the money, is taxed as long-term capital gains rather than as ordinary income. Cap gains currently carry a top federal income tax rate of 23.8 percent, whereas “earned income” such as fees and salaries carries a max tax of 40.5 percent (or 43.4 percent, if you include the Medicare tax).(The other part of the managers’ fee — typically two percent a year of the investments under management — is treated as regular income.)People, even including many Wall Street types whom I know, have been offended by the carried interest loophole for years.After all, if you run a mutual fund and get a bonus based on your investment performance, that bonus is treated as earned income, not capital gains. So why should things be different for managers of a private equity or venture capital or hedge fund?(I’m putting hedge funds last because although they’re the most popular target, they typically don’t hold individual investments long enough to qualify for capital gains treatment.)In November, after being criticized because their tax legislation didn’t deal with carried interest, House and Senate Republicans addressed the problem. Sort of, but not really.Their “reform” doesn’t require proceeds from “profits interests” to be treated as ordinary income — which would be real reform. Rather, the legislation requires that investments be held for more than three years to get capital gains treatment, rather than the current period of more than one year.That’s pretty much a joke, given that venture capital and buyout funds — whose managers are the biggest beneficiaries of the “carried interest” loophole — typically hold investments for well over three years before selling them. This legislation has the appearance of reform, but not the substance. A spokesman for Kevin Brady, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, told The New York Times that the three-year holding period “strikes the right balance for economic growth and fairness without stifling investment in American entrepreneurship.” But this doesn’t address the substance of the loophole, which is that carried interest payments are actually fees masquerading as capital gains, which means they are taxed at a much lower rate than fees.Let me take you through this a bit.Treating the people who run partnerships differently from the people who are passive investors in partnerships has been around forever. But when private equity, venture capital and hedge funds began pulling in hundreds of billions of dollars of capital and paying their managers billions a year of carried interest, what had been a relatively obscure tax provision turned into a big deal.Lots of private equity types claim that special tax treatment for carried interest is vital to them. However, when you look at history, you can see that claim is dubious at best.Blackstone and Carlyle, two of the biggest private equity firms (which now call themselves alternative investment firms), were founded in 1985 and 1987, respectively.From 1988 through 1990, regular income and capital gains were taxed at the same maximum rate: 28 percent. And in 1991 and 1992, the year another big firm, TPG, was formed, top rates were almost the same: 31 percent for regular income, about 29 percent for cap gains. So unless they were betting on the rates to change — which is, shall we say, highly unlikely — the preferential rate for carried interest was no big deal.The rates didn’t really separate much until 1993. That year, the top regular income rate was more than 10 percentage points above the cap gains rate (39.6 percent to 29.2 percent), and the spread kept widening. (You can find the year by year rates here.)Now what about Trump? Was he fouling his own nest by criticizing carried interest? I think not.As best as I can tell from Trump’s financial filings and his leaked 2005 federal income tax return, he doesn’t play the carried interest game. So even if carried interest were to be reformed properly, it wouldn’t cost him anything.The bottom line: If the pending tax legislation becomes law, heaven forbid, and the carried interest loophole requires a three-year rather than a one-year waiting period, you can bet that Trump and the Republicans will boast about how they taught Wall Street a lesson. And it will be a pack of lies.
The Breakthrough: A Reporter Goes to Ground Zero for Today’s American HIV Epidemic
by Joaquin Sapien A few years ago, freelance journalist Linda Villarosa thought she was done covering HIV. She had accomplished plenty — front page stories for The New York Times, articles in Essence magazine. She started in the 1980s when there was little hope for those who had contracted the disease, but now, with the advent of antiretroviral drugs and the steady decline of AIDS deaths in the United States, the story started to feel, somehow, less urgent.Then, she came across two studies. One from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that if current trends continued, one out of every two black gay men in America would have HIV. Another said Jackson, Mississippi, was essentially ground zero for the disease.She realized she most certainly was not done writing about HIV. Listen to the Podcast On today’s episode of The Breakthrough, Villarosa describes how these studies inspired her to travel to Jackson. There, she witnessed how a disease nearly forgotten in parts of the country continues to aggressively spread among gay black men who lack access to the drugs and services that have saved lives elsewhere.She met Cedric Sturdevant, the project coordinator for a small social services agency called My Brother’s Keeper, who delivers food and medication throughout the Mississippi Delta out of a beat-up Ford Expedition. He serves as a father figure, nurse and motivational coach to dozens of young, HIV-positive men. She met a 21-year-old man who had been taking the preventive drug known as PrEP, but slipped, became infected, and in five months, “looked like AIDS in Africa,” as Villarosa put it.The story made her feel hurt, even angry, at herself and the institutions that neglected these men in crisis.“I reported a lot on black women or HIV/AIDS in general — but black men were often the sources,” she said. “I was never talking to them about their own, you know, the epidemic in their own community.”She has now, in “America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic” for The New York Times Magazine.Listen to how she made it happen on The Breakthrough, the podcast from ProPublica where investigative reporters reveal how they nailed their biggest stories.This will be the final episode of The Breakthrough. No doubt, ProPublica will return to the podcast format in some fashion. If you have ideas, we love hearing from you. Email us at podcasts@propublica.org.You can listen to all of The Breakthrough’s episodes in our archive.Thank you for listening and for all your support.The music from this episode is from Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions and Lee Rosevere.Listen to this podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.
