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Updated 2018-12-10 00:19
Prominent Doctors Aren’t Disclosing Their Industry Ties in Medical Journal Studies. And Journals Are Doing Little to Enforce Their Rules
by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Katie Thomas, The New York Times One is dean of Yale’s medical school. Another is the director of a cancer center in Texas. A third is the next president of the most prominent society of cancer doctors.These leading medical figures are among dozens of doctors who have failed in recent years to report their financial relationships with pharmaceutical and health care companies when their studies are published in medical journals, according to a review by ProPublica and The New York Times and data from other recent research.Dr. Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, the president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, for instance, declared that he had no conflicts of interest in more than 50 journal articles in recent years, including in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.However, drug companies have paid his employer nearly $114,000 for consulting and speaking, and nearly $8 million for his research during the period for which disclosure was required. His omissions extended to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which is published by the group he will lead. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. In addition to the widespread lapses by doctors, the review by ProPublica and The Times found that journals themselves often gave confusing advice and did not routinely vet disclosures by researchers, although many relationships could have been easily detected on a federal database.Medical journals, which are the main conduit for communicating the latest scientific discoveries to the public, often have an interdependent relationship with the researchers who publish in their pages. Reporting a study in a leading journal can heighten their profile — not to mention that of the drug or other product being tested. And journals enhance their cachet by publishing exclusive, breakthrough studies by acclaimed researchers.In all, the reporting system still appears to have many of the same flaws that the Institute of Medicine identified nearly a decade ago when it recommended fundamental changes in how conflicts of interest are reported. Those have yet to happen.“The system is broken,” said Dr. Mehraneh Dorna Jafari, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. She and her colleagues published a study in August that found that, of the 100 doctors who received the most compensation from device makers in 2015, conflicts were disclosed in only 37 percent of the articles published in the next year. “The journals aren’t checking and the rules are different for every single thing.”Calls for transparency stem from concerns that researchers’ ties to the health and drug industries increase the odds they will, consciously or not, skew results to favor the companies with whom they do business. Studies have found that industry-sponsored research tends to be more positive than research financed by other sources. And that in turn can sway which treatments become available to patients. There is no indication that the research done by Burris and the other doctors with incomplete disclosures was manipulated or falsified.Journal editors say they are introducing changes that will better standardize disclosures and reduce errors. But some have also argued that since most researchers follow the rules, stringent new requirements would be costly and unnecessary.The issue has gained traction since September, when Dr. José Baselga, the chief medical officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, resigned after The Times and ProPublica reported that he had not revealed his industry ties in dozens of journal articles.Burris, president of clinical operations and chief medical officer at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, referred questions to his employer. It defended him, saying the payments were made to the institution, although the New England Journal of Medicine requires disclosure of all such payments.Other prominent researchers who have submitted erroneous disclosures include Dr. Robert J. Alpern, the dean of the Yale School of Medicine, who failed to disclose in a 2017 journal article about an experimental treatment developed by Tricida that he served on that company’s board of directors and owned its stock. Tricida, which is developing therapies for chronic kidney disease, had financed the clinical trial that was the subject of the article.Alpern said in an email that he initially believed that his disclosure — that he had been a consultant for Tricida — was adequate. However, “because of concerns recently raised about disclosures,” he said he notified the publication, the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, in October that he also served on Tricida’s board and had stock holdings in the company.The journal initially told Alpern that his disclosure was sufficient. But after ProPublica and The Times contacted the publication in November, it said it would correct the article.“The failure to disclose this information at the time of peer review is a violation of our policy,” Dr. Rajnish Mehrotra, the journal’s editor-in-chief, said in an email.He later said that an additional inquiry had revealed that all 12 of the article’s authors had been incomplete in their disclosures, and that the journal planned to refer the matter to the ethics committee of the American Society of Nephrology. Mehrotra also said that the journal had decided to conduct an audit of some recent articles to evaluate the broader issue.Dr. Carlos L. Arteaga, the director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center in Dallas, said he had “nothing to disclose” as an author of a 2016 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine of the breast cancer drug Kisqali, made by Novartis. But Arteaga had received more than $50,000 from drug companies in the three-year disclosure period, including more than $14,000 from Novartis.In an email, Arteaga described the omission as an “inexcusable oversight and error on my part,” and subsequently submitted a correction.Dr. Jeffrey R. Botkin, associate vice president for research integrity at the University of Utah, recently argued in JAMA, a leading medical journal, that researchers should face misconduct charges when they do not disclose their relationships with interested companies. “They really are falsifying the information that others rely on to assess that research,” he said. “Money is a very powerful influencer, and people’s opinions become subtly biased by that financial relationship.”But Dr. Howard C. Bauchner, the editor-in-chief of JAMA, said that verifying each author’s disclosures would not be worth the time or effort. “The vast majority of authors are honest and do want to fulfill their obligations to tell readers and editors what their conflicts of interest could be,” he said in an interview.As the debate continues, an influential group, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, is considering a policy that would refer researchers who commit major disclosure errors to their institutions for possible charges of research misconduct.Concerns about the influence of drug companies on medical research have persisted for decades. Senator Estes Kefauver held hearings on the issue in 1959, and there was another surge of concern in the 2000s after a series of scandals in which prominent doctors failed to reveal their industry relationships.Medical journals and professional societies strengthened their requirements. The drug industry restricted how it compensates doctors, prohibiting gifts like tickets to sporting events or luxury trips — although evidence of kickbacks and corruption continues to surface in criminal prosecutions. And a 2010 federal law required pharmaceutical and device makers to publicly report their payments to physicians.Despite these changes, the system for disclosing conflicts remains fragmented and weakly enforced. Medical journals and professional societies have a variety of guidelines about what types of relationships must be reported, often leaving it up to the researcher to decide what is relevant. There are few repercussions — beyond a correction — for those who fail to follow the rules.For example, the American Association for Cancer Research has warned authors that they face a three-year ban if they are found to have omitted a potential conflict. But the group’s conflict-of-interest policy contains no mention of such a penalty, and it said no author had ever been barred. Baselga’s failure to disclose his industry relationships extended to the association’s journal, Cancer Discovery, for which he serves as one of two editors-in-chief. The association said it is investigating Baselga’s actions.Most authors do seem to disclose their ties to corporate interests. About two-thirds of the authors on the Kisqali study, for example, reported relationships with companies, including Novartis. But the researchers who did not included Arteaga, Burris and Denise A. Yardley, a senior investigator who works with Burris at Sarah Cannon.The Tennessee-based research center received more than $105,000 in fees for consulting, speaking and other services on Yardley’s behalf in the three-year period in which she declared no conflicts.The Sarah Cannon institute said it switched over a year ago to a “universal disclosure” practice promoted by ASCO, the cancer group that Burris will lead. That requires doctors to disclose all payments, including those made to their institutions.“We believe we adhere to the highest ethical standards in the industry by not allowing personal compensation to be paid to our leadership physicians,” the center said.ASCO said it would post corrections to Burris’ disclosures in the Journal of Clinical Oncology for the past four years. The group said that in the fall of 2017 — as Burris was seeking a leadership role in the organization — it began working with him to disclose all his company relationships, including indirect payments. Burris will become president in June 2019.“Disclosure systems and processes in medicine are not perfect yet, and neither are ASCO’s,” the group said in an email.Burris, Yardley and Arteaga submitted updated disclosures to the New England Journal of Medicine, which posted them on Thursday.Burris’ updated disclosure listed relationships with 30 companies, including that he provided expert testimony for Novartis.Other studies recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine also omitted disclosures, including one on a 2018 study on a treatment for sickle cell disease and another on the recently approved cancer drug Vitravki, to be sold by Bayer and Loxo Oncology.Jennifer Zeis, a spokeswoman for the journal, said it was contacting those studies’ authors, and that it now asked researchers to certify that they had checked their disclosures against the federal database.Some institutions have pushed back, arguing that the journals’ inconsistent rules make it difficult for even well-meaning researchers to do the right thing.In a letter last month to the New England Journal of Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering objected to the treatment of one of its top researchers, Dr. Jedd Wolchok. When he tried to correct his disclosures, the journal shifted its position, from saying its editors were satisfied with his disclosures to saying he had failed to comply with the rules, the center said in citing communications with the journal.Wolchok, a pioneer in cancer immunotherapy, ultimately corrected 13 articles and letters to the editor.To clarify reporting requirements, several publications are attempting only now to do what the Institute of Medicine recommended in 2009. The New England Journal is testing a new system in partnership with the Association of American Medical Colleges that would act as a central repository for reporting financial relationships.This year, JAMA began requiring authors to confirm multiple times that they had nothing to disclose. ASCO has a centralized system for reporting conflicts to all of its journals and speaker presentations.Dr. Bernard Lo, the chairman of the 2009 Institute of Medicine panel, said journals have only begun to confront some of the systemic flaws. “They’re certainly not out in front trying to be trailblazers, let me just say it that way,” he said. “The fact that it hasn’t been done means that nobody has it on their priority list.”
Federal Judge Puts Independent Review of Troubled Psychiatric Hospital on Hold
by Duaa Eldeib A federal judge Friday suspended an independent inquiry at a troubled Chicago psychiatric hospital that is set to lose its federal funding.After pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and state lawmakers, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had agreed to the review of Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital after multiple allegations of abuse and neglect of children treated at the facility in the city’s Uptown community.But with all the children in state care removed from hospital, and the imminent loss of crucial government funding, DCFS and the ACLU agreed the investigation was no longer necessary.“I’m not interested in wasting anyone’s time,” U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso said of the investigation, though he said some examination of what went wrong was still needed. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Federal authorities last week announced they were terminating Lakeshore’s Medicare agreement Dec. 15. Several people familiar with the issue expect that Medicaid decertification will follow.Lakeshore officials have said in the past that the hospital receives most of its funding from Medicare and Medicaid and would be forced to close if government funding were lost.However, a hospital spokesman said in an email Friday that Lakeshore was open “and plans to remain open.” Some employees have been let go, he said, because admissions have been lower than normal.DCFS has relied on Lakeshore to treat hundreds of children in its care, including some other hospitals refused to admit. But the ACLU, which monitors DCFS as part of a decades-old federal consent decree, demanded the review and called on DCFS to stop sending children to the hospital following separate investigations by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune. The last of the children in DCFS’ care were removed from the hospital Nov. 30.That does not mean DCFS should stop working to understand the circumstances that led to the troubles at Lakeshore and what could be done to prevent them in the future, Alonso said at the hearing Friday.“The purpose of the independent review was to look at the safety and care and treatment of DCFS youth, and there’s nobody there to assess the safety of,” said Neil Skene, special assistant to DCFS Acting Director Beverly “B.J.” Walker.He said DCFS is trying to determine where it can send children who need psychiatric treatment.Heidi Dalenberg, the ACLU’s general counsel, reiterated the need for DCFS to examine what happened at Lakeshore as part of a broader assessment of children in the department’s care sent to psychiatric hospitals. In some cases, children have been held at the hospitals after doctors have cleared them for release because DCFS cannot find them more appropriate homes.“Some of these kids are in treatment for months and months on end,” she said.ACLU attorneys said they will seek assistance from former federal judge Geraldine Soat Brown, who was assigned as a “special master” in the case Friday, to ensure an internal review of DCFS’ role is completed. Brown’s appointment was the first time in more than two decades that a “special master,” or monitor, has been named.Neither DCFS nor the ACLU will consent to sending children to Lakeshore until after a review is completed, but “that review won’t occur for now given the shaky footing of the hospital,” Dalenberg said.The Medicare announcement followed an investigation by the Illinois Department of Public Health that found Lakeshore did not ensure patients were free from sexual and physical abuse. The department reviewed the hospital’s incident log from January to October and found 60 allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior and 70 allegations of physical assault on the children’s unit, records show. Officials also reported that the hospital did not have an adequate quality improvement program.As federal officials move forward with the termination of Medicare funding, the public health department is considering suspending or revoking the hospital’s license, said Melaney Arnold, a department spokeswoman.Lakeshore can appeal the decision or re-apply for certification. The hospital’s CEO has said the facility works hard to meet the highest standards of treatment and is working to comply with federal regulations.He has not addressed specific allegations of misconduct at the facility.Dr. Michael Naylor, a child psychiatrist and director of the behavioral health and welfare program at at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had been tapped to lead the independent review. He acknowledged the serious concerns at Lakeshore, but also said the hospital was known to take children who had been “blacklisted” from other mental health facilities across the state and praised the expertise of Lakeshore’s doctors.“I’m really hoping that Lakeshore will be able to remediate whatever has been identified as needing remediation and they can come online again because they were good partners to DCFS,” Naylor said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, re-education, intense supervision, but I think it’s the best outcome.”
An Elkhart Police Officer Was Convicted of Drunken Driving — Then the Chief Promoted Him
by Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica Elkhart, Indiana, Police Chief Ed Windbigler is currently serving a 30-day suspension, in part for misleading a civilian oversight commission about the severity of misconduct committed by two officers who repeatedly punched a handcuffed man in the face.But that wasn’t the first time Windbigler had provided the commission with inaccurate or incomplete information about an officer’s misconduct, according to records obtained by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. In May 2017, Windbigler told the city’s Police Merit Commission that an officer, Brandan Roundtree, had been arrested in Noblesville, Indiana, on suspicion of drunken driving. But the chief said he would “be surprised if it even sticks.” Windbigler said Roundtree, a “top-notch cop,” had been charged despite breath test results under the legal threshold. The results of a blood test taken the day of Roundtree’s arrest had yet to come back, Windbigler said.“Something just doesn’t seem right about the whole thing,” the chief said, twice.But Windbigler’s description of the evidence wasn’t accurate, according to court records. Roundtree had been charged in late March, about six weeks before the meeting. An affidavit filed with the charging document in March included the results of Roundtree’s blood test, showing a blood-alcohol content of .083, above the legal limit of .08.It’s unclear if Windbigler knew the information he was providing to the commission was false. A police department spokesman said Windbigler would not be available for an interview because of his suspension. Windbigler did not respond to a message sent to his work email, and other efforts to reach him by phone and email were unsuccessful. The spokesman, Lt. Travis Snider, said Roundtree declined to be interviewed, and that the department would be unable to get answers to a reporter’s questions while Windbigler was away.In August 2017, three months after the meeting, Roundtree pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, with 58 suspended. He was given credit for two days already served, and placed on a year’s probation.Despite the charge and conviction, Roundtree was never disciplined by Windbigler, according to Roundtree’s personnel file.Instead, Windbigler promoted Roundtree to detective this June, less than a year after the guilty plea. The command staff neglected to inform the oversight commission of the move, even though the commission must approve such promotions, according to Jim Rieckhoff, the commission’s chairman. He says the oversight panel was notified of the promotion in a letter this week from Todd Thayer, the acting police chief.Rieckhoff also seemed unaware until told by a reporter Thursday that Roundtree had pleaded guilty.“Did he?” Rieckhoff said.While Roundtree was not disciplined in Elkhart, officers arrested elsewhere in Indiana for drunken driving have often faced serious punishment. In 2017, an Indianapolis police officer charged with misdemeanor drunken driving was suspended for 30 days. So was a Fort Wayne police detective. An Evansville sergeant was suspended for five days. A Frankfort detective resigned.In nearby South Bend, three officers were arrested on suspicion of drunken driving between December 2005 and February 2006. All three were demoted. In addition, one was suspended for 30 days; the other two were either suspended or placed on unpaid leave for 21 days. In 2013, another South Bend officer arrested for driving while drunk was suspended for 21 days. He subsequently resigned after being arrested two more times on suspicion of drunken driving.Windbigler’s handling of Roundtree’s arrest came as disciplinary actions dropped sharply under the chief’s command.In the decade before Windbigler took command, previous police chiefs presented an average of 20 disciplinary actions a year to the police oversight board. In 2016, Windbigler’s first year, he brought zero.The Tribune and ProPublica recently reported that of the Police Department’s 34 supervisors, 28 have disciplinary records. Fifteen have served suspensions, including the chief, assistant chief and patrol captain. Three supervisors were convicted of criminal charges during their careers.In his nearly three years as chief, Windbigler has promoted 18 supervisors with disciplinary records, according to a review of personnel files.“Some Pending Personal Things”On Feb. 19, 2017, at 4:02 a.m., Roundtree, an Elkhart officer since 2008, was pulled over by police in Noblesville, northeast of Indianapolis. An officer stopped Roundtree because he failed to dim his headlights. The officer, in a report, said Roundtree smelled of alcohol, had watery, bloodshot eyes, unsteady balance, and failed all three field sobriety tests he was given.The police said they couldn’t get “two successful breaths” from Roundtree when using a breath test. The probable-cause affidavit said a breath-test result of .065 had been entered on a form, but that result was invalid. So police had his blood drawn to gauge intoxication.On March 29, Roundtree was charged in Hamilton Superior Court with operating while intoxicated, a misdemeanor. A probable-cause affidavit filed that day included the result of the blood test, showing it was above the legal limit.A promotional review board interviewed Roundtree on April 18, two months after his arrest. The board — consisting of the assistant chief, two captains, a sergeant and a detective — selected Roundtree among three candidates for promotion to detective. Windbigler concurred with the choice.On April 24, the Merit Commission granted Windbigler’s request to promote Roundtree. Windbigler told the commissioners that for staffing reasons, the actual move would probably not take effect for four to six weeks. At this meeting, Roundtree’s drunken driving charge was not brought up.Windbigler appeared at the commission’s next meeting on May 8. He told the commission that because of “some pending personal things going on in Noblesville,” Roundtree was voluntarily giving up his pending promotion. But at first he didn’t say what those things were.With the support of Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese and Windbigler, the Police Merit Commission had been formed in January 2017 to oversee discipline and promotions. Two of its five members — Clifton Hildreth and Rieckhoff, the commission’s chair — were selected by police officers themselves. Those oversight functions had previously been handled by a board whose five members were selected by the mayor.At the meeting in May, Hildreth told Windbigler he had yet to meet Roundtree, “but I’ve heard quite a bit about him.”“He is top-notch,” Windbigler replied. “You will not hear anything bad about Roundtree … I mean, everybody likes Roundtree … He is a top-notch cop.”A couple of minutes passed, as Windbigler spoke about Roundtree’s general background. When asked by one commission member whether the personal issues affected Roundtree’s current position, Windbigler explained what the “personal things” were.Roundtree, the chief told the board, had a pending criminal charge in Noblesville, where he had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.“But he only tested, .05 and .06 when they tested him with the breath test. They went ahead and filed the charges anyway and took blood, we haven’t got blood back yet,” Windbigler said at the meeting. “This is very out of character for him, and I’ll be surprised if it even sticks. Because it’s just, it just, something doesn’t seem right about the whole thing.”“So he tested .05, he blew .05, .06 and they charged him anyway?” Hildreth asked.“Getting blood back doesn’t happen overnight. I mean it takes a while to get all those results back. So. He’s got an attorney, and he’s, they’re looking into it. But it just, I don’t know. Something just doesn’t seem right about the whole thing. And hopefully he’ll get it all squared away,” Windbigler said.“I hope so. Huh,” Hildreth replied.By this point, those results were already back, and had been for more than a month.The commission approved Windbigler’s request to put off Roundtree’s promotion and give the detective spot to another officer.The commissioners asked for no other details about Roundtree’s arrest. The panel and Windbigler had spent less than four minutes on the matter.Starting in late March 2017, when prosecutors charged Roundtree, his driver’s license was suspended. Twice — once in May and again in July — Roundtree asked a judge to grant him special driving privileges while his case was pending.“I am a deputized law enforcement officer in Elkhart County Indiana and my job requires me to drive in order to perform training, routine patrols, and other job related tasks,” Roundtree wrote in one of the motions. The judge denied both requests.Even while Roundtree’s license was suspended, he continued to work for the police department.Recently, on Nov. 27, a Tribune reporter put in a request for Roundtree’s personnel records.A week later, on Dec. 3, Thayer, the Police Department’s acting chief, wrote a letter to the Merit Commission, according to Rieckhoff. The letter, Rieckhoff said, notified the commission that Roundtree had been promoted to detective on June 25. Thayer apologized in the letter, saying the department had neglected to alert the commission, and now wanted its approval. That request has been placed on the commission’s agenda for Monday, Rieckhoff said.A reporter asked Rieckhoff about the commission not learning the outcome of Roundtree’s criminal case.“I am surprised it didn’t come back in some form to us,” Rieckhoff said. “I have no idea why. I’m certainly curious.”“I feel really sure it will definitely come up at the meeting on Monday.”“Understating the Severity”Two other recent cases, also involving criminal charges against Elkhart police officers, offer examples of Windbigler describing misconduct in understated terms.In June, Windbigler told the merit commission the two officers who repeatedly punched a handcuffed man “just went a little overboard,” but he said nothing of the punches thrown. The chief said he had issued reprimands rather than more serious discipline because of the officers’ clean records. But one of the officers had six prior suspensions. Windbigler also said “no” when asked whether there were any injuries, though the handcuffed man was taken from the police station on a stretcher.After the Tribune and ProPublica obtained video of the beating, Mayor Neese suspended Windbigler for 30 days without pay because of the chief’s “failure to promptly notify” the mayor of the officers’ actions, and for “understating the severity of the incident” to the merit commission.In another case, the chief told the merit commission in August that a detective, Scott Hupp, had “made some irrational decisions, and because of those decisions his wife has filed some criminal charges against him.” Windbigler did not offer details about the accusations against Hupp, and the commissioners did not ask for any.Prosecutors had charged Hupp in Elkhart Superior Court with felony residential entry and two misdemeanor counts of harassment. One harassment charge alleged Hupp called his estranged wife 31 times in 43 minutes. The felony charge alleged Hupp tried to break into his wife’s home while she and her daughter slept. According to court records, Hupp admitted to placing a GPS tracker on the car his wife was driving. Hupp has entered a not-guilty plea. A reporter was unable to reach him for comment Thursday.The chief said he had decided to place Hupp on leave — with pay — while his criminal case worked its way through court. Hupp had gone through three bouts of cancer, Windbigler said, and he was “struggling with the meds he’s taking, he’s lost a ton of weight and he’s struggling with life in general, but when you make an irrational decision I can’t keep you working for me at the time.”A commissioner wondered: “Maybe it’s the meds he’s on — could have something to do with the irrational…”“It could be,” the chief said. “[W]hat I did was I ordered him to counseling and we’re working through that process now. And he accepted that freely, he said he knew he needed it, so that’s what he’s doing now, and we’ll figure it out.”Last month, the department moved Hupp to unpaid leave. Thayer said the court case was taking too long, and it wasn’t fair to taxpayers to keep paying Hupp.
Judge Calls for Examination of Quality Controls in New York Supported Housing System
by Joaquin Sapien At a court hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis questioned New York state officials and disability advocates about people with mental illness dying or coming to harm after moving from adult group homes into “supported housing” apartments, problems raised in a ProPublica and Frontline investigation published that day with The New York Times.He ordered an independent report to assess the effectiveness of the state’s incident reporting system, got the state to commit to examining its service-coordination program and suggested the state develop a program to help residents learn and practice basic life skills in supported housing.Four years ago, in a landmark settlement secured by advocates, Garaufis issued a court order offering more than 4,000 adult home residents in New York City a chance to move. The idea was that many did not need to live in such facilities — which can house hundreds of residents and have a history of abuse and neglect — and could instead thrive in their own apartments with the right support. The order instructed evaluators to presume that all residents would be fit to do so.But ProPublica and Frontline found that clinicians evaluating adult home residents for the transition felt censored when they raised concerns about a person’s ability to live alone, and that workers felt pressured to “sell the move,” even to people who they thought were ill-equipped. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. We found that more than two dozen people who left the adult homes were not able to care for themselves, ending up in unsafe or inhumane living conditions. We identified six deaths that raised questions about whether people are being moved despite concerns about their ability to live alone, and whether social service agencies and the state are doing enough to intervene once problems emerge. One man died of liver failure after repeated warning signs about his drinking problem; another died naked inside the foyer of his building during a blizzard, days after neighbors had seen him “practicing his karate” in the snow.The state has declined to give details about its death investigations, saying they are shielded by state law.At the hearing, which had been scheduled before the story was published, Garaufis expressed concern that some people are not getting the help they were promised and that the government is failing to track and address problems.“This case has never been about relocating people. This case is about improving the quality of life for people with serious mental illness,” he said. “This is not about numbers as much as it is about achieving that goal.”In court, Garaufis said the state and advocates needed to ensure that those granted the opportunity to leave were indeed able to “handle it.”The judge asked whether the state and its service contractors are doing enough to curb problems that can become dangerous over time.“What has been done … to intervene in situations before they become dire?” Garaufis asked.As ProPublica and Frontline reported, the state only recently developed a system to track deaths and other adverse outcomes for former adult home residents living in apartments.In court Thursday, Clarence Sundram, the independent monitor installed to oversee the transition, said the new system represents an improvement, but the state still is not providing enough detail on why incidents occurred or how they could have been avoided.The judge asked Sundram to deliver a report assessing the system by Jan. 31. “I’d like to get a better sense of how you’re doing in this area,” he told state officials.He asked about a program called Adult Home Plus, which the state instituted in 2015 to give supported housing residents more intensive social services and a worker to coordinate care. ProPublica and Frontline found that coordination among those teams sometimes suffers from poor communication and confusion over responsibilities, leaving workers and patients at risk.Garaufis said he was worried now that the program was “not broad enough to address persistent problems.”In response to his questions, Lisa Ullman, who leads the effort to implement the settlement for the Department of Health and Office of Mental Health, promised to examine the program. She said she recognized it was “extremely important that we do what we can to support people once they are in supported housing.”State officials have said that most residents succeed in supported housing, and have been appropriately placed after thorough assessments.Disability rights attorney Cliff Zucker, who filed the lawsuit that led to the landmark settlement, said he expected a rigorous analysis of problems and shared concerns with the judge and the state about what he called a “small number” of people who failed. He also noted that the yearly state stipend for rent and other services is set to increase from roughly $17,000 to $20,000 for supported housing residents, which he said would help them find better apartments and afford them more help. The advocates also mentioned that they had previously pushed the state to offer supported housing residents more services and better oversight.In a statement, Jota Borgmann, an attorney for Mobilization for Justice, said “we are always deeply concerned when we learn of class members who are in peril or who have died, whether they have moved out into the community or remain in adult homes.”She also pointed out that people continue to die in the adult homes. She sent figures she said she received from the state that suggest the death rate appears to be roughly twice what ProPublica and Frontline reported as the rate of death in supported housing.At the hearing, Garaufis also heard updates on continued delays in assessing and moving people out of adult homes, as well as court challenges from adult homes arguing that people with mental illness should still be allowed to move into them.
What Chicago Voters Can Look Forward to in a Very Crowded Mayoral Election
by Lakeidra Chavis With the Chicago mayoral election approaching, ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke and Chicago Reader reporter Ben Joravsky talked City Hall politics at their monthly show, “First Tuesdays,” at the Hideout, a nightclub just northwest of downtown. Their guests: Alderman Ricardo Muñoz, from the 22nd Ward, who is retiring after 25 years in office, and veteran political consultant Kitty Kurth.During the roughly 75-minute show, they discussed the Feb. 26 election to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who decided not to run for a third term; the importance of candidates gathering the required ballot petitions to qualify for the election; and the realities of what Chicago aldermen actually do. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Here are four takeaways from Tuesday’s show, edited for clarity and length.“Petitions are the first test of a campaign’s organization”In Chicago, candidates for mayor need at least 12,500 signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot, and it’s a political tradition for candidates to challenge their opponents’ petitions, as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is doing with Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.Kurth said if candidates can’t follow the rules for petitions, they probably can’t manage the city.Kurth: “If a candidate walks in my office for the second time and hasn’t read the rules, he or she is never walking in my office the third time. … There’s two sets of rules. The city rules are for how to get on the ballot. The state rules are for money — all of your filings, and how to raise money, how you can spend money, how you have to report it. These are things that someone running for office, someone who is going to govern us or legislate, I think should be able to do.”“Imagine it’s Wednesday after the election. You won. What are you going to do differently?”Muñoz said when potential candidates ask for his support, he asks what they’ll do if they win. They better have an answer.Muñoz: “When somebody comes into my office and says “Rick, I’m thinking of running for this, … I always start with this: ‘Close your eyes. Imagine it’s Wednesday after Election Day — you won. What are you going to do differently?’”“If they can’t answer the question right there, right on the spot, I won’t even engage in a petition conversation. I won’t even engage. Folks need to know that they’re running not because they hate the incumbent, but because they’re going to believe in this, believe in that, do this, do that.”Kurth: “I have a similar process. … When somebody walks into my office and says they want to run for office, I ask them why are they running. And if they can’t answer it in three sentences or less, then I make them go home and write down all the reasons they’re running. If it’s 10 pages, that’s fine, but we’re going to edit it down so it fits on a 3x5 card so you can have that conversation with the voter at the door.”“People vote when they are pissed off”In the 2015 municipal elections, voter turnout was around 34 percent. It jumped to 41 percent in the runoff later that spring between Emanuel, the incumbent, and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.Kurth: “People vote when they are pissed off. People vote when they don’t like something. Everybody who stayed home, pretty much those were also votes for the status quo. People come out and vote when they’re mad. If people really, really, really didn’t like Rahm, they would come out and vote against him.”“Only about 10 percent of the job [is policy]”And in an aside to the discussion about the mayoral election, Muñoz talked about his role as a Chicago alderman.Muñoz: “The city of Chicago has been trained to expect their aldermen to be housekeepers. We pick up the garbage, trim the trees, make sure the lights are on, and make sure the snow gets plowed. … I deliver garbage cans, for crying out loud. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. … So what we’re talking about here is legislation, we’re talking about policy, which is in my book only about 10 percent of the job.”Before the show wrapped up, Joravsky asked the crowd of about 75 people how they planned to vote with a show of hands. Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot both garnered substantial support. Who drew the most? The undecideds.
FBI Moves to Fix Critical Flaw in Its Crime Reporting System
by Mark Greenblatt and Mark Fahey, Newsy, Bernice Yeung, ProPublica, and Emily Harris, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting NEW ORLEANS — The FBI will fast-track a fix to address flaws in its uniform crime report and is expected to change reporting rules to encourage more transparency about the outcomes of investigations by local law enforcement agencies, following a yearlong investigation by Newsy, Reveal from the Center For Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.The investigation uncovered a major flaw in the FBI’s next generation crime reporting system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The new system does not track cases police classify as “unfounded,” a category for when police say the victim is lying or the reported crime did not occur.In our November investigation, we found that the FBI reports zero unfounded cases for thousands of agencies using the new system, although records from those agencies show they classify many cases this way.For example, the Prince William County Police Department in Virginia showed no unfounded cases in the FBI crime statistics for 2016. However, internal department records show that Prince William County police classified nearly 40 percent of all rape cases as unfounded that year.“You have found something that needs to be corrected,” said Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., chairman of the FBI’s NIBRS transition task force, and chief of police in Fairfax County, Virginia. “This is a crisis, an emergency.”Roessler said following the news report, he reached out to senior FBI leadership and received a commitment from the bureau last week that the FBI would move swiftly and bypass its typically lengthy requirements for advance notice to consider major policy changes. It’s unclear how exactly the system will change to reflect rape cases classified as unfounded. Roessler said one possibility being discussed is to require police agencies to not only disclose the cases they classify as unfounded, but also the reasons they’ve done so.“Because of the importance of the ‘unfounded data’ issue, this topic has been inserted into the next round and will go before the semi-annual board in June,” said FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer.“This is lightning fast compared to how this usually works,” said Erica Smith, chief of the incident-based reporting unit for the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.When reporters first brought the flaw to Smith’s attention, she called dropping unfounded cases from the data collection unacceptable. She has since had multiple calls with FBI officials urging they address the issue and investigate whether misleading information is being released to the public.At a meeting of the FBI Advisory Policy Board this week in New Orleans, Col. Doug Middleton, the chair of the UCR subcommittee, said that the FBI is assessing system changes in the “near future” to correct the misleading zeros currently entered into UCR data for agencies that report to NIBRS. This spring, when the board’s working groups meet, a paper will be presented to discuss changes to the NIBRS data collection to “better reflect the resolution of crimes coming to the attention of law enforcement.”“Some attention has been brought to unfounding and clearing offense data,” Middleton told the board. “The FBI acknowledges these concerns as more agencies move to NIBRS data collection and they are going to move to address this issue.” Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Mitch Beemer, the incoming president of the Association of State UCR Programs and the incident-based reporting manager for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, told Newsy after the meeting that he thinks his members would support a change to track unfounded cases in the NIBRS data.“We have a concern as an association about any gaps in data, any gaps in criminal justice data,” Beemer said. “It would help us give one more check of our local agencies to see how often it might be occurring.”Law enforcement agencies have for decades been criticized for misusing the unfounded designation, leading to scandals in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and elsewhere. An earlier FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics joint task force cited a scandal in Chicago and explicitly recommended that unfounded cases continue to be tracked under the NIBRS system — neither the BJS nor FBI provided an explanation for why the recommendations were not followed when NIBRS was originally implemented in 1989.Currently, about 40 percent of police agencies across the nation have transitioned to using NIBRS and are affected by the flaw. All police agencies are expected to switch to NIBRS by Jan. 1, 2021.The FBI is expected to work over the next several months on drafting recommendations to be voted on in June at the next meeting of the full Advisory Policy Board. If approved, the recommendations go to the FBI director for implementation.
Judge in Joe Bryan Case Rejects Defense Pleas for New Trial
by Pamela Colloff Despite compelling evidence that the forensic testimony used to convict former Texas high school principal Joe Bryan of murder was wrong, a Texas judge today recommended that Bryan’s conviction stand, and that he not be granted a new trial.Bryan, now 78 and in poor health, has served 31 years in prison despite lingering questions about who shot his wife, Mickey, in 1985.Judge Doug Shaver’s decision stunned Bryan’s attorneys, who had hoped for a different outcome after the seeming collapse of key elements of the prosecution’s case in September, during the final day of hearings over whether Bryan should be granted a new trial.In a dramatic moment at the hearing, a defense witness read an affidavit from retired police Detective Robert Thorman, the bloodstain-pattern analyst whose testimony had proved critical in convicting Bryan. In it, Thorman conceded that both his findings and testimony had been rife with errors. “My conclusions were wrong,” he wrote. “Some of the techniques and methodology were incorrect. Therefore, some of my testimony was not correct.”Thorman’s remarkable admission gave fresh optimism to Bryan and the scores of former neighbors, family members and even former prison staffers who attended the hearing that he might be granted another chance to prove his innocence. Bryan had been attending a principals’ convention in Austin, 120 miles from his home in Clifton, where Mickey was killed, in the days surrounding the murder. He has always maintained that he was in Austin, asleep in his hotel room, at the time of the crime.After the hearing, Bryan’s lawyers and the Bosque County District Attorney submitted written conclusions. Today, Shaver adopted the prosecution’s findings in their entirety – including an argument by Bosque County D.A. Adam Sibley that acknowledged that parts of Thorman’s testimony were incorrect but said it didn’t matter: “Thorman’s testimony was not important to the case.”Shaver also adopted Sibley’s position that because Thorman did not specify which of his conclusions were wrong, “the Court is unable to determine whether any of this testimony mattered.”Thorman’s flawed testimony at Bryan’s trials was at the heart of a two-part investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine in May that questioned the accuracy of the bloodstain-pattern analysis used to convict Bryan, as well as the training of the experts who testify in such cases. Bloodstain-pattern analysis is a forensic discipline whose practitioners regard the drops, spatters and trails of blood at a crime scene as clues that can sometimes be used to reverse-engineer the crime itself.In July, Bryan’s case commanded the attention of the forensics community when the Texas Forensic Science Commission — which investigates complaints about the misuse of forensic testimony and evidence in criminal cases — announced that the blood-spatter analysis used to convict him was “not accurate or scientifically supported.” Spurred by the Bryan case, the commission had already moved to end the practice of allowing law enforcement officers with minimal training in bloodstain-pattern interpretation to testify in Texas, stipulating that such analysis must be performed by an accredited organization if it is to be allowed in court.Bryan’s request for a new trial will now go before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court. The court will consider Shaver’s findings, but it does not rubber-stamp lower courts’ recommendations, and will review the record in full. The court has no deadline by which it must make its determination; it could take months, or even years, to hand down a ruling.The appellate court, however, cannot consider anything outside of the court record – including a separate conclusion by the Texas Forensic Science Commission in October that a Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab chemist had “overstated findings, exceeded her expertise and engaged in speculation” when she testified for the prosecution in the Bryan case in 1989. The commission also found that the now-retired chemist, Patricia Retzlaff, failed to do thorough analysis of key DNA evidence in 2012, after a judge allowed such testing to proceed.But the court can consider evidence presented at the hearing that pointed toward another suspect in Mickey Bryan’s murder: former Clifton police officer Dennis Dunlap. After Dunlap hanged himself in 1996, Clifton police launched an investigation in which they determined that he had killed a 17-year-old Clifton High School student named Judy Whitley just four months before Mickey’s murder. During that inquiry, an ex-wife of Dunlap’s told investigators that he had boasted of being with the principal’s wife on the night she died.“We remain hopeful that the Court of Criminal Appeals will ultimately rectify this injustice and declare Joe actually innocent, which he is,” said his attorney, Jessica Freud. “At a minimum, we hope the court vacates his conviction so that he may — for the first time — receive a fair trial.”
Chicago Task Force Will Take on Ticket and Debt Collection Reform
by Melissa Sanchez, ProPublica, and Elliott Ramos, WBEZ The city of Chicago on Thursday took a potentially big step toward reducing the harmful impact of its ticketing and debt collection practices on low-income and minority motorists, launching a task force that will examine issues ranging from disparities in enforcement to punishments for people who don’t pay their tickets.The task force, called the Chicago Fines, Fees & Access Collaborative, was created by City Clerk Anna Valencia and will bring together officials from police, finance and other key city departments, as well as more than a half-dozen aldermen, community organizations and independent researchers.The task force was prompted by reporting over the past year from ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ on the disproportionately heavy effects of ticketing on low-income and black communities. The reporting, combined with growing advocacy from community groups, has fueled an urgency for reform on the issue ahead of city elections in February. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Over the next six months, the task force will meet monthly to discuss ticket costs, accessibility of payment plans, late penalties, the role of debt collectors and how license suspensions affect people’s ability to get jobs, among other topics. The group, which met for the first time Thursday behind closed doors, will also convene public forums to hear from city residents. It plans to release a series of recommendations in May, when a new mayor will assume office.“We cannot piecemeal legislate our way out of this,” Valencia said. “We’re going to give ourselves six months to find the policy recommendations that are going to lower the barrier of entry to bring people into compliance and make sure that we are collecting revenue in a responsible way.”In recent weeks, the city has approved modest reforms, including one from Valencia’s office to change the fee structure for required vehicle stickers, and two aldermen have introduced other proposals still under consideration.Parent activists from Community Organizing and Family Issues, or COFI, a Chicago nonprofit that works mostly with low-income women of color, suggested starting a task force. The group released a report in February called “Stopping the Debt Spiral” based on surveys with its members, including many who said unpaid tickets were a significant barrier to financial stability.Rosazlia Grillier, who helps lead the organization’s parent group, said she looks forward to working with city officials to find solutions though she is aware that some task forces end with little to show for their work.“We didn’t want a task force so people could sweep this under the rug,” she said. “We wanted some authentic engagement from both sides so we could figure out some solutions to make the city work better.”Chicago is the second city in the country to launch a fines and fees task force, following a model San Francisco invented two years ago.In some ways, the consequences of ticket debt in Chicago mirror those the San Francisco task force had also sought to address. Unpaid parking and automated red-light and speed camera tickets can trigger license suspensions and vehicle seizures, making it difficult for people to get to work or take their children to school.Other consequences are specific to Chicago. Thousands of motorists here file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy each year, in part to deal with the consequences of ticket debt, ProPublica Illinois reported earlier this year. The volume of cases triggered by ticket debt has helped make U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Chicago the nation’s capital for this kind of bankruptcy.Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is not seeking a third term, is not officially involved with the task force but many of his city departments have been given the green light to participate. Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins commended Valencia for “taking a thoughtful, inclusive approach to address a really challenging issue.”Among the departments that are involved: finance, which oversees much of the city’s ticketing and debt collection programs; law, which is responsible for how the city deals with motorists who file for bankruptcy due to ticket and other city debt; transportation, which oversees the automated traffic camera program; and police.Tickets issued by police to vehicles that lack a required sticker — at $200, one of the most costly citations in the city — are given at far higher rates in majority black neighborhoods, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ have found. This type of ticket has contributed to hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.Eight alderman representing districts across the city’s racial and geographic lines also serve on the task force, including Alderman Roderick Sawyer of the South Side’s 6th Ward.“Doing things that are oppressive to people that are struggling to make a living I don’t think works,” said Sawyer, who chairs the City Council’s Black Caucus. “Other cities have done other measures that were not so heavy-handed, and it actually increased their [debt] collection.”Alderman Ameya Pawar, of the North Side’s 47th Ward, said the city needs to undo a complex set of policies that effectively serve to police poverty and have created “a separate system for everyone else who has money.”The creation of the task force comes as elected officials are campaigning in advance of elections in February. Pawar is a candidate for the city treasurer’s post; Valencia, who was appointed to the clerk’s job, is running for election; and the other aldermen involved are running for re-election.The nonprofit Chicago Jobs Council, which has advocated for an end to driver’s license suspensions for non-moving violations, including ticket debt, is one of a half dozen organizations that have signed onto the task force.Eric Halvorson, policy and communications associate for the jobs council, said he is optimistic about the potential for major reforms but cautioned that the task force itself isn’t a solution.“I think that it’s a whole system that involves a lot of well-intentioned people that is just hard to unravel because it’s been built up for so long,” he said.Other local university, research and advocacy groups involved include the Loyola Chicago Center for Urban Research and Learning, the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, Woodstock Institute, Heartland Alliance and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.The national Fines & Fees Justice Center, a New York-based advocacy group, is also involved. On Thursday, the group launched a national clearinghouse of information on fines and fees to help spur reforms across the country. The issue has gained increased national attention since the release of a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report that highlighted how the criminal justice and court systems in Ferguson, Mo., relied on excessive fines and fees to generate revenue.In Chicago, ticket revenue brought in nearly $264 million in 2016, or about 7 percent of the city’s operating budget.It’s unclear if the creation of Chicago’s task force will affect two proposals to reform parts of the ticketing and debt collection system. Both proposals are sitting in the City Council’s Finance Committee, which meets next week.Alderman Gilbert Villegas, of the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward, proposed sweeping changes to the system of late penalties and towing fees, including allowing for community service in place of some debt repayment.Villegas, who chairs the City Council’s Latino Caucus, said there needs to be a sense of urgency around the task force, which he has joined.“I do think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “However, there are Chicagoans struggling today. We need this task force to move as quickly as possible.”Another proposal from Alderman Ed Burke, who represents the Southwest Side’s 14th Ward and is chair of the powerful Finance Committee, would require the city to consider motorists’ income before starting a license suspension over ticket debt.Calls to reform Chicago’s ticketing system have grown louder in recent months, with several candidates for mayor promising reform. And some modest changes have already been approved.Last week, Chicago dismissed some 23,000 duplicate vehicle sticker tickets and said it would refund an additional 12,000 duplicates dating to the early 1990s. The announcement came five months after a ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ investigation revealed that, on nearly 20,000 occasions since 2007, motorists had been been cited more than once on the same day, in apparent violation of the municipal code.Last month, the City Council approved reforms as part of the 2019 budget. One change, proposed by Valencia’s office, will allow residents to pay for required vehicle stickers in four-month installments to help avoid $200 tickets. With late penalties, city sticker tickets can cost $488.Another approved change, from the city’s Law Department, allows motorists to wipe away old ticket debt by filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. They would still have to pay off their more recent ticket debts, although all late penalties and collections fees would be waived. The change is meant to deter drivers from filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 13, which typically ends without any debt relief and little if any revenue for the city.Already, the city’s promise to wipe away old debt for motorists who file under Chapter 7 is starting to generate buzz at the bankruptcy court’s help desk, where volunteer lawyers offer assistance.Martin Martinez, who coordinates the help desk for LAF, formerly known as the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, said ticket debt is one of the primary reasons people show up at the desk.“It’s been a little refreshing to now have this option for clients,” he said.