More States Hatch Plans to Recycle Drugs Being Wasted in Nursing Homes
by Marshall Allen Inspired by a ProPublica story in April that described how nursing homes and their pharmacies nationwide throw away hundreds of tons of valuable medicines — and how one Iowa nonprofit successfully recycles them — two states are working to create similar programs.Other states, including Vermont, are exploring the idea as well.“All that medicine is perfectly good and perfectly safe,” said Rep. Nicholas Duran, D-Miami, who co-sponsored a bill in Florida modeled on the Iowa program. “Rather than being burned up, it could be put back to some great use.”ProPublica’s story detailed how the nursing home industry dispenses medication a month at a time, but then is forced to destroy it after patients pass away, stop using it or move out. Some send the drugs to massive regional incinerators or flush them down the toilet, creating environmental concerns.In Iowa, a program called SafeNetRx retrieves the excess medication, inspects it and dispenses it for free to needy patients. Almost 80,000 Iowans have used SafeNetRx to obtain medication — from cheap antibiotics to cancer drugs worth thousands of dollars per month. The state funds the program for about $600,000 a year and in fiscal 2016 it recovered and distributed drugs valued at about $3.4 million. This year it’s on pace to hand out more than $6 million of reclaimed medicine.Many states have laws that allow the donation of drugs, but they don’t have programs that get the drugs safely from nursing homes to those who need them.After reading ProPublica’s story, Duran, who is also the executive director of the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, said he visited a long-term care pharmacy and saw firsthand how much valuable medication was being destroyed.The people at Polaris Pharmacy Services, he said, told him they’d love to donate the medicine, but can’t legally. The new law would create a program to transfer the drugs so they can be dispensed free to patients, he said.About $400,000 worth of the drugs Polaris dispenses each month are returned because they’ve been stopped for some reason, said David Rombro, the pharmacy’s chief executive. The drugs come back in the same sterile packaging, untainted and unexpired.Polaris can get credit for about half the unused medication, but the remaining drugs — worth about $2.5 million a year — must be taken away for incineration, he said. Based on the size of his pharmacy and how many others exist in Florida, he estimates about $50 million worth are destroyed annually statewide.“It’s perfectly good medication,” Rombro said. “There are people that need drugs that don’t have them.”In New Hampshire, radio show host Arnie Arnesen became excited about the idea after featuring the ProPublica story and the executive director of SafeNetRx on “The Attitude with Arnie Arnesen.” She pitched the drug donation idea to New Hampshire Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, urging him to make it happen in New Hampshire.“This makes so much sense,” she recalled saying to the senator. “It even fits in with our thrifty values.”Feltes is now the sponsor of a New Hampshire bill that would create a commission to research how to start a drug donation program like Iowa’s.Vermont leaders also say the Iowa program would be a good fit for their state, where the “ethos” favors recycling, being environmentally conscious and improving access to medication, said Meg O’Donnell, director of government relations at The University of Vermont Medical Center. There’s a chance Vermont would even hire SafeNetRx in Iowa to run its program, she said.“We can say pretty confidently there are some real opportunities,” O’Donnell said. It costs money for nursing homes or pharmacies to properly dispose of the unused medication, Rombro said. Polaris employs two people full time to process the excess drugs, and pays about $5,000 a month to incinerate them.Other companies and nursing homes simply flush them and trace amounts of pharmaceuticals have been found in water supplies throughout the country. In Florida, wastewater is treated and then pumped into the aquifer, or used to water lawns and golf courses, said Jay Sheehan, senior vice president of Woodard & Curran, a company that runs two utilities in the state. But Sheehan said the wastewater is not treated for possible pharmaceutical contamination.“We have a problem and we need to collectively address it,” Sheehan said. “The more we can [donate excess drugs] the better we are as a holistic community, because everything is connected.”
Let’s Make a List of Useful ‘Mediathings’ in Illinois
by Logan Jaffe What is a “mediathing?” Good question, because I just made it up. I’ll lay out in a second what I mean by “mediathing,” but first I want to let you in on my plan.I’m trying to create a publicly accessible list of outlets where Illinoisans get information besides local mainstream* newspapers, TV or radio stations. Why? There doesn’t seem to be a resource like this out there, and the value could be huge. For one, I’d like our reporters at ProPublica Illinois to learn about and keep tabs on stories and discussions happening around the state that we might otherwise miss. And two, documenting where we, as Illinoisans, get our information could not only open doors to new audiences for those outlets but also inform how we at ProPublica Illinois shape and deliver our own reporting. It’s a chance to showcase the variety of media, communities and conversations that exist in Illinois.But ... I can’t do as thorough a job creating this list on my own as we could together. I’m one person in Chicago. That’s not going to work. So, I’m asking you for help to make this list representative of the state.So what do I mean by “mediathing?” Here’s a start:
Bombs in Your Backyard
by Lena Groeger, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Abrahm Lustgarten
Reporting Recipe: Bombs in Your Backyard
by Ryann Grochowski Jones and Abrahm Lustgarten For the past year, ProPublica has been documenting the state of toxic pollution left behind by the military across the U.S. As part of this investigation, we acquired a dataset of all facilities that the Department of Defense considers contaminated. Today we used the data to publish an interactive news application called Bombs in Your Backyard. Here’s how you can use it to find hazardous sites near you — and what, if anything, is being done to remedy the pollution.The data, which has never been released before, comes from the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, which the DOD administers to measure and document cleanup efforts at current and former military locations.There are a lot of great local investigative stories waiting to be done with the data. This reporting recipe is meant to help you find and report ones near you. Bombs in Your Backyard The military spends more than a billion dollars a year to clean up sites its operations have contaminated with toxic waste and explosives. A full map of these sites — which exist in every state in the country, some near schools and residential neighborhoods — has never been made public; until now. Why You (and Your Readers) Should Care
Facebook to Temporarily Block Advertisers From Excluding Audiences by Race
by Julia Angwin Facebook said it would temporarily stop advertisers from being able to exclude viewers by race while it studies the use of its ad targeting system.“Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads,” Facebook Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus.ProPublica disclosed last week that Facebook was still allowing advertisers to buy housing ads that excluded audiences by race, despite its promises earlier this year to reject such ads. ProPublica also found that Facebook was not asking housing advertisers that blocked other sensitive audience categories — by religion, gender, or disability — to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with anti-discrimination laws.Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it’s illegal to “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Violators face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.In her letter, Sandberg said the company will examine how advertisers are using its exclusion tool — “focusing particularly on potentially sensitive segments” such as ads that exclude LGBTQ communities or people with disabilities. “During this review, no advertisers will be able to create ads that exclude multicultural affinity groups,” Facebook Vice President Rob Goldman said in an emailed statement.Goldman said the results of the audit would be shared with “groups focused on discrimination in ads,” and that Facebook would work with them to identify further improvements and publish the steps it will take.Sandberg’s letter to the Congressional Black Caucus is the outgrowth of a dialogue that has been ongoing since last year when ProPublica published its first article revealing Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude people with an “ethnic affinity” for various minority groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics, from viewing their ads. At that time, four members of the Congressional Black Caucus reached out to Facebook for an explanation. “This is in direct violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and it is our strong desire to see Facebook address this issue immediately,” wrote the lawmakers.The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces the nation’s fair housing laws, opened an inquiry into Facebook’s practices.But in February, Facebook said it had solved the problem — by building an algorithm that would allow it to spot and reject housing, employment and credit ads that discriminated using racial categories. For audiences not selected by race, Facebook said it would require advertisers to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with the law.HUD closed its inquiry. But last week, ProPublica successfully purchased dozens of racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory ads for a fictional housing company advertising a rental. None of the ads were rejected and none required a self-certification. Facebook said it was a “technical failure” and vowed to fix the problem.U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., said that Facebook’s actions to disable the feature are “an appropriate action.” “When I first raised this issue with Facebook, I was disappointed. When it became necessary to raise the issue again, I was irritated,” she said. “I will continue watching this issue very closely to ensure these issues do not raise again.”
White House May Share Nuclear Power Technology With Saudi Arabia
by Isaac Arnsdorf The Trump administration is holding talks on providing nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia — a move that critics say could upend decades of U.S. policy and lead to an arms race in the Middle East.The Saudi government wants nuclear power to free up more oil for export, but current and former American officials suspect the country’s leaders also want to keep up with the enrichment capabilities of their rival, Iran.Saudi Arabia needs approval from the U.S. in order to receive sensitive American technology. Past negotiations broke down because the Saudi government wouldn’t commit to certain safeguards against eventually using the technology for weapons.Now the Trump administration has reopened those talks and might not insist on the same precautions. At a Senate hearing on Nov. 28, Christopher Ford, the National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, disclosed that the U.S. is discussing the issue with the Saudi government. He called the safeguards a “desired outcome” but didn’t commit to them.Abandoning the safeguards would set up a showdown with powerful skeptics in Congress. “It could be a hell of a fight,” one senior Democratic congressional aide said.The idea of sharing nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia took an unlikely path to the highest levels of government. An eccentric inventor and a murky group of retired military brass — most of them with plenty of medals but no experience in commercial nuclear energy — have peddled various incarnations of the plan for years.Many U.S. officials didn’t think the idea was serious, reputable or in the national interest. “It smelled so bad I said I never wanted to be anywhere close to that,” one former White House official said. But the proponents persisted, and finally found an opening in the chaotic early days of the Trump administration, when advisers Michael Flynn and Tom Barrack championed the idea.The Saudis have a legitimate reason to want nuclear power: Their domestic energy demand is growing rapidly, and burning crude oil is an expensive and inefficient way to generate electricity.There’s also an obvious political motive. Many experts believe the Saudis aren’t currently trying to develop a nuclear bomb but want to lay the groundwork to do so in case Iran develops one. “There’s no question: Why do you have a nuclear reactor in the Persian Gulf? Because you want to have some kind of nuclear contingency capability,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.A Saudi spokesperson provided a written statement noting that the country’s electricity needs have grown “due to our population and industrial growth.” The statement noted that “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, hence is diversifying its energy mix to serve its domestic needs in accordance with international laws and standards. The Kingdom has been actively exploring diverse energy sources for nearly the last decade to meet growing domestic demand.”The technology for nuclear weapons is different from that for nuclear energy, but there is some overlap. The fuel for a power plant can be used for a bomb if it’s enriched to a much higher level. Also, the waste from a power plant can be reprocessed into weapons grade material. That’s why nonproliferation experts generally prefer that countries that use nuclear power buy fuel on the international market instead of doing their own enrichment and reprocessing.In 2008, the Saudi government made a nonbinding commitment not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing. They then entered negotiations with the U.S. for a pact on peaceful nuclear cooperation, known as a 123 agreement, after a section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. A 123 agreement is a prerequisite for receiving American technology.The talks stalled a few years later because the Saudi government backed away from its pledge not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing, according to current and former officials. “They wouldn’t commit, and it was a sticking point,” said Max Bergmann, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security at the time those negotiations occurred.U.S. officials feared a domino effect. Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt restrict those countries from receiving the most sensitive technologies unless the U.S. allows them in another Middle Eastern country. “If we accepted that from the Saudis, nobody else will give us legally binding commitment,” a former State Department official said.During that same period, the Obama administration was pursuing an agreement to stop Iran’s progress toward building a nuclear bomb while letting the country keep some domestic enrichment capabilities it had already achieved. The Saudi government publicly supported the Iran deal but privately made clear they wanted to match Iran’s technology. A former official summarized the Saudi position as, “We’re going to develop this kind of technology if they have this kind of technology.”The Obama administration held firm with the Saudis because it’s one thing to cap nuclear technology where it already exists, but it’s longstanding U.S. policy not to spread the technology to new countries. As Saudi Arabia and Iran — ideological and religious opponents — increasingly squared off in a battle for political sway in the Middle East, Republicans argued that the Obama administration had it backwards: It was enshrining hostile Iran’s ability to enrich uranium while denying the same to America’s ally Saudi Arabia.Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, at Trump Tower on Nov. 17, 2016, in New York City (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) One such critic of Obama’s Iran policy was Michael Flynn, a lieutenant general who was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Flynn quickly took up a variety of consulting assignments and joined some corporate boards. One of the former was an advisory position for a company called ACU Strategic Partners, which, according to a later financial disclosure, paid Flynn more than $5,000.Flynn was one of many retired military officers whom ACU recruited. ACU’s chief was a man named Alex Copson, who is most often described in press accounts as a “colorful British-American dealmaker.” Copson reportedly made a fortune inventing a piece of diving equipment, may or may not have been a bass player in the band Iron Butterfly, and has been touting wildly ambitious nuclear-power plans since the 1980s. (He didn’t answer repeated requests for comment.)By 2015, Copson was telling people he had a group of U.S., European, Arab and Russian companies that would build as many as 40 nuclear reactors in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Copson’s company pitched the Obama administration, but officials figured he didn’t really have the backers he claimed. “They would say ‘We have Rolls-Royce on board,’ and then someone would ask Rolls-Royce and they would say, ‘No, we took a meeting and nothing happened,’” recalled a then-White House official.In his role with ACU, Flynn flew to Egypt to convince officials there to hold off on a Russian offer (this one unrelated to ACU) to build nuclear power plants. Flynn tried to persuade the Egyptian government to consider Copson’s proposal instead, according to documents released by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Flynn also tried to persuade the Israeli government to support the plan and spoke at a conference in Saudi Arabia. (The trip would later present legal problems for Flynn because he didn’t report contacts with foreign officials on his application to renew his security clearance, according to Cummings. Cummings referred the information to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump’s associates and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Flynn’s lawyer declined to comment.)Copson’s outfit eventually splintered. A retired admiral named Michael Hewitt, who was to head up the security services part of the project, struck out on his own in mid-2016. Flynn went with him.Hewitt’s new company is called IP3 International, which is short for “International Peace Power & Prosperity.” IP3 signed up other prominent national security alumni including Gens. Keith Alexander, Jack Keane and James Cartwright, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, Bush Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend, and Reagan National Security adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane.IP3’s idea was a variation on ACU’s. Hewitt swapped out one notional foreign partner for another (Russia was out, China was in), then later shifted to an all-American approach. That idea resonated with the U.S. nuclear-construction industry, which never recovered from the Three Mile Island disaster in the 1970s and was looking to new markets overseas.But nuclear exports are tightly controlled because the technology is potentially so dangerous. A 123 agreement is only the first step for a foreign country that wants to employ U.S. nuclear-power technology. In addition, the Energy Department has to approve the transfer of technology related to nuclear reactors and fuel. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses reactor equipment, and the Commerce Department reviews exports for equipment throughout the rest of the power plant.IP3 — whose sole project to date is the Saudi nuclear plan — never went through those normal channels. Instead, the company went straight to the top.At the start of the Trump administration, IP3 found an ally in Tom Barrack, the new president’s close friend and informal adviser and an ultra-wealthy investor in his own right. During the campaign, Barrack wrote a series of white papers proposing a new approach to the Middle East in which economic cooperation would theoretically reduce the conditions for breeding terrorism and lead to improved relations.Barrack wasn’t familiar with nuclear power as an option for the Middle East until he heard from Bud McFarlane. McFarlane, 80, is most remembered for his role in the defining scandal of the Reagan years: secretly selling arms to Iran and using the money to support Nicaraguan rebels. He pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress but was pardoned by George H.W. Bush. Robert “Bud” McFarlane and Mike Flynn walk in the lobby of Trump Tower on Dec. 5, 2016, in New York. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images) Nevertheless, Barrack was dazzled by McFarlane and his IP3 colleagues. “I was like a kid in a candy shop — these guys were all generals and admirals,” Barrack said in an interview. “They found an advocate in me in saying I was keen on trying to establish a realignment of U.S. business interests with the Gulf’s business interests.”McFarlane followed up the meeting by emailing Flynn in late January, according to six people who read the message or were told about it. McFarlane attached two documents. One outlined IP3’s plan, describing it as consistent with Trump’s philosophy. The second was a draft memo for the president to sign that would officially endorse the plan and instruct his cabinet secretaries to implement it. Barrack would take charge of the project as the interagency coordinator. Barrack had discussions about becoming ambassador to Egypt or a special envoy to the Middle East but never committed to such a role. (McFarlane disputed that account but repeatedly declined to specify any inaccuracies. IP3 declined to comment on the memos.)Flynn, now on the receiving end of IP3’s lobbying, told his staff to put together a formal proposal to present to Trump for his signature, according to current and former officials.The seeming end run sparked alarm. National Security Council staff brought the proposal to the attention of the agency’s lawyers, five people said, because they were concerned about the plan and how it was being advanced. Ordinarily, before presenting such a sensitive proposal to the president, NSC staff would consult with experts throughout government about practical and legal concerns. Bypassing those procedures raised the risks that private interests might use the White House to their own advantage, former officials said. “Circumventing that process has the ability not only to invite decisions that aren’t fully vetted but that are potentially unwise and have the potential to put