Local Oregon Officials and Community Members Weigh in on Repeated Attacks After Pleading Insanity
by Cynthia Gordy Giwa Malheur County, Oregon was stunned by terrible violence in recent years. In 2016 a man named Anthony Montwheeler was released from the state hospital, nearly two decades after being found “guilty except for insanity” for kidnapping his ex-wife and child. The Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB) accepted his claim that he had faked his mental illness and therefore could no longer be held in state custody. Less than a month after his release, prosecutors allege, Montwheeler murdered his ex-wife and killed a motorist in a car crash. A judge ruled he was not competent to stand trial for these new charges and ordered him returned to the state hospital for treatment. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. The incident prompted the Malheur Enterprise to take a closer look at Oregon’s policies and laws relating to people charged with serious crimes who were found “guilty except for insanity,” then released from the state psychiatric hospital or supervised community programs. With funding and editorial support from ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, the newspaper recently uncovered that, of the people deemed legally insane in felony cases and then freed over the past 10 years, at least a third have been charged with new crimes.“Mental health intersects with public safety in ways that affect all of us in this community,” said Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, opening up a local forum last week at Ontario, Oregon’s Four Rivers Cultural Center.At the forum, Enterprise reporter Jayme Fraser presented her findings on some of the ways that these issues intersect to concerned community members and local officials, including Ontario Mayor Ron Verini, Ontario Mayor-Elect Riley Hill, Ontario City Councilors Dan Capron and Norm Crume, Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe and Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz. Fraser and Zaitz also took questions and listened to ideas for ways to potentially reform the system to better protect public safety while also protecting the rights of people with mental illness.“We had some guiding questions throughout the course of our work,” said Fraser, who wrote the series. “The first one is pretty basic, and it’s one that the state couldn’t answer after the Montwheeler case. And that is: How often do people freed by the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board commit crimes once they’re released from state supervision? Then we wanted to know: How does Oregon’s system for managing the criminally insane compare to other states?”Fraser found that more people use the insanity defense in Oregon than in other states and frees people from all supervision more quickly. “The closest comparison for us is Connecticut,” said Fraser. “They have a professional board just like us, and they have 20 people they are currently supervising. In Oregon, there are more than 500 people under supervision.”Oregon is also one of five states that caps how long the state may supervise people, with most freed from supervision because of this time cap. Within three years, people freed by the PSRB were charged with new felonies more often than people freed from prison terms, Fraser also found. Family members were most often victims of violent crimes like serious assault and murder.“I should also note that, it became obvious in our research that there are many people who did not commit new crimes and still struggle to re-enter the community,” said Fraser. “They struggled to find adequate care. A lot of the facilities that serve PSRB clients will only serve people who are under state supervision. … Many people became homeless. Others returned to the state hospital under civil commitment shortly after being freed by the state. And some people died.”As Police Chief Kunz explained, the problem of inadequate care is exacerbated in the eastern part of the state, where Malheur County is located, because most facilities are in western Oregon. “We are kind of the forgotten island of the state as far as resources,” Kunz said. “There’s not a place to bring these people on this side of the state. … When we have concern from someone, we want to give them the help they need and hopefully prevent crime from happening. But when you don’t have those resources, you’re not able to get the treatment or help somebody really needs. It’s frustrating for police officers because that’s our goal.”In response to an audience question about how many defendants coming through the courts are looked at for mental illness, District Attorney Goldthorpe estimated that, more than 60 percent of the time, some element of mental illness is brought up by either the defense attorney or the client.“Our sheriff could tell you about the burden that is on the jail because the jail is no place to try to treat someone who is suffering from mental illness, whether they’ve committed a crime or not,” Goldthorpe said. “We’ve probably only allowed a guilty-but-for-insanity plea to be entered, by agreement of all parties, twice in two years. That’s not a very common thing to agree to. As a prosecutor I hold my personal bar pretty high as to what’s going to convince me that the person truly only committed the crime because of their mental illness.”While no state legislators attended the Ontario event, the Malheur Enterprise’s report has made waves in the statehouse. Key lawmakers have said they plan to rewrite the state’s policies, including reforming Oregon’s time cap requiring the end of state oversight the moment a criminally insane person would have completed the maximum prison sentence for the crime, in order to have doctors conclude that people can live on their own without posing a danger to themselves or others.
Living Apart, Coming Undone
by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica, and Tom Jennings for Frontline The stench from Abraham Clemente’s apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, this summer was overwhelming. Maggot-infested scrambled eggs were strewn across the floor; a cantaloupe was so spoiled, it seemed to be melting. Feces were ground into the carpet.Clemente, 69 and schizophrenic, kept the shower and sink running for the “oxygen.” He blamed a kitchen fire on a doll nailed to a cabinet. He believed he could crush and smoke his antipsychotic medication to achieve its intended effect.Yet the state of New York determined Clemente was capable of living on his own.He is one of hundreds of severely mentally ill New York City residents who have been moved out of institutions into private apartments over the past four years under a landmark 2014 settlement. The approach is meant to be a national model for the rights of the mentally ill to live independently.It begins with the assumption that most people in adult homes — group facilities that often house hundreds of residents — can live on their own with the right help. Adult home residents are given a subsidized apartment, called scattered site supported housing, and assigned a team of social workers and others to help navigate bureaucracies, housing problems and everyday tasks.But more than 200 interviews and thousands of pages of medical, social work and housing records reviewed by ProPublica and the PBS series Frontline, in collaboration with The New York Times, show that for some residents, the sudden shift from an institution to independence has proved perilous, and even deadly.One man drank himself to death. Another suffered a fatal heart attack in the foyer of his building, during a blizzard, naked. One woman was choked and left dead in a bathtub last year; three people of interest in the murder are fellow supported housing residents. The family of another woman believes her mental health declined when she moved into supported housing, contributing to her suicide.Certainly, many people flourish when given the chance to live independently. A court-appointed monitor has interviewed more than 300 people who have moved out of adult homes and has said that for the most part, they are satisfied with the change.“I’m sure some of them have their rough days because if you have serious mental illness, you have rough days,” said Cliff Zucker, a disability rights lawyer who led the court case that ended in the 2014 settlement. “But better to have it in your own home and live in freedom.”David Lazarowitz, 45, said he takes his medication routine seriously and loves to shop and cook for himself, keep his apartment tidy and learn about gardening or auto mechanics on YouTube.“This is a chance that otherwise, I would never have,” Lazarowitz said.But in addition to the deaths, ProPublica and Frontline identified more than two dozen cases in which people in supported housing were not able to care for themselves, leaving them in unsafe or inhumane living conditions. Most of those people moved back to an adult home, but others ended up in a nursing home or a psychiatric ward. One resident landed in jail. One is missing, according to the police.More than 20 people who have worked on the transition, from social workers to nonprofit executives, said the ideology behind the lawsuit endangered scores of people who were not ready to live alone with only minimal support.“We put the cart before the horse. We committed to the housing before we knew what the needs were,” said James Introne, the New York deputy secretary of health from 2011 to 2013 and a principal negotiator of the settlement.Front-line social workers and others estimated in interviews that anywhere from a quarter to half of their former adult home clients either have failed — meaning they died in preventable ways or shifted into a higher level of care — or currently lack the help they need to live safely.Until recently, the state agencies that have overseen adult homes and some related care — the Department of Health and the Office of Mental Health — did not have a system to track serious problems among people who entered supported housing.After months of questions from ProPublica and Frontline, the state released some numbers in mid-November: Of the 764 people who have moved so far, 32 have died and 39 have returned to adult homes.But the state did not provide details on the deaths or any investigations into them. Nor did officials provide information on other outcomes for former adult home residents, such as becoming homeless, landing in a psychiatric hospital, or suffering dangerous incidents.Officials with the Office of Mental Health acknowledged that there had been some serious incidents among those who moved. Still, the office said, only a “small percentage” of the group could not overcome the challenges of living alone.“I truly believe that stigma and discrimination have historically left too many individuals with serious mental illness living in institutions,” Ann Marie Sullivan, the commissioner of the state Office of Mental Health, said in an interview.State officials also said they have a new reporting system that better captures incidents. The office declined to answer questions about individual cases, citing privacy concerns.The stakes for the program’s success are high. United States District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, who presided over the case, has expressed frustration with what he believes is a slow transition. About 1,700 more people have said they are interested in moving.The Department of Justice, which joined the New York lawsuit that ended in the settlement, has filed similar suits in North Carolina, Illinois, Delaware, New Hampshire and Mississippi with the goal of expanding independence for the mentally ill nationwide.On a 95-degree afternoon in August, Clemente would not answer the door for a reporter, which was unusual. A caseworker called 911.Officers pushed on the door and broke its rotted jamb. They gasped as flies swarmed them. Clemente stumbled out, half-naked and sweating. When paramedics arrived, one greeted Clemente by name, remembering him from previous hospitalizations. His blood sugar levels called for a visit to the emergency room.“I don’t want to live like this,” Clemente said, before agreeing to get in an ambulance. “I want to live like a human being.”A History of Abuse and Neglect**The settlement has its roots in a lawsuit initiated in 2003, a year after The New York Times published a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into adult homes.Once considered a humane alternative to psychiatric hospitals, adult homes abused and neglected residents and churned them through unnecessary medical appointments to rack up Medicaid payments. People died of preventable illnesses. Mental health treatment was poor or nonexistent.The lawsuit aimed to prove that New York had violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing the homes to warehouse residents while neglecting their psychiatric needs. Zucker and other advocates argued that many did not need to live under 24-hour watch.The state fought the lawsuit, asserting that conditions at the adult homes had improved, and that moving residents into supported housing would cost too much and suit only those who needed minimal supervision.In 2009, their arguments unfolded before Garaufis in a five-week trial.One witness was Dr. Jeffrey Geller, a medical director of a large state hospital in Massachusetts who had been involved in overseeing community programs for patients who left psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s and 1980s.He testified that advocates had underestimated how much help people would need. After reviewing case histories and interviewing more than 100 residents of New York City adult homes, he warned that a quick shift to independent living “may actually physically harm individuals and in some cases cause death.”“I thought adult homes were abominations,” Geller said in a recent interview. “But I also thought the plaintiff’s remedies were preposterous.”Experts on the plaintiff side testified that adult home operators had encouraged a “learned helplessness” in their residents that could be overcome with proper care in their own apartments. Dennis Jones, a former top mental health official for both Texas and Indiana, said he thought virtually everyone living in adult homes could be moved to supported housing.Advocates made another compelling argument: Because adult homes abused Medicaid, the state would save money by moving people out.Garaufis sided with the plaintiffs and determined that supported housing would be cheaper than housing people in adult homes.After a successful appeal, the state opted to settle the lawsuit rather than retry the case. It began the process of moving people out of nearly two dozen adult homes in the city.Six nonprofits were chosen to act as intermediaries with landlords and help residents with housing problems.Others opted out. The $15,043 that New York was spending on each resident annually on rent, utilities and a monthly visit from a nonprofit worker struck some housing experts as far too low, even with Medicaid and additional state funds covering therapy and other services. That figure has increased to $17,375. People who live in supported housing also contribute 30 percent of their own income to rent.“We were anticipating being genuinely involved,” said Steve Coe, the founder of Community Access, one of the first housing programs that took in psychiatric patients in the 1970s, “but then the system they set up just didn’t make sense.”A Push to MoveFrom the beginning, the transition was problematic.The independent monitor found that adult homes tried to stop people from leaving by scaring residents or making it difficult to obtain records that would help determine whether they were capable of living alone.State officials and service providers held weekly calls to discuss the pace. Several people who participated told ProPublica and Frontline the pressure to move people out was like a “weekly firing squad.”Residents had to be evaluated to determine if they were ready to move. Three clinicians who said in interviews that they were involved in dozens of evaluations said they believed their concerns about some residents were overruled or ignored. Three additional workers tasked with recruiting and preparing residents for the transition said it was obvious some were ill-equipped, but they were told to sell the move.Sullivan, who has led the state Office of Mental Health since late 2013, said her office has not urged evaluators to move people who were not ready.“The assessment should look at everybody’s potential. Sometimes people can disagree about that — there have been some disagreements on the call — but that is not our policy by any means,” Sullivan said.Still, Steve Scher, who ran the nonprofit Staten Island Behavioral Network for 14 years, said he was shocked by the backgrounds of some patients allowed into his housing program after the settlement.“If someone was actively using drugs, it didn’t matter,” he said. “If someone was currently drinking, it didn’t matter. If someone was a fire setter, it didn’t matter.”The nonprofit Institute for Community Living, which now runs Scher’s program, did not respond to requests for comment on issues Scher raised.Once people are in supported housing, they can be assigned a dizzying array of agencies and bureaucracies. Many clients see therapists. Some have home health aides or use food stamps. Others are assigned peers who have been through treatment and assist others.Although often innovative and devoted, caseworkers could be overwhelmed, Clarence J. Sundram, the independent monitor, wrote in 2015. Some juggled as many as 100 cases. The state recognized that some residents would need a bigger safety net.Under a program called Adult Home Plus, some residents were assigned a “care coordinator” with a caseload capped at 12 to meet with them four times a month and wrangle the myriad services and providers.But coordination among the teams can be rocky, and turnover is high, Sundram has written and ProPublica and Frontline have found.Cristal Irons, a former care coordinator with the nonprofit Federation of Organizations, said a communication breakdown put her in danger. She said she and a worker for Institute for Community Living were supposed to try to hospitalize a psychotic patient. She wound up going alone. The resident choked her, slammed her against a door knob and severely injured an arm that then needed multiple surgeries, she said.Irons was eventually fired for what Federation told her was abuse of her paid family leave. She is suing ICL for negligence, arguing that the organization knew the patient was a threat.ICL did not respond to questions about this incident.Antonio McCoy, who has a master’s degree in social work, said Federation discouraged him from spending too much time with his clients.“It’s more about the numbers and the metrics, and raking in the insurance money versus actually providing quality care and services to the clients,” McCoy said.He quit after three months. He said he earns more driving for a ride-hailing service.Joseph Buzzell, a lawyer representing Federation, said the organization “has not found any indication that it has violated any of its duties to provide services.” He also said that former Federation employees may “harbor unmerited grudges.”Slipping Through the CracksFor four years, Sundram has urged the state to develop a more robust oversight system to track problems in supported housing.“With the strong presumption in the settlement agreement that virtually all class members are qualified for supported housing, it is not unexpected that the presumption proves incorrect in some cases,” he wrote in his most recent report.In his reports, Sundram has identified cases of people who have slipped through the cracks, including a 34-year-old woman who moved to supported housing in 2016 after four years in an adult home.She stopped taking her antipsychotic drug and began trying to solicit sex from passing drivers and swap alcohol for drugs with neighborhood children. Case managers knew she needed more care, but no one seemed to know how to help her get it. Eventually, facing eviction, she became homeless.Jorge Bulario, a social worker with the Staten Island Behavioral Network from 2014 through 2017, told ProPublica that when he or his colleagues tried to raise concerns about supported housing residents with state officials, they were shouted down.More than a dozen people working in a similar capacity said the same.“The Department of Health’s message was: These people want to move out. We have to give them the chance,” Bulario said.Bulario said one man disappeared for several months shortly after moving out of an adult home. He said he and his team eventually learned that the man, who had stopped taking his antipsychotic medication, had taken a bus to San Diego and was later found in a psychiatric ward on Staten Island.One woman drank herself into a stupor daily. Bulario said he saw her lying on a couch covered in broken glass and feces on several occasions. Another woman frequently wandered outside her apartment in nothing but a bra and diaper, he said.All three moved back to their adult home in Staten Island, where Bulario now sometimes works for a managed long-term care contractor.In March, Garaufis signed a new order telling nonprofits to report to the state any incident, from deaths to unsanitary living conditions, that jeopardized someone in supported housing.The state must investigate the incidents, but the court order covers only those enrolled in Adult Home Plus. And 42 percent of people who moved under the settlement are no longer enrolled in that program, according to the monitor’s most recent report.Before agencies began reporting incidents, ProPublica and Frontline identified at least six deaths that raised questions.Jagnanan Ramnanan, 67, died of complications related to liver failure last year after repeated warning signs about his drinking problem. Just days before he had a fatal heart attack, 54-year-old Bernard Walker was seen “practicing his karate” in his underwear in the snow. He died naked, in the cold, inside the foyer of his Queens apartment building in 2016.Cindy Boyle, 45, was found strangled in the bathtub of her Queens apartment last year. The police said three persons of interest are former adult home residents.At least two men died within a month after their move from the adult home. One of them, 63-year-old Peter Harris, could not follow a managed diet, his sister said. Six workers familiar with his case told ProPublica he had a kidney disorder, and harmful foods were found in his Staten Island apartment when he died in 2016.“The intentions were good. They were trying to get him on his own, but he had become very, very dependent on other people taking care of him,” said his sister, Marianne Harris.Mayorby Chimilio spent four years in an adult home, where she spoke so often of suicide that staff members swept her room regularly to ensure she was not hoarding pills. After she moved into supported housing, she was hospitalized repeatedly for depression and suicidal thoughts. Her sisters said it appeared she had stopped taking her medication.Chimilio, 41, wound up living at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center campus on Long Island. In February, she flung herself from a rooftop and died.“There should have been more of a step-by-step process,” said Chimilio’s son, Davon Blanks, 25. “She needed a more collaborative effort, more coordination.”Some families, working with ProPublica, have tried to obtain the results of state investigations into the deaths but were refused. Officials said these were internal documents shielded by state law.The Right to FailAntonia Lasicki, the executive director of a New York trade group that represents nonprofit housing providers, was initially skeptical of the settlement but now supports it. Lasicki said services have gotten better and members of her trade group have told her there was a high success rate, although she did not have data.She said the state has not required extensive documentation of failures. “It would be like you or I reporting to the government if something happened in our apartment,” Lasicki said. “It would not be a normal thing to do.”A psychologist who testified for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Sam Tsemberis, disagreed. In the early 1990s, Tsemberis created Pathways Housing First, which helped severely mentally ill homeless people live on their own with help. He ultimately declined to participate in the supported housing program.“If they were just like anyone else, why would they be sending them an Adult Home Plus coordinator?” he asked. “Why would you send them a housing case manager? How did they trick themselves into absolving responsibility for care?”The argument underlies the biggest debate in the transition from adult homes to supported housing. Mentally ill people, some advocates argue, deserve the “right to fail” and the “dignity of risk.”The debate surfaces in cases like Clemente’s.A few months before Clemente moved out of his adult home last year, the company that had been managing his health care warned the rest of his team that he was not interested in learning how to handle his medication.“At this time,” the company said, “we cannot safely provide service to this member in a supported apartment.”Clemente moved out anyway.By January 2018, records show, he was hospitalized. His care coordinator told the police he tried to hit her after being off his medication for five days. Records show he had been violent in the past, admitting to evaluators that he spent time in prison after stabbing his wife and her lover.In February, Clemente accidentally started a fire in his apartment. The agency overseeing his home health aide recommended he should move into a more supervised system, called Level II housing. Another agency disagreed. In March, he started another fire.In May, an aide quit because she was “in fear of her life,” records show. By the end of July, the company that had been managing his health care said it would no longer work with him because he continuously refused its services.In September, he turned down a bed in a Level II group home in Brooklyn — a fully staffed psychiatric facility — because it did not allow smoking inside, according to two staffers.ProPublica and Frontline shared details of Clemente’s experience in supported housing with several experts, including Zucker, the advocate who launched the case.Zucker offered to help Clemente directly and then asked a question: “Is he unhappy?”Geller, the Massachusetts hospital medical director who testified at the trial, said that was the wrong question.“We have a lot of people who we commit who are perfectly happy, but they otherwise cause problems for society, that endanger other people, endanger themselves,” he said.Lasicki has found herself wondering if the pendulum has swung too far.“I tend to take the position of: More freedom is better than less freedom,” Lasicki said. “But there are cases where you have to wonder, ‘What are we doing?’”Clemente remained in supported housing until the fall, when one day he wandered into his former Brooklyn adult home, convinced he had a job as a security guard and people owed him money. An ambulance took him to an emergency room, where he got into an altercation. He was sent to a psychiatric ward.On Nov. 1, Clemente moved back into an adult home.
He is West Virginia’s Speaker of the House — and a Lawyer for Natural Gas Companies
by Ken Ward Jr. and Kate Mishkin, The Charleston Gazette-Mail Toward the end of this year’s legislative session, a little-noticed bill was moving through the West Virginia House of Delegates to limit legal challenges that had slowed new natural gas-fired power plants in the state.Delegate Roger Hanshaw, a Republican lawyer from Clay County who was serving as vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, took to the floor to explain the legislation.“This bill is a little inside baseball to practitioners of environmental law in West Virginia,” explained Hanshaw, a supporter of the bill.It wasn’t the first time that Hanshaw engaged in some pretty effective legislative inside baseball on energy bills. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Last year, Hanshaw engineered passage of a bill that gave natural gas companies a broad exemption from chemical tank safety standards that West Virginia put in place after a 2014 spill that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people.Hanshaw was elected speaker in late August, succeeding Tim Armstead, who is now a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court. Hanshaw is expected to be re-elected speaker in January. In the position, Hanshaw wields significant control over which bills are called up for votes and which are sent to committees to effectively die.When he’s not in the state Capitol, Hanshaw makes his living as an attorney with the Charleston-based firm Bowles Rice, where his clients have included natural gas companies and gas industry lobby groups.Over the last three years, he has represented the operator of a Fayette County natural gas waste disposal site in legal battles with state regulators and nearby landowners. He argued its case before the state Environmental Quality Board and the state Supreme Court. Then, he filed a brief on behalf of two industry groups when the case went to a federal appeals court.Under the state’s ethics laws, those overlapping interests aren’t enough to keep Hanshaw from voting on matters affecting the industry, including the bill to help stop coal-funded legal challenges to power plants.Legislative controversies over natural gas have grown in recent years as the industry’s production has greatly expanded. Hanshaw illustrates both the industry’s increasing ties to lawmakers and how West Virginia ethics laws sometimes leave state residents in the dark about such potential conflicts.West Virginia’s ethics laws allow legislators to vote on matters that would benefit themselves, their businesses and their clients. In fact, a House policy, known as Rule 49, forces them to vote, so long as at least four others also stand to benefit.In February, for instance, more than a dozen delegates were ordered to vote on a bill to make it easier for gas companies to assemble larger mineral tracts for drilling, despite asking to be excused because of potential conflicts. One of those lawmakers is the in-house counsel for a gas company.A ProPublica and Charleston Gazette-Mail review found that over the past five years, the House speaker approved just 14 of 245 delegate recusal requests, a rejection rate of 94 percent.Hanshaw’s financial disclosure, filed with the state Ethics Commission, makes no mention of his connections to the natural gas industry. It lists his employer as Bowles Rice and describes his work as the “private practice of law.”Hanshaw says he’s able to separate his legal practice from his work as a lawmaker, even when the interests overlap. In an interview in mid-November in his Capitol office, he said that the natural gas industry represents less than half of his legal practice, and that the work focuses mostly on advising clients about financial transactions or regulatory compliance rather than litigation.“I represent whoever comes through the door.”Hanshaw isn’t the only legislator with experience in West Virginia’s oil and gas business. He’s not even the only one at his own law firm.Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, also is a partner at Bowles Rice. His practice areas include “oil and gas litigation,” according to the law firm’s website.Palumbo has litigated against landowners on behalf of gas producers, work that drew attention two years ago when he was the co-sponsor of an unsuccessful bill to make it harder for residents to sue gas companies for damaging their property.Palumbo said recently that he doesn’t remember a lot of the details of that legislation or exactly how he came to co-sponsor it. But he said that he represents a wide range of businesses in litigation, and that gas companies make up less than half of his practice.“Everyone is sort of shaped by who they are and what they do,” Palumbo said. “I’m someone who represents business, and that shapes my views sometimes.”Palumbo said he doesn’t make legislative decisions based on what would make businesses, including his clients, happy. “I just try to do what’s right,” he said.More than a dozen lawmakers who served during the 2018 regular session listed some financial connection to the gas industry on their annual disclosure forms filed with the state Ethics Commission. Delegate Moore Capito, a Kanawha County Republican, for example, reported on his financial disclosure that he is an in-house counsel for Greylock Energy, a gas company.So should those lawmakers be voting on gas industry legislation?“I think the obvious answer to your question is no; legislators shouldn’t be voting on issues that affect their own business interests,” said Julie Archer, project manager for the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, which advocates for stronger government ethics standards. Archer said that West Virginia’s Ethics Act “seems pretty clear” that lawmakers should recuse themselves, but “it also gives them a lot of wiggle room” to vote anyway.Part of the issue is that West Virginia has a citizen Legislature, like 40 other states, in which lawmakers keep their day jobs but come to Charleston for 60 days a year and a few days each month.One major strength of such arrangements is that members with different backgrounds can use their varying areas of expertise and experiences to help educate colleagues as they go through the process of making laws.For example, Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano, a lawyer from Harrison County, uses his past experience as an accountant in the gas industry to grill lobbyists about gas leasing and royalty bills.Yet, Romano says he sees a clear problem with lawmakers who work in the gas industry voting on legislation that affects that industry. “That presents a clear conflict of interest,” he said.Some conflicts, though, aren’t even disclosed. Lawmakers who are lawyers like Hanshaw don’t have to identify their clients, even if they represent parties that have vested interests in the outcomes of particular bills. The state Ethics Commission has never considered requiring those details, the agency’s executive director said.Romano and Palumbo both said they believe requiring some kind of disclosure, such as general practice area or large clients, would be a good idea. “The more people know, the better choices they can make at the ballot box,” Romano said.In written responses to questions from the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, Hanshaw initially dismissed the idea, saying forcing lawyers to identify clients would violate legal ethics rules.In the mid-November interview, however, Hanshaw conceded that some types of information about clients, such as when lawyers handle litigation, are a matter of public record that could be disclosed in Ethics Commissions filings. He said there are ways to let the public know what kind of law an attorney practices and generally what kinds of clients attorney-legislators have.Hanshaw said that West Virginians have “a heightened interest” in government ethics rules this year in the wake of a spending scandal that prompted the impeachment of four state Supreme Court justices and the resignation of the fifth. (Two of the justices remain on the court.)More than four decades ago, lawmakers in the West Virginia House of Delegates set a strong standard for themselves, aimed at preventing conflicts of interest from affecting their legislative votes.In 1975, House members approved Rule 49, which said that any member “with a personal or private interest” in a bill was required to announce that interest and not vote.Two years later, though, legislators watered the rule down. Instead of prohibiting members from voting on matters in which they had an interest, they would be told not to vote only if the matter affected them “directly and not as one of a class.”In 2017, the rule was amended to define a class as five or more similarly situated people.The way the rule has been interpreted in recent years, delegates are seldom ever excused from voting.Take, for example, the February vote on the bill to make it easier for gas companies to force unwilling gas owners to allow drilling on their property.More than a dozen House members said they had a conflict and asked to be excused from voting.Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, was the first to ask. He said his father owned one-one hundred sixtieth of some gas reserves and he might eventually benefit from the bill when he inherits that gas.Then-Speaker Armstead, R-Kanawha, ruled that Shott did not stand to benefit any more than anyone else and told Shott he had to vote. (Lawmakers do not have the ability to abstain from votes in West Virginia.)A parade of other delegates followed with their own requests not to vote.Some were like Shott. They owned some small piece of a natural gas tract that might be made more accessible to drilling if the bill passed. Some had existing gas leases they felt might become more lucrative.Others, like Capito, worked directly for a gas company. Capito said he always asks for a Rule 49 exemption from voting on oil and gas bills “in an abundance of caution.”Armstead made them all vote. The bill passed on a 60-40 vote. The 20-vote margin meant recusals wouldn’t have swayed things either way. Some of those who asked to be excused voted against the bill, while some voted for it.Hanshaw was not among those who asked for a Rule 49 exemption, because he said he did not believe his legal work for the gas industry was a conflict with that bill. He voted for the bill.As the natural gas bill illustrates, Rule 49 seldom results in members not voting on legislation where they may have a conflict of interest.“It’s rare,” House Clerk Steve Harrison said. “One of the things about having a citizen Legislature is that there are so many bills that are going to affect the person or affect the business that there is an interest there, but it is almost always as a member of a class.”A bill that affects only a business owned by a delegate would be an example of a conflict that qualifies for being excused from voting, Harrison said.Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, worries that lawmakers who are employed by certain industries might “naturally take cues from those industries on policy decisions.”She thinks the system needs to be changed.“The issue seems magnified in West Virginia because there are so many political ties to industries now seeing profit benefits from the rollbacks of various regulations,” she said.Just as Hanshaw is not the only West Virginia legislator with ties to the gas industry, the gas industry is not the only politically powerful sector with links to lawmakers. The chairman of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee is a coal mine manager, in charge of safety at a Mettiki Coal operation. The House Democratic whip is a United Mine Workers of America union official. Other lawmakers work in the insurance business, as teachers, or run auto parts stores or funeral homes.But the Ethics Commission has found that being speaker of the House is different from being a rank-and-file lawmaker. While “certain conflicts of interest are inherent in part-time service” as a lawmaker, it has said, the presiding officer “has an even higher duty” to the citizens of the state. The speaker, for example, controls committee assignments and agendas, as well as the House floor agenda.Commissioners examined the issue in 2012, when then-Speaker Rick Thompson, a Democrat, sought their approval to take a new outside job as a lawyer for the West Virginia Education Association, a powerful teachers’ union.This arrangement was too much, as far as the commissioners were concerned. They said it presented an “inescapable conflict” for a House speaker to also work for a lobbying group. They also ruled that, because Thompson had been speaker for several years at that point, the job offer might appear to the public like the association was hiring him “because of his unique ability to influence legislation.”Hanshaw says his situation is distinct from Thompson’s and more closely mirrors that of Armstead, his predecessor.Armstead had been a House member since 1998 when, in 2014, the Republicans won a majority and elected him speaker. But Armstead was also an in-house lawyer for Columbia Gas Transmission, a pipeline company. He worked mostly in the company’s commercial division, and mostly on issues outside West Virginia.Ethics commissioners said Armstead could continue to be speaker and hold his job because he had held the gas company job for more than a dozen years.“That is me,” Hanshaw said. “I was a lawyer at our firm before I was ever elected to the House at all.”With a doctorate in chemistry from Notre Dame, experience litigating over environmental issues and certification as a parliamentarian, Hanshaw has a leg up on many citizen legislators in navigating the lawmaking system. Like Romano’s inside knowledge of the gas business, Hanshaw said his experience can help on issues involving science or regulatory matters.In 2014, the year Hanshaw was elected to the House, a chemical storage tank just upstream from the regional drinking water intake in Charleston leaked into the Elk River, contaminating the supply and prompting a “do not use” order that lasted up to a week for some residents. In response, both houses of the Legislature unanimously passed a tough bill adding new safety rules for aboveground storage tanks around the state.Starting in 2015, as the water crisis faded, various industry groups tried to have the law revisited. The state’s growing oil and gas industry complained the loudest.In 2017, Hanshaw introduced a bill to give oil and gas operations a broad exemption from the bill.After the bill passed, Hanshaw was one of three lawmakers honored as “Champions of Industry” by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.In an interview, Hanshaw said he introduced the bill because three small oil and gas companies in his district raised concerns about the chemical tank regulations.None of the companies was a client, Hanshaw said. And even if they had been, he said, he doesn’t get into discussions with clients about legislation that might help them.“I don’t let people come in here and talk about business,” he said. “And I don’t let people come to my daytime job and talk about the Legislature.”
How We Found Donald Trump Jr.’s Secret Investment in a Fundraiser’s Business
by Jake Pearson and Derek Kravitz Donald Trump Jr. and Gentry Beach, a Dallas-based investor and college friend of Trump Jr., have done business together before, despite past claims by both men that their relationship is strictly personal.But a new story by ProPublica reveals that Trump became a shareholder last year in Beach’s hydroponic lettuce company, while Beach was seeking government support for his other business interests. Emails obtained by ProPublica via the Freedom of Information Act show that since President Donald Trump’s election, Beach sought backing for energy projects in the Dominican Republic and India. Officials say he never officially applied for government financing.Here’s how ProPublica uncovered a paper trail revealing Trump Jr.’s investment in the vertical hydroponic lettuce farm now selling packaged greens in Walmarts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.Trump Organization Employee Forms MSMDF Agriculture LLC (September 2017)On Sept. 13, 2017, eight months after Donald Trump entered the White House, a Trump Organization employee formed a new company in Delaware called MSMDF Agriculture LLC. The public filing provided no other information about the entity, who controlled it or what it was to be used for. View note Gentry Beach Seeks Federal Support for his Global Business Interests (October 2017)At the same time that Beach served as co-chairman of the hydroponic lettuce growing company, emails obtained by ProPublica show, he sought government funds for his other business interests from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. OPIC is a federal agency that offers loans and guarantees to American companies looking to expand into emerging markets. In one email from October 2017, Beach emailed OPIC head Ray Washburne about his infrastructure and energy projects in the Dominican Republic, writing that the storm-damaged country “could really use some US investment and support.” An OPIC spokeswoman says that Beach hasn’t submitted a formal application for funding and that the agency carefully vets its applicants. View note Trump Jr. Listed as President of MSMDF in New York City Filing (December 2017)Pursuant to its contracts with the city of New York to run an ice skating rink in Central Park and a golf course in the Bronx, the Trump Organization is required to file annual disclosure reports listing entities it controls as well as those for which its executives serve as principals or officers. In December 2017, the company listed Trump Jr. as the president, secretary and treasurer of MSMDF Agriculture LLC in its disclosure report. In a statement, Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s top lawyer, said MSMDF is “wholly owned and controlled” by Trump Jr., and isn’t affiliated with the Trump Organization. View note Eden Green Announced Millions Raised From Investors (June 2018)The company announced in June that it had raised millions. Just weeks later, its affiliate Eden Green Holdings UK Ltd. disclosed to British regulators that it had issued hundreds of thousands of shares to roughly two dozen investors. Among them? MSMDF Agriculture LLC, which has 7,500 shares.This document for the first time linked the Delaware-incorporated entity with the indoor lettuce farming business run by campaign fundraiser Beach. That summer the company publicly announced it had raised $22 million from its private investors without naming them. But one of the investors, an entity called Cox-Eden, L.P., used by a wealthy oil and gas family in Midland, Texas, said in court papers filed months later that it had supplied Eden Green with $20 million of the $22 million raised. View note Beach is listed as one of the seven principals of Eden Green, according to court filings, along with Grady “Trey” Thomas III, Eric Schick, Jaco Booyens, and brothers Eugene and Jacques van Buuren and Gerhard Ehlers. Beach is named co-chairman of Eden Green, according to the company’s website. View note A list of staff on Eden Green's website, including Beach, the co-chairman. Eden Green’s Biggest Investor Claims Mismanagement, Settles Case (October - November 2018)On Oct. 30, 2018, Eden Green’s biggest investor filed a lawsuit in Dallas County Court, alleging that company officials had blown through more than $19 million in just nine months. The lawsuit also claimed company executives paid themselves salaries as high as $300,000 and had put the company “on the precipice of failure.” But less than a month after the court papers were filed, the parties reached a settlement for undisclosed terms. A spokesman for Eden Green disputed the claims of exorbitant compensation and said the company has plenty of cash. View note Check out the full documents used for this story.Do you have information about post-election Trump family business ventures? Reach Jake Pearson at jake.pearson@propublica.org or by phone at 917-512-0276.You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.You can always email us at tips@trumpincpodcast.org.And finally, you can use the postal service:Trump Inc at ProPublica
Trump Jr. Invested in a Hydroponic Lettuce Company Whose Chair Was Seeking Trump Administration Funds — “Trump, Inc.” Podcast Extra
by Jake Pearson and Peter Elkind Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, took a stake last year in a startup whose co-chairman is a major Trump campaign fundraiser who has sought financial support from the federal government for his other business interests, according to records obtained by ProPublica.The fundraiser, Texas money manager Gentry Beach, and Trump Jr. attended college together, are godfather to one of each other’s sons and have collaborated on investments — and on the Trump presidential campaign. Since Trump’s election, Beach has attempted to obtain federal assistance for projects in Asia, the Caribbean and South America, and he has met or corresponded with top officials in the National Security Council, Interior Department and Overseas Private Investment Corporation.Beach and others at the startup, Eden Green Technology, have touted their connections to the first family to impress partners, suppliers and others, according to five current and former business associates. Richard Venn, an early backer of Eden Green, recalls the company’s founder mentioning “interest from the Trump family.” Another associate said Beach bragged about his ties to the Trumps in a business meeting.The investment is one of just a handful of known business ventures pursued by Trump Jr. since his father moved into the White House almost two years ago. In addition to being a top campaign surrogate and public booster, Trump Jr. serves as an executive vice president of his father’s company and one of just two trustees of the trust holding the president’s assets. Listen to the Episode Ethics experts have consistently criticized these arrangements, arguing that they invite those seeking to influence the government to do so by attempting to enrich the president or his family members with favorable business opportunities.Trump Jr. invested in the startup, a company that grows organic lettuce in a hydroponic greenhouse, last year, records show. Those records don’t state how much money — if any — Trump paid for his 7,500 shares. But the shares would have been worth about $650,000 at the end of last year, based on a formula used by another shareholder in a recent court filing. Neither Trump Jr. nor the company have disclosed his investment publicly. Trump Jr. obtained the stake through a limited liability company called MSMDF Agriculture LLC, which was set up by a Trump Organization employee last fall.The key ethical question, said Virginia Canter, chief ethics lawyer at the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is whether Beach’s involvement with Eden Green, and Trump Jr.’s investment in it, are based on the business merits — or on the possibility of cashing in on connections to power. “Why is Trump Jr. being given this opportunity?” she asked. “It definitely has the appearance of trying to gain access by any means to curry favor with the administration.”The willingness of Eden Green to invoke the Trump name in its business dealings raises further ethical concerns, experts said, particularly if potential customers understand that they are giving contracts to a startup whose success could enrich the president’s son.Neither Trump Jr. nor his spokesman responded to messages seeking comment on his relationship with Beach and investment in Eden Green. A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to emailed questions. Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s top lawyer, said in a statement that Trump Jr.’s investment is a personal one. The entity through which it was made “is not owned or controlled by, or affiliated in any way with, The Trump Organization,” Garten said.Last fall, Eden Green concluded a deal with Walmart. Today, the giant retailer sells the company’s lettuce, kale and other greens at about 100 stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. (Eden Green’s sole facility is a 44,023-square-foot greenhouse outside Fort Worth, where it grows the greens in 18-foot vertical tubes.)Walmart interacts with government regulators on an array of matters — everything from labor practices and land use to securities filings — but there is no indication that Walmart is aware of Trump Jr.’s connection to Eden Green. (Separately, Walmart contributed $150,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. Beach was a finance vice chair of that committee, but a Beach spokesman says he has never met with Walmart executives.)Molly Blakeman, a Walmart spokeswoman, declined to comment on Eden Green or its investors. “We don’t talk about our relationships with our suppliers,” said Blakeman, who added that Walmart has “supported inaugural activities” in the past. Get More Trump, Inc. Stay up to date with email updates from WNYC and ProPublica about their ongoing investigations. Andrew Kolvet, a spokesman for Beach and the other Eden Green executives, said it’s “categorically false” that the Trump name was invoked by Eden Green officials. Kolvet cited a corporate policy that forbids discussing investors “with any current or potential client.” He also said Trump Jr. isn’t involved with company operations and bought into Eden Green during “U.S. friends and family fundraising efforts.”A recent lawsuit asserts that Eden Green is in financial trouble. In October, the company’s largest shareholder, an entity controlled by a wealthy oil and gas family from Midland, Texas, filed suit in state court in Dallas, alleging “gross project mismanagement.” The suit accused Beach and six executives, all of them board members, of paying themselves extravagant salaries (allegedly $250,000 to $300,000 per year) and putting the company “on the precipice of failure.” A financial consultant hired to examine the company’s books asserted that Eden Green executives spent more than $19.4 million in the first nine months of 2018 — a daunting sum for a company that reported having raised a total of $22 million as of June — while generating $9,000 in revenues.In late November, less than a month after the suit was filed, it was settled on confidential terms. Kolvet disputed the compensation figures asserted in the litigation, saying that the company’s pay is “in accordance with industry standards.” He maintained that Eden Green’s prospects are good. As with many startups, he said, “things don’t go in a straight line.” Kolvet asserted that the company has plenty of operating cash.Trump Jr., now 40, and Beach, now 43, met at the University of Pennsylvania two decades ago. Both are the sons of wealthy businessmen, one in real estate, one in oil and gas. Beach’s father has since been laid low: Last month he was sentenced to four months in federal detention, plus two years of supervised release, for bankruptcy fraud.Beach was a groomsman at Trump Jr.’s wedding (Trump Jr. and his wife recently separated). Beach and Trump Jr. like to hunt and once considered buying a hunting preserve in Mexico together. According to a 2010 deposition testimony by Trump Jr., they talked business during lunches at Rothmann’s steakhouse in New York.Both have struggled in business at times. In 2009, Trump Jr. and others (including one person who pleaded guilty to an unrelated criminal fraud charge in 2010) formed a company that would sell concrete panels for home constructions out of a warehouse in North Charleston, South Carolina. The business quickly became mired in lawsuits seeking payment for unpaid bills. Trump Jr. made the situation more precarious by personally guaranteeing a $3.7 million loan for the project. Days before the note was due, the Trump Organization purchased the debt, eventually taking over the warehouse and selling it all back to Trump Jr.’s original business partner, according to press accounts.For his part, Beach’s career path has also included some travails. He spent a year or so at Enron and then moved into finance. Beach worked for a hedge fund and remains locked in litigation with it more than a decade later. (He claims he wasn’t paid his full compensation; the fund claims he was “responsible for the destruction of millions of dollars of investor capital.”) Beach now runs a “family office focused on private equity investments” out of a Dallas office that Eden Green uses as its corporate address.Trump Jr. has at least twice before invested with Beach in deals that didn’t pan out. Trump Jr. put $200,000 in a dry Texas oil well managed by Beach’s father, according to testimony by Trump Jr. He also lost an unknown sum in a failed African mining company affiliated with Beach’s uncle.But Trump Jr. stuck with his friend. The Associated Press reported this year that the two formed a company last October to pursue technology investments.Then there was Eden Green. By the time Trump invested last fall, the company had already run into problems. It first launched in 2013 in South Africa with an ambitious mission: to feed the world through a highly efficient indoor farming system deploying patented technology intended to yield 10 to 12 harvests a year, compared with two or three for conventional agriculture. Butter lettuce and other leafy greens at a Eden Green vertical farm on June 27, 2018, in Cleburne, Texas. (Brandon Wade/AP Images for Eden Green) There’s a market for vegetables grown in controlled greenhouse environments as big retailers increasingly push for cleaner, more reliable and locally grown alternatives. But the challenges are significant. Energy costs run high, and there are myriad difficulties associated with scaling up to an industrial-size system.That’s what happened in Eden Green’s first iteration, according to a half dozen early backers and associates. The produce may have been sustainable — but the business model wasn’t. The CEO of its European unit wrote in an October 2017 email obtained by ProPublica that the company had “been bleeding money and resources for almost 2 years now.” In the fall of 2017, Eden Green’s founders cemented a deal to hand over majority control to a group of U.S. investors led by Beach, current and former business associates said.This was the company Trump Jr. bought into. He used an innocuous-sounding limited liability company, called MSMDF Agriculture LLC, to make the investment. ProPublica discovered MSMDF after the Trump Organization listed it in New York City filings among dozens of other entities it controlled. (Because the Trump Organization has contracts with the city to run the Wollman skating rink in Central Park and a golf course in the Bronx, the city requires the company to file disclosures.) The Trump Organization told ProPublica that MSMDF is not in fact owned by the Trump Organization but was included in the disclosure form because it’s controlled by Trump Jr., who was described in the form as MSMDF’s president, secretary and treasurer.MSMDF was formed by a Trump Organization employee in September 2017 in Delaware, according to incorporation papers. Eden Green Holdings UK, Ltd., an affiliate of the Texas-based company, then listed MSMDF among its roughly two dozen shareholders in a 2018 report filed with British regulators.The Trump Jr.-Beach connection has been most visible in the political arena. Last year, for example, Trump Jr. publicly thanked Beach and their mutual friend Tommy Hicks Jr., another wealthy investor from Dallas, for their fundraising during the 2016 campaign. “We couldn’t have done it without you guys,” Trump Jr. said of his buddies to a crowd of Republican donors in March 2017. “It was just absolutely incredible.”In the foreword to a recent book, Trump Jr. reiterated the message, writing that a “rag tag army” — Trump Jr., Beach, Hicks and Charlie Kirk, the firebrand chief of the pro-Trump organization, Turning Point USA — barnstormed the country in 2016, raising “over 150 million dollars in ninety days.” Watch Donald Trump Jr. Thank Gentry Beach, Tommy Hicks Jr. for Trump Campaign Fundraising Trump Jr. mentioned Beach and Hicks Jr. at a dinner hosted by the Dallas County Republicans in March 2017 and invested in Beach’s company Eden Green through an LLC created months after President Trump’s inauguration. Since Trump’s election, Beach has met with top administration figures on multiple occasions. For example, according to the AP, he lobbied National Security Council officials to relax sanctions against Venezuela to create opportunities for U.S. companies. He attended a private lunch with Republican donors and Interior secretary Ryan Zinke.Beach has denied leveraging his ties to the first family. Last month, Beach told a TV interviewer in Croatia, where he said he was exploring a “truly spectacular” $100 million real estate development, “I don’t need anything from the government, thankfully, except normal police protection in my hometown.”But newly obtained emails show that Beach wanted government backing for his private business interests at the same time he was running Eden Green. In October 2017, Beach pitched Ray Washburne, who heads the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government agency that offers loans and guarantees to American companies looking to expand into emerging markets, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. (Before joining OPIC, Washburne was a Dallas investor and a top fundraiser for Trump. He and Beach move in the same circles and have friends in common.)“The Dominican Republic could really use some US investment and support,” Beach wrote in one email to Washburne, describing his various projects there, which included “a power plant upgrade to an existing tin mine” as well as liquid natural gas infrastructure. He invited OPIC officials to travel with him to the Dominican Republic “If permitted, we would be happy to handle all transportation from DC to DR and back,” he wrote in a follow-up note. (Such a trip never occurred, according to an OPIC spokesperson.)A month later, the emails show, Beach also lobbied on another project, arranging a call with his business partner and one of Washburne’s top deputies regarding an “India Oppty,” which appeared to involve an energy fund. Separately, Beach also introduced Washburne to the head of oil giant Exxon Mobil’s Africa operations, with whom Beach said he had gone shooting at Blenheim Palace in England, where the Churchill family resided for three centuries. And Beach connected another Washburne aide with a South African mining executive who Beach described as “one of my partners.”OPIC spokeswoman Amanda Burke said Beach has not submitted any formal applications for agency funding. “OPIC routinely meets with a variety of businesses and stakeholders,” she said, adding that formal applications trigger background and credit checks and “go through several levels of agency vetting and approval.”Asked whether having a Trump connection would disqualify a person from receiving OPIC support, Burke emailed that “in general, an individual’s personal or legal business interests would not disqualify them from applying. However, certain relationships may cause board members or other decision makers of OPIC to be conflicted out of the decision-making process on potential projects.”You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.You can always email us at tips@trumpincpodcast.org.And finally, you can use the postal service:Trump Inc at ProPublica
Elkhart City Council Members Support Investigation of Police Department
by Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune At least three members of Elkhart, Indiana’s city council say they would support paying for an independent review of the city’s police force if the U.S. Department of Justice declines to investigate.Last month, Mayor Tim Neese asked the Indiana State Police to conduct a “thorough and far-reaching” investigation hours before the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica detailed misconduct by many top officers in the department.The state police declined to investigate, saying it would be beyond their purview. They referred the mayor to the U.S. Department of Justice. But the Justice Department has retreated from oversight over local police departments.Without help from the state or federal government, some city council members say they would support Elkhart hiring a private firm to do the investigation. The city took a similar approach in 1994, when it commissioned a study of the police department after five officers were held liable for civil rights violations. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. One council member, Republican Richard Shively, says he is unsure how long the nine-member council would wait for the mayor to act.“We’re all trying to be patient. We believe this is in the mayor’s hands at this point, but we’re not happy with the results,” Shively told the Tribune in a recent interview. “My hope is that the mayor will do his job and find out what condition his police department really is in.”Another Republican councilman, David Henke, believes a majority of the council “would facilitate some money for an investigation to happen. We’re getting to the point we must [act] because DOJ is not going to look at this.”If the mayor were to fail to find someone to investigate, Shively said, the council could initiate a review on its own.Indiana’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also called last week for an independent probe of the Elkhart police.“It is clear … the police cannot police themselves,” ACLU of Indiana Executive Director Jane Henegar said in a statement. “Mayor Neese and the Board of Public Safety must work with community stakeholders and bring in a proven, independent third-party expert to examine these endemic and historic acts of brutality within the Elkhart Police Department.”Another council member, Democrat Dwight Fish, said the city did not need an investigation — because there is already ample evidence of abuse. He cited a video the Tribune and ProPublica published showing two officers punching a handcuffed man.“The mayor needs to do his job and fire the people who have done the abuse,” Fish said. “Frankly, I believe that the state police and the Department of Justice are correct in letting us take care of our own affairs because it is so obvious — the blatant use of force — and it’s time [for] a decision by the mayor.”In an email Monday morning, a city spokeswoman said the mayor’s office has not received a response from the Department of Justice. As to the possibility of hiring a private firm, the spokeswoman said, “All options are still being assessed.”In a statement, an Elkhart police spokesman also said the department was open to an investigation.“The Elkhart Police Department is not opposed to an independent investigation into the operations of the Elkhart Police Department,” Lt. Travis Snider said in the statement. “However, a future conversation would have to take place between all parties involved to ensure … a fair and impartial investigation with limited interruption to day-to-day operations.”The video of police punching a detainee has continued to reverberate. The mayor placed Police Chief Ed Windbigler on a 30-day unpaid suspension for the chief’s handling of the incident. Windbigler had initially told a civilian oversight commission the officers “went a little overboard.” He made no mention of the punches they threw. Windbigler also said there were no injuries in the incident, though the man was taken from the police station on a stretcher.Windbigler has not responded to requests for comment.The Elkhart County prosecutor’s office filed charges in early November against the officers for the Jan. 12 beating — after The Tribune and ProPublica requested the video. The two officers have been on paid administrative leave, though the assistant chief has said their leave status could change depending on their criminal cases.After the video was published, the mayor also said the police department would form a board to review every use of force by officers and look for any patterns of excessive force. City officials have said that board would have five members — all of whom would be police officers, including the assistant chief, a captain and an internal affairs investigator.The proposed review board has faced criticism for being limited to police officers.“The use of excessive force and shootings in Elkhart must be properly and impartially investigated, not just to hold individual officers accountable but to change the policies and practices that keep leading to police abuses of power,” Indiana’s ACLU said in a statement. “Appointing an oversight board that consists solely of law enforcement officials will not cut it.”