our interests and our people at risk,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and NSC spokesman.Even after those concerns were raised, Derek Harvey, then the NSC’s senior director for the Middle East, continued discussing the IP3 proposal with Barrack and his representative, Rick Gates, according to two people. Gates, a longtime associate of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, worked for Barrack on Trump’s inaugural committee and then for Barrack’s investment company, Colony NorthStar. Tom Barrack, a close friend and informal adviser of President Donald Trump. During Trump's campaign, Barrack wrote white papers advocating economic cooperation as a new approach to improving relations with the Middle East. (Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images) By then, Barrack was no longer considering a government position. Instead, he and Gates were seeking investment ideas based on the administration’s Middle East policy. Barrack pondered the notion, for example, of buying a piece of Westinghouse, the bankrupt U.S. manufacturer of nuclear reactors. (Harvey, now on the staff of the House intelligence committee, declined to comment through a spokesman. In October, Mueller charged Manafort and Gates with 12 counts including conspiracy against the U.S., unregistered foreign lobbying, and money laundering. They both pleaded not guilty. Gates’ spokesman didn’t answer requests for comment.)Ultimately, it wasn’t the NSC staff’s concerns that stalled IP3’s momentum. Rather, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior aide tasked with reviving a Middle East peace process, wanted to table the nuclear question in favor of simpler alliance-building measures with the Saudis, centered on Trump’s visit in May, according to a person familiar with the discussions. (A spokesperson for Kushner, asked for comment, had not provided one at the time this article was published; we’ll update the article if he provides one later.)In recent months, the proposal has stirred back to life as the Saudi government kicked off a formal process to solicit bids for their first reactors. In October, the Saudis sent a request for information to the U.S., France, South Korea, Russia and China — the strongest signal yet that they’re serious about nuclear power.The Saudi solicitation also gave IP3 the problem its solution was searching for. The company pivoted again, narrowing its pitch to organizing a consortium of U.S. companies to compete for the Saudi tender. IP3 won’t say which companies it has signed up. IP3 also won’t discuss the fees it hopes to receive if it were part of a Saudi nuclear plan, but it’s vying to supply cyber and physical site security for the plants. “IP3 has communicated its strategy to multiple government entities and policy makers in both the Obama and Trump administrations,” the company said in a statement. “We view these meetings and any documents relating to them as private, and we won’t discuss them.”The Saudi steps lit a fire under administration officials. Leading the charge is Rick Perry, the energy secretary who famously proposed eliminating the department and then admitted he didn’t understand its function. (It includes dealing with nuclear power and weapons.) Perry had also heard IP3’s pitch, a person familiar with the situation said. In September, Perry met with Saudi delegates to an international atomic energy conference and discussed energy cooperation, according to a photo posted on his Facebook page. Perry’s spokeswoman didn’t answer requests for comment.Other steps followed. Soon after, a senior State Department official flew to Riyadh to restart formal 123 negotiations, according to an industry source. (A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment.) In November, Energy and State Department officials joined a commercial delegation to Abu Dhabi led by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobby in Washington. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Edward McGinnis said the administration wants to revitalize the U.S. nuclear energy industry, including by pursuing exports to Saudi Arabia. The Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration and the Energy Department are organizing another industry visit in December to meet with Saudi officials, according to a notice obtained by ProPublica. And in the days before Thanksgiving, senior U.S. officials from several agencies met at the White House to discuss the policy, according to current and former officials. Trump talks on the phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, with Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn nearby, on Jan. 29, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images) The Trump administration hasn’t stated a position on whether it will let the Saudis have enrichment and reprocessing technology. An NSC spokesman declined to comment. But administration officials have begun sounding out advisers on how Congress might react to a deal that gives the Saudis enrichment and reprocessing, a person familiar with the discussions said.Senators have started demanding answers. At the Nov. 28 hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ford, the NSC nonproliferation official who has been nominated to lead the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, testified that preliminary talks with the Saudis are underway but declined to discuss the details in public. As noted, Ford wouldn’t commit to barring the Saudi government from obtaining enrichment and reprocessing technology. “It remains U.S. policy, as it has been for some time, to seek the strongest possible nonproliferation protections in every instance,” he told the senators. “It is not a legal requirement. It is a desired outcome.” Ford added that the Iran deal makes it harder to insist on limiting other countries’ capabilities.Sen. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who led the questioning of Ford on this topic, seemed highly resistant to the idea of the U.S. helping Saudi Arabia get nuclear technology. “If we continue down this pathway,” he said, “then there’s a recipe for disaster which we are absolutely creating ourselves.” Markey also accused the administration of neglecting its statutory obligation to brief the committee on the negotiations. (The White House declined to comment.)Any agreement, in this case with Saudi Arabia, would not require Senate approval. However, should an agreement be reached, Congress could kill the deal. The two houses would have 90 days to pass a joint resolution disapproving it. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin, suggested they wouldn’t accept a deal that lacked the same protections as the ones in the UAE’s agreement. “If we don’t draw a line in the Middle East, it’s going to be all-out proliferation,” he said. “We need to maintain the UAE’s standards in our 123 agreements. There’s just too many other countries that could start proliferating issues that could be against our national interest.”Bob Corker, the committee’s chairman, has been a stickler on nonproliferation in the past; he criticized the Obama administration for not being tough enough. Corker isn’t running for reelection and has criticized Trump for being immature and reckless in foreign affairs, so he’s unlikely to shy away from a fight. (A spokesman declined to comment.) “The absence of a consistent policy weakens our nuclear nonproliferation efforts, and sends a mixed message to those nations we seek to prevent from gaining or enhancing such capability,” Corker said at a hearing in 2014. “Which standards can we expect the administration to reach for negotiating new agreements with Jordan or Saudi Arabia?”
Hate Crime Training for Police Is Often Inadequate, Sometimes Nonexistent
by A.C. Thompson, Rohan Naik and Ken Schwencke To become a police officer in the U.S., one almost always has to enroll in an academy for some basic training. The typical academy session lasts 25 weeks, but state governments — which oversee police academies for local and state law enforcement officers — have wide latitude when it comes to choosing the subjects that will be taught in the classrooms.How to properly identify and investigate hate crimes does not seem terribly high on the list of priorities, according to a ProPublica review.Only 12 states, for example, have statutes requiring that academies provide instruction on hate crimes.In at least seven others — Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, Missouri, South Dakota and Texas — recruits aren’t required to learn about hate crimes at all, according to law enforcement officials.Even states that provide new recruits with at least some education on hate crimes often provide training that is cursory at best.Officials overseeing police training in three states — Wisconsin, North Carolina and Washington — told ProPublica that their recruits spent about 30 minutes of class time on the subject.Hate crimes in America have made no shortage of headlines over the last year as the country has once more confronted its raw and often violent racial, religious and political divisions. Just how few hate crimes get formally reported and analyzed has shocked many. Fewer still get successfully prosecuted, a fact that has provoked frustration among some elected officials and law enforcement agencies.But the widespread lack of training for frontline officers in how to handle potential hate crimes, if no great surprise, might actually be the criminal justice system’s most basic failing. There is, after all, little way to either accurately tabulate or aggressively prosecute hate crimes if the officers in the street don’t know how to identify and investigate them.Hate crimes are not, by and large, simple to deal with. Different states identify different categories of people to be protected under their laws. And the authorities must prove not only guilt, but intent. It isn’t enough to find fingerprints on a weapon. The authorities must explore a suspect’s state of mind, and then find ways of corroborating it. “Hate crimes are so nuanced and the laws can be so complex. You’re trying to deal with the motivation of a crime,” said Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which has for years provided training to officers as expert consultants.“Thirty minutes in the academy is not enough,” Geft said.Though each state operates its police academies differently, most of them rely on a training council or commission to oversee the institutions, shape the curriculum and set minimum standards for graduation.ProPublica spent weeks trying to answer the question of how, if at all, police departments prepare their officers to respond to possible hate crimes, which are known as bias crimes in some jurisdictions. We interviewed key officials in 45 states and the District of Columbia about the lessons being taught to new recruits during their police academy classes. We reviewed thousands of pages of training material — curricula, detailed lesson plans, legal guidance, PowerPoint presentations and videos. We studied the statutes and regulations governing police training around the nation and interviewed experts who have spent years educating officers and federal agents. Several states declined to discuss their instructional practices, or provide ProPublica with any training materials.Among our findings:A key federal training program was scuttled during the early days of the Obama administration as police leaders concerned about violence colored by race, religion and politics shifted their focus toward Islamic extremists and terrorism. That program, which was run by an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, sent experts around the country to teach local and state police officers how to respond to hate crimes.State leaders at times displayed a lack of even basic knowledge about hate crimes. In Alaska, the state Department of Public Safety told ProPublica that officers in that state don’t learn about hate crimes during their time in the academy because Alaska doesn’t have a hate crimes law. In fact, Alaska’s hate crimes statute has been on the books since 1996.Training materials used in Kansas explain the history behind the federal hate crimes law, but make no mention of Kansas Statute 21-6815 — the state’s hate crimes code — which is likely to be of more use to a local officer in Topeka or Wichita.Some states that require hate crimes training often combine the instruction with what has long been called cultural sensitivity training. Such instruction typically involves material on the subtleties of dealing with specific ethnic or religious communities. Our review, however, showed some of those materials to be either hopelessly out of date or downright inflammatory.Law enforcement leaders point to several factors to explain, if not justify, the lack of emphasis on training for hate crimes. While the offenses can be dramatic and highly disturbing — like the incident earlier this year in which a white supremacist impaled an African-American man with an 18-inch sword in New York’s Times Square — they represent a very small percentage of the nation’s overall crime. Working with often limited budgets, police officials have to make difficult decisions about what to prioritize during training, and hate crimes can lose out.That said, the events of the last 18 months, driven in great part by the racially charged presidential campaign of 2016, seem to suggest an adjustment of priorities might be in order.The number of Americans reporting hate crimes to the authorities has grown in recent years, with FBI figures showing an increase of nearly 5 percent in 2016 alone, a tally that included more than 2,000 physical attacks and beatings. More recent data shows double-digit hate crime spikes in several major cities.Melissa Garlick, the Northeast Area Civil Rights Counsel at the Anti-Defamation League, would like to see every state pass legislation requiring hate crimes training. “We want law enforcement to have the tools they need to properly investigate hate crimes,” she said.Hate crimes laws are not new. The earliest legislation was adopted by a pair of states in the Pacific Northwest — Oregon and Washington — in 1981 and, since then, 43 states and the District of Columbia have passed their own hate crimes bills. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law a federal hate crimes bill named after murder victims James Byrd and Matthew Shepard. The FBI, for its part, has asked local and state law enforcement agencies to track hate crimes since 1990.Yet today, nearly four decades after the first hate crimes law was passed, police officers in much of the country get little or no training on how the laws work, or what to look for when responding to a potential hate crime.At the police academy in Huntsville, Alabama, instructors dedicate two weeks to educating recruits about the state’s penal code. Capt. Dewayne McCarver, who heads the academy, said he isn’t sure precisely how much time his staff spends discussing the Alabama hate crime law during those 10 days of legal instruction. In an interview, McCarver questioned whether the school needed to devote more than an hour, at most, to the subject. The law, which dates to 1993, is similar to others across the country and focuses on individuals whose crimes are motivated by their victim’s “race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability.” It acts as a “sentence enhancement,” adding time behind bars in cases ranging from property destruction to murder.In class, McCarver said, instructors caution students to be “very careful” in classifying offenses as possible hate crimes when writing up incident reports. He worries that logging incidents as potential hate crimes can cause trouble for officers when they testify in court: an aggressive defense attorney might challenge the officer’s decision to label the offense as a hate crime, particularly if prosecutors don’t wind up charging it as such.He told ProPublica that officers in Huntsville “rarely, if ever” designate offenses as hate crimes.