VA Shadow Rulers Had Sway Over Contracting and Budgeting
by Isaac Arnsdorf Newly released emails about the three Trump associates who secretly steered the Department of Veterans Affairs show how deeply the trio was involved in some of the agency’s most consequential matters, most notably a multibillion-dollar effort to overhaul electronic health records for millions of veterans.Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman — part of the president’s circle at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida — reviewed a confidential draft of a $10 billion government contract for the electronic-records project, even though they lack any relevant expertise.In preparing the contract, the agency consulted more than 40 outside experts, such as hospital executives, according to the records, which were released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Mar-a-Lago trio were listed among those experts. Perlmutter, a comic book tycoon, appears on the list between representatives from the University of Washington Medical Center, Intermountain Healthcare and Johns Hopkins University.But none of the three men has served in the U.S. military or elsewhere in government, and none of them has expertise in health information technology or federal contracting.The list is one of hundreds of newly released documents about the so-called Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s sway over VA policy and personnel decisions. The records show them editing the budget for a government program, weighing in on job candidates and being treated as having decision-making authority on policy initiatives.In a June 2017 email, a VA official identified Perlmutter alongside then-VA Secretary David Shulkin as “top principles [sic].” In another message, Moskowitz named himself, Perlmutter and Sherman to an “executive committee.”Since the role of the troika was exposed by ProPublica in August, lawmakers have called their influence “wildly inappropriate” and “textbook corruption and cronyism.” A liberal veterans group sued to block them under a Watergate-era sunshine law on advisory committees. House Democrats and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said they would investigate.VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has repeatedly distanced himself from the trio. His spokesman, Curt Cashour, blamed previous leaders. “Although his predecessors may have done things differently, Sec. Wilkie has been clear about how he does business,” Cashour said in a statement. “No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions — that’s up to Sec. Wilkie and President Trump. Period.” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie at the White House on Nov. 15, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA via AP Images) But that posture carries risk for Wilkie; his predecessor was fired after losing favor with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.A representative of Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman declined to comment, as did Shulkin and the White House.Before they could review the government contract in March 2018, Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz had to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to the newly released records. Sherman edited the agreement to allow him, Perlmutter and Moskowitz to discuss the details with one another and with the president or other administration officials, according to the emails.The newly released emails also detail Moskowitz’s effort to get the VA and Apple to adapt his app. As a VA IT official described it in a May 2017 email, “We are utilizing the native iOS mobile app, Emergency Medical Center Tracker, that Dr. Moskowitz developed.”VA health officials offered their own ideas for how a collaboration with Apple could benefit veterans, such as working on credentialing, data exchange and analytics, and suicide prevention research. But Moskowitz rejected the VA doctors’ ideas in favor of his own. “These are good areas but not the emergency ones which my group of experts have identified,” he said in a May 2017 email. “I sent an email to outline the recommendations.”Darin Selnick, a VA official who previously signed onto a 2016 proposal to dismantle the agency’s government-run health service, agreed with Moskowitz’s low estimation of the VA doctors’ input. “The VA staff has limited knowledge and experience, which is why you and the” academic medical centers “are so important to help the VA move forward,” Selnick wrote. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Selnick, who is now a special adviser to Wilkie, was the point person working with Moskowitz on the app, the emails show. “I like you are the implementer for VA,” he told Moskowitz in March 2017.When Selnick said the VA’s information technology division could start working on the app, Moskowitz replied, “We need our specialist.” He then connected Selnick with his son Aaron, and Selnick introduced Aaron Moskowitz to Apple. (Aaron Moskowitz’s name is redacted from the emails, but his involvement was confirmed by four people familiar with the matter. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.)VA officials identified major problems with the app’s usability and functionality. “Some of the code needs to be refactored and even rebuilt,” the IT official said in the May email.Nevertheless, Moskowitz’s son Aaron joined a June 2017 conference call with executives from top medical systems and from Apple, including CEO Tim Cook. Moskowitz wanted the app discussed for five to seven minutes, according to the emails. After the call, Moskowitz named his son as one of the project’s “mid-level project managers.”In preparation for the conference call, Apple employees and medical experts circulated a memo that assessed Moskowitz’s proposals, which were identified as coming from “the VA and the White House.” In the memo, Apple’s experts pushed back on Moskowitz’s app, saying that the VA’s website already offered a similar tool and that the national databases needed to make the app accurate didn’t exist. Instead, the memo encouraged pursuing a different idea (giving veterans a way to store their health data on their cellphones), which it said would “achieve the greatest benefit for our veterans in the shortest amount of time.”Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock didn’t answer requests for comment.Months later, Moskowitz fumed that the Apple partnership didn’t go his way. “We had an excellent group assembled on the call with Tim Cook,” he said in a March 2018 email. “The VA dropped all contact and proceeded on its own. So now we have a product of limited value.”Moskowitz also used his influence at the VA to get the agency to convene a meeting on registries for medical devices. Moskowitz started a foundation (whose board included Perlmutter’s wife) that lobbied medical institutions to start such registries so patients could be notified of recalls. Aaron Moskowitz drew a $60,000 salary as the foundation’s director, according to tax filings.The VA already had a system to notify patients within 10 days of a recall, with a 99 percent success rate, according to internal emails. And the Food and Drug Administration already has a nationwide program to track medical devices. Nevertheless, Moskowitz spurred the VA to organize a conference on the subject, with extensive input from him and his son, according to notes from weekly 7:30 a.m. planning calls. Planning documents named Moskowitz’s foundation as a “participating partner” and a “private interest.”Moskowitz even had say over the conference’s budget: In an April 2018 email, the VA official running the effort said, “I owe Dr. Moskowitz a budget — Bruce and I are editing it.” Cashour, the VA spokesman, declined to say how much the program cost.The Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s interventions sometimes bumped into each other. Once, in May 2017, when Selnick tried to schedule a call about the Apple partnership, Moskowitz replied that the time conflicted with another call he had with the acting head of the VA’s health division.When Wilkie first met the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, they seemed to get along.“For the first time in 1½ years we feel everyone is on the same page,” Perlmutter said in an email after the meeting at Mar-a-Lago in April. “Everybody ‘gets it.’”Wilkie returned the enthusiasm, thanking the men for providing a foundation to build on.“I was honored to visit with you,” Wilkie, who at the time was the acting secretary, wrote. “No matter how long I am here, there is a template in place based on your efforts to move this institution out of the Industrial Age.”(That last sentence was redacted when the VA originally disclosed the email to ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act; the agency cited an exemption for internal deliberations. After ProPublica challenged that redaction, the VA released the full message.)But since that initial meeting in April, Wilkie’s relationship with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd has frayed. Under pressure from lawmakers after ProPublica’s investigation, Wilkie said in September that his team cut off contact with the trio.The loss of access has stung Perlmutter, according to a person close to the administration. But Perlmutter remains close to Trump: he spent election night with him and saw him over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend at Mar-a-Lago.The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential discussions, said Perlmutter has begun criticizing Wilkie — as he had Wilkie’s predecessor, Shulkin, before the president fired him.Perlmutter faults Wilkie, the person said, for snubbing Perlmutter’s calls and for sidelining one of his top allies, former acting secretary Peter O’Rourke. Additionally, the person said, Perlmutter is displeased with the agency’s releasing emails about him and with the course of its electronic health records overhaul.“It’s very clear that Ike is going to war against Wilkie in a similar way to the way he did against Shulkin,” the person familiar with the matter said. “It’s gotten that bad.”
With Trump’s Justice Department Retreating, Who Will Now Police the Police?
by Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica This article was produced in partnership with the South Bend Tribune, a member of ProPublica s Local Reporting Network. It was co-published with the New York Times.Last month, a video was released of two police officers in Elkhart, Indiana, repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in the face. The episode was just the latest in a long-troubled Police Department where nearly all of its supervisors have disciplinary records.This is the sort of problem that Congress sought to address in 1994 when it authorized the Justice Department to overhaul troubled local police agencies under court-monitored consent decrees. These agreements lay out a reform plan negotiated by federal law enforcement officials and the local government. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. After seeing the videotaped beating, Elkhart’s mayor, Tim Neese, asked the Indiana State Police for a “very thorough and far-reaching” investigation of his Police Department. But the state police turned him down, so he asked the Justice Department for help. His timing could hardly have been worse. Less than three weeks earlier, Jeff Sessions, who was then the attorney general, had sharply limited the Justice Department’s ability to use court-ordered agreements to address abuses by local police departments. It was one of his last actions before he stepped down.Sessions was a longtime opponent of these agreements, complaining that they damaged police morale and smacked of federal overreach. But his critics say his last-minute move is likely to further the Trump administration’s efforts to impede police reforms nationally. For instance, the Obama Justice Department had wanted to revamp the police department in Ville Platte, Louisiana, where officers have a long history of jailing people without probable cause. But once Sessions took over, the Justice Department settled on a watered-down version of the ambitious reform plan Obama administration officials had envisioned. As ProPublica has reported, illegal arrests remain a reality of daily life in Ville Platte.Consent agreements were an important part of the Obama administration’s efforts to address misconduct allegations. Cleveland entered into a consent decree in May 2015, six months after an officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a gun that fired plastic pellets. A report this summer on Cleveland’s continuing reforms cited a nearly 40 percent drop in officers’ use of force from the previous year. Ferguson, Missouri, approved a consent decree in 2016, two years after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown set off widespread protests. At a status hearing this year, a federal judge said she was seeing “a great deal of progress.”Fourteen cities are currently under consent decrees, from big cities like New Orleans to smaller communities like Warren, Ohio. One frequently cited success story is Seattle, where a 2012 consent decree has been credited with reducing unnecessary uses of force and improving citizens’ trust in officers.But Neese may be left on his own trying to fix a department with a tumultuous history. Read More Nearly All the Officers in Charge of an Indiana Police Department Have Been Disciplined — Including the Chief Who Keeps Promoting Them Of the 34 supervisors in the Elkhart, Indiana, Police Department, 28 have been disciplined. Fifteen have been suspended. Seven have been involved in fatal shootings. Three have been convicted of criminal charges. Elkhart, sometimes called the “RV Capital of the World,” is a city of about 50,000 people near Indiana’s northern border with Michigan. Police problems are nothing new there. In the mid-1990s, a study by two policing experts commissioned by the city called out the department’s “reputation for brutality” and its failure to rein in officers who had “abused citizens, violated civil rights, [and] alienated segments of the community.” Many of the problems cited in that long-ago report can still be found today.In early November, we obtained the video of the two Elkhart officers repeatedly punching a handcuffed man in the police station’s detention area. “If you spit again, we’re going to party,” one of the officers said just before the beating began. The police chief, Ed Windbigler, never mentioned the punches when he told the city’s civilian oversight commission that the two officers had gone “a little overboard” when taking the man to the ground.The chief said he had opted to reprimand the officers, rather than impose more serious discipline, because of their clean records. But one of them had an extensive disciplinary history, with six suspensions and two reprimands in his first five years. Once, according to his personnel file, he arrested a woman for public nudity, then, after she was released from jail on bond, he sent her a friend request on Facebook and seven text messages, asking to “hang out.”He isn’t alone. Of the department’s 34 supervisors, 28 have disciplinary records in their personnel files. One is the mayor’s son, a sergeant once reprimanded for firing 13 times at a dog, with at least two bullets striking a house. Fifteen of the supervisors have been suspended, including the chief, assistant chief and patrol captain. Three were convicted of criminal charges during their careers.There’s also another set of numbers that is striking. From 2013 to 2017, Elkhart police officers fatally shot six people. In those same years, the police in New York City — population, 8.6 million — fatally shot 43 people. The New York Police Department had about seven times the shootings in a city with more than 160 times the people. In Elkhart, one of the shootings led to a lawsuit and settlement. Another generated protests when it was discovered that neither of the officers who opened fire had a working body camera.As Neese awaits word from the Justice Department, Chief Windbigler has been placed on unpaid leave for 30 days, putting the department in the hands of Todd Thayer, the assistant chief. His disciplinary record includes a five-day suspension, seven reprimands and a two-step demotion, for making flippant comments about a fatal shooting. He said an officer who opened fire could now check that off his “bucket list,” according to his personnel file.The assistant chief has been unwelcoming of outside scrutiny. At a town hall meeting in November, he defended the Police Department while criticizing the news media. He said that when his department began receiving public records requests from one of us, the department’s reaction was: “Who is this guy? … What’s all this digging?”The police, he said, went to the city’s legal department and asked: “Does anybody know what’s going on? Everything’s going good in Elkhart. Why are they coming over here, into our backyard, and trying to disrupt everything we built?”The South Bend Tribune and ProPublica are investigating criminal justice issues in Elkhart County, Indiana. If you have a story to share, please email elkhartjustice@sbtinfo.com.Christian Sheckler covers criminal justice for The South Bend Tribune. Email him at csheckler@sbtinfo.com and follow him on Twitter at @jcsheckler.
A Chicago Psychiatric Hospital Will Lose Federal Funding Over Safety and Abuse Issues Involving Children in State Care
by Duaa Eldeib Federal authorities announced Friday they were pulling funding from a Chicago psychiatric hospital under investigation following numerous allegations of sexual abuse, assault and patient safety violations, a move that raises questions about the future of the hospital and of the hundreds of children in state care who are treated there.The Department of Children and Family Services relies on Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital to treat children with severe mental illness, some of whom have been turned away from other facilities.Separately, a federal judge said Friday that he will take the rare step of appointing a “special master,” or monitor, to resolve disputes between DCFS and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which has taken the state’s child welfare agency to court over the problems at Lakeshore.The move by U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso marks the first time a judge has agreed to appoint such a ‘special master’ since the ACLU began monitoring the state’s child welfare agency decades ago.State inspectors found that Lakeshore failed to ensure patients were free from sexual and physical abuse, did not report abuse allegations to the state Department of Public Health and did not conduct complete investigations of abuse, records show. The hospital’s Medicare agreement is scheduled to terminate on Dec. 15, federal officials said. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. The deficiencies at the hospital constituted an immediate threat to patients’ health and safety, federal officials wrote in a letter Thursday to the hospital’s CEO. The hospital issued a statement late Friday vowing to continue its work to comply with federal regulations and provide uninterrupted care to its vulnerable patients.“We are deeply disappointed that some outside forces seem determined to shutter this facility with little regard for what will become of the children we serve,” Lakeshore CEO David Fletcher-Janzen said.“Chicago Lakeshore Hospital,” he added, “knows improvements can be made and we will continue to steadfastly make those improvements, but shutting us down is tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”DCFS sends hundreds of children to Lakeshore, including some who remain at the hospital after they have been cleared for release because DCFS cannot find more appropriate homes for them. DCFS officials have acknowledged the problem, which is not unique to Lakeshore, and said they are working to find a solution.Dr. Peter Nierman, Lakeshore’s chief medical officer, has spoken out on the challenges facing children in DCFS care who languish at psychiatric hospitals beyond what is considered medically necessary.“Many of the children we serve have no place else to go and we offer the best hope for their stabilization and return to society,” Nierman said in a statement Friday. “Frankly, this is a population that virtually no other facility wants to take and I believe that without Lakeshore, the already tragic story of some of these children will only be further exacerbated.”ProPublica Illinois revealed the troubles at Lakeshore in late October. Lawmakers and the ACLU, which monitors DCFS as part of a decades-old consent decree, immediately responded by demanding an independent review of children in state care at the hospital as well as the more than a dozen allegations of abuse and neglect since January. The Chicago Tribune also reported on the troubles at Lakeshore. Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital in the city’s Uptown community (Vignesh Ramachandran/ProPublica Illinois) In addition, the ACLU called on DCFS to stop sending children to Lakeshore and to remove all DCFS patients from the hospital. It told the agency to prioritize children who were hospitalized even after being cleared for release. The hold on sending patients to Lakeshore remains in place.On Friday, the last two children were discharged from the hospital, according to DCFS, which said it is following up with the children at their new placements. Two teens who had run away in the last two weeks after they had been discharged into DCFS care have been found, according to DCFS officials.Alonso, who has ruled on DCFS issues for the past few years — and in recent weeks on issues tied to Lakeshore — said Friday he will appoint a “special master.” The ACLU had asked Alonso in June to make the appointment after ProPublica Illinois reported on the hundreds of children in DCFS care who languished at psychiatric hospitals after they already had been cleared for discharge.Alonso acknowledged he had been loath to take what he called an extraordinary action, but he said he believes the appointment of someone to mediate and resolve major disagreements between DCFS and the ACLU was necessary.“The stakes cannot be higher,” the judge said.DCFS attorneys had previously resisted the appointment of a monitor, but said in court they will work with either of two retired judges recommended by the ACLU, Wayne Andersen or Geraldine Soat Brown.“If the special master can help resolve disputes between the people who know child welfare and the people who do advocacy, that is a good thing,” DCFS Acting Director Beverly “B.J.” Walker said in a statement. “At the end of the day, this is about vulnerable children and families in Illinois and the need for consistency and sustained improvement in the performance of DCFS. That is our focus as leaders of this agency.”One reason so many children remain unnecessarily hospitalized is that DCFS does not have enough beds for them in foster homes, residential treatment centers or other settings. The special master can ensure DCFS works to identify and create those placements, ACLU attorneys said.Lawmakers and advocates applauded the news of the monitor, the first of its kind in more than two decades.“I’m delighted,” said state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield. “Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of options left for an agency that has not been in compliance for years.”Morrison, who held a legislative hearing in August on children locked in psychiatric hospitals after they had been cleared for discharge, was one of four lawmakers who wrote letters demanding an independent review of Lakeshore.Andrea Durbin, CEO of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, a nonprofit that represents child welfare facilities and groups across the state, said in a statement that 20 years of divestment in the state’s child welfare system has led to the current crisis.“The situation is not sustainable,” Durbin said. “Illinois has a legal responsibility to address the complex needs of children who have suffered trauma, abuse, and neglect, and today the Court recognized that extreme measures are needed to ensure that children and youth receive the services they deserve.”On Friday, Alonso also named the University of Illinois at Chicago’s psychiatry department as the independent reviewer after previously hearing from DCFS and the ACLU on the matter. Lakeshore’s Fletcher-Janzen, who acknowledged that “mistakes can be made,” said he welcomes the review as well as the expertise and constructive feedback UIC can provide.“Nobody wins if Lakeshore closes,” said Alpa Jayanti Patel, chief deputy at the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, which represent some 6,000 children in DCFS care. “Our clients don’t. The hospital and its staff doesn’t. The reality is what we need is safety and well-being of these children at the forefront. In my mind, a review by experts at UIC will do that.”The decision to pull Lakeshore’s funding underscores the need for the independent review, said Heidi Dalenberg, the ACLU’s general counsel, who added that she hopes Lakeshore will make the needed changes. Dalenberg said she recognizes the shortage of facilities available to treat children who need psychiatric care, especially those in state care.“That does not mean we tolerate the admission of DCFS youth to a facility where we have significant questions regarding whether children will be abused or neglected while hospitalized,” she said.
Todavía hay familias que están siendo separadas en la frontera, meses después de haberse revocado la “cero tolerancia”
por Ginger Thompson Read in English.La administración de Trump ha vuelto a separar a familias en la frontera, esta vez en forma sigilosa y justificando el acto con alegatos imprecisos y no corroborados en contra de los padres, acusándolos de ofensas o delitos menores que incluyen el cargo de reingresar al país ilegalmente.En los últimos tres meses en Nueva York, varios abogados de Caridades Católicas, organización que presta servicios legales a menores inmigrantes bajo custodia gubernamental en ese estado, descubrieron por lo menos dieciséis casos nuevos de separación. Mencionan que se fueron dando cuenta por casualidad, siguiendo sus propias pistas después de que los menores fueron colocados en casas o instituciones de tutela provisionales casi sin indicios de que habían llegado a la frontera con sus padres, o sin que se diera a conocer esa información.ProPublica se topó con uno de estos casos a fines del mes pasado, cuando recibió la llamada desesperada de un padre salvadoreño detenido en el Sur de Texas, informando que, literalmente, un agente de Aduana y Protección Fronteriza le arrancó de los brazos a su hijo Brayan de 4 años de edad cuando cruzaron la frontera y pidieron asilo. El padre, de nombre Julio, pidió que no se divulgara su apellido debido a que huye de la violencia pandillera y le inquieta la seguridad de sus familiares en su país.“Le fallé”, dijo el muchacho de 27 años, llorando desoladamente. “Todo lo que había hecho para ser un buen padre quedó destruido en un instante”. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. ProPublica localizó a Brayan, pequeño de cabello rubio rojizo y un ceceo adorable, en una agencia de tutela provisional de la ciudad de Nueva York. Luego nos comunicamos con la abogada quien lo representa. Jodi Ziesemer, Abogada Supervisora de Caridades Católicas, no tenía idea, sino hasta esa llamada, de que a Brayan lo habían separado de su padre y comentó que ese caos era inquietante por parecerse demasiado a la cero tolerancia de hace unos meses.“Es tan desalentador”, dijo Ziesemer. “Se supone que esa política ya había terminado”.Para efectos oficiales, así lo fue. El 20 de junio, el Presidente Donald Trump firmó una orden ejecutiva que retractaba la política de cero tolerancia para hacer cumplir las leyes migratorias. Bajo la política, las autoridades tuvieron órdenes de someter a proceso penal a cualquier adulto que fuera detenido por cruzar la frontera ilegalmente, además de separarlo de cualquier menor acompañante. Una semana después, la Juez Federal Dana M. Sabraw dictó un mandato en contra de las separaciones y ordenó que el gobierno reunificara a las familias afectadas.Sin embargo, la Juez Sabraw exentó a los casos en los que peligraran los menores y, algo crucial, no impuso normas ni supervisión para regir la toma de decisiones. El resultado, dicen los abogados de inmigración, fue que los funcionarios migratorios, basándose en las claves de una administración que sigue creyendo claramente en que la separación de familias es un método de disuasión eficaz, utilizan cualquier justificación a su disposición, con o sin corroborarla, para determinar que los inmigrantes son padres no aptos o peligrosos.“Si las autoridades tienen la más mínima evidencia de que uno de los padres fue miembro de una pandilla, o de que tiene cualquier tipo de mancha en sus antecedentes”, dijo Neha Desai, abogada superior del Centro Nacional del Derecho Juvenil (National Center for Youth Law); “cualquier cosa que puedan encontrar para decir que la separación es para el bien y la salud del menor, entonces los separarán”. Brayan, un niño salvadoreño de cuatro a os. (Cortes a de Mercedes Linares) En un mensaje de correo electrónico, un funcionario de la CBP reconoció que, efectivamente, siguen separando a las familias de inmigrantes, pero que dichas separaciones “no tenían nada que ver con la cero tolerancia”. El funcionario añadió que “esta administración sigue cumpliendo con la ley y separa a adultos y menores cuando sea requerido para la seguridad y protección de un menor”. El funcionario se rehusó a decir cuántos niños han sido alejados de sus padres por tales motivos, los cuales denominan como protección al menor.Los funcionarios de la CBP explicaron que el caso de Brayan es como estos. Uno de los funcionarios comentó que la agencia había revisado los antecedentes de Julio, en forma de rutina, “confirmando que era miembro de la pandilla MS-13”. La vocera Corry Schiermeyer se rehusó a proporcionar la evidencia que tiene la agencia para respaldar su alegato, diciendo únicamente que era “confidencial para fines del cumplimiento de la ley”. Tampoco quiso decir los motivos que tiene la CBP para creer que Julio representa un peligro para su hijo, aunando que la orden de la Jueza Sabraw “no impedía estas separaciones, sino que, de hecho, permitía de manera explícita que el DHS continuara esa práctica anterior”.La CBP tampoco compartió evidencia alguna con Georgia Evangelista, abogada de Julio, para respaldar la aseveración de que él tiene vínculos con las pandillas. Ella incluso cuestiona si realmente existe.(Evangelista también comentó que el pasado martes, uno de los fiscales del gobierno reiteró el alegato ante un juez de inmigración en el Sur de Texas, pero sin poder darle la documentación llamándola “confidencial”. La abogada dijo que el juez de migración no presionó al fiscal para que divulgara la evidencia, pero que sí había dejado a su cliente en libertad bajo una fianza de $US 8 mil dólares. Evangelista se sintió frustrada con el resultado y comentó: “¿Cómo podemos pelear los cargos sin saber qué son?”)Según ella, Julio llegó a la frontera a mediados de septiembre portando un oficio redactado por un abogado salvadoreño en el cual se explicaba que huía de El Salvador con su hijo debido a que había sido atacado y amenazado por las pandillas en su país durante años. A petición de la abogada Evangelista, el abogado salvadoreño y el ex empleador de Julio enviaron declaraciones juradas dando fe sobre su carácter y mencionando que él nunca había participado en actos delincuentes.“Esto me pone furiosa, No están jugando bajo las reglas”, comentó Evangelista refiriéndose a las autoridades migratorias estadounidenses. “Lo tratan como si fuera delincuente para poder justificar que le quitaron su hijo. ¿Dónde están las pruebas? Es su palabra contra la de ellos. Realmente me enferma.”Susan Watson, abogada de derechos humanos y derecho familiar, dijo que en casos de tutela de menores que no incluyan temas migratorios, sería imposible llevar a cabo ese tipo de actividad sin el visto bueno de un juez. “De acuerdo con la Constitución, una persona tiene derecho al proceso legal debido antes de que se le separe de un hijo”, comentó. “En algún lugar recóndito de la Patrulla Fronteriza existe una decisión que no cumple con esa norma”.En Nueva York, Ziesemer dice que los menores separados identificados por su organización incluyen niños y niñas de entre 2 y 17 años de edad, además de Brayan. Todos llegaron a esa ciudad sin expedientes que indicaran que fueron separados de sus padres en la frontera, ni con los motivos de la separación. Semanas atrás, la ACLU, organización que presentara la demanda relacionada con la primera ronda de familias separadas, envió un oficio al Departamento de Justicia enumerando sus inquietudes acerca de los casos nuevos, específicamente en lo tocante a la justificación de las separaciones y por qué la ACLU no había recibido conocimiento al respecto.Lee Gelernt, abogado de la ACLU encargado de la demanda en contra de la separación familiar presentada por esa organización en la primavera, mencionó que, “si el gobierno sigue separando a menores en secreto, y lo hace basándose en pretextos endebles, esa actividad sería evidentemente inconstitucional y habrá que regresar al juzgado”.Los abogados de la ACLU y Caridades Católicas dicen que el DOJ respondió diciendo que no tiene obligación de informarle a la ACLU acerca de las nuevas separaciones, en vista de que estas no se llevaron a cabo como parte de la política de cero tolerancia. El organismo dijo que en catorce de los diecisiete casos mencionados en el oficio de la ACLU, los menores fueron tomados de la custodia de sus padres debido a que las autoridades sospecharon que estos tenían algún antecedente penal que los hacía no aptos, o hasta peligrosos en ese rol. Sin embargo, el DOJ no especificó los supuestos delitos sospechados de los padres ni la evidencia que las autoridades tienen para respaldar sus alegatos.La ACLU, y otros grupos dedicados a representar a niños inmigrantes, comentaron que el secretismo del DOJ es bastante inquietante por varios motivos. Les preocupa que el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional haya permitido que funcionarios sin capacitación formal en temas de custodia de menores, principalmente agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza, tomen decisiones basadas en normas que podrían infringir sobre el espíritu de la orden judicial, y que nunca tendrían validez para casos no migratorios. Ziesemer ha hablado con familiares y trabajadores sociales y comenta que sospecha que por lo menos ocho de esos casos son de padres cuyo delito es haber vuelto a entrar al país ilegalmente. El reingreso ilegal al país es un delito mayor, aunque no era típico en esos casos que las administraciones previas separaran a las familias. Ziesemer dijo que los alegatos presentados por el gobierno para justificar las separaciones en ocho casos adicionales fueron, o imprecisas, o no corroboradas. El último caso que ella detectó se trata de un padre que fue hospitalizado.“La postura del gobierno es que, debido a que estos casos no son parte de la cero tolerancia, no es necesario informarnos al respecto. Ni a nosotros, ni a nadie más” dijo Ziesemer. “Por nuestra parte, nosotros sostenemos que debe haber cierta supervisión cuando se trata de menores que son alejados de sus padres”.El caso de Brayan es un ejemplo vívido de cómo las autoridades interpretan la orden judicial para permitir la separación de una familia.Yo me enteré de él por accidente. A principios del mes pasado, después de publicarse el informe gubernamental en el cual se indicó que más de 2,600 niños inmigrantes fueron separados de sus familias bajo la política de cero tolerancia, ya sólo tenían bajo su cuidado un menor de 5 años. Decidí encontrarlo pensando que su caso sería un punto final cautivador del reportaje que publiqué este año acerca de Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, la niña cuyos llantos fueron grabados en las instalaciones de la Patrulla Fronteriza en junio. Esa grabación inició la tormenta de rabia que inclinó la balanza en contra de la política de separación de familias impuesta por la administración de Trump.Thelma O.García, abogada en la frontera, dijo que ella había representado a Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera, niño salvadoreño de seis años colocado en un hogar de tutela provisional en San Antonio. Wilder fue separado de su padre en junio, mencionó la abogada, y no lo habían reunido con él debido a que el padre tenía una orden de arresto de hacía diez años por manejar en estado de ebriedad en el estado de Florida.Ese padre, Hilario Maldonado, se comunicó conmigo desde el reclusorio de Pearsall en el Sur de Texas. En la llamada me comentó que había tratado de mantenerse en contacto con Wilder por teléfono, pero que la trabajadora social encargada no siempre contestaba la llamada. Cuando lograba conectarse, dijo que Wilder, niño gordito, chimuelo y precoz, lo regañaba por no ir por él para regresarlo a casa.Yo le comenté al Sr. Maldonado que quizás él sería uno de los últimos padres que viviría esa separación, debido a que el gobierno había aceptado cesarlas.El Sr. Maldonado (de 39 años), respondió que eso no era cierto y que las separaciones continuaban porque él sabía de un caso.Minutos después recibí la llamada de Julio, también detenido en el mismo centro. Escuché su voz desesperada, llena de llanto y súplicas para obtener respuestas cuando me contó que se había entregado junto con Brayan ante las autoridades justo al cruzar la frontera para pedir asilo. También dijo que había informado a los agentes migratorios que su madre, quien vive en Austin, Texas, estaba dispuesta a ayudarlo a ubicarse. Siete días después, un agente de la Patrulla Fronteriza se llevó gritando a Brayan, quien llevaba puesta una camiseta de SpongeBob Square Pants.Julio dijo que lo único que sabía era que su hijo se encontraba en algún lugar de Nueva York. En cuanto colgamos llamé a la abogada Ziesemer de Caridades Católicas, organización contratada por el gobierno para dispensar servicios legales a menores no acompañados en esa ciudad. Le pregunté si se había enterado acerca de Brayan.“Sí, conocemos a ese chico”, respondió Ziesemer rápidamente, “pero no sabíamos que había sido separado de su padre”.La escuché obviamente sorprendida. “Hasta su llamada, lo único que tenía era su nombre en una lista”, comentó.Inmediatamente, Ziesemer tramitó que Brayan fuera llevado a su oficina ya que el niño se encontraba en un hogar de tutela provisional. Por su experiencia, no anticipó mucho de esa primera visita. Era probable que Brayan tuviera miedo aparte de ser un chico de sólo 4 años. Para que se sintiera cómodo, le ofreció una caja de crayones y un libro para dibujar del Hombre Araña.El pequeño se conectó con ella rápidamente, mostrándole sus dibujos, imitando los movimientos del personaje de las caricaturas, y enseñándole sus garabatos cuando ella le pidió que escribiera su nombre en una hoja de papel. Sin embargo, y corroborando lo que ella esperaba, el niño era demasiado pequeño para darle sentido a lo que había sucedido en la frontera, y menos para explicárselo a una persona adulta que acababa de conocer. Su ceceo también hizo difícil que Ziesemer entendiera lo poco que podía contarle.Luego de la visita, la abogada comentó lo exasperante que era tener que interrogar a un niño, mencionando también el terror de pensar en que podría haber otros menores como él hundidos en las listas.“Nosotros, junto con los trabajadores sociales y los consulados, hacemos todo lo posible para llenar las brechas y determinar de dónde provienen estos niños”, dijo. “Pero eso significa que transcurren días y semanas sin que muchos de ellos sepan el paradero de sus padres; y vice versa. Y, no es necesario que sea así, no debería ser así”.Yo me trasladé a Pearsall para conocer a Julio después de la reunión entre Ziesemer y Brayan. Él me contó que había huido de su país con su hijo porque las pandillas callejeras lo amenazaban con matarlo cuando se enteraron de que había denunciado a uno de sus miembros ante la policía. Su esposa e hijastro permanecieron allá porque no tuvieron suficiente dinero para venirse juntos. También hablé con su esposa, y ella me informó que estaba escondida en casa de sus padres debido a que no quería que los pandilleros la encontraran en la suya si llegaran a buscar a su esposo.Las fotografías que envió su familia muestran a Julio con semblante de policía, fuerte y con cabello rapado. Pero, después de un mes detenido, su aspecto era más bien pálido y desanimado. Traía puesto el uniforme del centro de detención y su cabello castaño oscuro húmedo aunque bien peinado. No tiene tatuajes, cosa común en los pandilleros centroamericanos.Entre llanto, Julio me contó que repasaba mentalmente los días cuando llegó a la frontera para tratar de entender por qué las autoridades le habían quitado a su hijo. Julio y Brayan habían quedado detenidos en la ya famosa “heladera”, las instalaciones de detención con aire acondicionado que fuera la primera parada para la mayoría de los inmigrantes interceptados en la frontera. Brayan comenzó a tener una fiebre alta y tuvieron que llevarlo al hospital para atenderlo. El agente de la Patrulla Fronteriza quien los llevó regañó a Julio por traer a un niño tan pequeño en un viaje tan horroroso. ¿Sería por eso que le quitaron a su hijo? ¿Fue porque los agentes vieron el color del cabello de Brayan y no creyeron que él era su padre?Julio se cuestiona si lo engañaron para que firmara un documento en el hospital (ya que todos estaban en inglés) con el cual cedía sus derechos a su hijo. ¿Sería por haber sido arrestado por robo en una ocasión en El Salvador, aunque haya sido exonerado dos días después cuando las autoridades se dieron cuenta de que tenían a la persona equivocada? ¿Por qué lo consideraban peligroso para su hijo?Fue realmente de mi parte que Julio se enteró que los agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza se llevaron a Brayan por sospechar que era pandillero. Lo revelado lo tumbó bastante. También lo confundió, ya que, al mismo tiempo en que la CBP lo consideraba pandillero, el DHS, otro organismo gubernamental, encontró que su petición de asilo, en la cual Julio declaraba haber sido víctima de violencia de pandillas, era lo suficientemente convincente para ser escuchada por un juez de inmigración.A principios de octubre Julio se había reunido con un oficial de asilo para lo se conoce como entrevista para determinar un miedo creíble. De acuerdo con el informe de la misma, proporcionado por Julio a ProPublica, el oficial de asilo no solo le preguntó por qué había huido de El Salvador, sino que también si tenía antecedentes penales. Estas son varias de las preguntas: ¿Ha cometido un delito en algún país? ¿Le ha hecho daño a una persona por cualquier motivo? Aunque no haya querido hacerlo, ¿ayudó a alguien más a hacerle daño a una o más personas? ¿Ha sido arrestado o condenado por algún delito? ¿Fue miembro de una pandilla?Julio contestó no a todas las preguntas. El oficial de asilo quien llevó a cabo la entrevista dictaminó que su información era creíble. Además, y significativamente, también indicó que no había recibido información despectiva ni expedientes penales que descalificaran a Julio automáticamente para logar el asilo automáticamente.La discrepancia refleja las diferencias entre las normas legales de asilo y de separación de familias. Mientras que la decisión del oficial de asilo queda sujeta a revisión de parte de un juez, Julio tiene una audiencia el próximo martes, la decisión de la Patrulla Fronteriza de llevarse a su hijo no tiene ese requisito.“Realmente no sé qué tipo de información tengan acerca de Julio, si es que tienen algo”, dijo la abogada Evangelista. “Cuentan con toda la discreción posible en cuanto a separarlo del menor. Pueden hacer lo que quieran y sin tener que explicar los porqués”.Julio dijo que su propio padre lo había abandonado cuando tenía más o menos la edad de Brayan. Su madre luego se fue a los Estados Unidos cuando él tenía 7 años. Comentó que él juró nunca hacerle eso a Brayan y que por eso no lo había dejado en El Salvador. Ahora se cuestiona si eso fue un error. Julio comentó que cada vez que habla con Brayan por teléfono sentía que se alejaban más.“Él me dice: ‘tú ya no eres mi papá. Yo tengo un nuevo papá’”, comenta Julio sobre su hijo, añadiendo: “Ni siquiera me dice papá, sino que papi. Yo nunca le enseñé esa palabra”.En Nueva York, la abogada Ziesemer dice que se preocupa de que la separación de familias esté comenzando nuevamente.Comentó que, al ver a Brayan en su oficina recordó las caritas de más de cuatrocientos niños separados que habían pasado por ahí durante el verano. Como punto de contacto de Caridades Católicas durante la crisis, dijo que llegó a conocer a cada uno de esos niños y niñas de nombre. Incluso una pequeña de 9 años tuvo un ataque de pánico cuando se le pidió que entrara a un cuarto con su hermana, porque pensó que Ziesemer iba a llevarse a la hermana de la misma forma en que los oficiales se llevaron a su madre. “Hubo un momento en el que tuvimos que llevar a cabo una junta con todo el personal para explicar por qué la sala de conferencias estaba repleta de niños en pleno llanto”, dijo.Caridades Católicas, la ACLU y varios otros grupos importantes de ayuda para inmigrantes, lideraron la reunificación de las familias dedicándose a llamar a padres aún detenidos en los centros de inmigración, y a despachar personal a Centroamérica para localizar a quienes ya habían sido deportados. Aparte de la “enorme y pesada tarea” de esa reunificación, dijo Ziesemer, se llevó a cabo una avalancha de llamadas y correo electrónico provenientes del Congreso y de los consulados y los medios de comunicación, todos en búsqueda de información relacionada con las separaciones.Ziesemer también comentó que ella y su equipo trabajaron mañana y noche durante meses y que, aunque todavía existen varias docenas de niños que siguen esperando reunirse con sus padres, ella había pensado que las cosas se estaban concluyendo. Fue entonces cuando comenzó a ver casos nuevos como el de Brayan, con ciertos elementos similares a los de antes. La abuela de Brayan en Austin, Texas, tiene lista una recámara esperando la llegada de su nieto. (Cortesía de Mercedes Linares) Ziesemer no sabía mucho acerca de Brayan aparte de la información que obtuvo de su parte al conocerlo. Fue entonces que yo compartí con ella lo que había llegado a conocer acerca de él por su familia: que se podía comer cuatro huevos cocidos de una sentada; que le encantaba Lighting McQueen, el personaje de la película de coches de Pixar; y que tenía un perrito llamado Lucky a quien insistía ver cuando hacía video llamadas con su madre por WhatsApp. Su abuela en Austin le tenía preparada una recámara llena de muñecos del Ratón Mickey, carritos de control remoto y abrigos para el inverno. Le comenté también la consternación de Julio cuando Brayan le decía “papi”.“Un par de semanas es un tiempo largo para un niño se su edad”, comentó acerca de él. “Comienzan a desapegarse de la gente, incluso hasta de sus padres”.