“It’s really a box that I personally wish they didn’t put on a case report,” he said.In fact, according to FBI records, the Huntsville Police Department has never reported a bias-motivated crime to the federal government.Brian Levin, a former New York City police officer, takes issue with McCarver’s approach.“We should always train law enforcement to tag it as a possible hate crime at the time of report, as long the evidence is there,” said Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We need accurate data, so communities can be aware of the extent of the problem and the characteristics of the offenses.”Last year, the entire state of Alabama reported only 14 hate crimes to the FBI, a figure criminologists believe is inaccurate and represents a small sliver of the true number of hate crimes.Once on the force, McCarver said, Huntsville officers get 40 hours of additional training each year. That added instruction, however, does not include hate crimes, he said.“We have a limited amount of time,” McCarver said. “We have not had a reason to put hate crimes into the curriculum other than what we learn in the basic class.”Huntsville isn’t unique: Across the border in Florida, two of that state’s largest law enforcement agencies, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department, also do not refresh cops on hate crimes after their initial instruction.Boe Turner is chief of training for Nevada’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, the body that oversees academies in that state. Turner thinks officers shouldn’t go looking into the motivation of suspected offenders. That’s the job of prosecutors, he said. Victims, he added, tend to have little insight into the motivations of their assailants.Experts disagree. Victims, they say, are critical sources of information, particularly in hate crime cases. Because the cases are difficult to prove — prosecutors must show conclusively that the offender was motivated by bigotry or bias — it’s crucial for police to gather as much evidence as possible, they argue, and victims often understand the circumstances surrounding a crime better than anyone.“Training for law enforcement officials on identifying and investigating hate crimes is critical,” said Becky Monroe, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Decent training, she added, can prepare officers for a pair of intertwined tasks: gathering the right evidence and calming the fears of community members who may feel frightened and vulnerable in the aftermath of an attack.To better equip officers for such investigations, some state academies have developed thorough and detailed lessons on hate crimes. Instructors at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, for instance, work from a 61-page handbook, which ProPublica obtained. The manual profiles local white supremacist leaders and extremist groups, examines recent criminal cases and offers practical guidance for investigators.But not all training guides are so impressive. A six-page handout used in Arizona lists a host of white supremacist groups that have completely disbanded or faded from relevancy, but fails to mention the Hammerskins or Vinlanders, two Nazi skinhead gangs that have murdered people in the state in recent years.In Wisconsin, trainers fold hate crimes training into broader courses about cultural sensitivity and biased policing. The material includes some dubious racial generalizations.“African Americans may distrust the motives or honesty of a speaker who is carefully neutral, objective, and unemotional,” one section of the guide states. “By contrast, European Americans may see someone who is speaking with a great deal of emotion as irrational.”The federal government, for its part, has mounted several different training initiatives over the years, some more successful than others. Since the 1990s, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services branch has run training programs aimed at teaching law enforcement agencies how to collect hate crimes statistics and submit that data to the FBI; today, however, around 12 percent of those agencies still don’t gather the information at all and many more fail to give the bureau reliable data.After the federal Shepard-Byrd Act passed in 2009, Cynthia Deitle, while serving as head of the FBI’s Civil Rights unit, began organizing hate crimes conferences for state and local officers, educational events that explained the mechanics of the various state laws and laid out the ways the FBI could assist with local hate crime cases. She remembers stressing to local officers the importance of gathering every possible clue, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Unfortunately, many of the events weren’t well attended, pulling in maybe 20 to 50 police officers apiece.“We could not force a police officer to come to our training,” said Deitle, who is now an executive at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an advocacy group, adding that she understood the challenges faced by smaller agencies — many simply couldn’t take officers off the street for extra schooling.While Deitle was trying to launch a new training effort, another federal program was coming to end.For more than a decade, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers ran a program called “Train-the-Trainer” that routinely sent hate crimes specialists around the country to work with state and local cops. The idea was to educate police trainers and command staff about hate crimes so they could return to their departments and teach new recruits and frontline officers. “It was a great program,” recalled Levin, the director of the extremism center in California who was one of the instructors. “I did stuff on everything from the hate groups to legal issues such as Supreme Court cases.” Levin said he volunteered his time out of a sense of mission and worked alongside experts from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ADL, as well as law enforcement figures.But interest in the issue eventually waned. Several people familiar with the effort say it came to a halt in the early days of the Obama administration, in 2009, at a time when police departments were shifting their attention toward combatting acts of terrorism.“Departments really wanted to focus on terrorism rather than hate crimes,” said Levin.At FLETC, Communications Officer Christa Thompson wasn’t sure why the program shut down, but she did know what kind of courses the agency — which teaches local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement — is holding these days: internet investigations, active shooter response, marksmanship and more.She said, “We do not currently offer hate crimes training” on a regular basis.