Un encausado se presenta solo al tribunal de inmigración. Tiene 6 años de edad.
por Eva Ruth Moravec, en reporte especial para ProPublica, junto con Ginger Thompson, ProPublica Fue poco antes al Día de Acción de Gracias en uno de los tribunales de inmigración de San Antonio, cuando el tercer compareciente ante el Juez Aníbal Martínez entró a la sala sin abogado, con un gorro gris de invierno bordado con un enorme par de ojos azules a cada lado de un gran mechón de peluche rojo.Cuando la alguacil le preguntó su nombre contestó orgullosamente: Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera.“¿Qué edad tiene Wilder?” preguntó el juez de inmigración.Una de las abogadas presentes en la sala con otros clientes pasó al frente para hablar por el chico en forma voluntaria. Lo volteó a ver para preguntarle su edad en español.“Seis años,” dijo, con las piernas colgándole en la silla de la mesa de comparecientes.Wilder, un regordete y sonriente niño salvadoreño, chimuelo de dos dientes, era el compareciente más chico de la lista de casos juveniles de ese día. Pero eso no era todo lo que lo hacía especial. También era uno de los últimos niños que seguían bajo custodia gubernamental por haberse visto afectados por la muy criticada política de cero tolerancia de la administración; muchos de ellos todavía esperando volverse a reunir con sus padres detenidos en Estados Unidos.La política, anunciada con gran fanfarria en abril para escabullirse un par de meses después ante a la oposición de ambos partidos, dictó que las autoridades migratorias presentaran cargos penales en contra de cualquier persona que fuera detenida por cruzar la frontera ilegalmente, además de separar a cualquier menor acompañante.Más de 2,600 niños y niñas inmigrantes, incluidos unos cien de ellos menores de cinco años, fueron separados de sus padres antes de que una juez federal ordenara que la administración cesara la política y reuniera nuevamente a las familias afectadas. La mayoría ya regresó con sus padres u otros familiares. Unos 120 menores siguen bajo custodia de las autoridades federales debido a que sus padres ya habían sido deportados y unos treinta casos tienen que ver con niños cuyos padres cuentan con antecedentes penales. Mientras que las autoridades migratorias, y los que abogan por los inmigrantes, se tropezaban para volver a juntar a esas familias, los tribunales como el del juez Martínez a menudo parecían más bien juzgados de lo familiar. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. El miércoles que se presentó Wilder, la sala del juzgado estaba repleta de menores, casi todos adolescentes quienes habían entrado a Estados Unidos por su cuenta y no fueron separados de sus familiares en la frontera. Los chicos se sentaron en las bancas del fondo vestidos de pantalones bien planchados y camisas de botones, mientras que tres jóvenes bastante embarazadas se encontraban al frente, una de ellas quejándose de dolores.“¿Escuché que tenemos a una menor con problemas de salud?” dijo el Juez Martínez desde el estrado. “No hay problema si se siente incómoda o si necesita salir en cualquier momento”.Uno de los primeros en pasar ante el juez fue una niña guatemalteca de once años, con vestido floreado y cabello atado en una cola de caballo.Se sentó en la silla de cuero negro y casi ni habló mientras que su abogada Mónica Cueva Kretzschmar explicaba que la menor admitía haber cruzado la frontera ilegalmente y que deseaba que se le enviara de regreso a Guatemala con sus padres (su caso no fue de los de separación de familias). El juez preguntó si la niña había tomado la decisión voluntariamente. La abogada dijo que sí. Preguntó también si su regreso posaba riesgos o peligros. La abogado contestó que no.El juez luego se dirigió a la chica: “Entiendo que quieres regresar con tus padres quienes estám en Guatemala”. Ella asentó con la cabeza. “Acabo de otorgar esa petición. Te deseo todo lo mejor”.La niña se levantó de su asiento sonriente, dándoles el visto bueno con los pulgares a los abogados en las bancas.El siguiente turno fue de Wilder.El juez preguntó acerca de su padre. ¿Seguía detenido?El fiscal dijo no saberlo.En realidad, su padre seguía detenido en un reclusorio federal de inmigración a menos de una hora de distancia del juzgado. Padre e hijo habían sido separados el 6 de junio cuando cruzaron la frontera ilegalmente y pidieron asilo. Wilder fue colocado en un hogar de tutela provisional, mientras que su padre, Hilario Maldonado, fue enviado a un centro de detención. Desde ese entonces, sólo habían podido hablar por teléfono en forma esporádica.Poco después de que Maldonado entrara al país, las autoridades determinaron que no calificaba para pedir asilo, pero se negaron reunirlo nuevamente con su hijo hasta que la decisión fuera apelada, ya que Maldonado había vivido en los Estados Unidos hacía más de una década y tenía una orden de arresto por manejar en estado de ebriedad en Florida. En un contexto no migratorio, ese cargo casi nunca ocasionaría que se perdiera la patria potestad, pero algunos abogados de inmigración comentan que han visto que las autoridades migratorias utilizan los antecedentes penales menores y no violentos para justificar que los padres inmigrantes sean separados de sus hijos en la frontera. Los funcionarios gubernamentales dicen que aun cuando un tribunal federal dictara el cese de las separación de menores bajo las pautas de cero tolerancia, la excepción eran los casos en los que los padres presentaban un peligro para la seguridad de los menores.Entretanto, María Élida Cabrera, madre de Wilder, seguía en El Salvador intentando por primera vez mantener a sus otros hijos por sí sola. Ella comentó que el Sr. Maldonado era quien sostenía principalmente a la familia, y que, desde que fuera detenido, ella y sus hijos sobrevivían con ayuda de grupos estadounidenses de abogacía y ayuda para inmigrantes que se habían enterado del caso de su hijo Wilder.Ninguno de ellos sabía si volverían a estar juntos, ni cuándo. Y menos el pequeño Wilder. Criado en una aldea chica en la frontera norte del El Salvador, era obvio que no supo qué hacer ante el detector de metal y mucho menos darse cuenta del significado de estar en un tribunal.Antes de entrar a la sala, la alguacil tuvo que darle un empujoncito para que pasara por el detector, ya que el chico se congeló temeroso al ver las luces parpadeantes a su lado. “No te pongas nervioso,” le dijo ella.La abogada ayudó a Wilder a ponerse los audífonos para que pudiera escuchar a la intérprete del tribunal, como si el lenguaje fuera lo único que le impedía entender el torbellino de los procedimientos.Luego le pidió al juez que hiciera a un lado cualquier decisión que pudiera tomar sobre el caso de asilo del menor hasta que el abogado de Wilder pudiera presentarse con él. El juez accedió.“Wilder, que te vaya bien”, dijo al tiempo que enviaba al chico a la incertidumbre. “Te veremos pronto”.Wilder se despidió del juez sacudiendo la mano y pretendiendo lanzar telarañas desde sus muñecas, ya que es gran fanático del Hombre Araña. Cuando salía de la sala, también le dijo adiós con la mano a la alguacil amistosa, añadiendo: “Bye policía”.
As St. Luke’s Heart Program Faltered, Deaths After Liver and Lung Transplants Also Ticked Upward
by Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle, and Charles Ornstein, ProPublica During the summer of 2017, Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center posted a banner on its website, celebrating its liver and lung transplant programs as “#1 in Texas.”That declaration was based on the latest publicly available data, which showed stellar one-year survival rates for patients who received liver and lung transplants at St. Luke’s between 2014 and the middle of 2016.But soon after the hospital published those marketing materials in August 2017, both of those transplant programs began to see increases in patient deaths, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and ProPublica has found.Of 85 patients who received a liver transplant at St. Luke’s in 2017, at least 15 have died within a year, up from previous years and worse than the national average. That’s according to preliminary data provided to reporters by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, a Minnesota-based group that measures transplant outcomes on behalf of the federal government.Also last year, according to data provided by the registry, at least seven of the hospital’s 54 lung recipients died within a year of their transplants, double the mortality rate at the hospital during the previous two and a half years.These figures do not include patients who received livers or lungs as part of multi-organ transplants or those receiving second transplants after having previously received new organs.Both the lung and liver programs at St. Luke’s have slowed down in 2018, with the number of transplants performed down 40 percent and 16 percent, respectively, through October, compared with the same period last year. Both programs also have had patients suffer unusual complications this year, according to a review of medical records and interviews with surviving family members.In February, a patient’s new lung flipped over inside her chest, an event so rare that experts sometimes document individual cases in medical journals. Another patient developed a serious tear in his airway following his December 2017 lung transplant and never recovered from the setback. And in July, a 36-year-old single mother undergoing a liver transplant died in the operating room, prompting friends to seek donations to pay for her funeral and care for the daughter she left behind.These deaths came as St. Luke’s was facing scrutiny for poor outcomes in its heart transplant program. In May, ProPublica and the Chronicle reported on an outsized number of deaths and complications in that program, which had prompted a couple of St. Luke’s cardiologists to refer some patients elsewhere for transplants. St. Luke’s advertised its lung and liver transplant programs as the best in Texas during the same year as outcomes began to decline. As was the case with the heart program, some patients and family members who came to St. Luke’s for liver and lung transplants have complained to administrators or contacted reporters about the quality of care provided.St. Luke’s officials and doctors declined to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement, spokeswoman Marilyn Gerry pointed out that the hospital’s liver and lung programs met national benchmarks in the latest official report from the transplant registry, released in October, which measured one-year survival for transplants performed between the start of 2015 and the middle of 2017.Gerry said it was “misleading” to focus on a single year of data from 2017 rather than the entire two-and-a-half-year period examined by the registry.“Because of the complex nature of organ transplant cases, natural fluctuations will occur” in a hospital’s outcomes from one year to the next, Gerry wrote.This year, when the Chronicle and ProPublica were reporting on below-average heart transplant outcomes at St. Luke’s, hospital officials said something different. They discouraged focusing on the heart program’s poor scores in official reports, saying they were based on “old data” and “don’t reflect the current transplant outcomes at our institution.”In August, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services terminated federal funding to the heart transplant program after concluding St. Luke’s didn’t do enough to correct problems that led to poor outcomes dating back to 2015. The hospital is appealing and has said that Medicare’s decision has not affected its other transplant programs.It’s too soon to say whether the increase in liver and lung deaths in 2017 will cause those programs to slip below national standards in future registry reports or put them at risk of sanctions from Medicare. That will depend, in part, on how the programs perform in subsequent years, as well as any changes in the way the federal government regulates transplant programs.Many factors can cause a transplant program’s outcomes to dip, experts say, from patient selection to the quality of medical care offered in the months following a transplant. A one-year decline in outcomes may not put a program in jeopardy of falling significantly below national benchmarks, experts say, but it could if a hospital fails to correct the trend.“Every transplant program has down years,” said Alexander Aussi, a San Antonio-based transplant consultant. “But a good program recognizes those trends early, works to understand what is going wrong and then makes proactive changes before things get out of control.”St. Luke’s leaders announced in October that they had hired a new executive to oversee all of the hospital’s transplant programs and had recruited surgeons to help with heart and lung transplants.The hospital also has launched a new marketing campaign in recent months celebrating patient success stories, in web vignettes and full-page newspaper ads, often emphasizing St. Luke’s willingness to treat the most critically ill patients. One of those was Godfrey “G.W.” Biscamp, a 64-year-old former test pilot from Houston who was turned away by two other local transplant programs before getting a new set of lungs at St. Luke’s in July 2017.“I was just about burned out with hospitals,” Biscamp said in an interview. “When I went to Baylor, I was kind of expecting the same old song and dance. But those people saved my life.”Biscamp and another organ recipient featured in the ads told reporters they were pleased with the care provided by nurses and physicians throughout their stays at St. Luke’s.Marilyn Chambers, whose husband, John, died in April, more than three months after receiving a double-lung transplant at St. Luke’s, tells a different story. She filed several complaints about the care provided to her husband and pressed hospital leaders to explain why he did not survive, leading to a pair of meetings with the hospital’s president, Gay Nord.Chambers said she wasn’t satisfied.“I felt in my soul,” she said, “that they did something wrong.”Last year was momentous for the lung transplant program at St. Luke’s, following two years of turnover in its surgeon ranks.The senior surgeon who had led the lung program since 2012 left in the summer of 2015 to practice at a hospital affiliated with Harvard University. The surgeon hired to replace him stopped performing lung transplants soon after his arrival in early 2016, after some of his initial patients experienced complications. And the junior surgeon who stepped in left a few months later, also for a job at a Harvard teaching hospital.Finally, in the spring of 2017, St. Luke’s recruited a 41-year-old surgeon from Minnesota, Dr. Gabriel Loor, and the lung program quickly ramped up. The surge in transplants that year came after another nearby hospital, Houston Methodist, significantly scaled back its lung volume after too many transplants failed within a year.In Loor’s first four months alone, St. Luke’s performed 30 lung transplants, nearly matching the hospital’s total from all of 2016 and double the number performed in 2015. But soon the program hit a rough patch. At least two of the six patients who received new lungs at the hospital in May 2017 did not survive a year, according to data provided by the United Network for Organ Sharing and interviews with friends and family members.One of the patients was Leonard “Johnny” Arsement, a former railroad switch operator who came to St. Luke’s from Louisiana with pulmonary fibrosis. Days after his transplant, doctors told his family that the donor lungs were not working properly, and he never recovered. He died in December at age 72.Daniel Butler, an artist from Houston, also received a double-lung transplant that May. The new lungs never seemed to work properly, said his best friend, Tim Johnson. After a series of setbacks early this year, Butler asked St. Luke’s doctors to stop providing life-saving medical care, and he died a few days later. He was 62.“It was just very mysterious to everybody why these lungs wouldn’t take,” Johnson said. He spoke highly of the doctors and nurses who cared for his friend during his eight-month hospital stay, despite the outcome.More deaths followed later in the year, threatening to put a drag on the lung program’s survival rate in future transplant registry reports. In the two-and-a-half-year period ending in December 2016, 94.2 percent of St. Luke’s 58 lung transplant recipients survived one year, better than the hospital’s expected rate of 89.7 percent, according to registry figures. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. In 2017, though, during the surge in transplant volume, the program’s one-year survival rate was down to 87 percent, a couple of percentage points below the national average. The transplant registry does not calculate expected rates for periods shorter than two-and-a-half years. The 2017 survival rate is current as of mid-November and could drop further if any additional lung recipients die in the final weeks of 2018, within one year of their transplants.The liver transplant program at St. Luke’s was in the midst of its own difficult stretch in 2017.For several years, the liver program had posted outstanding results. Between 2014 and the middle of 2016, 93 percent of its patients survived at least a year, slightly better than the national average of 92 percent and its own expected rate of 91.3 percent.But that began to shift at the end of 2016, according to an internal chart obtained by the Chronicle and ProPublica. The line graph, used by programs to track transplant outcomes in real time, appears to show the liver program on a steady path toward worse-than-expected outcomes by the end of last year.All told, one out of every five liver transplants performed at St. Luke’s in 2017 have failed within a year, about double the national rate. This includes two St. Luke’s patients who had their new livers fail but who were still alive as of this month, likely after receiving another transplant.Gerry, the St. Luke’s spokeswoman, said the internal chart obtained by reporters represents “one piece of a confidential report provided to transplant programs by the [the transplant registry] for peer review and continuous improvement.”A day before Hurricane Harvey slammed into southeast Texas last year, Paul Guillory sat up in a hospital bed at Baylor St. Luke’s, telling jokes.Guillory, a 74-year-old retired barber from League City, was in a good mood, thinking about the months he had waited for a new liver after being diagnosed with cancer, and about the prospect of another decade of life to watch his grandkids grow. His wife, Barbara, scribbled a note in her day planner to document the moment when staff wheeled her husband into surgery on Aug. 24, 2017: “He was so happy,” she wrote.But in the operating room that afternoon, according to medical records, Paul suffered significant blood loss and required multiple transfusions — a complication likely triggered by his liver disease and his body’s inability to form blood clots. By the time he’d been wheeled into a recovery room late that night, family members said doctors were expressing grave concerns about the viability of his new organ.“Liver not performing as it should,” Barbara wrote the next day in her pocket calendar, hours before Harvey made landfall. “Storm was coming in.”The hurricane came and went that weekend, but Paul never recovered, even after receiving a second, emergency liver transplant later that week. Paul Guillory, who died following two liver transplants. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle) Barbara said she wasn’t surprised when she learned from a reporter that Paul was one of 15 St. Luke’s patients who died following liver transplants last year. She and her family said they had concerns about the care he received.Barbara signed a release allowing St. Luke’s to speak to reporters about her husband’s case; the hospital did not answer questions about his care.Hours before Paul received his second liver transplant, about a week after the first one failed, Barbara and her children recalled watching in horror as he started to have a seizure in his hospital bed.After several minutes, a doctor was summoned; he noted the “seizure like activity” in Paul’s medical records and gave him drugs to bring the tremors under control. Two hours later, Paul was taken for his second liver transplant.A day later, on Sept. 1, 2017, Barbara noted her husband’s progress in her calendar: “Seizures have continued. Have tried many different medications, but they continue.”Barbara continued taking notes throughout Paul’s month-long hospital stay, documenting his steady decline.She sat next to her husband for several days, squeezing his hand and singing love songs, hoping to see a flicker. It never came, however, and she and her family together made the decision to let him go.On Sept. 23, Barbara jotted one last note.“I was able to lay with him and love on him,” she wrote. “Was holding him when he took his last breath.”John Chambers was nervous when he got the call from St. Luke’s three days after Christmas last year. The 56-year-old former FedEx deliveryman from south Houston knew he would eventually need a transplant after years spent struggling with an inflammatory lung disease, but he’d been breathing easier in recent months, and now he was having second thoughts.Chambers reluctantly went ahead with the double-lung transplant that day, his wife said, fearing he wouldn’t get another chance. But more than a month later, he still couldn’t sit up or breath on his own.“He was in worse shape than when he went in,” said his wife, Marilyn.Finally, in late January 2018, doctors said they identified a major cause of his continued struggles: A tear had formed in John’s respiratory tract where the transplant surgeon had connected the donor lungs to his air passageway.Such airway complications occur in between 5 percent and 10 percent of lung transplant patients, experts say, but rarely are they as severe as the “Grade 4 dehiscence” that had opened in John’s respiratory tract.Despite doctors’ efforts to repair the airway, St. Luke’s officials would later acknowledge that the complication triggered other serious problems — infections, pneumonia, inflammation, organ failure — that ultimately led to John’s death in April.Marilyn believes there were other factors. She repeatedly complained to hospital staff about the care provided to her husband. The concerns are documented in a series of letters between her and hospital administrators.In one instance, a nurse used a harness to lift her husband out of bed, Marilyn said, and in the process tore open his surgical wound, soaking his gown in blood. Other times, she said, staff inadvertently jostled lines connecting her husband to life-support equipment or failed to follow doctor’s instructions.“It was one thing after another,” Marilyn said. “I couldn’t believe the way they treated him at that hospital.” Top: Chambers goes through a bag of bills she has been sent since her husband died after receiving a double-lung transplant. Bottom: A photo of the couple on the wall of their home. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle) In the written statement, Gerry, the hospital spokeswoman, noted that St. Luke’s has maintained “magnet” status in nursing care for two decades, signaling that the hospital meets quality standards laid out by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.“We have full confidence in our nursing professionals in the care they provided to the patients you highlighted and are aware of the patient concerns you relayed,” Gerry wrote, referring to the care provided to all of the patients included in this story. “We reviewed and responded to families’ questions and comments, and immediately followed up as necessary.”In August, three months after John’s death, Marilyn met with Nord, the hospital’s president, along with Loor and others, to address her complaints. Chambers recorded the conversation and provided reporters with a copy of the audio.During the meeting, Nord acknowledged that her hospital staff could have done a better job and said the hospital had educated staff based on some of her complaints.Loor assured Marilyn that he and his team had done everything they could for John and that they were heartbroken with the outcome. Although it was another surgeon who performed John’s lung transplant, Loor said he was confident that it was done correctly. He said that the tear in John’s airway was likely the result of a common complication known as “graft dysfunction,” in which a set of donor lungs goes into shock after being implanted in a patient.Loor explained that he had hoped that John was going to recover from that setback, but the infections and other problems eventually became too much.“Ms. Chambers, I’m really sorry about all of this,” Loor said during the July meeting. “And I know it’s got to be really hard for you, but I know that you’re strong, and I know that he [John] is with us. I feel him with us. And we get better and I get better, we all get better from talking about these things and learning from these things. … We’re going to take this to heart.”In early February, three days after doctors discovered the tear in Chambers’ airway, Edmund Flores sat in a waiting room, praying for his wife while she underwent a double-lung transplant. Patsy Flores, a 58-year-old mother of two adult children, had spent more than a year struggling to catch her breath as result of high blood pressure in her lungs and a devastating autoimmune disease.It became clear a day after her transplant that something was wrong.When Loor and another surgeon reopened Patsy’s chest two days after the transplant, they made a tragic discovery, her medical records show: One of the new lungs had inexplicably flipped over, pinching arteries and choking off blood flow to the organ. The complication, known as lung torsion, is so rare after lung transplants that only 12 cases had been publicly documented as of two years ago.Researchers who examined each reported case concluded that the deadly complication can be mitigated in some instances if detected right away and corrected. But by the time St. Luke’s doctors flipped Patsy’s left lung back over, much of the organ had essentially died, according to her medical records.In a statement, hospital spokeswoman Gerry wrote that initial X-rays following Patsy’s surgery did not indicate any twisting of the lung. “Additionally,” she wrote, “all of our standard intraoperative monitoring procedures confirmed correct alignment and orientation. … However, continued monitoring over the next 24 hours detected a misalignment in one of her lungs and a procedure was completed to address the alignment.”In an effort to save her, Loor removed the damaged lung and doctors put Patsy back on the transplant waiting list, in urgent need of a replacement. Within days, they accepted another lung for her and implanted it.But it was not enough. Patsy spent nearly four months connected to life support, her medical records show. Her kidneys failed. She suffered repeated infections and bedsores. Edmund Flores holds a photo of his wife, Patsy, who died after two lung transplants. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle) Edmund also complained to hospital staff about his wife’s care. A chaplain recorded some of the complaints in Patsy’s medical records. Edmund said there were not enough nurses on staff overnight and on the weekends, leaving his wife to sometimes wait too long for assistance.A few weeks after his wife’s surgery, a nurse ripped open Patsy’s surgical wound while attempting to lift her out of bed, Edmund said, the first of two times that happened: “From that point forward,” he said, “it was taking that much longer to heal.”Patsy smiled in photos as her family gathered around her hospital bed to celebrate her 59th birthday in April. But physically, she continued to decline. She lost weight. Her organs shut down. Infections spread through her body. And finally, on June 1, she aspirated vomit into her lungs and died two days later.A month later, Edmund sat looking through photos of his wife at their home in Channelview, a blue-collar town east of Houston.“Woo boy, she was something else,” Edmund said, fighting back tears. “She was a beautiful woman. Strong, vibrant, full of life.”Edmund said that he understands Patsy was critically ill, and that she wouldn’t have survived much longer without a transplant. But he’s struggling to come to terms with the rare complication that caused her first transplant to fail, and with what he felt were lapses in care from seemingly overworked nurses and other medical staff in the months that followed.“The nurses were doing a fantastic job,” he said. “But there was only so much they could do because they were stretched so thin.”Since Patsy’s death, Edmund has received two anonymous letters in the mail. He suspects they were from someone who was involved in his wife’s care, or another hospital employee.The first note alleged that there were problems with Patsy’s transplant and claimed that her death “should have been avoided!!!” The second mentioned other lung transplant deaths this year and encouraged him to contact a Chronicle reporter.“I need you to know that the lung twist was avoidable,” the letter read, “and the whole team feels so so bad for you and your family.”Flores doesn’t know what to make of the notes.For now, he has filed them away with other records documenting his wife’s stay at St. Luke’s.
As Houston Methodist’s Lung Program Grew, So Did Its Rate of Failed Transplants
by Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle Godfrey “G.W.” Biscamp could barely breathe. After months of struggling with an inflammatory lung disease, his doctor told him he was in need of a transplant, and in 2013, he sent him to Houston Methodist.There was no better transplant program in the country for patients in need of new lungs, one physician told him. But by the time Biscamp arrived, the program had begun to change.Biscamp spent more than a year as a patient at Methodist, hoping for a lung transplant that never came. Instead, after numerous appointments and tests, he said doctors reversed themselves in early 2015, saying his condition was too perilous to risk a transplant.Biscamp did not realize that, behind the scenes, Methodist had been struggling with a high rate of failed lung transplants, or that the hospital had significantly scaled back the number and difficulty of transplants it was willing to perform. Those issues have never before been reported publicly. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. “I walked into Methodist at a time when the word on the street was, these guys are blowing and going,” Biscamp said. “They are transplanting people left and right, and they are the best in the business. Then all of the sudden while I was there, apparently it blew apart, but nobody told me.”Biscamp, a 64-year-old former military test pilot, had the misfortune of needing a new set of lungs during a period of instability and change among Houston’s transplant hospitals. His four-year struggle for new lungs demonstrates the human consequences that can follow when a transplant program falters. And it shows the challenges facing patients with advanced organ failure while trying to decide where best to seek treatment.After leaving Methodist, Biscamp transferred to nearby Memorial Hermann, which was launching a new lung transplant program led by one of his former Methodist doctors. But after two years, Biscamp recalled doctors there telling him his case was too risky, again leaving him to seek care elsewhere.With his inflammatory lung disease worsening, Biscamp was expecting to be disappointed when he arrived at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in early 2017, another Houston lung transplant program that has undergone significant changes in recent years.But doctors at St. Luke’s surprised him. Biscamp arrived at the hospital around the same time as its new lead lung transplant surgeon, and within a few months, he received a new set of lungs.More than a year later, he knows he’s fortunate to be alive.“I got shuffled around big time,” Biscamp said. “I got run through the bushes.” Biscamp received a new set of lungs at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center in early 2017, after waiting four years and transferring twice among Houston transplant programs. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle) There was a reason Biscamp’s doctors initially sent him to Methodist. A year earlier, in 2012, the hospital performed a staggering 143 lung transplants, making it the busiest program in America. The hospital’s willingness to travel farther for donor lungs, to treat sicker patients and to attempt new and unconventional surgical techniques drew national media attention.But as the program was growing, so was its rate of poor outcomes.Between the beginning of 2012 and the middle of 2014, about a quarter the 289 patients who received new lungs at Methodist had their transplants fail in less than a year, a rate significantly higher than the national average and worse than expected based on its own patient and donor characteristics, according to data compiled and analyzed by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.In an interview earlier this month, top Methodist officials acknowledged the below-average outcomes and said they proactively made changes to turn things around, ultimately avoiding the sort of federal crackdown that caused St. Luke’s to lose Medicare funding for heart transplants this year. (St. Luke’s says it has made numerous improvements, including hiring new surgeons, and it is appealing the decision.)Turning things around at Methodist meant hiring additional medical staff for the lung program, improving administrative oversight and — unfortunately for some patients — performing fewer high-risk transplants.“Even before these results came out, we had started our improvement efforts,” said Roberta Schwartz, Methodist’s executive vice president, emphasizing that the hospital’s lung outcomes have steadily improved since then and are now in line with national standards.Dr. Osama Gaber, a surgeon who oversees all of Methodist’s transplant programs, said he commissioned an extensive review of the lung program in 2013 and determined that doctors had been taking on too many high-risk cases, including patients over the age of 70 and those seeking a second or third lung transplant.Transplant outcomes are measured on a curve, taking into account dozens of patient and donor characteristics in an effort to ensure hospitals are not punished for treating sicker patients than their peers. That includes a patient’s age and whether they received a transplant previously.Nonetheless, the hospital reformed its patient selection standards and hired additional staff members beginning in 2013, Gaber said, and soon outcomes began to tick upward. By 2015, the year Biscamp was turned down for transplant, Methodist performed a total of 75 lung transplants, about half as many as in 2012, according to publicly reported data.Gaber said patient privacy rules prevented him from commenting on the reasons Biscamp was turned down for transplant. But, Gaber said, cases like his should be seen as a testament to the range of treatment options offered to patients at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.Gaber acknowledged that the hospital’s improvement efforts meant fewer patients received new lungs. He said that is a tragic consequence of the federal government’s requirement that transplant programs meet national benchmarks for one-year patient survival.“Every program that’s been flagged [by the government] shrinks,” Gaber said.Dr. Scott Scheinin, Methodist’s lead lung transplant surgeon until late 2017, disagreed with the notion that patient selection was the main cause of below-average lung outcomes. He noted that, even when the program was treating sicker patients, the hospital was achieving above-average one-month survival rates, indicating to him that the problems weren’t related to surgical outcomes, but with the care that followed.Scheinin said he does not believe Methodist had adequate medical staffing to care for the hospital’s huge population of lung recipients in the months following their transplants. All organ recipients are given anti-rejection medications that suppress their immune systems, making them vulnerable to illnesses and death following transplant.“We had a slew of people who would die between eight and 14 months after transplant,” said Scheinin, who has since gone to work for a transplant program in New York. “To me, that means somebody is not paying attention to them. Something is wrong.”When asked about Scheinin’s comments, Gaber said the hospital’s improvement efforts included hiring additional staff and strengthening post-transplant care.Although lung outcomes have gotten better in recent years, Gaber said he and his team are continuing to look for ways to make improvements.“This is not like a speedboat; this is like a airplane carrier,” Gaber said. “You’ve got to move it very slowly.”
The Los Alamos Lab Worker Who Started a Year Too Late for Benefits
by Rebecca Moss, Santa Fe New Mexican For several months in the early 2000s, Gilberto Ulibarri attached a respirator to his face each day to fix pipes in the sewers of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The air was toxic, so he kept his mask on even when he sneezed.As the years went on, Ulibarri began to have difficulty breathing. Then, raised red welts sprouted on his face, strange growths that appeared to trace the outline of the respirator he wore. In 2015, doctors found tumors wrapped around his mesenteric artery, which supplies blood to the intestines.By August 2017, standing before a panel of federal experts, cancer had stripped more than a hundred pounds of muscle and fat from Ulibarri’s frame. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. “I worked on a drain line for eight months that had any and every chemical you can think of up in Los Alamos,” Ulibarri told the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health during its meeting at a Marriott hotel in Santa Fe.In 1996, at the age of 58, Ulibarri started working at the lab. That was the year Los Alamos said it was in compliance with a new federal rule that required enhanced safety and record-keeping at Department of Energy nuclear sites. If he had begun even a year earlier, he would have been deemed eligible for compensation from the government because the lab had not kept adequate records of radiation exposure. But because Ulibarri started in 1996, he was fending for himself.Ulibarri was the 11th person to testify to the board that day about problems with safety and record-keeping at Los Alamos that they said continued beyond 1996. Most of the speakers had cancer or a deceased loved one who did. They are seeking special recognition from the government, which would allow them to more easily access benefits.Ulibarri first applied for benefits in 2003. Part of his claim was denied four months later, and a toxic exposure claim was denied in 2006. Ulibarri, who worked for Los Alamos subcontractors Johnson Controls and KSL Services, spent nearly 15 years unsuccessfully appealing to federal officials for benefits. Officials denied two of his claims despite difficulty accessing his complete unemployment records and being unable to verify several years Ulibarri worked at the lab. Along the way, the Department of Labor said his medical conditions were too vague “to establish a definitive diagnosis … with a toxic link.”In 2013, he appealed for a hearing with the Department of Labor, saying he wanted “to express my feelings about the work conditions I was exposed to up in Los Alamos. They were terrible.” Ulibarri told the hearing officer that the lab identified him as a worker exposed to beryllium and submitted a doctor’s note stating his breathing problems show “probable” chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.“It just bothers me that [the lab can] send people out into job situations without knowing what’s going to happen,” Ulibarri said later in an interview. They are “blue-collar guys,” he said of his colleagues. “They don’t know what that stuff is.”Kevin Roark, a spokesman for Los Alamos, could not retrieve Ulibarri’s medical records by deadline, saying they were stored out of state. A spokesperson for the Department of Energy said that while the agency keeps extensive records, records kept by subcontractors can be “particularly challenging” because they often remain with the company. In such cases, the Department of Energy tries to use a worker’s accident or exposure history to track employment.In 2015, Ulibarri learned he had pancreatic cancer and submitted his last application for benefits. The Department of Labor again rejected his claim. The agency’s mathematical models estimated that he’d been exposed to just 2.73 rems of radiation over his career, which is about the equivalent of having two full-body CT scans and a chest scan. That is less than the amount of radiation the federal government allows nuclear workers to be exposed to in a single year.Ulibarri’s file, reviewed by the Santa Fe New Mexican, includes records from numerous doctors, charts of radiation exposure documented by Los Alamos over a decade, blood tests, X-ray results, beryllium exposure tests, papers detailing the health risks from mercury exposure — and several letters from federal officials seeking still more records. A handwritten affidavit from Ulibarri described chemical and gamma ray exposures while working in the sewers of various nuclear buildings.At various points, federal officials said Ulibarri did not respond to their requests for information. Charlene Maes and her husband Gilberto Ulibarri in Santa Fe. Charlene asked a federal advisory board to extend benefits to Los Alamos National Laboratory workers, like her husband, who were employed after 1995 and have cancer but have been denied compensation. (Courtesy of Charlene Maes) There were gaps in Ulibarri’s exposure records from the lab in 1996, 2000 and for four months in 2004. But the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said it filled in the gaps for these periods using “hypothetical intakes and environmental air concentrations” that were likely to have existed at Los Alamos at the time.“Mr. Ulibarri’s DOE records show that he was not routinely monitored for internal dose,” his case files said, referring to urine samples that looked for markers of radiation exposure. NIOSH said in Ulibarri’s paperwork that “the lack of monitoring indicates routine exposure is less likely.”In August 2017, Ulibarri’s wife, Charlene Maes, told the federal advisory board her husband had been “virile and strong. He’s standing before you now. He’s a sick man. All I ask is possibly that all of you will please consider expanding the [petition] date range that you have put in place before. He falls short by a year.”“I think they hope people wear down,” Maes said later.Gilberto Ulibarri died in May.
Ill Nuclear Workers’ Benefits Petitions Have to Be Reviewed Within 6 Months. Some Have Languished About a Decade.
by Rebecca Moss, Santa Fe New Mexican Ten years ago, a security guard at Los Alamos National Laboratory submitted a petition to the federal government seeking compensation and benefits for his fellow lab workers who were sick with cancer and believed that radiation at the lab was to blame.Andrew Evaskovich’s petition took advantage of a process put in place by Congress in 2000 that allowed groups of workers to secure benefits if they could show that they worked at a nuclear facility, that they had a cancer linked to radiation and that lab managers failed to accurately keep track of their exposures over time.Under the law, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency that makes recommendations on work-related injuries and illnesses, had six months to review Evaskovich’s petition and recommend whether it should be approved or denied.A decade later, Evaskovich and his colleagues are still waiting for a final answer.In 2009 and again last year, NIOSH recommended that Evaskovich’s petition be denied. Both times, however, outside reviewers found major flaws in its analysis, and a federal advisory board told NIOSH to keep working. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. In October, NIOSH again recommended that the petition be denied. And this month, outside reviewers again indicated that they had found serious problems in its analysis.During a meeting Thursday, members of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health agreed that NIOSH had failed to answer key questions about recordkeeping and exposure at Los Alamos and asked the agency to continue looking into the matter. NIOSH said further investigation could take up to three years.“I’ve got a heartache with this,” said board member Bradley Clawson, a nuclear worker at Idaho National Laboratory.Facilities around the country continue to be fined for failing to limit radiation exposure and monitor workers, he said. “I am not going to take it on blind faith” that Los Alamos is following federal rules just because officials say they are.What has happened to Evaskovich’s petition is playing out at nuclear labs across the country. At the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a petition has languished for 11 years. At Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, workers have been waiting seven years for a final decision.Taken together, the delays show the glaring holes in a process set up to help injured nuclear workers collect compensation for radiation-linked cancers in a “timely, uniform and adequate” way, an investigation by the Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica has found. Petitions linger for years without resolution, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. And NIOSH has repeatedly made improper conclusions about the safety and recordkeeping at Los Alamos and other sites, only to be contradicted by independent consultants and forced to redo its assessments.The path to compensation has been particularly narrow for employees hired after 1996 — the year a new federal radiation safety rule took effect that required nuclear sites to limit radioactive risk and monitor workers’ exposure. The government assumed the new regulations meant that workers would be safe and that accurate exposure records would be kept, and therefore compensation decisions could be based entirely on those records.In fact, public records show Los Alamos consistently violated radiation and nuclear safety rules after 1996. In one incident in 2000, Los Alamos workers were exposed to what inspectors called one of the worst radiation events in decades.One government report in 2008 found nuclear safety issues at the lab were “long-standing,” with few buildings following safety guidelines and numerous incidents of “unusually high, unexplained dosage reading for workers.”Since 2004, 269 petitions similar to Evaskovich’s have been filed with NIOSH for review. Of those, about half have been approved, mostly for those who worked at nuclear sites before the 1990s. NIOSH and the Department of Health and Human Services have yet to decide on 13 petitions, most of which seek to help workers employed after the mid-1990s.David Michaels, who helped establish the compensation program as assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety and health in the administration of President Bill Clinton, and later led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama, said the problems identified by the New Mexican and ProPublica show that the program is not working as intended. “Congress has to fix it,” he said.This is not the first time government officials have been accused of delaying action on petitions by nuclear workers. In 2006, members of Congress faulted the administration of President George W. Bush after internal memos suggested plans to deny petitions based on cost, rather than on scientific merit, in order to keep the overall expense of the benefits program down.As a result of the delayed petitions, thousands of workers across the country have been left to navigate the benefit process by themselves, sometimes with incomplete or questionable exposure and employment records. Often, they are denied benefits. Last month, the New Mexican and ProPublica profiled the case of Chad Walde, a maintenance worker at Los Alamos who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014 and whose claim for benefits was denied. Walde’s recollections of his radiation exposure, confirmed by family members and colleagues, were not reflected in the lab’s official records, which formed the basis of the denial. Walde died in June 2017.At Los Alamos alone, at least 967 people who began working at the lab since 1996 have applied individually and been denied compensation for cancer, and most of them would become eligible for benefits if Evaskovich’s petition is approved. Another 800 people have been approved, federal data shows. Countless others may be sick but haven’t applied, said Bill Richardson, energy secretary during the Clinton administration.The Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear labs, as well as NIOSH say that nuclear sites are safer and have done a better job monitoring workers since 1996, largely because of the new federal rule.The regulation requires sites to limit the amount of radiation workers are exposed to annually, monitor the amount of radiation absorbed by skin and inside the body for “at-risk” workers, and implement plans to protect workers from radiation. The government says it is confident the only workers who weren’t monitored were those who faced no risk of radiation.Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said that all employees who work near radiation are required to wear badges that measure their exposure and that the lab complies with all federal requirements. “Radiation exposure,” he said, “has been consistently recorded at the laboratory over many decades.”But Joe Fitzgerald, an independent consultant paid by the government to assess the scientific integrity of NIOSH’s work, said last year that officials should have analyzed how well the lab’s radiation protection program was actually working rather than taking Los Alamos at its word that it was following the more stringent federal safety regulations.The lab “did not magically” have the ability to follow the rules in 1996 just because the government said it had to, Fitzgerald told the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, which includes physicians, scientists and workers and was established to advise the government.Fitzgerald, who has been working with the advisory board for roughly 15 years, declined to discuss the petition in an interview.In his most recent assessment, dated Nov. 16, Fitzgerald concluded that NIOSH’s latest recommended denial again ignored serious questions about the adequacy and completeness of worker-monitoring records at Los Alamos.In an interview in September, a NIOSH official acknowledged that the agency was wrong to assume that Los Alamos was implementing radiation safety rules for years.“I thought we were being efficient and expedient, and it didn’t work out,” said LaVon Rutherford, a health physicist responsible for reviewing the petition Evaskovich filed.Still, Rutherford said he stands behind the integrity of his agency’s assessments and believes the petition should be denied.The lab says training and other precautions are taken before work is done at the lab. Moreover, at-risk workers are identified after accidents. It says its rate of worker injuries is far lower than “comparable industry averages.”But post-Cold War workers are stuck in something of a bureaucratic loop. To qualify for compensation, they must prove that they were exposed to a certain amount of radiation. But they can’t show that because, they say, the lab didn’t didn’t properly monitor them. All told, Evaskovich gathered more than 50 examples of issues that he believed had prevented the lab from correctly tracking workers’ exposure.Evaskovich, who started working on the petition in 2006, says federal officials have failed to address the concerns raised in his petition, and problems at the lab are only continuing.“I’ve felt frustrated for the last 12 years,” he said. “It’s a tough job.”In September 1999, workers at a Department of Energy uranium processing plant in Paducah, Kentucky, sued the plant’s management contractors, including Union Carbide Corporation, Lockheed Martin Corp. and others. They alleged the contractors deliberately withheld information from workers about the risks at the plant. A separate lawsuit accused the contractors of defrauding workers and the government about the amount of plutonium in the environment surrounding the plant, reporting lower levels than actually existed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against the workers in the class action, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The environmental lawsuit was ultimately settled.The disclosures, however, were among many revelations in the late 1990s that shaped how the Department of Energy crafted its compensation program for nuclear workers with cancer and other illnesses. Richardson, the energy secretary at the time, apologized on behalf of the government for failing to inform workers of the risks at Paducah and other sites.In 2000, the Paducah workers became the first to be designated a “special exposure cohort” under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act passed by Congress. It meant workers wouldn’t need to show that they were individually exposed to radiation, only that they worked at the site during the time period when exposure was likely and had one of 22 radiation-linked cancers. Workers at uranium production sites in Ohio and Tennessee received similar designations.Under the law, groups of workers at other nuclear facilities could apply for this special status, too, if they could show similar problems with recordkeeping. Each petition would essentially amount to an investigation into federal and laboratory safety and documentation practices.The process required coordination between the Department of Energy, NIOSH and the Department of Labor, which oversees the claims process. The Department of Energy would turn over environmental and worker radiation records to NIOSH, which would take that data and run elaborate risk calculations that compare the hazards present at a site to their likelihood of harming workers. The final say on the petitions was left to the Health and Human Services secretary.The rollout of the law did not go smoothly. In the years after its passage, HHS delayed putting in place regulations to implement the petition process.In February 2004, 16 senators, including Hillary Clinton of New York and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, wrote to the HHS secretary urging action, and the department began accepting petitions that year.But before long, there was again resistance, this time from the White House and Department of Labor, which were anxious about the number of workers that might qualify for benefits because of approved petitions — and the amount of compensation they would have to pay.In 2005, Shelby Hallmark, director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs at the time, wrote in an email to the White House Office of Management and Budget that, “We should do everything possible to oppose” the petitions, saying this would be “the single most effective way to prevent billions of dollars in spending.” One memo proposed allowing “interested agencies,” including the White House and the Labor Department, an opportunity to comment on the outcome of each petition.After the memos were leaked to The Associated Press and lawmakers, Congress held five hearings on the topic. Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., said during one hearing that such efforts “would not bear well under scrutiny. Those involved in this backroom manipulation of the program have destroyed the government credibility again.”Others who participated in the hearings pointed to other memos Hallmark had written, made public by Congress, trying to limit the power of the federal advisory board and its consultants. In one, Hallmark suggested the independent consultant reviewing NIOSH’s work, Sanford Cohen & Associates, or SC&A, was too worker-friendly because of its criticism of the agency.Hallmark acknowledged in a recent interview that he had concerns about the cost of the program. But more broadly, he said he believed the approach scientists were using to estimate a person’s risk of developing cancer was flawed.“I was concerned about cost,” he said, “but my main concern was having a program that was balanced and rational.”He said he thought Congress should get rid of the petition process and NIOSH’s reliance on exposure data for individual claims.In the years that followed, the Government Accountability Office determined that the claims process and the scientific review involved had proved to be more difficult and expensive than anticipated.GAO also questioned a lack of transparency within the Labor Department, which was weighing in on scientific decisions without explaining why. That “could give the appearance of an effort to deny benefits to eligible claimants,” the GAO wrote in 2007.At a congressional hearing that year, Dr. James Melius, an international medical expert who chaired the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, said the amount of time it was taking for NIOSH to process petitions and individual workers’ claims far exceeded what was reasonable.“We need to make that process work better,” said Melius, who helped create the compensation fund for 9/11 first responders and died in January 2018.He said if a petition review went beyond a set period of time, it should automatically be approved. “If not, it’s justice delayed a long time.”But his advice has not been heeded.As Congress was reviewing the program, Andrew Evaskovich found himself navigating the Las Vegas Strip in September 2006.His union, International Guards Union of America Local 69, had paid his way to attend a meeting of the advisory board. Evaskovich sat beside Harriet Ruiz, a former New Mexico state legislator who had written a petition asking that Los Alamos workers employed through 1975, including her husband, Ray, be designated a special class for benefits.Ray Ruiz, who served in the New Mexico House of Representatives, had died of lung cancer while working on the petition. His wife took over his House seat and his work advocating for his former Los Alamos colleagues.Evaskovich’s fellow guards, however, worried that Ruiz’s petition, which would be approved in 2010, would do little to help them because few, if any, had worked at the lab in 1975. Some of them hadn’t even been born at the time. Even though some were young, they were sick and wondered if their cancers were caused by radiation. They said they stood guard in normal uniforms as scientists worked nearby in layers of protective clothing and masks.At that first meeting, Evaskovich learned that those filing petitions had dedicated years of their lives to trying to unearth information about problems within a department that is one of the nation’s most secretive. Many were the friends, coworkers, wives or children of sick nuclear workers.Evaskovich returned to Los Alamos and promised his union brothers that he would be their champion. Each day, after his shift at the lab, he would deposit his gun, hit the gym and then go to the union house to research the health and safety conditions that surrounded him.“I saw there was a problem and I wanted to help,” he said.One Memorial Day, he recalled, the guards wrote the names of their deceased colleagues on a whiteboard, with the cause of death listed beside. Almost all of them had died from cancer, Evaskovich said. “There were a lot of names on there,” he said. “It struck me as a pretty significant number.”It took Evaskovich nearly two years to complete the petition, but in April 2008, he filed his request, asking that workers employed at the lab between 1976 and 2005 be given the special designation that would make it easier to gain benefits. His petition was accompanied by a 10-pound box of documents and digital CD-ROMs.He had submitted documentation that well after the early ‘90s, Los Alamos was not following the Clean Air Act, problems with ventilation systems in buildings that housed nuclear materials and doubts about the accuracy and placement of air monitors. He described how open-air explosive tests at the lab released depleted uranium and other toxic substances into the atmosphere, spreading debris throughout lab property. Other workers described handling radioactive water and burying the bodies of irradiated animals while wearing little protective clothing.Evaskovich also researched an incident he remembered firsthand: In the summer of 2005, a scientist opened a package sent from the lab’s plutonium facility and released radioactive americium. The scientist spread the contamination through the laboratory, to a grocery store, into his home and across three states. It was on the security badge he handed over to guards each day. Eleven days passed before lab managers realized anything was wrong. Only on that day were workers checked for radiation exposure.Roark, the lab spokesman, says the response to this event was “comprehensive and deliberate.” He said the lab tracked where the contamination spread and which individuals were affected.In the summer of 2008, after Evaskovich submitted his petition, people stood on the sidewalk in Española, a 25-minute drive from Los Alamos, advocating for workers struggling to access federal benefits. They held up signs to passing traffic that read “Approve our claims now” and “‘Good’ Jobs Today, Sickness and Death Tomorrow: LANL.”Remembering that first meeting in Las Vegas, Evaskovich knew that it could take a couple of years for his petition to move through the system, but he didn’t expect what was to come.In January 2009, NIOSH recommended that the Los Alamos petition be rejected.NIOSH said that, dating back to the 1970s, Los Alamos had kept robust proof of its workers’ exposure to radiation, and that this documentation was sufficient to know the unique risk faced by each worker. Because of that, the agency said, it was confident a special cohort was unnecessary.But the recommendation overlooked numerous issues, including a large federal investigation into the laboratory’s practices in 1991 that directly contradicted many of NIOSH’s conclusions. It found hundreds of significant problems with how the University of California, which independently ran Los Alamos at the time, was handling environmental health and safety at the lab.NIOSH’s report drew pushback from the federal radiation advisory board, independent scientific consultants and members of Congress. The consultants, SC&A, found that certain types of health monitoring had actually decreased in the ‘90s, which could make it difficult for NIOSH to accurately assess claims from that period.Three years later, NIOSH reversed its decision. In the late summer of 2012, the agency said it had been wrong in its 2009 findings and actually didn’t have enough information about workers or environmental contamination to estimate their radiation exposure. The agency found that workers employed prior to 1996 “may have accumulated substantial chronic exposures through intakes of inadequately monitored radionuclides.”NIOSH recommended allowing those employed before 1996 to be eligible for benefits without proving they were exposed. It said that it would continue to review the petition covering those who started work from 1996 to 2005 but that it assumed Los Alamos followed the Department of Energy’s new occupational radiation protection rule as of Jan. 1, 1996.It took until April 2017 for NIOSH to release another recommendation on the Los Alamos petition filed by Evaskovich. The agency again recommended that it be rejected.The agency said in several public meetings that it was delayed in reaching a decision in part because it could not access all the records it needed from Los Alamos prior to early 2017.“We are also going to review the current reporting system as soon as we get access to that,” NIOSH official Rutherford told the advisory board at a meeting in November 2016.Roark, the Los Alamos spokesman, said radiation records are “readily accessible” and “our complete exposure history has been provided” to NIOSH.Stuart Hinnefeld, director of the compensation analysis and support division for NIOSH, told the New Mexican that while, in general, the Department of Energy has been “very responsive” to NIOSH’s requests, the agency has little recourse to compel the department or its contractors to provide records.“There is no bully pulpit,” he said. “We are somewhat limited in terms of the aggressive approaches we can take with another agency.”Once NIOSH obtained access, it said it had found that Los Alamos was following the federal radiation protection rule.While only half of the workers who filed claims for cancer had monitoring records for urine samples to measure radiation exposure, Rutherford said he was not troubled by that the number. Not all workers needed to be monitored, he noted, just those in high-radiation areas. For the others, their jobs shouldn’t involve them having contact with radiation.But within four months, SC&A, the consulting group hired to review NIOSH’s work came back with its own report. It again found numerous problems with the national institute’s conclusions.While NIOSH said the mid-’90s represented a turning point in nuclear safety, Fitzgerald, the independent consultant who reviewed its work on behalf of SC&A, said this shift did not happen immediately.“Radiation protection, was very much an evolutionary program,” he said during a teleconference last summer with the advisory board and NIOSH.Problems with health and safety programs were deeply rooted, he said, and couldn’t be “turned around overnight by a piece a paper.”Indeed, records show that the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear labs, had cited more than 50 violations of radiation protection and other safety rules at the lab between 1996 to 2005. That would have amounted to more than $3.4 million in fines, but those penalties were ultimately reduced and waived.In 2003, Linton Brooks, then the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, wrote that “LANL’s previous corrective actions have not been effective in preventing the recurrence of the radiological and safety” violations after yet another problem occurred that year.Fitzgerald said that Los Alamos and other sites were given “quite the latitude as to what extent that their existing programs met” the Department of Energy’s radiation safety rule.The process began again. When NIOSH responded to Fitzgerald’s critique this October, the agency agreed that Los Alamos had not completely followed the 1996 radiation safety rule, and that there had indeed been violations. But NIOSH said there was ample evidence to conclude that the lab had been adequately monitoring workers in recent years.NIOSH once again said it could use algorithms to determine how much radiation workers were exposed to based on data supplied by the lab. That would allow each worker’s claim to be judged individually.Roark, the Los Alamos spokesman, defended the lab’s compliance with Energy Department rules, saying “isolated violations over roughly a decade do not amount to” problems with their program.In a PowerPoint presentation during Thursday’s advisory board meeting, Fitzgerald again said that many of NIOSH’s assumptions were unfounded. His findings also noted that NIOSH had not addressed problems identified by the lab and the Department of Energy in the late ‘90s that were not corrected until the early 2000s.Josie Beach, who chairs the federal advisory board’s working group focused on Los Alamos, suggested the group recommend Evaskovich’s petition be approved, at least for workers employed before 2000.But other board members said they should give NIOSH more time to determine what new records they might need to prove Los Alamos’ unmonitored workers weren’t at risk.NIOSH said it will provide a plan to the board by March 2019.Criticism of NIOSH’s work has extended to several other laboratories, with consultants frequently poking holes in the agency’s logic.In late 2007, an attorney filed a petition on behalf of workers at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina asking that workers employed between 1950 and 2007 be granted special status.Three years later, NIOSH recommended the petition be denied, saying, just as it had with Los Alamos, that it could use equations to estimate how much radiation every worker at Savannah River had been exposed to dating back to 1950.David Anderson, an attorney working on the matter, disagreed. “When we looked more closely at these methods and data, we discovered alarming levels of inappropriate extrapolation and even exaggeration, as well as significant gaps” in their data, he said during an advisory board meeting in 2012.The Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health hired SC&A, to evaluate the NIOSH recommendations at Savannah River and it agreed with Anderson’s critique. SC&A questioned how workers were tested for radiation absorption after 1996.The critiques prompted NIOSH to reassess its work and partially reverse itself. The government ultimately determined that all workers employed between 1952 and 1972 should be eligible for benefits. The petitioners are still trying to gain benefits for more recent years.Richardson, the former energy secretary who established the employees’ compensation program in 2000, said work at nuclear facilities is “still dangerous.”“There's a lot of new positive safety, accountability measures but there are still workers that are getting exposed and we should at the very least treat them right and give them medical attention and protect them,” he said in an interview with Investigate TV, a partner with ProPublica and the New Mexican.Richardson estimated that hundreds of thousands of workers could be eligible for benefits but lack the records to support their claims.After more than a decade working on the petition, Evaskovich feels like the system is stacked against him and other petitioners. For years, he has organized his vacations around NIOSH meetings in Florida, Ohio, New York, Georgia and Colorado so he can plead his case, on his own dime.Evaskovich said safety is still not where it should be. Friends still get injured on the job, new guards are still not always enrolled in monitoring programs and his colleagues still warn one another to avoid unsafe material scattered at a site, he said.“There isn’t a problem with having safety concerns and addressing them,” he said. “It may cost, but it’s cheaper than having people die on the job.”
In an 18-Year-Old Program to Help Ill Nuclear Workers, a Petition Has Lingered for 10 Years
by Rebecca Moss, Santa Fe New Mexican Ten years ago, a Los Alamos National Laboratory security guard named Andrew Evaskovich submitted a petition seeking compensation for fellow nuclear lab workers diagnosed with cancer linked to radiation. The government has repeatedly recommended denying the petition, despite evidence of continuing safety and recordkeeping problems at Los Alamos. And today, Evaskovich is still waiting for an answer. (Read our investigation.)October 2000: Congress creates a program to compensate nuclear workers who’ve become sick after being exposed to hazardous levels of radiation or toxic chemicals. The law allows groups of workers to petition the government for easier access to compensation if their worksite has not kept adequate worker health records. The process has yet to help workers who started after 1996, when labs had to begin meeting higher safety standards.2000 to 2004: Government inspectors find continuing worker safety problems at Los Alamos. A top official writes that Los Alamos labs’ “corrective actions have not been effective in preventing the recurrence of the radiological and safety basis violations.” Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. March 2006: Internal government memos are revealed showing a plan to deny petitions seeking special compensation for workers whose exposure records are missing or were destroyed, as a way to keep the costs down.January 2008: A government watchdog report finds numerous incidents of “unusually high, unexplained dosage readings for workers” at Los Alamos.April 2008: Evaskovich files a petition seeking compensation for ill Los Alamos workers employed between 1976 and 2005 who may not have adequate records of radiation exposure, based on his research showing problems with lab safety and recordkeeping.January 2009: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, recommends for the first time that Evaskovich’s petition be denied, saying Los Alamos records’ show the lab had a health and safety program and was monitoring workers.February 2009: A government advisory board disagrees and tells NIOSH to continue studying the petition.July 2009: Workers are exposed to radioactive arsenic-74 at two areas of the lab, violating radiation safety practices in part because personnel “did not recognize the extremely high beta radiation dose rate associated with the arsenic.” Los Alamos is later fined for the incident.July 2010: In response to a different petition, the government provides easier access to benefits for workers employed at Los Alamos prior to 1975.August 2012: NIOSH reverses course and says that workers employed prior to 1996 should be eligible for compensation as a group since they “may have accumulated substantial chronic exposures through intakes of inadequately monitored radionuclides.” It also says it needs to continue studying those who started work in subsequent years.February 2014: Lab workers improperly pack nuclear waste, which causes a drum to burst at an underground nuclear waste facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The accident exposes more than 20 workers to radiation and is one of the costliest nuclear accidents in Department of Energy history.August 2015: The DOE cites Los Alamos for six violations, with issues going back a decade, including a near-runaway chain reaction.April 2017: NIOSH once again recommends denying Evaskovich’s petition for Los Alamos workers, saying the stricter rules implemented in 1996 meant the lab didn’t have systemic problems after that.July 2017: Independent consultants disagree. The lab “did not magically” have the ability to follow the rules in 1996 just because the government said it had to, said one of the consultants who had been hired to provide technical advice to the government’s advisory board.October 2018: NIOSH again recommends that Evaskovich’s petition be denied, saying it has plenty of documents to estimate workers’ radiation exposure, even if they weren’t individually monitored by the lab.November 2018: Independent consultants again disagree.The Department of Energy and NIOSH both say that nuclear sites are safer and have done a better job monitoring workers since the new rules were implemented in 1996. Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said that workers are closely monitored for radiation exposure and that the lab complies with all federal requirements.
Here’s What We’ve Been Reading This Week
by Helga Salinas There’s been a lot of good journalism this week. Here are just a few of the stories we’ve liked and think you might find interesting, too.How Chicago-area municipalities are paying for #MeToo cases. Since 2008, there have been more than 400 cases of sexual harassment and abuse allegations in local fire and police departments, park districts and schools. Approximately half of those cases have resulted in more than $55 million in settlements, verdicts, legal fees and various other costs. Read the story from Better Government Association, NBC Chicago and Telemundo.Mexico City will have a new deal for traffic camera violations. ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez has been writing about the city of Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection practices and how they disproportionately affect low-income and minority drivers. So we thought this story from Mexico City was intriguing. Officials there say that they’ll phase in community service for camera violations. Read the story from Animal Politico. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. A deeply reported investigation of the Trump administration’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, examines his stint as the top federal prosecutor in Miami and his handling of a serial sex abuse case involving the wealthy and politically connected hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein. Read the story from Miami Herald.Despite unsafe conditions in certain public housing complexes, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development still gave them passing grades. Thirty percent of Chicago’s public housing properties failed inspections in 2017, but none did just two years earlier. It’s part of a broken system in which “persistently unsafe properties routinely pass their inspections, and decent ones fail.” Read the story from ProPublica and The Southern Illinoisan.Children are still being separated from immigrant parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Although the Trump administration said it had halted its “zero tolerance” policy, reporting from ProPublica’s Ginger Thompson shows the administration is still separating families at the border. Read the story from ProPublica.What have you read? Email us at illinois@propublica.org.
Chicago Throws Out 23,000 Duplicate Tickets Issued Since 1992 to Motorists Who Didn’t Have Vehicle Stickers
by Melissa Sanchez, ProPublica, and Elliott Ramos, WBEZ The city of Chicago said Thursday it has dismissed some 23,000 outstanding duplicate vehicle sticker tickets and will refund motorists who have already paid for an additional 12,000 duplicates dating to the early 1990s.The decision was made Wednesday, city officials said, five months after a ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ investigation revealed that, on nearly 20,000 occasions since 2007, motorists had been been cited more than once on the same day, in apparent violation of the municipal code.The city’s decision affects even more drivers because its analysis of ticket data extends to duplicate citations issued since 1992, adding 15 years’ worth of sticker tickets to the equation.Motorists in black and low-income neighborhoods see the highest rate of ticketing for vehicle sticker violations, including duplicates, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ have found. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. In one case, Chicago police officers issued three $200 sticker tickets to a motorist who had parked her vehicle outside her apartment at a gated, low-income housing development, all within 78 minutes.The city is notifying motorists who paid for duplicate tickets so they can claim refunds online or by mail and is working to upgrade its technology to automatically void new duplicate tickets, Kristen Cabanban, a Finance Department spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.Officials did not announce the decision until Thursday afternoon, the same day a lawsuit was filed alleging the city had been issuing duplicate sticker tickets just to generate revenue from fines and late penalties.“To be clear, we’ve been working on this for months,” Cabanban said. “We first had to understand the [scope] of the issue and then work to come up with a solution, followed by working with our IT vendor to perform the programming. Yesterday was the culmination of those efforts.”The lawyer who filed the lawsuit, Jacie Zolna, said he didn’t “believe it for a minute.”“This is them finding out at 4 p.m. last night I was going to sue them, and now they’re scrambling around to make it seem like they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart. … It just proves that these types of lawsuits are the only thing that will make the city change these illegal practices,” he said.Zolna, who filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, has sued the city before over ticket issues. Last year, he won a nearly $39 million settlement on behalf of motorists who did not receive adequate notice for automatic red-light and speed-camera tickets in the city. In another case, filed in July, Zolna accused the city of violating a state cap on ticket penalties. That case is pending.Vehicle sticker requirements are fairly unique among large U.S. cities. Chicago requires motorists to buy annual stickers — typically between $88 and $139, depending on vehicle weight — and affix them to the windshields of their cars. Revenue from sticker sales goes to fund street repair.At $200, the sticker ticket is one of the most expensive in the city and has contributed to hundreds of millions of dollars of debt and thousands of bankruptcies, particularly in black neighborhoods. With late penalties, one ticket can cost $488.Lauren Nolan, research director at Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit policy organization that issued a report on ticketing disparities over the summer, called the city’s decision to dismiss the duplicate tickets a sign of progress but said more work lies ahead to make the system less punishing to the poor.“This represents a drop in the bucket as it relates to the ticket issues more broadly,” she said, “but it’s good residents are no longer being hit with purely administrative errors which should never have happened in the first place.”It’s unclear if the city’s decision to dismiss unpaid tickets and issue refunds will render the most recent lawsuit moot. The lawsuit also took aim at duplicate tickets for another type of vehicle compliance violation that vexes Chicago motorists every year: expired license plates. An analysis of city ticket data by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ show close to 100,000 instances of duplicate citations for expired license plates since 2007.One of the two plaintiffs in the city sticker lawsuit is a Chicago firefighter, Rodney Shelton, who filed for bankruptcy in 2015 after he lost his driver’s license and faced losing his job over unpaid tickets — including some duplicates. Shelton had racked up thousands of dollars in ticket debt on a broken-down car he had left on a vacant lot next to a relative’s home in the Garfield Park neighborhood.“It was a no-brainer to say enough is enough,” he said. “I’ve already gone through enough. It has to get better.”The city’s move came as momentum grows for reform of the city’s ticketing and debt collection practices. The Chicago City Council this month approved a plan to allow motorists to buy city stickers in four-month installments. The measure, from City Clerk Anna Valencia, is meant to help low-income drivers afford stickers so they won’t get ticketed.The City Council also approved a Law Department proposal to forgive some debt and create more affordable payment plans for motorists who file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7. Most drivers who file for bankruptcy over unpaid tickets use Chapter 13, which typically ends without any debt relief.Next month, aldermen may tackle yet another set of proposed reforms that would limit license suspensions over unpaid tickets and allow community service instead of debt repayment.
DeVos’ Inspector General to Audit Dismissals of Civil Rights Complaints
by Annie Waldman The Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Education has announced that it is scrutinizing how the department handles civil rights complaints, potentially fueling a debate over the Trump administration’s scaled-back vigilance on a hot-button issue.Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the department has pulled back from the Obama administration’s emphasis on investigating allegations of systemic civil rights violations by school districts and colleges, instead focusing its attention on individual complaints of mistreatment, as ProPublica has reported in a series of articles.According to its annual report released Wednesday, one of the inspector general’s priorities is determining whether the department’s civil rights division has been appropriately dismissing discrimination complaints in accordance with federal policies and procedures. OIG reviews typically assess the efficiency, effectiveness and integrity of department operations and look for fraud, waste or abuse. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. “The audit is currently underway and we hope to be done in 2019,” said Catherine Grant, a public affairs liaison for the office, which is an independent entity within the department that audits federal programs and investigates internal fraud.Grant declined to discuss details of the audit, citing a longstanding policy put “in place to protect and maintain the integrity of our efforts.” The department’s inspector general, Kathleen S. Tighe, has served in that position since 2010, and she has spent most of her career in the federal government ferreting out fraud.Catherine Lhamon, who led the department’s civil rights office from August 2013 until January 2017 and currently chairs the United States Commission on Civil Rights, said that the new audit is badly needed.“External oversight seems more than warranted given the high dismissal rates and OCR’s whipsawing on its authority not to investigate topics Congress specifically charged it to protect,” Lhamon said. “Students deserve better from their government.”“Our top priority in the Office for Civil Rights is ensuring all students have equal access to education free from discrimination,” an education department spokesman said in an email. “As we continue to work to improve OCR’s case processing, we welcome feedback.”This year, ProPublica analyzed federal data on more than 40,000 civil rights cases at the Education Department, which we received through multiple public records requests. Our analysis found that the department’s civil rights office has grown more lenient in recent years.Under the Trump administration, the department is less likely than it was under Obama to find wrongdoing by school districts and colleges on a range of issues, from racial and sexual harassment to meeting the needs of students with disabilities.We also found that the department has scuttled more than 1,200 civil rights investigations that were inherited from the Obama administration and were open for at least six months. These cases were closed without any corrective action or findings of wrongdoing, with the department often citing insufficient evidence.In Bryan, Texas, for example, investigators from the department’s civil rights office began looking into racial discrimination in school discipline in 2013. They uncovered several instances of black students who were punished more harshly than their white peers for the same offenses. After the Trump administration took over, the case was closed, with no finding of wrongdoing.The Office for Civil Rights, which is responsible for investigating violations in public schools across the country, handles more than 10,000 complaints annually.Under the Obama administration, the office prioritized broader and more time-consuming inquiries. The Trump administration has made efficiency its priority, focusing more on individual complaints, which can be resolved more quickly, and clearing its backlog of cases.The most recent audit of the department’s civil rights office was conducted in 2015, during the Obama administration, and found that the office adequately resolved discrimination complaints in “a timely and efficient manner and in accordance with applicable policies and procedures.”The current administration’s approach to civil rights allegations against school districts and colleges has drawn ire from Democratic senators and civil rights advocates. Several of them welcomed the announcement of the inspector general’s audit.“We have seen shifts in policies that marginalize students of color,” said Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Our hope would be that the Education Department, with the knowledge of this investigation, will shift direction.”
“I Don’t Want to Shoot You, Brother”
by Joe Sexton PART INine Minutes in WeirtonThe dispatcher for the Weirton Police Department took the 911 call at 2:51 a.m. on May 6, 2016.“Please send somebody to 119 Marie Ave., Weirton, West Virginia, right now,” a woman said. She sounded young and scared.“Please right now. Please right now.”The woman hung up. The dispatcher called her back, but no one answered.Stephen Mader, a 25-year-old rookie officer with the Weirton Police Department, got the radio call from dispatch. It was 2:53.“Had a female stating she was at 119 Marie Ave. She sounded hysterical, hung up the phone. Would not answer on call back.”Weirton, a city of 20,000 in the state’s northern panhandle, was quiet at that hour. It took Mader, alone in his patrol car, just over three minutes to get close to 119 Marie. At first he overshot the address, and when he got to 130 Marie, he had to hit the brakes. Backing up, Mader caught sight of a young African-American man standing next to a car parked in the street.“Where’s 119?” Mader asked.“It’s right here,” the young man said. “Why, what’s up?”The woman inside 119 Marie called 911 again. It was 2:57. Her name was Bethany Gilmer. R.J. Williams, her ex-boyfriend and the father of their baby, had a gun, she told the dispatcher. But the gun was not loaded, she said. He’d taken the magazine out. He was drunk.“He doesn’t have a clip in the gun,” Gilmer told the dispatcher. “He said he was going to threaten the police with it just so they would shoot him.”Mader by then had gotten out of his patrol car. The only light came from nearby streetlamps. Williams had his hands behind his back.“Show me your hands,” Mader commanded.“No, I don’t want to,” Williams said.“Show me your fucking hands,” Mader said.“Why you got to cuss at me?” Williams asked.When Williams at last showed his hands, a silver and black Smith & Wesson pistol rested in his right palm. His arm hung at his side, the gun pointed at the ground. He started to back up along a narrow sidewalk leading to the house.Mader drew his weapon and moved to take cover behind the car parked in front of 119 Marie.“Put the gun down,” Mader said.“I can’t do that,” Williams said.“I don’t want to shoot you, brother,” Mader said. “Put the gun down.”“Just shoot me,” Williams said.To Mader, Williams sounded choked up. The Smith & Wesson didn’t move from his side. It was still pointed at the sidewalk. It was 2:58.“Just shoot me,” Williams said again.Mader was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, but grew up in Weirton. He went to the local high school and loved his early childhood — mostly, he said, because he got to spend lots of it outdoors. He wrestled and played soccer. For kicks, he’d tie a tractor to an old couch loaded up with friends and haul it through the fields.If you lived in Weirton, Mader said, you worked in the steel mill, and so that’s what his dad did. In its boom days after World War II, the mill employed more than 10,000 workers, and shift changes seemed like great tidal migrations of dirty humanity.But when Mader turned 10, the mill announced its latest round of layoffs. His father was one of the casualties, and he later had to find work as a card dealer at Mountaineer Casino. Things got tight in the household, and grandparents pitched in to help care for Mader and his brother and sister.The Twin Towers in New York City were toppled that same year, and even for Mader, then a fifth-grader, the terrorist attack felt like a call to arms. His paternal grandfather had served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict; his mother’s father had been an Army drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, and an uncle was an Army vet, too. Mader’s father had been a Navy man, a jet technician on an aircraft carrier before he found work in the mill. His dad loved war movies, and he and Mader watched loads of them.“I knew I wanted to serve in some type of military,” Mader said. “They told me the Marines was the most challenging, so that’s what I went for.”Mader enlisted in 2009, and after boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, he wound up spending seven months in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He’d been trained as a dog handler, and with help from a faithful dog named Max, Mader’s job was to identify improvised explosive devices. Max was a golden Labrador, a dead ringer for JoJo, a dog Mader had growing up.“They looked exactly alike,” Mader said with a smile, “except that Max was in shape.”Mader was out one day in a convoy taking his Marine commander to a meeting with Afghan villagers. Mader said he was in the sixth truck when another, about 500 feet in front of his, struck an IED. Mader and the platoon sergeant in his vehicle jumped out to assess additional threats.“How much do you trust Max?” the sergeant asked.“With my life,” Mader said.Max was sent out, and the convoy followed him the rest of the way.“We didn’t blow up on our way there, so that must have been a good thing,” Mader recalled.Mader later tried to adopt Max but was told he’d already been given away to another organization.“It was hard getting over Max,” he said.Once, when he was stateside at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Mader woke up next to his wife, Kaycie, and moved to put his boots on. Kaycie asked what he was doing.“Going to feed Max,” he said.“Max is gone,” Kaycie reminded him.Mader had met Kaycie in high school. They had lunch period together, and they went as a couple to both homecoming and the prom. Their first child, Bruce, was born when Mader was still in Afghanistan. He’d left one forward operating base a nervous husband — the medic gave him pills for his anxiety — and arrived at his next base a new father. He posted a picture to his Facebook account of himself and his fellow Marines smoking cigars in honor of the birth of his son.“I went over there and did my job as I was told,” Mader said of his four years in the Marines. “Whether or not I fixed anything, I don’t know.”Mader had always loved the diesel engine in one of the trucks he’d had as a teen, and so when he returned to Weirton, he enrolled in school to be a diesel mechanic. But he eventually applied to join the Weirton Police Department. A friend’s dad was a cop on the force. Another friend was working an internship with the local sheriff’s office. Mader remembered fondly how local businesses used to hand out trading cards with the pictures of Weirton officers. And the structure and camaraderie of police work, Mader said, felt familiar, felt right.Mader completed 16 weeks of training at the state police academy in Dunbar. He liked the work they did on de-escalating potentially volatile situations. The Marines had taught him how to eliminate targets, he said. In police work, the lethal option wasn’t the only one.On the Weirton force, he said, “You’re not just there to kill and be killed.”The 911 dispatcher for the Weirton Police Department that night in May 2016 was a woman who had been a high school science student of Mader’s grandmother. Most of the runs she sent the department’s officers on involved shoplifting or drunken behavior. There’s no record of any officer with the Weirton P.D. having been killed in the line of duty. Weirton’s leaders liked to boast that it was one of the safest small cities in America.But there were plenty of domestic dispute calls, too. Cops everywhere tend to hate them. Unpredictable. Emotional. Sometimes hard to sort out the aggressor. Weapons are common.Mader assumed that’s what was going on with the distraught woman the dispatcher had just radioed him about.“Ten-four,” Mader responded. He said it took a conscious effort not to groan.As he drove, Mader mentally drew up what he called a “personal checklist.” Do this, then that. Separate the parties. But he also reminded himself: Anything could happen.“I just looked at it as, ‘Better to go in with a blank slate,’” Mader said. “I just tried to keep myself as calm as I could. I tried not to get too excited, because then it’s easier to make a mistake.”In front of 119 Marie, Mader kept his gun trained on Williams. They stood perhaps 5 or 6 feet apart at first. After Williams backed up toward the house, the distance lengthened to maybe 10 or 15 feet. Mader had unholstered his weapon a couple of times since he’d hit the streets in December 2015. This, though, was the first time he’d drawn it with the chance that he might well use it.The dispatcher, with the information given to her by Gilmer, had managed to radio a warning: “Watch out for weapon.” She did not include Gilmer’s claim that the gun was not loaded or that Williams might be suicidal.“Got a gun here,” Mader radioed back.The Weirton Police Department, like almost every other, has a policy on the use of lethal force: If someone is a threat to life — a civilian’s or an officer’s — an officer can shoot to kill.Mader said it was scary in the dimly lit street. His adrenaline was pumping. It felt, he said, like it could be one of those “oh, shit” moments.But Mader did not regard Williams as a threat. Williams seemed distraught. He avoided eye contact. He was looking around to see if anyone was watching. He wasn’t being belligerent. He was only repeating a single sentence:“Shoot me.”The requests felt to Mader like pleadings.“It’s a red flag,” Mader said. “Suicide by cop.”Williams had become a father for the first time just four months before the standoff. The child, a boy, was given the same name as his father and grandfather, and thus — as the third Ronald Dale Williams — was playfully called Tre. Tre turned out to be the first baby born in 2016 at Trinity Hospital in Steubenville, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Weirton, and his birth made for a cute segment on local TV.“This is my first baby, so everyone will be excited,” Gilmer said on camera to the TV reporter. “I never expected to have him on New Year’s.”But in the months since the birth, the relationship between Gilmer and Williams had become badly strained. Ida Poole, Williams’ mother, thought Gilmer’s moods had darkened after the baby’s birth. For his part, Williams had long battled anxiety, sometimes so acute that he required medication. Disputes flared regularly, and the house the couple shared at 119 Marie sometimes sat empty: Williams would retreat to his family, Gilmer and the baby to hers.The Williams family says R.J. was torn up about how little access he had to his son. He’d been a doting young father, they said, taking on extra shifts at his job as a caregiver at a home for the mentally disabled in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, to pay for food and diapers and toys.“He loved his son, and the baby loved the sound of his father’s voice,” said Heather Poole, one of R.J.’s sisters. “Being away from him weighed heavy on his heart.”Gilmer offered a portrait of a more disturbed man. She told police both she and Williams’ own family recognized that his mental health issues were significant, often exacerbated by a problem with alcohol. Gilmer said Williams could be erratic and volatile, even paranoid about whether she was being faithful and whether Tre was his child. They’d fought a week before the standoff, and she’d gone to the Weirton Police Department to ask about an order of protection. But she filed no charges and sought no order.The coining of the term “suicide by cop” is sometimes attributed to Karl Harris, a police officer turned psychologist, who came up with the phrase after manning a suicide hotline in the early 1990s. But there is little question that the phenomenon has existed for decades. Some researchers trace its rise to the emptying of America’s psychiatric hospitals and the growing problem of homelessness. But it’s not hard to find an array of examples that don’t easily fit those categories: people who’ve been laid off from work or seen a romantic relationship end.One of the more rigorous studies of the phenomenon was done a decade ago, and it indicated that suicidal intentions could play a role in more than a third of all fatal police shootings. Those dying in this fashion were overwhelmingly male, typically young and frequently under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 16 percent of the cases involving suicide attempts, the civilians involved had tried to take their life at least once before, and in 15 percent the presumed suicides came amid an episode reported to the police as domestic violence. More than 80 percent of the incidents were spontaneous. In just under a third of the cases, the encounters with police lasted less than 10 minutes.Seemingly every one of these cases comes with the potential for controversy. Was the suicidal person, sometimes brandishing a knife or pretending to have a weapon, really a threat? Was firing their guns the only option for the officers? What kind of training had the officers received in dealing with those who have a mental illness? Was the term “suicide by cop” — making an officer an actor in a painful, private choice — unfair to the officers, many of whom wound up deeply traumatized?“This unique form of suicide has the potential to be a public health threat on a multitude of levels whenever and wherever it takes place,” said a recent journal article published by the American Psychiatric Association.On May 5, the day before the standoff, Gilmer said she would allow Williams to spend a rare night with her and the baby at 119 Marie. She had to work the next morning, and Williams was going to mind the child. But he didn’t show up until after 2 a.m., Gilmer told police, and when he did, he told Gilmer he’d had a couple of beers.Gilmer said Williams immediately became argumentative and accused her of bad-mouthing his family.“So I came into the kitchen and sat on the floor and said we need to have a civil conversation,” Gilmer told the police.“I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the same anymore,” she said. “And that I did not love him anymore.”Yelling between the couple ensued, and Gilmer fled to the basement. Shoved by Williams, she punched him in the face and managed to get back upstairs. She had her cellphone in her hand and hit the green button for 911. She quickly asked that someone be sent to 119 Marie.Williams went to his car and got the Smith & Wesson. Back in the house, Williams asked Gilmer if the police were coming. Gilmer now had Tre in her arms.“He held the gun to his head and said he was going to kill himself in front of the baby and me.”She said Williams then removed the magazine from the gun and racked the live round out of the weapon as well.“After R.J. did that, he said he was going to go outside and wave the gun at police to make them shoot him because he wasn’t going to kill himself.”She looked at her cellphone and saw she’d missed the callback from the dispatcher. She dialed again.“Drop it!”“Drop it!”“Drop it!”Suddenly, there were three officers yelling at Williams on Marie Avenue. It was 2:59.Ryan Kuzma and Michael Baker, each in his own patrol car, had heard the radio call involving a frantic woman. They thought Mader, so new to the job, might need help, and only more so when they heard the dispatcher warn about a weapon and Mader confirm there was a gun at the scene. The two officers had driven through Weirton’s streets with their lights and sirens off, and when they arrived, they had nearly collided.Like Mader, they had never been involved in a shooting and, again like Mader, didn’t know that Gilmer had said Williams’ gun was not loaded.With the arrival of Kuzma and Baker, Williams began walking toward the driveway to the left of the house, again pleading to be shot. He raised his gun slightly, pointing it in the direction of Mader. Mader said the gun was aimed at the level of his torso but wide to his left.Baker screamed at Mader to take cover, and all three officers continued to yell at Williams to drop the gun. Williams then raised the gun to shoulder height and swung it back and forth, from Mader to Kuzma and Baker and back to Mader again.“I’m going to pull my trigger,” Baker declared.Gilmer, still on the 911 call, heard the hollering and relayed it to the dispatcher. “They’re outside yelling right now,” she sobbed.“Ma’am, just settle down,” the dispatcher responded.Then gunshots.“They’re firing, they’re firing, they’re firing. No. Please, please, please!”Kuzma had opened fire. He stood some 30 feet from Williams, and his first three shots missed their target. One bullet was fired into the grass. Another struck a tree and then the door frame of a nearby house. A third bullet punctured the tire of a truck in a neighbor’s driveway. Mader could instantly hear the hissing of air.Kuzma paused and refocused before his fourth shot. The bullet struck Williams behind and above his right ear and exited the left side of his forehead.“What happened?” the dispatcher asked Gilmer.“I don’t know. I don’t know. They fired. I don’t know.”Baker reached the fallen man first. Williams was gasping for air. Baker said the desperate breaths then became more like gurgling. The Smith & Wesson was located, and it was clear that it lacked bullets.Mader got on the radio. It had been roughly 10 seconds, he estimated, from the moment the two backup officers arrived at 119 Marie until the shooting started. Asked on the radio about the status of the “suspect,” Mader declared him “down and out.” An arriving lieutenant, per protocol, handcuffed Williams as blood pooled under his head in the driveway. Someone threw a white sheet over the body.It was 3 a.m., nine minutes since Gilmer’s first 911 call.The West Virginia State Police investigate all fatal shootings by officers in the state, and within hours five troopers were at the scene. Sgt. Jim Gibson of the state police was in charge. All three Weirton officers gave statements. Later, the Weirton police reached a work colleague of Ida Poole, who then informed Poole of her son’s death.The killing of Williams had many of the combustible components of a controversial police shooting. An African-American man had been shot dead by a white officer. While there was a weapon, it wasn’t loaded, and the 911 dispatcher knew that could be so before the shooting started. Questions of mental health and suicide seemed in play.There was, too, a tense scene when Williams’ family showed up at the state police barracks to pick up his belongings. A lawyer representing the family had emerged and raised questions about the necessity of the shooting. Several family members would later write to the U.S. Department of Justice asking for an investigation.“I don’t want this incredible and tragic incident set aside and forgotten,” Ivory Williams, R.J.’s grandmother, wrote to Loretta Lynch, then the attorney general. “The family needs answers, and most of all we need justice for R.J.”Just weeks after the shooting, Weirton and the Police Department did something almost unheard-of in America’s long and troubled history of police shootings: They quickly fired one of the officers for his actions in the fatal encounter.PART II
ProPublica Honored With the First Amendment Coalition’s Free Speech & Open Government Award
by ProPublica The First Amendment Coalition awarded ProPublica its Free Speech & Open Government Award for “Trump Town,” a series of articles and a searchable database of 2,724 of President Donald Trump’s political appointees, along with their federal lobbying and financial records.Led by ProPublica research reporter Derek Kravitz, news applications developer Al Shaw, research fellow Claire Perlman and researcher Alex Mierjeski, the project started with a simple question: Who is being appointed by the Trump administration to run federal agencies? After Trump took office, the White House said it was deploying 520 political appointees on so-called “beachhead teams” of temporary employees, but it would not release details about who they were or what offices they were working in.In response, the ProPublica team launched an enormous fact-finding mission that involved filing more than 200 Freedom of Information Act and open-records requests, collecting staffing lists and publishing financial disclosure reports. When they couldn’t get the names of White House staffers, they partnered with The Associated Press and The New York Times to make a publicly accessible Google Drive folder to help crowdsource the missing names and review appointee documents. What they found: Dozens of obscure Trump campaign staffers, and people who have embraced conspiracy theories, had populated the government through hiring mechanisms meant for short-term political appointees, as well as Washington insiders who could be reasonably characterized as part of the “swamp” that Trump pledged to drain.Since the publication of “Trump Town,” several appointees have resigned. Following pressure by Democratic senators calling for more transparency, in June the White House began releasing ethics waivers of its appointees.“The task that ProPublica took on was enormous, to say the least — it fought and negotiated for access to public information every step of the way to shed light where light was needed,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Its work paid off and is a great example of just how important aggressive and meticulous investigative journalism is.”Learn more about the Free Speech & Open Government Award here.
How to Get Your Lawmakers to Listen
by Cynthia Gordy Giwa Hello from the otherrr siiiiide…You did it! In this month’s midterm election, you and a whole lot of your fellow voters turned out to the polls to make your voices heard. But you’re not done yet. Voting is just the beginning!The User’s Guide to Democracy has always wanted to help you become not only a more informed voter, but also a more engaged citizen. So, with the winners declared, how do you get your elected representatives in Washington to listen to your voice now?At a live event on Nov. 13 with the New York Public Library, Derek Willis (my colleague here at ProPublica) and Paul Kane (an ace Congressional reporter for The Washington Post) tackled this question with the help of a panel of Capitol Hill insiders. The event, called “Irregular Order: How Congress Really Works,” was moderated by comedian/actor/writer Wyatt Cenac.James Wallner, senior fellow for the think tank R Street (and a former Republican Senate staff member); Lindsey Cormack, Stevens Institute of Technology assistant professor of political science; and Stephanie L. Young, communications director for When We All Vote (also a former Democratic House staffer); explained how to get lawmakers to listen to you and act on the issues you care about.Even as Congress seems stuck, there are still things that you can do to influence your lawmakers. Here are a few suggestions from the panel:
Sanitation Salvage, Troubled Garbage Hauler, Surrenders Operating License
by Kiera Feldman for ProPublica Sanitation Salvage, the embattled private trash hauler recently suspended from operations by New York City regulators, has decided to surrender its operating license.In a letter sent to city regulators Tuesday, lawyers for Sanitation Salvage said the company would cease operations “forthwith.”Officials at the Business Integrity Commission, or BIC, the city agency charged with overseeing the private trash industry, did not have an immediate public response. The BIC this year declared the company, one of the largest in the city, a threat to the public after two fatal crashes and a rash of safety violations documented by the agency’s investigators. The company returned to operations in October, but it remained under investigation and was required to agree to the installation of a monitor to oversee its daily operations.Emails sent to the owners of Sanitation Salvage and their lawyers were not immediately answered. The company has steadfastly defended its performance, saying it placed the safety of its workers and the public first. When the city suspended Sanitation Salvage’s operation in August, lawyers for the company said the action was misguided and unlawful.In the letter to the city, lawyers for the company again complained about the city’s action and said the company’s decision to surrender its license was a result of the suspension.“As we repeatedly warned, BIC’s unlawful and ill-advised decision to suspend Sanitation Salvage’s license on August 24, 2018, without any prior notice or opportunity to be heard, has doomed the Company as a viable going concern,” the lawyers wrote. The lawyers added that Sanitation Salvage had been left “with no choice but to surrender its license rather than incur further operating losses.”The letter suggests that the company was looking to sell prior to Tuesday’s developments. Indeed, one person familiar with Sanitation Salvage’s plans told ProPublica this week that the company had had initial talks with at least one prospective buyer Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. The prospect of Sanitation Salvage being sold had alarmed the City Council member who chairs the Sanitation Committee, as well as a number of advocates pushing for broad reform of the private trash industry. The company, which is based in the Bronx, had been found liable by the federal Department of Labor for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages to its workers. Advocates wanted to make sure the company couldn’t sell to avoid paying.It was unclear Tuesday what will become of the city’s investigation of the company, and whether it might still be able to depose employees and perhaps issue fines. Any sale of the company would have been subject to conditions imposed by the BIC. City law does not place limits on the conditions that the agency can set. Past sales of some companies have been contingent on owners agreeing to lifetime bans from the industry.In recent months, ProPublica has reported on Sanitation Salvage’s troubled record of labor and safety violations, including involvement of its workers in two deaths. ProPublica and Voice of America revealed that Sanitation Salvage workers lied to the authorities about one of the fatal crashes, which resulted in the death of a 21-year-old off-the-books worker in November 2017. The two company employees on the truck that ran over the worker, an African immigrant named Mouctar Diallo, told the police that the dead man was an unknown homeless man who had jumped aboard the truck. In April, the same driver was involved in a second crash in which 72-year-old Leo Clarke was killed while crossing the street.The BIC ultimately barred the driver from working in the industry.Current and former workers of Sanitation Salvage also complained about dangerous job conditions, with drivers and other employees working shifts as long as 18 or even 21 hours. Extra workers were often hired off the street at a rate of $80 per shift.In 2015, after an investigation, the federal Department of Labor concluded that Sanitation Salvage owed workers $385,000 in unpaid overtime accumulated over the previous three years. Workers said the company installed what they called a sham union that served the interests of Sanitation Salvage’s owners. Records show the union was long run by mobster James Bernardone, identified by law enforcement as a soldier in the Genovese crime family. In 2013, the National Labor Relations Board found that Sanitation Salvage’s management unlawfully threatened to fire workers who opposed the union.The BIC eventually suspended Sanitation Salvage’s license, saying the company posed “an imminent danger to life and property.” The agency cataloged an array of violations including undisclosed workers, unlicensed drivers, a majority of drivers pulling long shifts far exceeding federal regulations and 58 collisions over the last three years.“This company has demonstrated time and time again that they value profit over the lives of New Yorkers and the well-being of their workers,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement at the time of the suspension in August.Sanitation Salvage has not responded to detailed questions over many months. Sanitation Salvage said the claims of unpaid overtime were without merit, according to a Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division investigator’s report. The company refused to pay the $385,000, claiming the workers were seeking to be paid for time actually spent hanging out with friends. When the department chose not to take the company to court, the issue ended.The union that represents Sanitation Salvage’s workers has not responded to requests for comment about its history with the company or the findings of the Department of Labor or the NLRB.One person with knowledge of Sanitation Salvage’s recent operations said the company had lost as many as half of its customers after the suspension this fall. And just this week, the city’s public housing agency said it was moving to cancel contracts it had with the company.Natalie Grybauskas, a spokesperson for the BIC, said in a short statement Tuesday night that the agency had received the letter from Sanitation Salvage and was working to make sure the company’s customers got their trash collected.
Elkhart, Indiana, Police Chief Suspended for 30 Days Following Release of Beating Video
by Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica For the last two weeks, the police chief in Elkhart, Indiana, has been a no-show at various forums where he might have been expected to appear, from civilian oversight board hearings to town hall meetings focusing on the city’s Police Department.On Tuesday, Mayor Tim Neese confirmed what others had been left to wonder: He had suspended the police chief, Ed Windbigler, placing him on a 30-day unpaid leave. The suspension started Nov. 14, but Neese had made no public announcement. A South Bend Tribune reporter had left repeated messages at City Hall on Monday, asking about the police chief’s status.Instead of returning the reporter’s messages, Neese went on television Tuesday morning and mentioned, in passing, that the department’s second in command was now serving as interim chief. The television station, WNDU, then reported Windbigler’s suspension for the first time.The suspension comes after the Tribune, working with ProPublica, obtained a video of two Elkhart police officers punching a handcuffed man in the face. Initially, the officers only received reprimands from Windbigler rather than more serious punishment. After the news organizations requested the video, the officers were charged with misdemeanor battery.In an email late Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Neese said the mayor had two reasons for Windbigler’s suspension: “failure to promptly notify” the mayor of the beating, and “understating the severity of the incident” to the Police Merit Commission, a civilian oversight board. Windbigler, in June, told the commission that the two officers had gone “a little overboard” when taking the man to the ground, with no mention of the punches thrown.Separately, ProPublica and the Tribune also have disclosed that 28 of the department’s 34 supervisors have disciplinary records. Fifteen have prior suspensions, including the chief, assistant chief and patrol captain. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. At a Nov. 14 town hall meeting, Neese said he disciplined Windbigler for his handling of the officers who punched the handcuffed man. But he did not elaborate or specify what the discipline was.Jim Rieckhoff, chair of Elkhart’s Police Merit Commission, was unaware as recently as Monday that Windbigler had been suspended. Rieckhoff told a reporter that he did wonder about the absence of the chief at a meeting on Monday, at which the chief’s top assistant appeared in Windbigler’s stead.Neese has said in “hindsight” that Windbigler should have issued more severe discipline than reprimands to officers Cory Newland and Joshua Titus, who were videotaped punching the handcuffed man Jan. 12 in the police station’s detention area. The mayor’s son, Sgt. Drew Neese, was in the room while the officers punched the man. He walked over and spoke into his radio as the beating ended. Newland, Titus and Drew Neese have not responded to requests for comment.Windbigler did not respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday, and attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful. An email to his work address generated an automated reply, saying, “I am currently out of the office, I will return Monday December 17, 2018.”Neese also told WNDU on Tuesday that he has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the city’s Police Department, though he did not elaborate on what exactly he wants investigated. A Tribune reporter’s messages to the mayor’s office, seeking details, went unanswered Tuesday.This month, Neese asked the Indiana State Police to conduct a “complete investigation” of the city’s Police Department, but last week the state police declined. The review was more suited to the DOJ, the state police said.The Police Department’s assistant chief, Todd Thayer, is now running the department. He appeared at an Elkhart Board of Public Safety meeting Tuesday morning, when the board approved paid administrative leave for Newland and Titus. Their leave status could change to unpaid, though, after their initial court appearance on Dec. 3 on the battery charge, the assistant chief said.At its meeting, the Board of Public Safety postponed approval of a new board to review each use of force by the department and to monitor patterns of excessive force. The mayor announced the creation of the board this month, after details of the Jan. 12 beating were published.Under the proposal, the review board would be made up of five members — and all five would be police officers, including the assistant chief, a captain, an internal affairs investigator and instructors in the use of force and defensive tactics.Board president Robert Woods asked Thayer to add language to the proposal specifying that civilian members of the city’s Police Merit Commission would work closely with the new review board. The Board of Public Safety voted 3-1 to postpone approval until that language could be added.Board member Jean Mayes said the board should only have civilians and no officers.“Police cannot police themselves, and that’s obvious from what’s happened,” Mayes said.Thayer said civilians would not understand the decision-making behind police uses of force.
A Defendant Shows Up in Immigration Court by Himself. He’s 6.
by Eva Ruth Moravec, special to ProPublica, and Ginger Thompson, ProPublica It was shortly before Thanksgiving in an immigration court in San Antonio, and the third defendant to come before Judge Anibal Martinez walked into the courtroom without an attorney, wearing a gray winter hat that was stitched with a pair of blue googly eyes and a floppy red yarn mohawk.When the bailiff asked his name, he piped up proudly: Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera.“How old is Wilder?” the immigration judge asked.An attorney, who was there with other clients, came forward and volunteered to stand in for Wilder. She turned to the boy and in Spanish asked his age.“Seis años,” he said, 6, his legs dangling from a chair at the defendant’s table.Wilder, a smiley, pudgy Salvadoran boy, missing his two front teeth, was the youngest defendant on the juvenile docket that day. But that wasn’t all that made him special. He was one of the last children left in government custody who had been affected by the administration’s widely criticized zero-tolerance policy, and who were still awaiting reunification with parents detained in the United States.The policy, which was announced with great fanfare in April and was scuttled two months later in the face of bipartisan opposition, required immigration authorities to file criminal charges against anyone caught crossing the border illegally and separate them from the children they brought with them.Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive articles and investigations like this one as soon as they’re published.Over 2,600 immigrant children — including more than 100 who were under the age of 5 — were separated from their parents before a federal judge ordered the administration to end the policy and reunite the families affected. Most have been reunited with parents or other relatives. Around 120 children remain in federal custody because their parents had already been deported. Some 30 cases involve children whose parents have criminal histories. As immigration authorities and advocates scrambled to put the broken families back together, courtrooms like Martinez’s often felt more like family court. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. On the day that Wilder appeared, the courtroom was full of minors, most of them teenagers who had not been separated from parents at the border but had migrated to the United States on their own. The boys, wearing pressed slacks and button-down shirts, sat in the back. And there were three very pregnant girls, one of them complaining of pain, in the front.“I hear we have a child with medical issues?” Martinez said, peering down at her from his dais. “If she’s not comfortable or if she needs to step outside at all, that’s fine.”One of the first children to be summoned before Martinez was an 11-year-old Guatemalan girl, wearing a flowered dress with her hair tied in a ponytail high on her head.She sat in a black leather chair and barely said a word, as her attorney, Monica Cueva Kretzschmar, explained that she had admitted to illegally crossing the border and wanted to be sent home to Guatemala to her parents (hers was not a family separation case). The judge asked whether the girl had made the decision of her own free will. She had, the lawyer said. Did her return pose any risks of harm or danger, he asked? The lawyer said no.Then the judge looked at the girl. “I understand you want to return to your parents in Guatemala,” he said. She nodded back. “I just granted that request. I wish you all the best.”The girl got up from her seat, grinning and waving a thumbs-up at the attorneys in the audience.Then it was Wilder’s turn.The judge asked about the boy’s father. Was he still detained?The prosecutor said he didn’t know.He was, in fact, still in federal custody at an immigration detention facility less than an hour’s drive away from the court. The boy and his father had been separated on June 6, after they illegally crossed the border and asked for asylum. Wilder was placed into temporary foster care. His father, Hilario Maldonado, was sent to detention. They’d only sporadically been able to speak on the telephone ever since.Authorities had determined soon after Maldonado entered the country that he did not qualify for asylum, but they refused to reunite him with his son while that decision was appealed because Maldonado, who lived in the United States more than a decade ago, had an old warrant for a DUI in Florida. It’s a charge that would almost never result in a loss of parental custody in a non-immigration context, but immigration lawyers say they have seen immigration authorities use such minor, nonviolent criminal records to justify separating immigrant parents from their children at the border. Government officials say that while a federal court ordered them to stop separating children under zero tolerance, it exempted cases involving parents who posed security risks to their child.Meanwhile, Wilder’s mother, Maria Elida Cabrera, was still back in El Salvador, struggling for the first time to feed Wilder’s three siblings on her own. She said by phone that Maldonado was the family breadwinner, and since his detention she and her children were surviving with help from immigrant advocacy groups in the United States who’d heard about Wilder’s case.None of them knew when and if they’d be together again — least of all little Wilder. Born in a remote mountain village at the northern edge of El Salvador, he barely knew what to make of the metal detector at the courthouse, much less why he was in court in the first place.Before entering the courtroom, the bailiff had to gently nudge the boy through the machine, because he froze in fright at the blinking lights on its side. “No seas nervioso,” she told him, don’t be nervous.The attorney helped Wilder put on his headphones, so he could hear the court translator, as if language was the only barrier to his ability to follow the whirlwind proceedings.Then she asked the judge to set aside any decisions about the boy’s asylum claim until Wilder’s lawyer could arrange to be in court with him. The judge agreed.“Wilder, I wish you well,” he said, sending the boy off to uncertainty. “We’ll see you soon.”Wilder, a huge Spider-Man fan, waved at the judge, then pretended he was shooting spiderwebs from his wrists. On his way out, he waved to the friendly bailiff and said, “Bye policía.”
Families Are Still Being Separated at the Border, Months After “Zero Tolerance” Was Reversed
by Ginger Thompson The Trump administration has quietly resumed separating immigrant families at the border, in some cases using vague or unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing or minor violations against the parents, including charges of illegally re-entering the country, as justification.Over the last three months, lawyers at Catholic Charities, which provides legal services to immigrant children in government custody in New York, have discovered at least 16 new separation cases. They say they have come across such instances by chance and via their own sleuthing after children were put into temporary foster care and shelters with little or no indication that they arrived at the border with their parents.ProPublica stumbled upon one more case late last month after receiving a call from a distraught Salvadoran father who had been detained in South Texas, and whose 4-year-old son, Brayan, had literally been yanked from his grasp by a Customs and Border Protection agent after they crossed the border and asked for asylum. Julio, the father, asked to be identified only by his first name because he was fleeing gang violence and worried about the safety of relatives back home.“I failed him,” said Julio, 27, sobbing uncontrollably. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.” Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. ProPublica tracked down Brayan, who has reddish-blond hair and an endearing lisp, at a temporary foster care agency in New York City, and reached out to the lawyer who represents him. Until that phone call, the lawyer, Jodi Ziesemer, a supervising attorney at Catholic Charities, had no idea that Brayan had been separated from his father. The chaos, she said, felt disturbingly like zero tolerance all over again.“It’s so disheartening,” Ziesemer said “This was supposed to be a policy that ended.”Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive articles and investigations like this one as soon as they’re published.Officially it has. On June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order retreating from his so-called zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy, which called on authorities to criminally prosecute adults caught illegally crossing the border and separate them from any children they brought with them. A week later, a federal judge, Dana M. Sabraw, issued an injunction against the separations and ordered the government to put the thousands of affected families back together.Sabraw, however, exempted cases in which the safety of the child was at risk, and crucially, imposed no standards or oversight over those decisions. As a result, attorneys say, immigration officials — taking their cues from an administration that has made it clear it still believes family separations are an effective deterrent — are using whatever justification they can find, with or without substantiation, to deem immigrant parents unfit or unsafe.“If the authorities have even the most specious evidence that a parent was a gang member, or had some kind of blemish on their record,” said Neha Desai, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, “anything they can come up with to say that the separation is for the health and welfare of the child, then they’ll separate them.” Brayan, a 4-year-old Salvadoran boy. (Courtesy of Mercedes Linares) In an email, a senior CBP official acknowledged that immigrant families are still being separated, but said the separations had “nothing to do with zero tolerance.” The official added that “this administration continues to comply with the law and separates adults and children when required for the safety and security of the child.” The official declined to say how many children have been taken from their parents for what was said to be their own protection.CBP officials explained that Brayan was such a case. One official said that the agency had conducted a routine background check on Julio, and that it “confirmed his gang affiliation with MS-13.” Spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer declined to provide the evidence the agency had to support the allegation, saying only that it was “law enforcement sensitive.” Nor would she say why CBP believed Julio was a danger to his child. But Sabraw’s order, she said, “did not prevent these separations, in fact it explicitly allows DHS to continue with this prior practice.”CBP has also not shared any evidence supporting its assertion of Julio’s gang ties with his lawyer, Georgia Evangelista, who said she wonders whether it exists.(On Tuesday, a government lawyer repeated the allegation to an immigration judge in South Texas but said he could not provide documentation to the court because it was “confidential,” according to Evangelista. She said the immigration judge did not press for release of the evidence but freed her client on an $8,000 bond. Evangelista was frustrated by the outcome, saying, “How can we fight these charges when we don’t know what they are.”)According to Evangelista, Julio arrived at the border in mid-September, carrying a letter prepared by a Salvadoran lawyer that explained that he had fled El Salvador with his son because he had been attacked and threatened by gangs there for years. At Evangelista’s request, the Salvadoran lawyer and Julio’s former employer sent sworn statements vouching for Julio’s character, and stating that he was never involved in criminal activity.“I’m furious about this. They aren’t playing by the rules,” Evangelista said, referring to U.S. immigration authorities. “They’re treating him like a criminal so they can justify taking away his son. Where’s the proof? It’s his word against theirs. It sickens me.”Susan Watson, a civil rights and family lawyer, said this kind of action could not be done without a judge’s review in custody cases that do not involve immigration issues. “Constitutionally, before a parent is separated from a child, you are entitled to due process,” she said. “Some decision in a dark corner by the Border Patrol doesn’t meet that standard.”In New York, Ziesemer says the new separations identified by her organization involve children between the ages of 2 and 17, including Brayan. All of them arrived in New York City without any records indicating they had been separated from their parents at the border and why. A few weeks ago, the ACLU, which brought the lawsuit over the first round of family separations, sent a letter to the Justice Department raising concerns about the new cases, specifically about the grounds for the separations and why the ACLU hadn’t been notified about them.Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney who led the organization’s lawsuit against family separations in the spring, said, “If the government is still secretly separating children, and is doing so based on flimsy excuses, that would be patently unconstitutional and we will be back in court.”Lawyers at the ACLU and Catholic Charities said that the DOJ responded that it wasn’t obligated to report the new separations to the ACLU because they hadn’t been done as a part of the zero-tolerance policy. The DOJ said that in 14 of the 17 cases flagged in the ACLU’s letter, the children were removed from their parents’ custody because authorities suspected the parents had some kind of criminal background that made them unfit — even dangerous. But the agency would not specify what crimes the parents were suspected of committing and what evidence authorities had to support these allegations.The ACLU and other groups representing immigrant children said the DOJ’s secrecy is highly troubling on several counts. They worry that the Department of Homeland Security has allowed authorities without formal training in custody issues — primarily Border Patrol agents — to make decisions using standards that could violate the spirit of the court order and that would never hold up in non-immigration cases. Ziesemer has talked to relatives and social workers and says she suspects that at least eight of the cases involve parents whose crime is illegally re-entering the country. Illegal re-entry is a felony, although previous administrations did not typically separate families in such cases. Ziesemer said the allegations the government has advanced to justify separations in eight other cases were either vague or unsubstantiated. The final case she identified involved a parent who was hospitalized.“The government’s position is that because these are not zero-tolerance cases, they don’t have to tell us, or anyone, about them,” Ziesemer said. “Our position is that when children are separated from their parents, there needs to be some oversight.”Brayan’s case is a vivid example of how government officials are interpreting the court order to allow separations of families.I found out about him by accident. Early last month, after the government reported that of the more than 2,600 immigrant children separated under the zero-tolerance policy, only one child under the age of 5 remained in their care. I decided to try to find that child, thinking the case might make a compelling bookend to a story I’d written this year about a girl named Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, whose cries were recorded inside a Border Patrol detention facility in June. The recording ignited a storm of outrage that tipped the political scales against the Trump administration’s family separation policy.An attorney on the border, Thelma O. Garcia, said she represented a 6-year-old Salvadoran boy named Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera, who was in a temporary foster home in San Antonio. Wilder had been separated from his father in June, Garcia said, and hadn’t been reunited because the father had a 10-year-old warrant for a DUI charge in Florida.The father, Hilario Maldonado, called me from the South Texas detention facility in Pearsall and said he’d tried to keep in touch with Wilder by phone, but his social worker didn’t always pick up. When they did connect, he said, Wilder, pudgy, precocious and missing his two front teeth, scolded him for not coming to take him home.I told Maldonado that it appeared he would be one of the last parents to go through such a separation because the government had agreed to stop them.Maldonado, 39, said that wasn’t true. The separations are still happening, he said, and he knew of one.A few minutes later, I got a call from Julio, who was at the same detention facility. He sounded desperate, crying and pleading for answers. He said he’d turned himself and Brayan into the authorities as soon as they’d crossed the border, asked for asylum and told immigration agents that his mother, who lives in Austin, Texas, was willing to help him get on his feet. Seven days later, a Border Patrol agent took Brayan, dressed in a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt, away, screaming.Julio said all he knew was that his son was somewhere in New York. As soon as we hung up, I called Ziesemer at Catholic Charities, which has a government contract to provide legal services to the unaccompanied minors in the city. I asked whether she’d heard of Brayan.“We do know this kid,” Ziesemer quickly responded, “but were not aware he was separated from his father.”Ziesemer was audibly shaken. “Until you called, all I had was his name on a spreadsheet,” she said.Ziesemer immediately arranged to have Brayan, who had been placed in a temporary foster home, brought to her office. Her experience told her not to expect much from their first interaction, partly because Brayan was likely to be afraid, and partly because he was only 4. So she tried putting Brayan at ease by opening a box of crayons and a Spider-Man coloring book.He warmed up to her quickly, putting down his crayons to show her his Spider-Man moves and squiggling lines on a piece of paper when she asked whether he knew how to write his name. But, as Ziesemer expected, he was too young to make sense of what had happened to him on the border, much less explain it to an adult he’d just met. And his lisp made it hard for Ziesemer to understand the few things he could tell her.After the meeting, she sounded both exasperated about having to grill a tiny child and terrified that there might be other children like him buried in her spreadsheets.“We, and the caseworkers and the consulates, do what we can to fill in the gaps and figure out where these kids came from,” she said. “But that means days and weeks go by with a child not knowing where his parents are and vice versa. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way.”After Ziesemer’s meeting with Brayan, I traveled to Pearsall to meet Julio. He said he’d fled the country with Brayan because street gangs had threatened to kill him after finding out that he reported one of their members to the police. His wife and stepson stayed behind because there wasn’t enough money to pay for everyone to come. I spoke to his wife, who told me she was hiding out at her parents’ house because she didn’t want to be home if gang members came looking for her husband.In photos his relatives sent, Julio looked sort of like a cop, stocky with a crew cut. But after a month in detention, he looked pale and deflated. He wore navy blue detention garb and his dark brown hair was wet, though neatly combed. He didn’t have any tattoos, which are common among Central American gang members.Through tears, Julio told me he’d replayed the days since his arrival at the border in his mind, trying to make sense of why authorities took away his son. Julio and Brayan had been taken to the “ice box,” a notorious air-conditioned cellblock that is the first stop for most immigrants intercepted at the border. Brayan developed a high fever and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. A Border Patrol agent who drove Julio and his son scolded Julio for bringing a small boy on such a harrowing trip. Could that be the reason they took his son away? Was it because the agents had looked at the color of Brayan’s hair and didn’t believe he was the boy’s father?Julio wonders whether he had been fooled into signing a document at the hospital — they were all in English — surrendering his rights to his child. Was it because he’d once been arrested for a robbery in El Salvador, but exonerated two days later when authorities realized they had the wrong person? Why would they consider him a danger to his child?It wasn’t until I told him that Julio learned his child had been taken from him because Border Patrol agents suspected he was a gang member. The news hit him hard, and it was confounding because at the same time the CBP had deemed him a gang member, another agency within DHS had found that his asylum petition, in which Julio claims he was a victim of gang violence, was persuasive enough to be heard by an immigration judge.In early October, Julio had met with an asylum officer for what’s known as a credible fear interview. According to the report of that interview, which Julio provided to ProPublica, the asylum officer not only asked him why he fled El Salvador, but whether he had a criminal record. Among the questions were: Have you ever committed a crime in any country? Have you ever harmed someone for any reason? Even if you did not want to, have you ever helped someone else harm people? Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime? Have you ever been a member of a gang?Julio answered no to all of them. The asylum officer who conducted the interview deemed Julio’s account credible, and, even more significantly, indicated that she had been provided no derogatory information or criminal records that would automatically bar Julio from winning asylum.The discrepancy reflects differences in the legal standards for asylum and family separation. While the asylum officer’s decision is subject to review by a judge, the Border Patrol’s decision to take away Julio’s child was not.“I don’t know what information, if any, they really have on Julio,” his attorney, Evangelista, said. “They have total discretion when it comes to separating him from his child. They can do what they want. And they don’t have to explain why.”Julio said his own father had abandoned him when he was about Brayan’s age. Then his mother left for the United States when he was 7. He said he vowed never to do the same thing to Brayan, which is why he didn’t leave the boy behind in El Salvador. He wonders now whether that was a mistake. In every phone call with Brayan, Julio says, he feels his son slowly slipping away.“He tells me: ‘You’re not my Papa anymore. I have a new Papa,’” Julio said of his son, adding: “He doesn’t even call me Papa. He calls me Papi. I never taught him that word.”Back in New York, Ziesemer said she worries family separations may be beginning all over again.Sitting with Brayan in her office, she said, brought back the faces of the 400 or so separated kids who had shuffled through over the summer. As Catholic Charities’ point person during the crisis, she said she came to know every single one of those kids by name. One 9-year-old girl went into a full panic attack when she was asked to step into a room without her sister because she thought Ziesemer was going to take her sister away like officials had taken her mother. “At one point, we had to have a meeting with the entire office to explain why the conference room was full of all these wailing kids,” she said.Catholic Charities, the ACLU and several other large immigrant advocacy groups took the lead in putting the families together again; working the phones to find parents who were still in immigration detention and dispatching colleagues to Central America to track down parents who had already been deported. In addition to the “huge, heavy lift” of reunification, Ziesemer said, there was a crush of calls and emails from Congress, consulates and the media — all seeking information about the separations.Ziesemer said she and her team worked around the clock for months, and though there are still several dozen kids awaiting reunification, she thought things were winding down. That’s when she began seeing new cases, like Brayan’s, which had some of the same hallmarks of the old ones. Brayan’s grandmother in Austin, Texas, outfitted a bedroom in anticipation of his arrival. (Courtesy of Mercedes Linares) Ziesemer didn’t know much about Brayan, except the little bit of information she’d gotten from him during their meeting. So I shared with her some of the things I’d learned about him from his family: that he could eat four hard-boiled eggs in one sitting; that he loved Lightning McQueen, a character from the Pixar movie “Cars”; and that he had a dog, Lucky, whom he insisted on seeing during every WhatsApp video call with his mother. His grandmother in Austin had fixed up a bedroom for him, filled with Mickey Mouse dolls, remote-control cars and winter coats. I told Ziesemer how distraught Brayan’s father was that his son called him “Papi.”“A couple of weeks is a long time for a kid his age,” she said about Brayan. “They start losing attachments to people, even their parents.”
An Anti-Vaxxer’s New Crusade
by David Armstrong On the morning of April 19, 2016, Melanie Lilliston received an urgent call from the Little Dreamers day care center, in Rockville, Maryland. Her 6-month-old daughter, Millie, was being rushed to the hospital. Doctors there found that Millie had fractured ribs, facial bruises and a severe brain injury. Melanie watched as her daughter was loaded onto a helicopter for emergency transport to Children’s National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., where doctors discovered more injuries: a fractured leg and arm, as well as bleeding in her eyes. Millie died three days later.The day care operator, Kia Divband, told police that Millie had started choking while drinking a bottle of milk and lost consciousness. The Montgomery County medical examiner, however, determined that her injuries were caused by blunt force. Investigators discovered, on Divband’s phone and computer, internet searches for “broken bones in children” and “why are bone fractures in children sometimes hard to detect.” A former employer of Divband’s told them that the day before Millie was hospitalized, Divband had called to inquire about a job, and a baby could be heard wailing in the background. Divband told him the baby wouldn’t stop crying and that “he just couldn’t take it anymore,” the former boss recalled. Divband was arrested and charged with fatally abusing Millie.At Divband's trial, last year, a radiologist named David Ayoub testified for the defense. Ayoub, who is a partner in a private radiology practice in Springfield, Illinois, told jurors he had reviewed X-rays and other medical records, and concluded that Millie had rickets, a rare condition that causes fragile bones. The disorder, which is usually brought on by a prolonged and severe lack of vitamin D, could explain Millie’s injuries, Ayoub said.Seeking to cast doubt on Ayoub’s credibility, the prosecutor brought up a different issue. Was it true, she asked, that Ayoub believed Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a charity funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase vaccination rates in poor countries, was committing genocide? “That’s right,” Ayoub said.The prosecutor asked if Ayoub believed that Gavi — along with the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation and UNICEF — were using vaccinations to force sterilization on people in third-world countries. “Yes, that’s my belief,” Ayoub said.As evidence, he cited a 1972 report of a commission headed by the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III and a 1974 study overseen by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, warning about the dangers of population growth. It’s “no leap of faith” to believe that vaccination is being used to carry out this agenda, Ayoub said.The prosecutor also questioned Ayoub about a speech he delivered in 2005 in which he said his views on vaccination — including his belief that it has contributed to a rise in autism — put him in a “fringe group” and even in the “fringe of that fringe.” Ayoub acknowledged making the statement. “Thinking that vaccines were associated with autism, you’re clearly a minority view if you’re a physician,” Ayoub testified. “If you think it’s done intentionally for nefarious purposes, you’re clearly another level of — you know — different.”In an email, Ayoub said he did not mean to accuse the alliance or the Gates Foundation of intentional genocide, though he realized that his 2005 lecture might give that impression. “I was concerned by confirmed sporadic reports that some vaccines distributed in third-world countries contained fertility-reducing substances,” he said. “Regardless of whether this was deliberate, careless, unintentional or a cost-cutting measure, I felt that there was a potential for abuse and that this should be investigated.”Over the last decade, Ayoub, who is 59, has become one of the most active expert witnesses in the United States on behalf of accused child abusers. He estimates that he has testified in about 80 child abuse cases in the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom. He has consulted or written reports in hundreds more.Prior to his child abuse work, Ayoub was a prominent supporter of a movement that blames the rise in autism — the neurological and developmental disorder that starts in early childhood — on vaccinations that contain mercury, aluminum or other substances. These claims are mostly dismissed by scientists, but they have nonetheless spurred a burgeoning worldwide “anti-vaxxer” movement, which has fueled a decline in vaccination rates. Both positions reflect a deep suspicion of government and mainstream medicine as well as a rising backlash against scientific consensus in an era when misinformation quickly spreads online. Get Our Weekly Dispatch Updates on what our newsroom is covering and uncovering. Sign up to receive weekly updates on what our newsroom is covering and uncovering. Ayoub, in a series of interviews, said his criticism of vaccines is no longer a significant part of his work and has no bearing on his credibility as a witness in child abuse cases. (The Divband trial ultimately ended in a mistrial, after jurors could not agree on a verdict. Prosecutors later retried the case and Divband was convicted on child abuse charges and sentenced to 50 years in prison; Ayoub did not testify in the second trial.) Ayoub said that his testimony in each abuse case is based on a careful review of the medical evidence. He simply wants to see justice done and does not charge for his services as an expert witness, he said. “Parents are being accused and families torn apart based on fractures and/or other boney irregularities that are in fact attributable to bone fragility, not abuse,” he said in an email. If rickets, vitamin D deficiency and other explanations are not addressed, he added, “parents cannot receive fair trials, and families will be destroyed based on a misunderstanding of the radiology and pathology.”Ayoub, though, doesn’t specialize in treating children. He is not a pediatrician or a pediatric radiologist. Much of his knowledge about rickets in infants comes from reading studies and textbooks, he has said on the stand, rather than formal training. His frequent diagnosis of rickets is questioned by specialists in the field. Peter Strouse, the chief of pediatric radiology at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, who has served as a prosecution witness in about eight child abuse cases, and consulted in cases where Ayoub was a defense expert, described Ayoub’s views as “a complete fabrication. It’s sad they can get away with that in court.”Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, Ayoub was a track star who set the state high school record in the 880-yard run in 1977. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, he was the Big 10 conference champion in the 1,000-yard run before attending medical school there. Following an interventional radiology fellowship at the University of Iowa, Ayoub returned to Illinois in 1991 and began practicing radiology in Springfield.Ayoub told me that he became interested in vaccines about 15 years ago after researching treatment for a bothersome knee. He was reading about alternative therapies and ended up subscribing to a newsletter from Joseph Mercola, a proponent of alternative treatments with a large online following and a website that frequently features pieces criticizing vaccination. Mercola has promoted other controversial views, including that fluoridated water can give children ADHD. (In 2016, Mercola agreed to pay up to $5.3 million in customer refunds to settle a complaint by federal regulators that he made false claims about the health benefits and safety of tanning beds he sold. Mercola did not respond to requests for comment.)Opposition to vaccination is almost as old as vaccination itself. But websites like Mercola’s have helped drive the modern anti-vaccination movement. Most scientists consider vaccination one of the greatest public health advances of the 20th century, helping to control or even eradicate diseases such as smallpox, polio and measles in the U.S. Studies have found that vaccines can have side effects, but they are almost always minor, like redness and swelling.Anti-vaxxers blame vaccines for an increase in rates of autism diagnosed in American children. From 2000 to 2014, the number of children diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder increased to one in 59 from one in 150. Ayoub and others have argued that vaccines are one reason for this increase, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that “studies have shown that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing ASD,” and the World Health Organization issued a similar finding. Prominent anti-vaxxers include celebrities such as the actress Jenny McCarthy and the lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Before becoming president, Donald Trump weighed in, tweeting in 2014 that “healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”A study published in September found that Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots tried to foment confusion about vaccination and create a false equivalency between pro- and anti-vaccination arguments. The authors, from George Washington University and other research institutions, warned, “Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy.”After discovering Mercola’s site, Ayoub said he went down a “rabbit hole” and read thousands of studies and documents about vaccination as he would later about rickets and child abuse. “I was that guy with Birkenstocks mumbling down the hallway,” he told me. Ayoub speaks with defense attorney Lisabeth Fryer during a break in an evidentiary hearing to consider new evidence in a decades-old child abuse case. (Zack Wittman for ProPublica) Ayoub found particularly persuasive a 2003 report by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform, which said thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine additive, was “likely related to the autism epidemic” and posed a risk to infants and children. The subcommittee was headed by Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican and later a Tea Party member, who said his own grandson became autistic shortly after being vaccinated. Studies have repeatedly found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. Thimerosal was also eliminated from all childhood vaccines in the U.S., except for some flu shots, in the early 2000s.In a 2005 speech for the Radio Liberty Conference, titled “Mercury, Autism and the Global Vaccine Agenda,” which the prosecutor in the Divband case cited, Ayoub discussed the idea that vaccination could be a cost-effective way to wage “a war on population.” He showed one slide that read, “Syringes cheaper than guns,” and another indicating that the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan totaled $300 billion, while worldwide immunization efforts were initially funded at $1 billion to $2 billion. “So it’s a cheap deal and people don’t run from these bullets,” he said. “They run toward these bullets, so it’s ideal.”Ayoub flung himself into the anti-vaccination cause. He served as the medical director for two groups alleging safety problems with vaccines; wrote letters to newspapers; lectured at conferences; testified at legislative hearings; and was the registered agent for a political action committee funded by prominent anti-vaxxers. Its mission was to advocate for people with autism “caused by exposure to neurological toxins,” according to a filing.Mercola interviewed him at least twice for his website. In 2014, Ayoub suggested on Mercola’s site that a desire for high profits drove pharmaceutical companies to promote vaccines and state child welfare agencies to accuse parents of child abuse. “Now, as you know, there’s science that links vaccines with autism,” Ayoub said. “Why isn’t that science believed? Well, it’s attacked. It’s marginalized because there are competing papers, generally very flawed papers, which refute their claims. [They] design studies in order to give the answer that they want. That’s going to happen when you have an industry this strong. The government is a big industry. Child Protection Services is a behemoth, believe me. There’s a lot of money generated from the job of protecting children from abuse.”David Gorski, a surgical oncologist in Michigan and the managing editor of the online publication Science-Based Medicine, has described Ayoub as an “anti-vaccine loon” and his conspiracy theories as “paranoia.” In an interview, Gorski said he had no idea that Ayoub worked as an expert in child abuse cases. “How on earth is he qualified as an expert?” Gorski asked. “He is looked at as a total joke. It’s disturbing he is effective in this world.”In 2008, Edward Yazbak, a Massachusetts physician and fellow anti-vaxxer who was also served as a frequent expert witness for accused child abusers, asked Ayoub to look at a case he was consulting on in which the baby had multiple fractures. (Yazbak said he isn’t opposed to vaccination, but “every good thing has bad things.”) Ayoub said the baby, who lived in Florida, had “terrible bones.” He wrote a report to the court and the case was dismissed. Soon Ayoub shifted his target from vaccinations to child abuse allegations.Besides Yazbak and Ayoub, a handful of prominent vaccination skeptics have served as expert witnesses for child abuse defendants. The Australian hematologist Michael Innis has written that many alleged cases of shaken-baby syndrome — shaking a baby out of anger or frustration — are actually vaccine-related injuries. Innis has written letters to medical journals urging doctors to refuse to vaccinate children and contending that vaccines are associated with autism. (Innis did not respond to a request for comment.) Shaken-baby syndrome has been a controversial diagnosis; in some cases, courts have overturned child abuse convictions after medical issues attributed to the syndrome were later found to result from illness or infection.In the U.S., the pathologist Mohammed Ali Al-Bayati — the author of the 1999 book “Get All the Facts: HIV Does Not Cause AIDS” — has created a business called Toxi-Health International, which provides analysis and expert testimony in child abuse cases that he says are instances of babies hurt by vaccines. Al-Bayati said he does “not have an opinion” on vaccines and simply investigates cases that are brought to him. In some cases, he said, he has determined that a vaccine caused the injuries attributed to child abuse. “I look for all the possible causes and I use functional diagnosis to eliminate all causes based on medical finding not theory,” he said. Kody Duncan's X-rays on screen during a hearing to consider new evidence in the case of his father, James, who was convicted in 1996 of 13 counts of aggravated abuse. (Zack Wittman for ProPublica) Ayoub told me that he sees ulterior motives behind many child abuse allegations. There is a “child abuse industry” that is “part of something very incomprehensible,” he said. He likened it to an organized crime ring, with social workers, doctors and prosecution experts working together to feed foster care systems engaged in a form of “for-profit child trafficking.” He said that state and county child welfare workers have a financial motive to accuse parents of child abuse because federal funding for some programs is determined by the number of cases they handle. Another reason, he said, was pedophilia. “I think there are pedophiles that are child abuse pediatricians. Some of these people are absolutely bizarre.” He added that he had read of several doctors at one prestigious U.S. hospital sexually abusing children. “Can you think of a better place to hide evil than under benevolence?” he said.Battling the scientific consensus requires “a certain intestinal fortitude,” Ayoub said, because “it is very uncomfortable to go against popular opinion.” He added that it can be dangerous to oppose the child abuse industry. “People have been murdered over this,” he said. “Look up Nancy Schaefer.” Schaefer was a Georgia state legislator who was critical of child protective services there, calling them corrupt. She died in 2010. According to the final investigative summary prepared by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, her husband killed her and then committed suicide. The report states he left several notes confessing to the crime.In almost all of Ayoub’s hundreds of cases, he has attributed a child’s injuries to a bone disorder. In particular, he believes that a condition known as infantile rickets is often responsible for broken bones and is dramatically underdiagnosed; many doctors fail to even explore the possibility when examining a child. Ayoub asserts that babies with infantile rickets can suffer fractured bones from “everyday handling,” such as a parent bouncing a child on his legs or changing clothes, and the condition can also result in abnormalities that are sometimes misdiagnosed as fractures. (He said he is careful to note in his court testimony that it is possible that children with bone diseases may also be victims of abuse.) Ayoub said that most of his free time is spent studying and investigating rickets. He said the infantile form of the disease starts around 5 weeks of age, peaks around 4 months and is rarely seen in children older than 8 months. It is less obvious on X-rays than rickets in older children, he said.In 2014, Ayoub co-authored an article in the American Journal of Roentgenology suggesting that a type of fracture commonly associated with child abuse was, in many cases, the result of infantile rickets. Ayoub reached this conclusion after comparing radiographic images of what were classified as fractures from abuse with those of rickets patients from other studies. The journal published three responses from pediatricians and pediatric radiologists, warning that Ayoub’s article could endanger children by mistakenly labeling instances of abuse as bone disease. “Given the stakes involved, we think that the approach of Ayoub et al. is less ‘critical’ than dangerous and that children and families deserve better,” three doctors from children’s hospitals in Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta wrote in one letter.Ayoub’s article caught the attention of lawyers for James Duncan, a Floridian who had been convicted, in 1996, of 13 counts of aggravated abuse of his infant son Kody and given a 70-year prison sentence that even prosecutors considered unusually stiff. In 2015, his lawyers filed a motion to reopen the case, arguing that new information, including Ayoub’s article, proved Duncan did not hurt his son. An appeals court last year ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Duncan deserved a new trial. The effort to free Duncan, who has served 22 years in prison, was the subject of an hourlong CNN special this past February. The special included an interview with Ayoub, but did not mention his anti-vaccination views. CNN did not respond to a request for comment.At the hearing last month, in Clearwater, before Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, Duncan wore an orange prison jumpsuit with a name badge clipped to his chest, and sat at a table with his lawyers. A large group of friends and relatives filled the spectator area behind him. CNN set up three cameras to record the proceedings from multiple angles. As an expert witness for Duncan, Ayoub came across as confident and practiced. Balding with a thin beard with patches of gray, he often turned to talk directly to the judge and used comparisons to everyday items — the ashes at the end of a cigarette, and a shaved carrot — to describe various bone structures. Top: Ayoub waits on the stand as the judge confers with attorneys at the hearing. Bottom: State prosecutor Paul Bolan holds up a textbook while cross-examining Ayoub. (Zack Wittman for ProPublica) Ayoub testified that his review of the Duncan case indicated the baby likely had rickets and perhaps other deficiencies that resulted in weak, easy-to-break bones. “I think there is a good alternative explanation for the pattern that we see,” Ayoub told the judge. He speculated that fractures of the baby’s skull, collarbone and ribs may have occurred during birth, when a suction device was used. Ayoub testified that other injuries — fractures of the left arm, shin bone and thigh bone — likely occurred when Kody was being vaccinated. “All those date back to the doctor’s office visit,” he said. “Restrained child and what would normally be an innocuous event where you expect a child to fight and could be held down.”Andrews was skeptical. “Did I hear that an immobile infant, a child who is 2 months or less, has to be held down to be able to be immunized?” he asked. Duncan’s lawyer, Lisabeth Fryer, responded that when an infant is given a vaccination shot, “there’s a reflex, with my children anyway, that required support. ... There wasn’t just a splayed-out child patiently waiting.“Kody Duncan, who is now 25 years old and a tennis coach at a Pennsylvania college, testified in defense of his father. Kody said that he did not believe that James Duncan abused him. He said the two talk by phone every week.The state’s two expert witnesses, including the doctor who had evaluated Kody’s injuries at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, testified that the medical evidence of abuse was clear and the baby did not have rickets. After being separated from his father, Kody suffered no further fractures, exposing a potential weakness in Ayoub’s analysis: How could a baby who suffered more than a dozen fractures from his head to his leg owing to dangerously weak bones not have a single accidental break in the ensuing weeks, months and years? Duncan listens to testimony at a hearing he hopes will lead to a new trial. (Zack Wittman for ProPublica) Ayoub offered several possible explanations. He said the foster parents who cared for Kody Duncan were likely more careful with him because they were told he had been injured; that it was possible Kody suffered more fractures, but they were not symptomatic and went undetected, or that his vitamin D levels rose significantly, which Ayoub said is natural among children at that age, and his bones strengthened. “So there is a window of fragility there,” Ayoub said.Shortly after starting to cross-examine Ayoub, the state prosecutor Paul Bolan asked him: “You also have some other opinions that are not in mainstream medical view as well, correct? You believe vaccines are related to autism, correct?” Ayoub never had to answer. Duncan’s attorney immediately objected to the questioning. She argued that the inquiry was “impeachment on a collateral issue.” Andrews, who is expected to rule soon on whether Duncan deserves a new trial, agreed that Ayoub’s views on vaccination were irrelevant.Other judges have also blocked prosecutors from asking Ayoub about his beliefs regarding vaccination. When Ayoub testified last year in a Massachusetts state court on behalf of a father accused of murdering his 5-month-old son, the prosecutor asked Ayoub if vaccines and autism were something he worked extensively on. The defense objected, and the judge ordered the lawyers to a sidebar where jurors could not hear them. The judge wanted to know why she should allow the prosecutor to continue asking about Ayoub’s vaccination work, according to a trial transcript. The prosecutor said Ayoub had lectured extensively on “the link between vaccines and autism in an area that he really had no training or expertise in. And the Commonwealth is seeking to show that he flits from subject to subject. He was an autism-vaccine guy and now he’s the metabolic-bone-disease guy.” The judge instructed the prosecutor to drop the subject.Ayoub went on to testify in the case that ordinary handling of a child with a “severe bone-fragility disorder,” namely rickets, could have caused the fractures. The jury sided with Ayoub over the prosecution’s medical expert, Paul Kleinman, a pediatric radiologist who has produced much of the mainstream research on fractures and child abuse, and acquitted the father of assault and battery related to the fractures. A mistrial was declared on a murder charge.In response to questions about Ayoub, Jeffrey Brown, the defense attorney in the case, said in an email that he had not been worried about Ayoub’s vaccination beliefs hurting his credibility on the stand. “It was not relevant,” he wrote. “Dr. Ayoub was a very effective and helpful witness.” Brown said he agrees with Ayoub that bone disorders are frequently misdiagnosed as abuse. “It is plain as day to me that the child abuse pediatrician establishment has gotten it wrong. ... Those who try to trash him and his colleagues are scared of the consequences of being exposed.”Ayoub’s zealousness in disputing child abuse allegations troubled a judge last year in the United Kingdom. In upholding a local agency’s determination that a 5-month-old baby with 26 fractures was abused, Judge Peter Jackson of the Royal Courts of Justice wrote that Ayoub’s testimony was “shot through with the dogma that child abuse is over-diagnosed” and didn’t meet the legal standard for objectivity. “Having taken up a position, he advanced it with the tenacity of an advocate and was dismissive of alternative possibilities,” the judge wrote. “He entertained no doubts about the correctness of his opinion, a dangerous mindset for any expert witness.” Ayoub is sworn in as an expert witness. (Zack Wittman for ProPublica)
Coming Soon: “I Don’t Want to Shoot You, Brother”
by ProPublica A young black man was dead. A young white cop was quickly fired. If that sounds surprising, you don’t know the half of it.A ProPublica investigation starts Nov. 29. You can listen to the Frontline Dispatch podcast starting then, too. Sign up to be notified when both go live.
Trump Takes a Tougher Line on Pakistan, but the 2008 Mumbai Attack Goes Unpunished
by Sebastian Rotella In a sharp break from the caution and inertia of his predecessors, President Donald Trump has slashed U.S. military aid to Pakistan and warned that Washington will take further punitive measures unless the Pakistani government acts decisively against Islamist terrorists.“They were just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return,” the president tweeted about Pakistan on Nov. 19. “That’s ENDING!”But while the Trump administration has freely vented its frustration with Islamabad, current and former officials said it has been slow to seek justice for the 2008 massacre of 166 people — six of them Americans — in Mumbai, India, by a terrorist group that has worked closely with Pakistan’s intelligence service.In 2011, federal prosecutors in Chicago indicted four Pakistanis, including a serving officer of the country’s powerful intelligence service, in connection with the Mumbai attacks. Yet after an initial flurry of effort by the Obama administration, the government has done little to press Pakistan to arrest those suspects or to condition U.S. support on progress in the hunt for the suspects, the officials said. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. On Sunday, the State Department marked the 10th anniversary of the attacks with the administration’s first strong statement about the case. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed solidarity with the people of India and said the “barbarity” of the massacre had “shocked the entire world.” He also added a rebuke to Pakistan.“It is an affront to the families of the victims that, after 10 years, those who planned the Mumbai attack have still not been convicted for their involvement,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We call upon all countries, particularly Pakistan, to uphold their UN Security Council obligations to implement sanctions against the terrorists responsible for this atrocity, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and its affiliates.”In addition, Pompeo announced that the department was offering $5 million through its Rewards for Justice Program for information leading to the arrest of anyone involved in planning or facilitating the attacks.Nonetheless, critics say the administration’s lack of effort and attention until now shows that the matter has not been a priority. Earlier this year, a multi-agency group of national security officials agreed to prepare financial sanctions against the Mumbai suspects to try to force action by the Pakistani government. But soon thereafter, the officials involved were reassigned to other tasks, including a State Department campaign of counterterrorism measures against Iran, several officials said.“The administration said they were going to get tougher, but it didn’t translate into action,” on the Mumbai case, said Jason Blazakis, who recently stepped down as director of the State Department’s office on counterterrorism finance and designations. “What are you doing as a government to bring these people to justice? Not a whole heck of a lot — and that’s unfortunate.”The Pakistani government’s support for the deadly Mumbai attacks was especially brazen, U.S. and Indian investigators say. A well-trained team of 10 militants, deployed by boat and directed by phone from Pakistan, slipped into the city and stormed a Jewish center, Chabad House, as well as two luxury hotels, a restaurant and a train station. The three-day rampage of shootings and bombings outraged India, Pakistan’s neighbor and nuclear-armed rival.The attacks exposed the Pakistani government’s patronage of and control over Lashkar, a militant group that has served as Islamabad’s proxy in the longtime conflict with India over the disputed border region of Kashmir. Successive governments have also long supported or tolerated the Afghan Taliban and other Islamist groups, a circumstance underscored by the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden at his hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, less than a mile from a major military academy.The Mumbai investigation provided extensive new evidence of the partnership between Lashkar and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, of Pakistan. The FBI arrested a Pakistani-American businessman, David Coleman Headley, who confessed to conducting undercover reconnaissance in India. Headley was an operative of both Lashkar and the ISI, and he testified that they jointly designed, financed and directed the plot, intending to kill Americans and Jews as well as Indians.An ISI officer known only as Major Iqbal served as Headley’s intelligence handler, overseeing his missions and helping select targets, according to case files. Headley identified his superior within Lashkar as Sajid Mir, a veteran militant who was charged with coordinating the plot. Phone intercepts recorded Mir’s calls from a high-tech command post in Karachi as he talked to a hostage in Chabad House, then ordered one of the gunmen to shoot the woman in the head.Even before the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials consistently subordinated their concerns about Pakistan’s ties to militants to other bilateral issues, including containment of the country’s nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration, like those of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has focused primarily on urging Pakistan to act against the so-called Haqqani network — a Taliban group based in the country — and other Taliban groups that fight U.S. and Afghan troops from bases in Pakistani border areas.Following the Mumbai attacks, the Obama administration pressed Pakistan to crack down on Lashkar. Chicago prosecutors indicted Major Iqbal in the murders of the American victims, making him the first serving ISI officer to face U.S. terrorism charges. Pakistan responded by arresting the chief of Lashkar’s military operations, but it took no known action against Major Iqbal, Mir or others accused of planning and directing the attacks. In addition to those indicted in Chicago, U.S. counterterror agencies have assisted an Indian investigation in which prosecutors have charged more than two dozen suspects.Publicly, the Islamabad government denied any role in the attacks and questioned whether Major Iqbal even existed. But behind the scenes, U.S. officials said, the ISI moved him to a new unit and promoted him to the rank of colonel. Mir, meanwhile, remains “incredibly active” in Lashkar operations, one national security official said.Pakistan has continued to protect the suspects not only to preserve its relationship with the militant group it sees as a bulwark in its operations in India and Afghanistan, but to shield itself from embarrassment or sanction and to safeguard sensitive information that they might reveal if arrested, counterterrorism officials and experts on the region said.“It would require the introduction of the kind of evidence that the military and the ISI do not want shared,” said Stephen Tankel, a professor at American University and former Pentagon adviser on South Asia. “There’s also the risk of alienating a reliable proxy and setting a precedent that could come back to haunt the Pakistan military and ISI down the road.”Of the few suspects whom Pakistan did arrest, several have been released. Others who remain in custody have been permitted by Pakistani authorities to oversee terrorist plotting while imprisoned, U.S. and Indian officials have said. The trial of seven suspects in Pakistan has lasted for years, and the proceedings have been repeatedly delayed by legal and technical problems.In 2012, the Obama administration offered $10 million rewards for the capture of Lashkar’s religious leader, whom it accused of being involved in the Mumbai attacks, and another senior militant in the group. But as years passed without progress, Washington’s attention to the case faded, officials said. The Obama administration also stopped short of cutting aid so as not to imperil its collaboration with Pakistan on issues related to the war in Afghanistan, officials said.Almost from the start of his presidency, Trump has taken a more confrontational approach, accusing Pakistan early this year of “nothing but lies and deceit.” His administration later lobbied successfully to put Pakistan on an international terrorism financing watch list. In September, the Pentagon redirected $300 million in military aid slated for Pakistan, and hundreds of millions more in aid have been suspended. During a recent Fox News interview, Trump alleged that Pakistan had sheltered bin Laden.Responding on Twitter, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan criticized U.S. actions in South Asia and said his country had suffered 75,000 casualties fighting the war on terror. “Can Mr. Trump name another ally that gave such sacrifices?” Khan demanded.But Trump has not talked publicly about the Mumbai case or Pakistan’s failure to capture the accused killers of Americans, including at least one Pakistani official. The White House and State Department did criticize Pakistan’s release last year of Lashkar’s religious leader from temporary house arrest. And Pompeo sent a message Sunday to Pakistan with his statement about the anniversary and the $5 million reward offer.Lashkar still poses a formidable threat, officials said. The group is loyal to the Pakistani state, and it wields power through hospitals, charities and a political party. Lashkar has not carried out another major attack, but it remains a concern because of its interest in developing weapons of mass destruction and its activity in Afghanistan and Kashmir. U.S. intelligence detected an uptick this year in Lashkar operations involving drones and paragliders, counterterrorism officials said.“I absolutely see Lashkar as a current threat,” said Blazakis, now a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California. “It has a state patron. It has sanctuary. It has a freedom to operate. What would happen if the group carried out another Mumbai? I shudder to think about India’s response. It could steamroll into a full war between India and Pakistan.”
A Hog Waste Agreement Lacked Teeth, and Some North Carolinians Say They’re Left to Suffer
by Talia Buford DUPLIN COUNTY, N.C. — The lagoons were supposed to be gone by now.Nearly 20 years ago, North Carolina faced a reckoning. Hurricane Floyd inundated the state, flooding the open pits where farmers store hog waste. The nation looked on in horror as pink sludge from the lagoons mingled with rising floodwaters to force stranded animals atop hog houses and drowned thousands of pigs.State officials vowed change and in 2000 delivered a plan. The centerpiece was an agreement with Smithfield Foods, the world’s leading pork producer and one of North Carolina’s biggest businesses. Smithfield agreed to finance research into alternatives to the lagoons and to install within three years whatever system emerged as environmentally effective and economically viable. In place of open-air lagoons would be a newer, safer system that put North Carolina on the cutting edge of commercial agriculture.Today, many North Carolina hog farmers continue to store hog waste in open pits despite the millions of dollars in private investment spent and years of research and political promises. Little has changed, storms are intensifying and the clock is ticking on the Smithfield agreement, which expires in 2025.The state has yet to come up a viable replacement system, and the momentum — and money — behind the research ran out years ago, leaving in place a crude practice that grows more hazardous with each hurricane that pounds North Carolina.In September, it was Florence, which dumped record-breaking rains on the state — 8 trillion gallons over four days — and swelled the Cape Fear River, which winds through this region. Thirty-three lagoons overflowed, the pink slurry again mixing with floodwaters. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Now, nearly 20 years on, it’s not hard to see how the agreement was doomed.It sought transformative change, but lacked teeth. The all-or-nothing strategy meant that unless a perfect system was developed, nothing would change. The deal required the “substantial” elimination of odors, ammonia emissions, bacteria, soil and groundwater contamination, and waste discharges, yet it did not state what that threshold was or what costs the industry was obliged to absorb. The deal also was mum on the odors, pests and other nuisances that people who live near the lagoons continue to endure.In the end, the agreement let legislators avoid the messy work of defining restrictions for a politically influential industry, and instead it shifted that responsibility to academics. When no silver bullet emerged from the early research, the push for change waned as the country faced a staggering recession and North Carolina’s politics shifted rightward.“There’s not a whole lot of clean hands,” said former Gov. Michael F. Easley. “Everyone figures the status quo should be sufficient.”This time, residents aren’t waiting for officials to deliver change. More than 500 residents have joined 26 nuisance lawsuits filed in federal court against a Smithfield subsidiary since 2014, arguing that living next to industrial hog operations forces them to live with noxious odors, flies and heavy truck traffic.Juries have awarded multimillion-dollar damages to plaintiffs in three of the lawsuits so far, targeting farms in Bladen, Pender and Duplin counties. A fourth trial, focused on a farm in Sampson County, began this month. Smithfield has said in investor reports that it “believes that the claims are unfounded and intends to defend the suits vigorously.”The division between farmer and neighbor is palpable here — and falls along racial lines in a state where agriculture has its roots in the plantation system, and where Confederate monuments still stand on the Capitol’s grounds. Many North Carolina hog farmers continue to store hog waste in open pits, like this one in Kenansville, despite an agreement signed nearly 20 years ago to develop a modern disposal system that could replace the lagoons. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) Smithfield — now owned by WH Group Ltd., a Chinese pork company — has tried to position itself as a responsible corporate citizen. Company officials declined multiple requests for an interview with ProPublica but said in a statement that the 2000 agreement on hog waste was a “demonstration of our company’s long-standing commitment to responsible and sustainable hog production ... a commitment that continues to this day.”On Oct. 25, the company announced plans to cover existing waste lagoons to capture the gases they release and install “manure-to-energy” projects at 90 percent of the company’s hog finishing spaces around the country. Smithfield did not respond to specific questions about whether the technology meets the standards set out by the 2000 agreement, but a fact sheet said covering the lagoons will “mitigate potential issues associated with severe rain events such as hurricanes.”Company CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan called the project “audacious” in a press release.“When we set an objective,” he said, “we go big at Smithfield to achieve it.”Growth of Hogs, and Negotiating the AgreementBefore it was hog country, eastern North Carolina was the home of Big Tobacco. But as the industry buckled under the weight of lawsuit settlements in the 1990s, pork supplanted cigarettes as the region’s economic engine. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, in 1987, there were 6,921 hog farms and just about 2.5 million pigs in North Carolina. By 1997, there were fewer farms but more than 9.6 million pigs.That year, the state put a moratorium on new or expanded hog farms, and farmers rushed to complete their facilities before the deadline. The increase in supply flooded the market in 1998, bringing prices crashing down and forcing some smaller farms out of business. The destruction left behind by Hurricane Floyd forced others out of the market, while the state began its initial buyout of hog farms in the 100-year flood plain after the storm. There have been four more rounds of buyouts since then.Today, there are about 10 million people in North Carolina and still about 9 million hogs, each producing, on average, 11 pounds of waste a day. Operations became more concentrated as farms began standardizing diets and creating what are called “concentrated animal feeding operations.”The slats in a hog house floor allow manure and urine to fall through to pits beneath the houses. The wastewater is then sent to a large, earthen basin, or lagoon, nearby. Anaerobic bacteria in the lagoon break down the manure — similar to the process used for composting. The liquid can then be sprayed onto crops as fertilizer. There are roughly 3,300 permitted hog lagoons in North Carolina, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates the structures. Farmers can use hog lagoons to provide fertilizer. Here a sprinkler sprays the liquefied waste on crops. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) Today, portions of Duplin County look like a patchwork of light green fields — likely soybeans and corn — dappled with thick patches of forest. Long silver-topped buildings, hog houses, are lined up in rows, with black or pink shiny pools, hog lagoons, sitting to one side.“This is the concentration we talk about here in Duplin,” Larry Baldwin of Waterkeeper Alliance said as the single-engine plane we’re in coasts about 1,000 feet above ground on a warm October day. “There’s three. There’s four. There’s five. Six. Seven. There’s eight. They’re all over the place.”State environmental standards require that lagoons be built to withstand 24 hours of rain, but new research shows that climate change is causing wetter hurricanes with more extreme rainfall to be more common. If the system fails, and lagoons breach or overtop, nutrients such as ammonia and nitrates may seep into rivers, stoking the growth of algae blooms that can choke out other aquatic life.But even when the system works exactly as it is supposed to, there are still issues for those who live near the lagoons or the crops where the waste is sprayed — people like Elsie Herring, a Wallace resident who is an environmental organizer and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Smithfield.“We’re being held prisoners in our own homes because you can’t cook out, can’t open your windows, can’t open your doors, you can’t hang your clothes on the line,” she said. “We didn’t need to have that to have to deal with on top of having to smell this animal waste and it blowing on our houses and cars and our persons if we’re outside.” Elsie Herring’s family home in Wallace is next to a field where a hog farm sprays its waste. She and other plaintiffs in lawsuits against Smithfield say odor, flies and other nuisances stem from waste management practices on the farms. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) The North Carolina Pork Council defends the practice on its blog, saying reports of the smell and nuisance claims in the ongoing litigation are exaggerated. And farmers, like Justin Edwards of Beulaville, say lagoons are effective and safe.Edwards’ two hog houses are about a mile from his home, and they hold about 1,700 hogs. He uses the lagoon and sprayfield system to manage hog waste on his farm, spraying it on the 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton he also grows.“We just don’t deserve the vilification,” Edwards said. “We’re human beings, and we are doing our contribution to society with the technology we’ve been given. We’re using the technology that our state has told us that we’ve got to use.”The state’s efforts to change hog waste disposal had a dramatic starting point.Twenty-five million gallons of hog waste spilled from a lagoon at Oceanview Farms in Onslow County into the New River in June 1995. The spill prompted the state legislature to fast track new regulations and, in 1997, to enact a temporary moratorium on new hog operations and expansions to existing ones. Gov. Jim Hunt proposed a plan in April 1999 to phase out lagoons within 10 years — a plan that one local newspaper called, in hindsight, “empty from the start.”That September, Hurricane Floyd hit. Public health fears about overflowing hog lagoons were a campaign issue, and a public relations nightmare for the hog industry.With public opinion turning, Easley, who was then the attorney general, told Smithfield it had a choice: negotiate a voluntary agreement or take a chance on a new administration. Easley was a candidate for governor. He promised that if he won, he would push for legislation to force the industry to change its waste management practices. Justin Edwards, a Smithfield contract farmer, uses the lagoon system to fertilize his crops. Edwards calls the system “tried and true,” and he said farmers don’t deserve the criticism they’ve faced for using it. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) “The problems with the hog lagoons had been pretty front and center in the public discourse at the time,” said Alan Hirsch, former deputy attorney general and Easley’s policy director, who now runs a health care nonprofit. “Smithfield well understood that they were under a lot of pressure to do something.”On July 25, 2000, in the thick of the gubernatorial campaign, Smithfield entered into an agreement with Easley to find better technologies to manage waste from the company’s hog farms in the state. Smithfield committed to providing a total of $17 million for research at North Carolina State University into other waste management methods and agreed to install the chosen technology on its farms. The company also committed to donating $50 million over the next 25 years to programs that protect the state’s environment.Even as Smithfield signed the agreement, the company’s vice president at the time, Richard J. M. Poulson, said during a press conference that the lagoon and sprayfield system was the “best available technology for swine waste management.”“Nevertheless, all of us support the development of superior economically viable disposal technologies so that the swine industry, which is so vitally important to North Carolina's economy, can continue to prosper,” he said.Easley was elected governor that November.Smithfield’s ProfileBy then, Smithfield had grown from a small Virginia-based company to the producer of nearly one out of every seven hogs in the United States.Smithfield grew by buying up competitors, and in 2013, Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. — now WH Group Ltd. — bought Smithfield for $4.7 billion. Today, the company exports ham, pork chops, sausages and other foods to more than 40 countries under labels such as Eckrich, Nathan’s Famous and Healthy Ones. It has some 54,000 employees in North America and Europe, and it recorded $15 billion in sales last year.For all its international reach, Smithfield still feels like a hometown company in North Carolina.Driving through Duplin County, the black-and-white signs marking a hog farm as a Smithfield affiliate are common, and a corporate office sits on the county’s western edge in Warsaw. Smithfield has 225 company-owned farms in North Carolina, in addition to contract farms and feed mills. Seven plants around the state produce everything from Italian stuffed breads and heat-to-eat products to bacon, fresh pork and cracklins.For years, the pork industry has exerted considerable influence over North Carolina politics, in part because in many areas, it’s the economic driver. Eastern North Carolina’s agricultural areas, which grew out of plantations and slavery, lack the amenities that would draw economic investment or a new technology revolution, said Peter A. Coclanis, an economic historian at the University of North Carolina.“Without the hog industry, there wouldn’t be much else,” Coclanis said. “You’re not going to get an IBM or Amazon to move to Duplin.” Left: Herring, an environmental justice organizer, said her family grew crops and raised a few pigs in their yard when she was growing up. But she argues that is different from living next to a commercial hog operation. Right: The hog farm near Herring’s home in Wallace. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) All told, agriculture and agribusiness — from food and tobacco products to lumber and furniture and textiles — account for 17 percent of North Carolina’s economic output. Hog farms constituted about 20 percent of the state’s agriculture revenue in 2016, bringing in $2.1 billion of the state’s $10.6 billion farm cash receipts, according to the state Agriculture Department. There are roughly 2,300 hog farms in North Carolina, according to the 2012 Agricultural census, the most data recent available.Coclanis said instead of investing in education and infrastructure, the state has competed on incentives and lower taxes to encourage the industry to economically buoy the area. For the areas that rely on them, Coclanis said, “the only thing worse than hog farms is if there weren’t any of them.”Legislators have been key in ensuring the industry stays firm in North Carolina.In 1995, the Raleigh News & Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Boss Hog series laid bare the environmental and health risks of hog lagoons and the political connections that kept them in place. Among the focuses of the reporting was Wendell Murphy, head of Murphy Family Farms (which was ultimately bought by Smithfield). Murphy spent nearly a decade in the General Assembly, sponsoring bills that shielded the industry from environmental regulations, allowed farms to sidestep county zoning rules and delivered tax breaks on farming equipment. At the time, he defended his agricultural votes, telling the newspaper, “I did what I thought was right for the industry of Duplin County.”The agricultural industry as a whole has contributed $16.6 million to political candidates and campaigns since 2000, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. The livestock and meat processing sectors have contributed more than $2 million within that same time period. Among all donors since 1996, the North Carolina Farm Bureau ($1,684,880), North Carolina Pork Council ($957,175) and Smithfield Foods ($406,600) are the leading contributors.Testing the TechnologiesFrom the beginning, the 2000 agreement allowed those in power to sidestep tighter regulation of the hog industry. Instead, the onus was on academia, and in particular C. Mike Williams.He’d grown up on a tobacco farm in Zebulon, studied poultry science and eventually earned his doctorate in nutrition at NC State. After a stint at an animal waste remediation company, Williams returned to NC State to lead the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center in 1993.There, he was tapped to oversee the testing of technologies developed as potential alternatives to the lagoon system. The task was herculean: find environmentally sound technology that was also cheap to implement.“It was always going to be true that a lagoon is cheaper than anything that’s not a lagoon,” said Ryke Longest, a state lawyer who served as a liaison for the Smithfield agreement and is now a law professor at Duke University. “If you’re doing something other than digging a hole in the ground and lining it … every time you add a capital expenditure, cost comes along with that.”The legislature had already laid out parameters for what constituted environmentally superior technologies. Mostly, to meet that criteria, the technology had to eliminate something — surface or groundwater discharges, ammonia emissions, bacteria and pathogens, or detectable odors. But so much remained undefined. Williams had to convene a nine-member engineering committee to set the threshold for “substantial” elimination, and a 27-member economic committee that included industry representatives, environmental advocates and economists to figure out what costs were acceptable.As the committee worked, Williams narrowed 100 proposals down to 15 to test on full-scale farms. The team looked at projects that covered the lagoons and used the wastewater to water a greenhouse, those that used a conveyor belt system and others that separated solid from liquid waste or treated the waste with chemicals. Williams produced two interim reports, in 2004 and 2005, providing detailed analysis on the odors, pathogens and nitrogens that the technologies sought to reduce. The research to find a better way to manage hog waste was led by C. Mike Williams. Although he identified some promising possibilities, his final report said an economically feasible method had not yet been developed for existing hog farms. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) Meanwhile, the engineering committee determined that substantial elimination of odors and nutrients would be set at 60 percent. The economic committee attempted to hash out how much of an impact was too much. Environmental advocates pushed for social benefits to factor into the calculation. Industry representatives pushed against anything they said would put North Carolina hog companies at a competitive disadvantage unless there were byproducts, like energy, that could be sold to offset the costs.“It was a position I thought was unreasonable at the time and wrong, that I still think is unreasonable today,” said Richard B. Whisnant, a University of North Carolina professor who chaired the economic committee. “That’s my first memory: realizing they were going to take a hard line and what I thought was an unreasonable line.”The committee settled on a threshold: No more than 12 percent of the state’s hog farms could be forced out of business in exchange for more advanced technologies. The majority of the committee signed onto the report, but the industry representatives — Smithfield, two of its subsidiaries and an agricultural bank — prepared a dissenting report.Williams looked at the promising technology again, this time, through an economic lens to prepare his final report. The findings Williams presented to the state Environmental Review Commission in March 2006 landed with a thud.One technology met all of the environmental criteria for newly constructed hog farms, but it was too expensive to retrofit existing hog farms. At the time, it cost around $400 per 1,000 pounds of pigs to install — the lagoon system cost $87.The next year, the legislature permanently banned using open lagoons to store hog waste and required new or expanded farms to meet strict environmental standards. But any farm whose permit had been issued before 2007 was grandfathered in, allowing it to continue operating without installing any new technology.Though the research dollars were exhausted, Williams was still hopeful. He cobbled together grant money to test new generations of the technology, issuing additional reports as recently as 2013. At last check, the third-generation of the system was around $200 per 1,000 pounds of pigs — still too high to qualify as economically feasible.Williams, who retired from NC State in 2017, said the change envisioned by the Smithfield agreement must happen. The current system “has served its purpose,” he said, “and we need to move to a new technology.”“There has to be a better system,” Williams said. “There has to be.”Lawsuits and Moving ForwardThe state is doing what it can to mend the destruction Hurricane Florence brought. Cleanup comes first.During an October visit, front doors sat open, the contents of homes — refrigerators, chairs, trash cans and clothes — piled in the ditch that runs along the side of Route 41 into Beulaville in Duplin County. Blue tarps served as temporary roof patches, and cottony pink insulation seemed to be everywhere. Weeks after the storm, hotels from Wallace to Goldsboro remained sold out, their rooms housing residents still displaced from Florence. In early October, weeks after Hurricane Florence, aid groups were still organizing supply drops for people affected by the storm. From left to right, volunteers Geri LaPlaca, Matthew Anderson and Chuck Dwyer organize donations destined for eastern North Carolina. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) The North Carolina General Assembly approved $850 million in relief aid for those affected by Hurricane Florence. The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is offering its fifth buyout of farms in the 100-year flood plain — the same program it started after Hurricane Floyd.For their part, the current top elected officials in North Carolina aren’t open to addressing questions about the Smithfield agreement.Roy Cooper, who served as attorney general from 2001 until he became governor in 2017, referred questions about hog lagoons to the state Department of Environmental Quality and to former state lawyers for information about the Smithfield agreement’s progress during his tenure as attorney general.Attorney General Josh Stein declined to be interviewed but through a spokeswoman said that he “believes there are technologies that can help address problems related to hog waste,” and that he “intends to work with hog farmers and producers like Smithfield to help move North Carolina to embrace technological advancements in this area.”Easley, who as attorney general negotiated the Smithfield agreement, said no one in the state’s leadership wants to take this on. “The will is not there,” he said. “It’s still don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you. As long as nobody was complaining, they were not going to respond much to it. They have to be nudged along, pushed along.”Around this region, everywhere there are signs of staunch loyalty to the industry. They stand like political endorsements on yards, on billboards and on church marquees around Duplin County. They are in response to the nuisance lawsuits filed by other residents who live near hog farms around the state. The suits do not name any individual farmers but instead target the parent company for the waste management practices on its contract farms. However, hogs have been reportedly pulled off of at least two of the farms that have been subject to lawsuits so far. So, the farming community takes the lawsuits personally. Signs of support for local farmers on a billboard on Highway 24, top, and at a church in Duplin County. (Jeremy Lange, special to ProPublica) Outside the Dobson Chapel Baptist Church, a white sign with a black silhouette of a farmer on a tractor, a barn and silo sit amid the words “Pray for our Farmers and their Farms.” In most signs, though, a hog silhouette sits on or near an outline of the state of North Carolina. The messages blare out in bright, bold capital letters: “Stand for NC Farm Families,” “Stand for Farmers No Farms No Food,” “Stop Complaining or Put Down the Bacon.”The state legislature has taken sides since 2013 when the lawsuits were filed. In 2017, the General Assembly overrode a veto to pass a law that caps damages in nuisance lawsuits to the value of the plaintiff’s property. And in June 2018, the legislature passed a bill that put additional strict restrictions on when those suits can be filed and when punitive damages can be awarded.“[Smithfield has] been politically powerful enough in the state to be able to stand pat with the status quo and fight off efforts to change,” said Whisnant, the University of North Carolina professor. “It’s just easier for a group to play defense on legislation than it is to enforce change.”This year, Smithfield contributed $72,800 to candidates in state races, according to campaign finance data from the state Board of Elections. Rep. Jimmy Dixon, who sponsored the 2017 law, got the biggest slice of Smithfield’s contributions: $10,400. The leadership of the House and Senate — Tim Moore and Phil Berger, respectively — each got $7,700, while coastal Sen. Bill Rabon, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, got \$6,500.Dixon said in an interview that he is a “promoter of agriculture,” but that his political actions are not tied to campaign contributions. As a retired turkey and hog farmer, Dixon said that he understands livestock operations, that he believes the legal claims against Smithfield are “enormously exaggerated” and that some of the plaintiffs have “outright been dishonest.”Herring, the Wallace resident who is a plaintiff in one of the nuisance lawsuits, brushes off those critical of her case.“We are the avenue of least resistance,” Herring said. “We don’t have any money. We don’t have a voice. We don’t have any representation. So they have all the power and as we say this is happening to us, they’re saying that it’s not.”For her, the case isn’t about money. If she wins, she said she plans to stay in her home — a pink house with a screened in porch, on a gravel street named after her mother.“They just want us to become complacent, shut up and just live under the stench and all the other outgrowths that come from this,” she said. “They make all the profits and keep the farmers believing that we’re out to hurt them and that’s not the truth. It’s not true at all. No one is out to hurt the hog farmers. But why should the hog farmers have more rights than the people?”
What We’re Thankful For: Being Able to Make a Difference in Illinois
by Louise Kiernan Among the many things I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving is being able to work with a group of extraordinarily talented, driven colleagues to make our state a better place to live.That might surprise you a little to hear; many people think of journalism, especially investigative journalism, as negative. The stories are depressing, friends sometimes tell me. Hard to read.It’s true that many of the subjects we write about are disturbing, even outrageous: children abused in the care of agencies that are supposed to protect them; low-income Chicagoans driven into bankruptcy by unfair ticketing practices; a for-profit system that pressures people to buy their way out of criminal prosecutions. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. But you can’t address wrongdoing without first identifying and exposing it. Our mission as an organization is to spur real-world change through journalism. We can’t create the change; we can, through our work, create the impetus for it. And when it happens, that’s a positive outcome. That’s why I see what we do as ultimately creating good news.In the last several weeks, we’ve seen change begin to come about on two issues our reporters have brought to light and doggedly pursued.Since February, Melissa Sanchez has been reporting an ongoing series of stories exposing how the city of Chicago’s aggressive and unequal ticketing practices, combined with punitive collections measures, have pushed tens of thousands of mostly black motorists into Chapter 13 bankruptcy.Her work, continued in partnership with WBEZ, has now spurred a slew of proposed reforms, with the Chicago City Council last week approving one set of changes to the system, while other, more sweeping improvements have also been put forward and are awaiting consideration. The reporting led to an independent report on ticketing disparities by a nonprofit research group that has been widely publicized and was cited in a lawsuit. The issue has also become a touchpoint in both the Chicago mayoral and treasurer’s races.Duaa Eldeib, who has been investigating the treatment of children with mental illness in state care, broke the story last month of troubling conditions at a psychiatric hospital where many of these young people are placed. She uncovered more than a dozen allegations of abuse or neglect of children at the hospital in Uptown since January. Hospital officials have said they provide “the best care to the most vulnerable people.”Some of the children had already been cleared for discharge but remained at the hospital because the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had failed to find them a more appropriate placement.Citing her reporting, lawmakers and advocates stepped forward. The agency stopped sending children to the hospital and agreed to an independent review of the facility, while state and federal officials continue to investigate. Just last week, two aldermen called for a hearing into the matter, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois took DCFS to court in an attempt to move the remaining children in state care out of the hospital.I asked Duaa and Melissa to talk a little about what it means to them to see change come about from their reporting.Here’s what Melissa said: “For so many months, I felt frustration that the city refused to acknowledge that there was even a problem. I thought maybe I was crazy for spending so much time on this one issue. Now that some changes are actually happening, I feel happy, validated and hopeful that people’s lives will be improved. And more than anything, I feel inspired to stay on the story and keep digging.”And from Duaa: “I’m amazed when families open up and describe the pain that has led to me sitting across from them, with my pen and notepad in hand. They often tell me that they’re sharing their stories in hopes of changing a system that has failed them. That change may not come in time for them, but it can help the next family and the family after that. As reporters, that’s why we do what we do.”Of course, there are many reasons that some stories spur change and others don’t. (It’s no coincidence, by the way, that we’re seeing movement on the ticket issue as the mayoral and aldermanic elections approach.)But when it happens, it’s what we most hope for as journalists: for our work to make a difference.
Member of White Supremacist Group Pleads Guilty to Assaults at 2017 Rally
by A.C. Thompson One of the eight members or associates of a violent California white supremacist group arrested on federal riot charges has pleaded guilty to assaulting protesters and others at a political rally in Huntington Beach, California, in 2017.Tyler Laube, 22, pleaded guilty on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in central California to a single count of conspiracy to violate the federal riots act over his role in a March 25, 2017, attack on protesters and others, including a journalist, at a Make America Great Again rally in Huntington Beach.Laube admitted to participating in the attack with other members of the Rise Above Movement, what prosecutors describe as a militant white supremacist group. In the plea agreement, Laube admitted that he had engaged in combat training with the group in the months before the 2017 rally in support of President Donald Trump.In all, seven other accused members or associates of the group face federal riot charges, either over their roles in the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, or in other violent episodes in several California cities that year. The seven men have not entered pleas in their cases.In the plea agreement, prosecutors pledge to recommend a reduction in Laube’s potential prison term, which could have been as many as five years. The plea agreement makes no mention of Laube cooperating with federal prosecutors in the cases against the other men, but it suggests that prosecutors would be satisfied with a sentence of not less than 21 months.A sentencing date for Laube has been set for March 25, the second anniversary of the Huntington Beach rally.“His role in the incident was minimal compared to the other people,” Jerome J. Haig, Laube’s attorney, said. “He was only involved in the Huntington Beach incident and not any of the subsequent incidents, and he wasn’t an organizer or leader on either.“The bottom line here is that he was involved in the Huntington Beach incident and then he stopped,” Haig maintained. “As this case goes on further, I think more facts will come out about who did what in this case and this was not some big political agenda for Tyler. It was just a mistake he made, and he’s atoning for his mistake by admitting his responsibility for what he’s done.”The action against the eight men this fall came after months of reporting by ProPublica and Frontline, which uncovered the group, its origins and makeup, and its role in multiple violent episodes throughout 2017.ProPublica’s first article, “Racist, Violent, Unpunished: A White Hate Group’s Campaign of Menace,” raised questions about the law enforcement response to the group’s conduct. A Frontline film in August, “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” highlighted the group’s founder, Robert Rundo, as well as another member, Michael Miselis, who was working for a defense contractor and possessed a national security clearance. Rundo is in custody in California, and Miselis is being held in Virginia.In announcing the indictments of four Rise Above Movement members or associates in early October, federal prosecutors cited the reporting done by the two news organizations.
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by ProPublica This story will be published on our site shortly.
“They Should Have Been Fired on the Spot”: In Elkhart, Indiana, the Talk Is All About the Police and a Video
by Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica One after another, speakers at a town hall meeting Tuesday in Elkhart, Indiana, criticized the city’s Police Department after recent revelations about officers who beat a handcuffed man and the disciplinary records of the agency’s supervisors.The town hall was the third public forum hosted by the mayor in a week, each one dominated by talk of the police. Last week, the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica reported that 28 of the department’s 34 supervisors, including Police Chief Ed Windbigler, had been previously disciplined. Fifteen have been suspended. Seven have been involved in at least one fatal shooting. Early this month, the news organizations published video of two officers punching a suspect in the face in the police station’s detention area. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Most of the speakers Tuesday wanted to talk about the beating — and what happened afterward. Windbigler issued written reprimands to officers Cory Newland and Joshua Titus five months after the fact, and he described their actions to a civilian oversight board as going “a little overboard,” with no mention of the punches thrown. Only after The Tribune requested the video did the city announce this month that the officers would face criminal charges. The video shows two other officers — including Sgt. Drew Neese, the son of Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese — looking on as the handcuffed suspect is beaten.“They should have been fired on the spot,” one man told the mayor during Tuesday’s meeting. “And, with respect to you, sir, your own son should be, too.”While a few speakers defended the police, saying they put their lives on the line for the good of the community, one man asked the mayor, “Why does the trust in the chief remain?” He asked Neese if he contested anything in the recent story by The Tribune and ProPublica about the department’s supervisors, including one who was promoted to sergeant after having been disciplined more than two dozen times.At that, Todd Thayer, the Police Department’s assistant chief, spoke up from the back of the room, saying he wanted to respond to the question. He walked to the front and, for the next 10 minutes, defended his officers and attacked the media.Thayer described the department’s reaction when it started receiving public records requests from a Tribune reporter: “Who is this guy? … What’s all this digging? And it’s just, request after request after request.” Thayer said the police went to the city’s legal department and asked: “Does anybody know what’s going on? Everything’s going good in Elkhart. Why are they coming over here, into our backyard, and trying to disrupt everything we built?”Thayer also criticized reporters for reaching out to officers to ask about their disciplinary records. He took issue with a ProPublica reporter who phoned a sergeant to ask about his personnel history, which included 11 suspensions and 15 reprimands. “I mean, you’re gonna ambush my officers like that? That’s ridiculous,” Thayer said.Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, said Wednesday there is nothing improper about seeking comment from someone who is going to be named in a story: “This is the essence of journalism. We hear things, we check them out. That’s what any good reporter does. That’s not an ambush; that’s asking questions. How on earth could we be fair otherwise?”Thayer said at the meeting that this “type of reporting” was devastating the policing profession: “The thin blue line is that line of officers that keeps the predators and the sex offenders and all the other garbage from all these law-abiding citizens. We’re the final stopgap. And that’s falling apart. I fear for this country, I fear for my son, because we’re getting fewer and fewer police officers who want to become police officers.”Thayer was among the 28 supervisors who have been disciplined, according to the review of personnel files. In 2013, he was demoted two ranks for making flippant comments about a fatal shooting. Witnesses reported he said a fellow officer could now check shooting a person off his “bucket list.” Thayer was promoted to his current position by Windbigler.After Thayer spoke, one woman responded: “This is not about a newspaper article. There is clear video evidence.” A man added: “So while you feel embarrassed, and that’s not a good feeling, we feel intimidated. … We feel scared when we see police, because things like this happen.”In addition to Tuesday’s town hall, the issue also came up during Elkhart’s regularly scheduled city council meeting Monday. Councilman David Henke said he was disappointed in the recent revelations about the Police Department.Henke said the lack of disclosure and the 10-month delay between the beating and the filing of charges “harmed the public trust.” Neese has said he learned about the video only after The Tribune requested a copy of it in October. He then notified prosecutors, after which Newland and Titus were charged with misdemeanor battery.“It was no less than a purposeful cover-up in my opinion,” Henke said during the city council meeting.“All eyes are on us and this department at this time,” he added. “It is not fair to the dedicated officers, nor do these actions, or lack of actions, represent our city and where we are heading. … Turning a blind eye in no way promotes a professional police force, and we will not accept anything less than a transparent, professional department. It’s too critical of an issue … not to put full effort in correcting, regardless of resignations that may be in order.”Henke could not be reached to explain what he meant by “resignations that may be in order.”At a town hall meeting last week, Roger Mansfield, a member of the Police Merit Commission, the city’s civilian oversight board, said the commission wasn’t made aware of the video’s existence until it was published by The Tribune and ProPublica.Neese issued a press release last Thursday saying he had asked the Indiana State Police to conduct a “complete investigation” of the city’s Police Department. But this week the state police said it was declining the mayor’s request. Any such review was more suited to the U.S. Department of Justice, the state police said.However, it’s not clear the Department of Justice would conduct such an investigation, even if asked. Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department has retreated from oversight involving local police. On Tuesday evening, Neese was asked by an audience member what he plans to do next. “I have not contacted the Department of Justice,” he said. “I’m not certain I’m going to.”
Trump Administration Defends Legality of VA Shadow Rulers
by Isaac Arnsdorf The Trump administration is defending the legality of having three Trump associates help steer the Department of Veterans Affairs from the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, asserting that a Watergate-era sunshine law on advisory committees shouldn’t apply.In a court filing last week, the government lawyers argued in part that the trio didn’t fit the law’s definition of an advisory committee because rather than being under the agency’s control, the three men reportedly wielded influence over the agency.“Far from alleging that the department managed or controlled the three individuals, the complaint asserts quite the opposite: that the three individuals asserted influence over the department,” Justice Department lawyers said in the filing, which was submitted on Friday. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. The government asked a judge to throw out a challenge from a liberal activist group, VoteVets, which alleged that the VA’s interactions with the so-called Mar-a-Lago Crowd violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The 1972 law, known as FACA, requires federal agencies to inform the public when they consult outside experts.The stakes of the lawsuit have risen since the VA’s inspector general told senators he would await the court’s decision before deciding whether to conduct his own investigation. The VA has also cited the litigation to resist releasing more documents about the Mar-a-Lago Crowd to ProPublica and to Congress, which a key Democrat called “a transparent attempt to stonewall.”In the new filing, the administration argued that FACA doesn’t apply to every formal or informal consultation, and it said such an interpretation would stifle the government’s ability to get advice.There have been cases when courts ruled that advisory groups that weren’t organized under FACA still had to comply with the law, but those have been exceptions. In a similar case that the lawyers representing VoteVets brought against an infrastructure advisory council, the judge agreed to require the administration to answer questions about the activities.“President Trump’s recent effort to dismiss our case is the latest slap in the face to the men and women who have sacrificed to protect our country,” Will Fischer, VoteVets’ director of government relations, said in a statement. “America’s veterans deserve a commander-in-chief who cares enough about our well-being not to outsource decisions about our health care to dues-paying members of his golf club.”The VA case has been assigned to Judge Timothy J. Kelly, a Trump appointee. In another recent high-profile case, Kelly ordered the White House to restore a CNN reporter’s press credentials.The Mar-a-Lago trio — Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman — have weighed in on many VA policy and personnel decisions despite having no official role or relevant expertise, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with former officials. VA officials flew to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to consult with the trio, and officials who didn’t get along with them were sidelined or removed.Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman were most deeply involved in an effort to overhaul the VA’s electronic health records — an expensive, high-stakes project that is already suffering from leadership turmoil that could put VA patients’ safety at risk, according to a ProPublica investigation.A representative for the trio has said they made recommendations and didn’t attempt to develop policy or influence personnel decisions. The current VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, said he’s not aware of any ongoing contacts between his team and the trio.
Capitol Words
by Matthew Gerring, ProPublica, and George Bixby, Will Horning, Jeiran Jahani, Rick Mangi, Dmitri Rappaport, and Albert Toledo, Chartbeat
You Snooze, You Lose: Insurers Make The Old Adage Literally True
by Marshall Allen Last March, Tony Schmidt discovered something unsettling about the machine that helps him breathe at night. Without his knowledge, it was spying on him.From his bedside, the device was tracking when he was using it and sending the information not just to his doctor, but to the maker of the machine, to the medical supply company that provided it and to his health insurer.Schmidt, an information technology specialist from Carrollton, Texas, was shocked. “I had no idea they were sending my information across the wire.”Schmidt, 59, has sleep apnea, a disorder that causes worrisome breaks in his breathing at night. Like millions of people, he relies on a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine that streams warm air into his nose while he sleeps, keeping his airway open. Without it, Schmidt would wake up hundreds of times a night; then, during the day, he’d nod off at work, sometimes while driving and even as he sat on the toilet.“I couldn’t keep a job,” he said. “I couldn’t stay awake.” The CPAP, he said, saved his career, maybe even his life.As many CPAP users discover, the life-altering device comes with caveats: Health insurance companies are often tracking whether patients use them. If they aren’t, the insurers might not cover the machines or the supplies that go with them.In fact, faced with the popularity of CPAPs, which can cost $400 to $800, and their need for replacement filters, face masks and hoses, health insurers have deployed a host of tactics that can make the therapy more expensive or even price it out of reach.Patients have been required to rent CPAPs at rates that total much more than the retail price of the devices, or they’ve discovered that the supplies would be substantially cheaper if they didn’t have insurance at all.Experts who study health care costs say insurers’ CPAP strategies are part of the industry’s playbook of shifting the costs of widely used therapies, devices and tests to unsuspecting patients. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. “The doctors and providers are not in control of medicine anymore,” said Harry Lawrence, owner of Advanced Oxy-Med Services, a New York company that provides CPAP supplies. “It’s strictly the insurance companies. They call the shots.”Insurers say their concerns are legitimate. The masks and hoses can be cumbersome and noisy, and studies show that about third of patients don’t use their CPAPs as directed.But the companies’ practices have spawned lawsuits and concerns by some doctors who say that policies that restrict access to the machines could have serious, or even deadly, consequences for patients with severe conditions. And privacy experts worry that data collected by insurers could be used to discriminate against patients or raise their costs.Schmidt’s privacy concerns began the day after he registered his new CPAP unit with ResMed, its manufacturer. He opted out of receiving any further information. But he had barely wiped the sleep out of his eyes the next morning when a peppy email arrived in his inbox. It was ResMed, praising him for completing his first night of therapy. “Congratulations! You’ve earned yourself a badge!” the email said.Then came this exchange with his supply company, Medigy: Schmidt had emailed the company to praise the “professional, kind, efficient and competent” technician who set up the device. A Medigy representative wrote back, thanking him, then adding that Schmidt’s machine “is doing a great job keeping your airway open.” A report detailing Schmidt’s usage was attached.Alarmed, Schmidt complained to Medigy and learned his data was also being shared with his insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield. He’d known his old machine had tracked his sleep because he’d taken its removable data card to his doctor. But this new invasion of privacy felt different. Was the data encrypted to protect his privacy as it was transmitted? What else were they doing with his personal information?He filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the federal government to no avail. “My doctor is the ONLY one that has permission to have my data,” he wrote in one complaint.In an email, a Blue Cross Blue Shield spokesperson said that it’s standard practice for insurers to monitor sleep apnea patients and deny payment if they aren’t using the machine. And privacy experts said that sharing the data with insurance companies is allowed under federal privacy laws. A ResMed representative said once patients have given consent, it may share the data it gathers, which is encrypted, with the patients’ doctors, insurers and supply companies.Schmidt returned the new CPAP machine and went back to a model that allowed him to use a removable data card. His doctor can verify his compliance, he said.Luke Petty, the operations manager for Medigy, said a lot of CPAP users direct their ire at companies like his. The complaints online number in the thousands. But insurance companies set the prices and make the rules, he said, and suppliers follow them, so they can get paid.“Every year it’s a new hurdle, a new trick, a new game for the patients,” Petty said. Tony Schmidt is one of the millions of Americans with sleep apnea. He can’t sleep through the night without his continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine. (Brandon Thibodeaux for ProPublica) A Sleep Saving Machine Gets PopularThe American Sleep Apnea Association estimates about 22 million Americans have sleep apnea, although it’s often not diagnosed. The number of people seeking treatment has grown along with awareness of the disorder. It’s a potentially serious disorder that left untreated can lead to risks for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and cognitive disorders. CPAP is one of the only treatments that works for many patients.Exact numbers are hard to come by, but ResMed, the leading device maker, said it’s monitoring the CPAP use of millions of patients.Sleep apnea specialists and health care cost experts say insurers have countered the deluge by forcing patients to prove they’re using the treatment.Medicare, the government insurance program for seniors and the disabled, began requiring CPAP “compliance” after a boom in demand. Because of the discomfort of wearing a mask, hooked up to a noisy machine, many patients struggle to adapt to nightly use. Between 2001 and 2009, Medicare payments for individual sleep studies almost quadrupled to $235 million. Many of those studies led to a CPAP prescription. Under Medicare rules, patients must use the CPAP for four hours a night for at least 70 percent of the nights in any 30-day period within three months of getting the device. Medicare requires doctors to document the adherence and effectiveness of the therapy.Sleep apnea experts deemed Medicare’s requirements arbitrary. But private insurers soon adopted similar rules, verifying usage with data from patients’ machines — with or without their knowledge.Kristine Grow, spokeswoman for the trade association America’s Health Insurance Plans, said monitoring CPAP use is important because if patients aren’t using the machines, a less expensive therapy might be a smarter option. Monitoring patients also helps insurance companies advise doctors about the best treatment for patients, she said. When asked why insurers don’t just rely on doctors to verify compliance, Grow said she didn’t know.Many insurers also require patients to rack up monthly rental fees rather than simply pay for a CPAP.Dr. Ofer Jacobowitz, a sleep apnea expert at ENT and Allergy Associates and assistant professor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said his patients often pay rental fees for a year or longer before meeting the prices insurers set for their CPAPs. But since patients’ deductibles — the amount they must pay before insurance kicks in — reset at the beginning of each year, they may end up covering the entire cost of the rental for much of that time, he said.The rental fees can surpass the retail cost of the machine, patients and doctors say. Alan Levy, an attorney who lives in Rahway, New Jersey, bought an individual insurance plan through the now-defunct Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey in 2015. When his doctor prescribed a CPAP, the company that supplied his device, At Home Medical, told him he needed to rent the device for $104 a month for 15 months. The company told him the cost of the CPAP was $2,400.Levy said he wouldn’t have worried about the cost if his insurance had paid it. But Levy’s plan required him to reach a $5,000 deductible before his insurance plan paid a dime. So Levy looked online and discovered the machine actually cost about $500.Levy said he called At Home Medical to ask if he could avoid the rental fee and pay $500 up front for the machine, and a company representative said no. “I’m being overcharged simply because I have insurance,” Levy recalled protesting.Levy refused to pay the rental fees. “At no point did I ever agree to enter into a monthly rental subscription,” he wrote in a letter disputing the charges. He asked for documentation supporting the cost. The company responded that he was being billed under the provisions of his insurance carrier.Levy’s law practice focuses, ironically, on defending insurance companies in personal injury cases. So he sued At Home Medical, accusing the company of violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Levy didn’t expect the case to go to trial. “I knew they were going to have to spend thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees to defend a claim worth hundreds of dollars,” he said.Sure enough, At Home Medical, agreed to allow Levy to pay $600 — still more than the retail cost — for the machine.The company declined to comment on the case. Suppliers said that Levy’s case is extreme, but acknowledged that patients’ rental fees often add up to more than the device is worth.Levy said that he was happy to abide by the terms of his plan, but that didn’t mean the insurance company could charge him an unfair price. “If the machine’s worth $500, no matter what the plan says, or the medical device company says, they shouldn’t be charging many times that price,” he said. Schmidt's CPAP machine. He went back to an older model, the ResMed S9 Escape, after learning that a newer version of the device would be sending details about his sleep habits to his insurance company. (Brandon Thibodeaux for ProPublica) Dr. Douglas Kirsch, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, said high rental fees aren’t the only problem. Patients can also get better deals on CPAP filters, hoses, masks and other supplies when they don’t use insurance, he said.Cigna, one of the largest health insurers in the country, currently faces a class-action suit in U.S. District Court in Connecticut over its billing practices, including for CPAP supplies. One of the plaintiffs, Jeffrey Neufeld, who lives in Connecticut, contends that Cigna directed him to order his supplies through a middleman who jacked up the prices.Neufeld declined to comment for this story. But his attorney, Robert Izard, said Cigna contracted with a company called CareCentrix, which coordinates a network of suppliers for the insurer. Neufeld decided to contact his supplier directly to find out what it had been paid for his supplies and compare that to what he was being charged. He discovered that he was paying substantially more than the supplier said the products were worth. For instance, Neufeld owed $25.68 for a disposable filter under his Cigna plan, while the supplier was paid $7.50. He owed $147.78 for a face mask through his Cigna plan while the supplier was paid $95.ProPublica found all the CPAP supplies billed to Neufeld online at even lower prices than those the supplier had been paid. Longtime CPAP users say it’s well known that supplies are cheaper when they are purchased without insurance.Neufeld’s cost “should have been based on the lower amount charged by the actual provider, not the marked-up bill from the middleman,” Izard said. Patients covered by other insurance companies may have fallen victim to similar markups, he said.Cigna would not comment on the case. But in documents filed in the suit, it denied misrepresenting costs or overcharging Neufeld. The supply company did not return calls for comment.In a statement, Stephen Wogen, CareCentrix’s chief growth officer, said insurers may agree to pay higher prices for some services, while negotiating lower prices for others, to achieve better overall value. For this reason, he said, isolating select prices doesn’t reflect the overall value of the company’s services. CareCentrix declined to comment on Neufeld’s allegations.Izard said Cigna and CareCentrix benefit from such behind-the-scenes deals by shifting the extra costs to patients, who often end up covering the marked-up prices out of their deductibles. And even once their insurance kicks in, the amount the patients must pay will be much higher.The ubiquity of CPAP insurance concerns struck home during the reporting of this story, when a ProPublica colleague discovered how his insurer was using his data against him.Sleep Aid or Surveillance Device?Without his CPAP, Eric Umansky, a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, wakes up repeatedly through the night and snores so insufferably that he is banished to the living room couch. “My marriage depends on it.”In September, his doctor prescribed a new mask and airflow setting for his machine. Advanced Oxy-Med Services, the medical supply company approved by his insurer, sent him a modem that he plugged into his machine, giving the company the ability to change the settings remotely if needed.But when the mask hadn’t arrived a few days later, Umansky called Advanced Oxy-Med. That’s when he got a surprise: His insurance company might not pay for the mask, a customer service representative told him, because he hadn’t been using his machine enough. “On Tuesday night, you only used the mask for three-and-a-half hours,” the representative said. “And on Monday night, you only used it for three hours.”“Wait — you guys are using this thing to track my sleep?” Umansky recalled saying. “And you are using it to deny me something my doctor says I need?”Umansky’s new modem had been beaming his personal data from his Brooklyn bedroom to the Newburgh, New York-based supply company, which, in turn, forwarded the information to his insurance company, UnitedHealthcare.Umansky was bewildered. He hadn’t been using the machine all night because he needed a new mask. But his insurance company wouldn’t pay for the new mask until he proved he was using the machine all night — even though, in his case, he, not the insurance company, is the owner of the device.“You view it as a device that is yours and is serving you,” Umansky said. “And suddenly you realize it is a surveillance device being used by your health insurance company to limit your access to health care.”Privacy experts said such concerns are likely to grow as a host of devices now gather data about patients, including insertable heart monitors and blood glucose meters, as well as Fitbits, Apple Watches and other lifestyle applications. Privacy laws have lagged behind this new technology, and patients may be surprised to learn how little control they have over how the data is used or with whom it is shared, said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.“What if they find you only sleep a fitful five hours a night?” Dixon said. “That’s a big deal over time. Does that affect your health care prices?”UnitedHealthcare said in a statement that it only uses the data from CPAPs to verify patients are using the machines.Lawrence, the owner of Advanced Oxy-Med Services, conceded that his company should have told Umansky his CPAP use would be monitored for compliance, but it had to follow the insurers’ rules to get paid.As for Umansky, it’s now been two months since his doctor prescribed him a new airflow setting for his CPAP machine. The supply company has been paying close attention to his usage, Umansky said, but it still hasn’t updated the setting.The irony is not lost on Umansky: “I wish they would spend as much time providing me actual care as they do monitoring whether I’m ‘compliant.’”
HUD Tallied Numerous Violations in New York City Public Housing. It Still Gave Passing Grades.
by Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan For months, federal housing officials and prosecutors have alleged that the New York City Housing Authority misled them about conditions, rendering federal oversight ineffective as conditions worsened.New York City officials used “every trick in the book to conceal building violations from federal inspectors,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman alleged at a news conference this summer announcing a federal complaint against the authority.Berman declared it a “cover-up.”But inspection records from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggest there’s more to the story. HUD officials were well aware of the severe mold, infestation and countless other health and safety violations inside New York City’s public housing units, according to a review of the two most recent inspection records for a dozen properties. The Southern Illinoisan obtained the records, which date from 2013 to 2017, from HUD in October through a public records request.In most of the apartments reviewed, inspectors found severe cases of mold and mildew, broken and missing appliances, inoperable windows and doors, electrical system problems and water leaks. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Prosecutors alleged that the housing authority failed “to find and remediate peeling lead paint in its developments” and falsely certified to HUD it had done so. But the inspection reports were full of red flags had anyone taken notice, experts said: Most contained citations for paint peeling from walls and ceilings in old apartment complexes. In fact, some of the reports describe peeling paint as “systemic.” Lead poisoning can cause a range of physical and behavioral symptoms in children, and it can stunt development.Last week, The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica reported that HUD’s 20-year-old inspection system is flawed and ineffective. Persistently unsafe properties routinely pass their inspections, and decent ones fail. Scores can seesaw between passing and failing by 20 points or more from one inspection to the next, raising questions about their reliability.Those same trends hold true in New York.Many of the properties whose inspection reports were reviewed by The Southern received passing grades despite racking up hundreds of estimated deficiencies. (The reports represent about 5 percent of the 375 reports generated for New York City’s public housing complexes from 2013 to 2017.) This article is based, in part, on inspection reports from the following 12 properties within the New York City Housing Authority:
Your Medical Devices Are Not Keeping Your Health Data to Themselves
by Derek Kravitz and Marshall Allen Medical devices are gathering more and more data from their users, whether it’s their heart rates, sleep patterns or the number of steps taken in a day. Insurers and medical device makers say such data can be used to vastly improve health care.But the data that’s generated can also be used in ways that patients don’t necessarily expect. It can be packaged and sold for advertising. It can anonymized and used by customer support and information technology companies. Or it can be shared with health insurers, who may use it to deny reimbursement. Privacy experts warn that data gathered by insurers could also be used to rate individuals’ health care costs and potentially raise their premiums.Patients typically have to give consent for their data to be used — so-called “donated data.” But some patients said they weren’t aware that their information was being gathered and shared. And once the data is shared, it can be used in a number of ways. Here are a few of the most popular medical devices that can share data with insurers:Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP, Machines Justin Volz, special to ProPublica What Are They?One of the more popular devices for those with sleep apnea, CPAP machines are covered by insurers after a sleep study confirms the diagnosis. These units, which deliver pressurized air through masks worn by patients as they sleep, collect data and transmit it wirelessly.What Do They Collect?It depends on the unit, but CPAP machines can collect data on the number of hours a patient uses the device, the number of interruptions in sleep and the amount of air that leaks from the mask.Who Gets the Info?The data may be transmitted to the makers or suppliers of the machines. Doctors may use it to assess whether the therapy is effective. Health insurers may receive the data to track whether patients are using their CPAP machines as directed. They may refuse to reimburse the costs of the machine if the patient doesn’t use it enough. The device maker ResMed said in a statement that patients may withdraw their consent to have their data shared.Heart MonitorsWhat Are They? Justin Volz, special to ProPublica Heart monitors, oftentimes small, battery-powered devices worn on the body and attached to the skin with electrodes, measure and record the heart’s electrical signals, typically over a few days or weeks, to detect things like irregular heartbeats or abnormal heart rhythms. Some devices implanted under the skin can last up to five years.What Do They Collect?Wearable ones include Holter monitors, wired external devices that attach to the skin, and event recorders, which can track slow or fast heartbeats and fainting spells. Data can also be shared from implanted pacemakers, which keep the heart beating properly for those with arrhythmias.Who Gets the Info?Low resting heart rates or other abnormal heart conditions are commonly used by insurance companies to place patients in more expensive rate classes. Children undergoing genetic testing are sometimes outfitted with heart monitors before their diagnosis, increasing the odds that their data is used by insurers. This sharing is the most common complaint cited by the World Privacy Forum, a consumer rights group.Blood Glucose Monitors Justin Volz, special to ProPublica What Are They?Millions of Americans who have diabetes are familiar with blood glucose meters, or glucometers, which take a blood sample on a strip of paper and analyze it for glucose, or sugar, levels. This allows patients and their doctors to monitor their diabetes so they don’t have complications like heart or kidney disease. Blood glucose meters are used by the more the 1.2 million Americans with Type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in children, teens and young adults.What Do They Collect?Blood sugar monitors measure the concentration of glucose in a patient’s blood, a key indicator of proper diabetes management.Who Gets the Info?Diabetes monitoring equipment is sold directly to patients, but many still rely on insurer-provided devices. To get reimbursement for blood glucose meters, health insurers will typically ask for at least a month’s worth of blood sugar data.Lifestyle MonitorsWhat Are They?Step counters, medication alerts and trackers, and in-home cameras are among the devices in the increasingly crowded lifestyle health industry.What Do They Collect? Justin Volz, special to ProPublica Many health data research apps are made up of “donated data,” which is provided by consumers and falls outside of federal guidelines that require the sharing of personal health data be disclosed and anonymized to protect the identity of the patient. This data includes everything from counters for the number of steps you take, the calories you eat and the number of flights of stairs you climb to more traditional health metrics, such as pulse and heart rates.Who Gets the Info?It varies by device. But the makers of the Fitbit step counter, for example, say they never sell customer personal data or share personal information unless a user requests it; it is part of a legal process; or it is provided on a “confidential basis” to a third-party customer support or IT provider. That said, Fitbit allows users who give consent to share data “with a health insurer or wellness program,” according to a statement from the company.
9-Year-Old Alleges Staff Member at Chicago Psychiatric Hospital Choked and Restrained Her
by Duaa Eldeib As Illinois’ child welfare agency works to clear out its remaining patients at a Chicago psychiatric hospital beset by allegations of sexual abuse and assault, problems continue to emerge.The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Monday opened an investigation into a 9-year-old girl’s allegation that a staff member at Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital choked and restrained her.The girl did not have any bruises or marks, DCFS officials said, and the employee is not currently working on the unit. The report brings the number of DCFS investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect at the hospital to 19 since January.The girl, who reportedly was provoking other children on the unit before the incident, has been hospitalized at Lakeshore for nearly two months. She was cleared for discharge two weeks ago but remains at the hospital because DCFS has not found her a place to go once she is released. A ProPublica Illinois investigation this year documented what happens to the hundreds of children in state care who spend weeks and months waiting for DCFS to find them a more appropriate placement.DCFS staff have been stationed at Lakeshore for round-the-clock observation of children in the department’s care since Saturday. The agency plans to continue the monitoring at least until the last of its charges there move out, DCFS lawyers told a federal judge at a hearing on Tuesday. It marked the second time in less than a week that DCFS appeared in front of U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso to explain what the department is doing to protect the children in its care at the hospital.DCFS attorneys said the employees doing the monitoring are experienced professionals but acknowledged the strain of continually overseeing the hospital.“The volatile behavior of children in psychiatric hospitals is always a challenge,” said Neil Skene, special assistant to DCFS Acting Director Beverly “B.J.” Walker. “Adding more staffing to watch each unit 24 hours a day puts more eyes on the situation and adds a layer of safety for our youth at the hospital.” Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which monitors DCFS as part of a consent decree, had demanded that the agency put in place several safeguards after a ProPublica Illinois investigation first revealed the troubles at Lakeshore. The two groups have been locked in contentious negotiations as they continue to hammer out details of an independent review at the hospital, among other proposals. (The Chicago Tribune also has reported on the issues at Lakeshore.)At Tuesday’s hearing, the ACLU blasted the agency for providing little or no information on matters the group said were key to the children’s safety. ACLU lawyers argued that the DCFS employees doing the monitoring should have training, clinical experience and knowledge of psychiatric hospitalizations.“To act as if someone can walk off the street, even with a child welfare background, and understand what to watch for, I think is really misguided,” ACLU general counsel Heidi Dalenberg said. “Would someone know that one of the things to watch for is don’t let two kids sit together under the same blanket?”Dalenberg was referring to an allegation this month in which two patients, a 14-year-old male and a 16-year-old transgender female, fondled each other under a blanket in a hospital day room while a staff member was present.The ACLU lawyers also wanted broader access and authority for the court-appointed expert and the University of Illinois at Chicago psychiatrists who will work with DCFS on transferring the remaining dozen or so patients out of the hospital.Lakeshore CEO David Fletcher-Janzen said the health and safety of the patients is the hospital’s top priority. Children who are in the custody of DCFS often face the most difficult challenges, he said.“No other hospital provides the level of care that we do,” Fletcher-Janzen said in an email. “That is why so many children who are wards of the state come to our hospital — we provide the absolute best care available. We need to be increasing access for this population and Chicago Lakeshore has always made them a priority.”DCFS relies heavily on Lakeshore to treat children with severe mental health issues. Last year, 41 percent of the roughly 1,100 children and adolescent patients treated at Lakeshore were in DCFS care, court filings show.Cook County Acting Public Guardian Charles Golbert said his office represents the majority of the roughly 1,200 children in DCFS care who require hospitalization each year. As of Monday, 10 children at Lakeshore were clients of the public guardian’s office, which filed a flurry of emergency motions in juvenile court asking DCFS to provide detailed and updated reports on each of those children.“What’s happening there is utter chaos,” Golbert said. “And DCFS has known that for more than a month.”Both DCFS and the ACLU recommended that Dr. Michael Naylor, director of the behavioral health and welfare program at UIC, weigh in on where children leaving Lakeshore should be placed, although the groups disagreed on the extent of his role.Children in DCFS’ care have a history of trauma that can worsen with time in an institution, Naylor said. In assessing the care of those children, he said, it’s important to consider whether there are larger, systemic issues at play. When a child languishes in a psychiatric hospital for longer than is deemed medically necessary, their behavior often deteriorates.Five of the 12 DCFS patients that remained at Lakeshore as of Tuesday morning had been cleared for release and were waiting on the agency to find them placements.“At some point, a kid begins to think there’s no hope,” Naylor said. “They think, ‘I’m not going to get out of here.’”Sometimes, even when DCFS finds new placements for children and teenagers at Lakeshore, the transition poses complications.A 17-year-old who was discharged from Lakeshore on Monday ran away before DCFS could transfer him to a facility some 300 miles away near the Missouri border, according to agency officials.The teen was walking down an alleyway toward the car DCFS was going to use to drive him to his new placement when he suddenly dropped his bag and bolted. The caseworker ran into the hospital and called the police, hospital officials said. A source with knowledge of the incident said the teen was upset about being sent to a residential treatment facility far from home.As of Tuesday afternoon, he still was missing.DCFS asked a judge in Champaign County, where the teen is from, to issue a warrant to find him but instructed that he not be held in detention if located.“We don’t lock young people in and we don’t shackle them when we take them somewhere, so runaways do happen,” Skene said. “He just spent time in a psychiatric hospital, and he seized a moment to run. Our focus right now is on finding him.”
Oregon Officials Call for Changes of Laws on Criminally Insane
by Jayme Fraser, The Malheur Enterprise Oregon’s attorney general said the number of people deemed criminally insane who commit new crimes after their release is “definitely too high” and must be addressed by the state.She was “surprised” by the frequency of crimes, often violent, documented by the Malheur Enterprise and ProPublica. Slightly more than a third of the people released by the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board were charged again within three years, showed the analysis of public records.“Given the nature of the crimes committed after release, these numbers are definitely too high,” Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a written statement. “It makes me want to take a deeper dive into the topic.”Other state and local officials echoed her comments, saying it was unacceptable that so many people found “guilty except for insanity” in felony cases and sent to treatment instead of prison go on to commit new crimes after being freed, which is known as recidivism. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. State Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat who has long been a champion of mental health reforms, agreed that legislators should take immediate steps to understand the problem and to find solutions.“I’m going to have to drop another piece of legislation in the 2019 session,” he said, noting that that Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Floyd Prozanski, had stopped by his office Monday morning to discuss the analysis.“This is very disturbing to me,” Courtney said of both the numbers and the fact that the review board did not sound an alarm.Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff, president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, called on the Legislature to address the issue comprehensively.“It’s pretty clear we need greater legislative leadership that has more of an emphasis on public safety,” he said.Under Oregon law, those found guilty except for insanity are put under the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board. The board has said publicly that its clients have a recidivism rate of less than 1 percent. But that percentage covers only those who are still under the supervision of state officials. The Enterprise and ProPublica examined what happened after those people are freed from state custody, and found that about 35 percent were arrested on new charges within three years.Internal emails released in response to a public records request show that board officials were aware of the discrepancy. An initial study last year reached similar conclusions, finding that as many as half of the clients released by the board in any given year were arrested again. The agency did not share those findings with other state officials or the public. Executive Director Alison Bort said to do so would have been “irresponsible” because they had not been subjected to rigorous statistical review. Bort described the figures as preliminary and said it would have been unethical to share them with the public.That assertion troubled state Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, chair of the House Interim Judiciary Committee.“The fact they knew and didn’t tell anybody is concerning,” he said.Barker, a former police officer, faulted legislators and other elected leaders for not pressing the board to document recidivism as is required of prisons, jails, and parole and probation programs. Recidivism is routinely used by government officials and academic researchers to judge the effectiveness of criminal justice programs.“The board should keep track of that,” Barker said. “If the system’s not working, we need to take a look at it and see if we can improve it.”His counterpart in the Senate agreed.“Based on the numbers that we see, there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat.Other top state officials, including Gov. Kate Brown, didn’t respond to requests for comment about the findings.Courtney and prosecutors said the state should consider giving the board authority to supervise the criminally insane for a longer period. Alternatively, prosecutors, legislators and advocates said, officials could improve the community care available to them once they’re freed.State judges place people deemed criminally insane into the hands of the Psychiatric Security Review Board for a set time that can’t exceed the maximum sentence they would have served in prison for a conviction.The Enterprise-ProPublica analysis found that in the last decade about half of the 334 people found insane in a felony case remained under the board’s jurisdiction for the maximum time set by judges.Current state law requires the board to free people who no longer have a qualifying mental disorder or who are no longer considered dangerous because of a disorder. Only a quarter of those freed in the last decade were because doctors thought, and the board agreed, that they could manage their mental illness without becoming a danger to the public.Courtney said he did not realize that Oregon capped the length of board supervision, thinking people were only freed at the panel’s discretion. He also did not know that Oregon is one of only five states with such a limit, often supported by advocates as protecting the civil rights of people with mental illness.“That’s a law I want to look at,” Courtney said.Shirtcliff, the prosecutor, said the state should consider applying “truth in sentencing” principles to insanity verdicts. State district attorneys support efforts to have people serve their full sentences rather than being freed from prison early. Similarly, he said people deemed criminally insane should remain under supervision for what would have been the full term of their sentence.“If it’s 20 years under the [Psychiatric Security Review Board], it ought to be 20 years,” he said.Chris Owen, Clackamas County chief deputy district attorney who has handled several insanity cases, agreed that “public safety takes a back seat” under the current law.He questioned Oregon’s delegation of supervision and release authority to a board. Oregon is one of only three states where someone besides a judge decides on treatment, supervision and freedom. Owen feared that the Psychiatric Security Review Board and its partners in the state mental health system might not focus enough on public safety.“They’re good professionals trying to do the right thing, but you know, they have pressures that shouldn’t be pressures,” he said. “They’re dealing with hospital beds and the costs of those hospital beds. They’re dealing with the findings of their own medical professionals.”Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Melissa Marrero agreed that the issue “needs to be addressed,” but she didn’t think “the numbers capture the whole picture.”“Each of these cases is so unique,” she said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of common threads among them. Having more information about what’s going on will allow us to continue these discussions and have meaningful conversations about what, if anything, we can do to try to improve our policies.”She said Multnomah County has decided not to accept insanity pleas as part of deals. Instead, prosecutors are required to bring the case to trial before a judge or jury so that a court has a chance to weigh the evidence.Some advocates for the mentally ill feared the findings of the Enterprise-ProPublica investigation could reinforce the widely held, incorrect view that mentally ill people are more prone to violence than others. (The analysis by ProPublica and the Enterprise found the felony recidivism rates of people freed from prison was the same as people freed from board supervision.)Janie Gullickson, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Oregon, said more study was needed to understand why people committed new crimes and how state services — not just mental health care — could have helped people safely move back into the community after leaving the board’s supervision.“Recovery is not only possible but probable given the right support,” she said, noting she had once used drugs and had difficulty managing symptoms of her own mental illness. “I know someone who has transitioned out the Psychiatric Security Review Board, and she’s doing pretty amazing. I think she has a couple jobs. She’s out there living life and doing it. That’s who I keep picturing.”Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, questioned the Enterprise-ProPublica study, but he wouldn’t identify what he considered its flaws.“I would like to see some objective entity take a look at recidivism rates,” Joondeph said. “I’m not accepting that the rate is that high.”Joondeph urged leaders to “look at the criminal justice system as a whole” and increase funding for community mental health programs, housing and other services that are critical for people with mental disorders.Gullickson said one challenge people freed by the board might face is finding a program that can treat mental illness and substance use at the same time.“Beds are always full,” she said.Increasing the criminalization of mental illness won’t address the underlying problems such as mental health, social isolation, drug use or homelessness, she said.Courtney, whose 2019 agenda includes strengthening community re-entry programs for people leaving prison, said the same principles might work to help people leaving board supervision. He agreed with Gullickson that Oregon does not have enough medium-security facilities and supervised group homes for the people who need them.Owen, the prosecutor, said better funding is necessary to ensure any reforms can take hold.“It’s a complicated issue, but it’s unfortunate because it impacts public safety and it impacts victims,” he said.Marrero said legislators are unlikely to find a simple solution because of one “constant tension” at the intersection of mental health and the law.“How do we balance their civil rights with public safety?” she said.
An Atomwaffen Member Sketched a Map to Take the Neo-Nazis Down. What Path Officials Took Is a Mystery.
by A.C. Thompson It was a grisly scene inside Apartment 3722 at the Hamptons, a gated community in Tampa, Florida.One body lay face up on the floor, wedged between a wall and an air mattress. A handgun was stuffed in a holster on the dead man’s waist. The other body, clad in a black T-shirt and shorts, was slumped back on a futon, a shattered and bloody iPhone on his lap. A police investigator would later write that the two men had been “shot multiple times at close range with an assault rifle.”There were some obvious clues that this was no ordinary double homicide. Tacked to the wall near the bodies was a large black-and-white flag bearing the insignia of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, Adolf Hitler’s elite paramilitary unit. On a nearby shelf was a black Stahlhelm, the distinctive helmet worn by Nazi soldiers during World War II. There were multiple copies of “Mein Kampf” and a prominent place was reserved for “The Turner Diaries,” the infamous novel of race war in America that has inspired generations of terrorists, among them Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. A framed picture of McVeigh sat on a dresser.On that night in May 2017, the police quickly took two suspects into custody and developed a rough outline of what had happened. One of the suspects, Devon Arthurs, 18, said the victims were his roommates, and members of a neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division. Arthurs said that he’d decided to leave the group, and that he’d killed the men to keep them from carrying out what he said were their plans for violence.The second suspect detained by police, Brandon Russell, also lived in the apartment. Russell told the authorities he’d just returned home from a weekend of training with the Florida Army National Guard. And then Russell revealed something that should have set off alarms among federal investigators assigned to track the growing threat from armed, violent right-wing extremists. He said, and the police quickly confirmed, that the single-car garage attached to the apartment was full of explosives.Explosives experts from the Tampa Police Department and the local FBI field office soon found components of a crude pipe bomb as well as radioactive materials. The search turned up ammonium nitrate and nitromethane, the mixture used by McVeigh to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. There were sacks of explosive precursors, including potassium chloride, red iron oxide and potassium nitrate. There were homemade fuses fashioned from brass 5.56 mm rifle cartridges. In a closet, they found two Geiger counters.And there was a cooler with the name Brandon scrawled on the lid in black marker. Inside, the investigators discovered HMTD — hexamethylene triperoxide diamine — a potent, highly volatile peroxide-based explosive. It has become a favored tool of terrorists both here and abroad, who cook it up in small batches using recipes circulating on the internet and in improvised weapons manuals.At Tampa police headquarters, investigators put Arthurs and Russell in separate interrogation rooms. They wanted to know about the killings, about the neo-Nazi group and about the explosives.Arthurs said the apartment had served as a nerve center for Atomwaffen Division, a white supremacist organization of 60 to 70 people that has spoken openly of its hopes of igniting race war in the United States. If the authorities could access the group’s encrypted online chats, Arthurs said, “it’d be easy to track down each member.” The interrogation was videotaped, and a recording was obtained by ProPublica and Frontline.“The things that they’re planning were horrible. They’re planning bombings and stuff like that on countless people, they’re planning to kill civilian life,” Arthurs said. A detective asked if Atomwaffen had drawn up a list of specific targets. “Power lines, nuclear reactors, synagogues, things like that,” Arthurs replied.“I’m telling you stuff that the FBI should be hearing,” Arthurs said, adding that he thought lives could be saved.To this day, it is unclear if the FBI talked with Arthurs or what steps it took to shut down Atomwaffen. The FBI declined repeated requests to discuss the case. But this much is clear: Within months of Arthurs’ warnings, Atomwaffen members or associates had killed three more people.It is frequently argued that the white men who murder in the name of racial purity are lone wolves, radicalized by the echo chamber of the alt-right internet. No one can reasonably expect authorities to stop a seemingly law-abiding citizen like Dylann Roof, the young man who killed nine black church members in South Carolina.But the Atomwaffen case seems a fair test of the country’s intelligence abilities. And a close look at it suggests that much more could have been done to investigate an organization one of its founding members, Arthurs, was begging the authorities to shut down and offering his help to do so. The cooler containing Atomwaffen founder Brandon Russell’s HMTD explosive. (Exhibit from U.S. vs. Brandon Russell) Some experts and former officials see the case as part of a larger pattern, evidence that federal agencies are understaffed and out of position in confronting the threat of white supremacist terrorism even as the FBI’s latest report shows a spike in hate crimes for the third straight year.That concern intensified after the massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers last month at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. John Cohen and George Selim, former senior officials in the Department of Homeland Security, criticized what they say has been the disinvestment in programs and efforts meant to help protect against the threat of far-right attacks. Task forces have been disbanded, they said, and recent efforts to reconstitute what they termed an “intelligence infrastructure” for domestic terrorism have lagged.The government’s own data underlines the threat. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report said “far-right extremism” was responsible for 62 of the 85 lethal extremist incidents in the U.S. from the day after 9/11 through 2016, while Islamist extremist violence was responsible for 23 of the incidents. The report said far-right extremism had killed 106 people over those years.Contacted by ProPublica and Frontline, Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University, said he stood by his public critique.“We know what the problem is, but every time there’s another one of these attacks all we hear is, ‘Oh, this is shocking, this is horrible, our prayers are with the people, who would have imagined this ever would have happened?’” Cohen said. “No, it’s very imaginable because it’s happening on a regular basis in this country. We’re just not doing enough to stop it.”The authorities dispatched to the Tampa apartment seemed unprepared to deal with this particular brand of terrorism. The police detectives and FBI agent who interviewed Arthurs and Russell appear to have given little credence to the evidence discovered in the apartment, or to Arthurs’ allegations that the group was plotting terrorist attacks and mass murders.While Arthurs was taken to the county jail on homicide charges, police and FBI agents released Russell, who claimed that he used the explosives to power model rockets. An officer even drove Russell back to the murder scene so he could retrieve his car.What happened next could well have been a disaster. Within hours, Russell acquired an AR-15-style assault rifle and a bolt-action hunting rifle. He loaded homemade body armor and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition into his car, and set off for the Florida Keys with another Atomwaffen member. He was eventually arrested by sheriff’s deputies in Monroe County. They were shocked by the weapons and ammunition they found in the car. There was no luggage. No food. Russell didn’t seem prepared for an extended trip, they said.“When we found all the weapons, we were convinced that we had just stopped a mass shooting,” recalled Deanna Torres, one of the deputies who captured Russell, who would eventually plead guilty to federal explosives charges.Five former law enforcement agents spoke to ProPublica and Frontline about the handling of Arthurs and Russell. Most said they were baffled by the decision to release Russell. Stay Informed Get ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s Daily Digest. Tampa police and local prosecutors would not discuss the case.Atomwaffen didn’t disband in the aftermath of the Tampa arrests. The group continued to recruit new members, staging “hate camps” in at least two states that included weapons training. And the group’s violence went unhindered.In December 2017, a 17-year-old Atomwaffen follower was arrested on suspicion of murdering the parents of his ex-girlfriend after they ended their daughter’s relationship with the neo-Nazi. A month later, Samuel Woodward was charged with killing a gay Jewish college student in California. Woodward, ProPublica reported in the following days, had participated in weapons training with Atomwaffen members in Texas in the months after the Tampa slayings. Woodward’s fellow Atomwaffen members cheered online when he was arrested, calling him a “one man gay jew wrecking crew.”In response to questions about DHS’s readiness to combat white supremacist violence, DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton issued a statement:“The Department of Homeland Security is committed to combating all forms of violent extremism, especially movements that espouse racial supremacy or bigotry. DHS takes all threats to the homeland, both foreign and domestic, very seriously and to suggest otherwise is an affront to the men and women of DHS that work tirelessly every day to ensure the safety of the American people. We will continue to work hand-in-hand with our federal, state and local partners to carry out our mission of keeping our country safe.”Brandon Russell met Devon Arthurs online, on a site called Tinychat that provides video chat services, Arthurs said. Both young men lived in Florida — Brandon in Tampa, Devon in Longwood, a suburb north of Orlando. Wearing headsets, the two would sit at their computers and talk deep into the night.Eventually, their conversations moved over to Iron March, a now-defunct neo-Nazi forum with the tagline “race war now!” On Iron March, Russell posted photos of himself posing with a Mossberg shotgun while wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Natural Born Killers” and an image of a Nazi eagle. Online, he celebrated school shooters like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (Columbine High School) and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech); mass murderer Anders Breivik (a self-proclaimed National Socialist who killed 77 people in Norway); and Hitler.In addition to his fascination with fascism and acts of violence, Russell had one more obsession: nuclear weapons. He posted instructions online for building improvised nuclear reactors — it's not clear how realistic these plans were — and studied nuclear physics as an undergraduate at the University of South Florida.When Russell launched Atomwaffen in 2015, Arthurs was one of the first recruits to the group. Arthurs began gravitating toward Nazi beliefs at 13 or 14, according to his father, Alan Arthurs, who said he’s still mystified by his son’s interest in Nazism. “I don't get it. I don't get it. I don't know why,” he told Frontline and ProPublica. Russell’s jail booking photo. He is currently serving a five-year prison term. (Frontline) In the spring of 2017, Devon Arthurs and Russell moved into the Tampa apartment. Arthurs had dropped out of high school and had no job. But Alan Arthurs believes his son and Russell were making lengthy road trips to sell illegal firearms in states far from Florida.In time, Russell and Arthurs were joined in the Tampa apartment by Andrew Oneschuk, 18, and Jeremy Himmelman, 22, two Atomwaffen members from Massachusetts.Oneschuk and Himmelman were the dead men police discovered in the apartment on the night of May 19, 2017.Alan Arthurs said his son called him after the shooting and confessed to killing the pair. Over the ensuing hours, Arthurs told a shifting series of stories about his motives. He told his father he’d killed them to head off Atomwaffen’s terrorist plans. He said something similar to investigators. But he also offered an even stranger version: that he’d converted to Islam and supported ISIS, and that he’d killed the two men because they mocked his newfound religion. A judge has since ruled Arthurs mentally incompetent to stand trial.In his interrogation shortly after his arrest, Arthurs said he was aware of his mental health problems and wished he’d been hospitalized long before. He said that people might not think he looked like a terrorist, but that he had been engaged in dark and dangerous conduct.And then, in quite composed fashion, he sketched out in great detail both the terrorist ambitions of Atomwaffen and the tactics law enforcement might use to infiltrate the group and bring it down. He warned the Tampa detective leading the questioning, Kenneth Nightlinger, against underestimating the group. Repeatedly, he tried to push back against what he seemed to regard as the detective’s skepticism.Arthurs said Atomwaffen drew inspiration from The Order, a neo-Nazi terrorist group active during the 1980s. Led by Robert Mathews, the organization believed the U.S. had been taken over by a shadow government of powerful Jews. The Order bombed a synagogue and in 1984 assassinated Alan Berg, a prominent Jewish radio host who lived in Denver.Russell and Atomwaffen “venerate” The Order, Arthurs said in his interview with detectives. “These people, they have no human empathy like we do.”“These people ... they know exactly how to build, they knew exactly how to build bombs that could've destroyed this entire building,” Arthurs said.Nightlinger often pressed for more information.“Do you know about specific plans that these two individuals had?” the detective asked, referring to Oneschuk and Himmelman.Arthurs said the men were planning on blowing up power lines near a major highway. They were going to use the HMTD to do it.The detective pressed further.“Did Brandon ever specifically talk about doing anything similar to that? To any government buildings?”“Oh, absolutely. All the time,” Arthurs answered.“Any specific ones?”“Government offices, federal buildings,” Arthurs said.The detective at one point tried to assure Arthurs that he and others would act on his information.“This is absolutely serious stuff,” said Nightlinger, encouraging Arthurs to pass on “any information” that could be used to combat “these misguided individuals.”Arthurs apologized for seeming flustered.“I'm not trying to sound like a schizo cause I know that I'm trampling over words and stuff,” he said.“No, no, you're in control, man,” Nightlinger said. “You're good, keep going.”And Arthurs did.Arthurs told the detective that Russell acquired guns and trained him and the other roommates in how to handle them. He said while Russell had joined the Florida Army National Guard, he’d used the American flag as a doormat to the apartment. He warned that if Russell was given the chance, he’d easily be able to reacquire the explosives that had been confiscated from the garage.And repeatedly Arthurs offered to help law enforcement round up Atomwaffen members and dismantle the organization. He’d open up his computer. And he thought it would be easy to penetrate the computers of the others.“You think having your computer, an FBI agent as you requested, sit down and go over this stuff, you think then you would open some eyes?” Nightlinger asked.“Yeah, I definitely do,” Arthurs said. “I think that it would open some eyes to a much bigger thing than what happened today, and I think that I could definitely, basically save a lot of lives overall.” Police and federal agents discovered HMTD and other explosive materials in Russell and Arthurs’ Tampa garage. (Exhibit from U.S. vs. Brandon Russell) At one point, the detective seemed persuaded. Nightlinger suggested he would pass the word to the appropriate agents in the FBI.“I mean they're actually going to be actually be made aware of this and they're going to do their homework,” he said. “Just to make sure you're not talking out your ass about something here in order to maybe gain some favorable treatment.”The FBI would not answer questions about its handling of the Tampa case, saying that the investigation remains open. Agents have questioned former Atomwaffen members in at least two states, according to individuals with direct knowledge of the inquiry.In a statement, the FBI said: “The FBI is not permitted to discuss any facet of the Brandon Russell investigation. The decision not to discuss this investigation was made in accordance with Department of Justice Guidelines and FBI Rules and Regulations.”ProPublica and Frontline reviewed the crime scene photos and police reports from the Tampa apartment with Kerry Myers, a former FBI bomb tech who investigated the Oklahoma City bombing.“They were making bombs,” Myers said. “This is a bomb maker's workshop.”Myers added that the materials were enough “to blow up a car, blow up an airplane, blow up a bus. We have the same basic explosive kit here that the Boston Marathon bombers had.”Alan Arthurs, who had watched his son’s involvement in Nazism develop over the years and seems to have been the first person Devon called after the killings, told ProPublica and Frontline he has never been interviewed by FBI agents. The local Tampa detectives didn’t question Alan Arthurs until June 5, 2017, more than two weeks after the crimes, according to Police Department records.At the Tampa apartment, investigators recovered one of Russell’s notebooks, which contained a hand-drawn map of a quarry located between Orlando and Tampa. The map included GPS coordinates for the quarry and a description of its operations. Such facilities often use high-powered explosives to blast through rock. McVeigh stole blasting caps from a mining operation before the Oklahoma City attack.The quarry in Florida, a sand mine, is owned by E.R. Jahna Industries. Reached for comment, company executive Adell Jahna said that he had never heard of Atomwaffen and that the company had never been contacted by local law enforcement or the FBI in connection with the case.During his interrogation, Devon Arthurs had not only warned of Atomwaffen’s violent ambitions, but said repeatedly that the organization had attracted U.S. military personnel as members and was aiming to recruit more.Arthurs said Russell, the group's founder, had signed up for the Florida Army National Guard in part to get the kind of combat training he might put to use for Atomwaffen. Russell had been drilling in Pinellas Park with the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team on the day of the murders. In his own interview with Tampa police, Russell said he expected his unit to be deployed in 2018 and was considering the Army as a career.“He joined specifically for the knowledge and the training, and he wants to use that training against the government,” Arthurs said of Russell during his police interrogation. “These people join the military specially to get training. To get access to equipment.” The ultimate goal, Arthurs continued, was to become more equipped to kill people.Defense Department directives and the regulations of each military branch bar service members from engaging in white supremacist activity. Service members can face criminal charges and expulsion from the military for violating these policies.After Russell’s arrest, the Florida Guard mounted an investigation into his activities while in uniform. Three weeks after Russell was jailed, the Guard wrapped up its inquiry. In a report, the Guard listed some of the troubling things it had found:
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