ProPublica Illinois Q&A: Meet Reporter Melissa Sanchez
by Andrea Salcedo Melissa Sanchez, who came to ProPublica Illinois from the nonprofit magazine Catalyst Chicago and, later, its sister publication, The Chicago Reporter, believes frankness is the key for developing her sources’ trust. In the eighth of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Sanchez chatted with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.What inspired you to become a journalist?I got started in this because I thought I was a good writer. In elementary school, middle school and high school I worked on the school papers because of that. Reporter Melissa Sanchez. (Michael Schmidt, special to ProPublica Illinois) But I really learned about journalism and was inspired to do it when I was an intern at the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky. I worked on a story with another reporter about victims of domestic violence who were living in a shelter with really unhealthy conditions. Our stories helped make their lives better. I realized that your work can make a huge difference in people’s lives. That summer really taught me about journalism and solidified my interest in doing this work.What has been the most rewarding experience as a journalist?When my stories helped change the conversation or helped people look differently at what you’re writing about. I worked in Washington State at a newspaper called the Yakima Herald-Republic, and I covered immigrants and farmworkers there. I worked in a really conservative community where half of the people who lived there were Latino. There were a lot of gang troubles in town. I wrote a story about the life and death of a gang leader who was a son of undocumented immigrants. I remember being at a coffee shop the day that story ran. These two women walked past the newsstand and one of them pointed at the newspaper. My story about this kid who ran a gang was on the front page. One of them just said to her friend with this look of disgust, “That story was interesting. You should read it.” She clearly didn’t like the story, but I could tell that she learned from it. That was gratifying.What are you interested in investigating with ProPublica Illinois?I’ve really been interested in immigrants and labor for a long time. Like how increasing immigration enforcement impacts people’s ability to live and their education. I really want to learn more about what’s happening outside Chicago. I’d love to understand what’s happening in other parts of the state.What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish had more coverage?I moved here from Miami [after working for el Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper], and it was just really obvious to me that Latinos are not covered in Chicago and elsewhere in the state. It’s shocking. It’s just wrong when a third of the city is Latino and the political discourse has very little to do with them. Just look at the school board. There’s no representation in politics. Immigrants, Latinos — those are my people.How do you hope your stories with ProPublica Illinois will spark change?One of my goals is to make people’s lives better. Not every story is going to cause big, immediate change, but hopefully some will and, in the meantime, they can help change the discourse or how we look at the world.What reporting or storytelling techniques would you like to experiment with at ProPublica Illinois? Melissa Sanchez conducts an interview while she was a reporter at el Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's sister paper. (Courtesy of Jose Iglesias) I’d love to do some stories on the radio. I got to do some of that in Miami, and working with local TV or radio would help get our stories out to a broader audience. I also hope our stories can be bilingual.What’s the hardest story you’ve ever worked on?I went to Honduras a few years ago after a big prison fire that killed hundreds of men, and they let me and our photographer go into the prison because we were foreign press. That was a really difficult story to report because I smelled the ashes, the smoke and the human flesh. It was hard to separate my own emotional reaction and physical reaction to what happened.How do you spot a good story?I think it’s just conversations with people, when you’re trying to be open with the world. Talking to people in the elevator, to people who you see on the streets handing out parking tickets or picking up their kids from school. You find stories just by trying to pay attention to what people are doing and expressing an interest in their lives.What’s the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?To try to be as straightforward and honest as possible with people about what you’re doing and what your intentions are because people will open up to you if they think you’re being frank and will tell you their stories. A lot of people really want to tell their stories.
Seven Ways Patients Can Protect Themselves From Outrageous Medical Bills
by Marshall Allen A doctor offers a surgical add-on that leads to a $1,877 bill for a young girl’s ear piercing. A patient protests unnecessary scans to identify and treat her breast cysts. A study shows intensive-care-level treatment is overused.ProPublica has been documenting the myriad ways the health system wastes money on unnecessary services, often shifting the costs to consumers. But there are ways patients can protect themselves.We consulted the bill-wrangling professionals at Medliminal, one of a number of companies that negotiate to reduce their clients’ charges for a share of the savings. After years of jousting with hospitals, medical providers and insurers, their key advice for patients and their families is to be assertive and proactive.Here are seven steps patients can take to protect themselves: