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Updated 2018-03-23 16:34
Warren Buffett Recommends Investing in Index Funds — But Many of His Employees Don’t Have That Option
by Allan Sloan Warren Buffett, the most successful investor of our time, is a huge fan of low-cost index funds — funds that replicate a market index rather than try to outperform it — as the way for the average investor to succeed in the stock market. “By periodically investing in an index fund … the know-nothing investor can actually outperform most investment professionals,” he wrote in his 1993 letter to shareholders of his Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate. “Paradoxically, when ‘dumb’ money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb.”He returned to the subject in this 2016 letter, writing, “Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.” And in his newest shareholder letter, Buffett said that one reason he made a widely publicized bet (which he has now won) that a low-cost Vanguard index fund would outperform a group of hedge funds over a 10-year period was “to publicize my conviction that my pick — a virtually cost-free investment in an unmanaged S&P 500 index fund — would, over time, deliver better results than those achieved by most investment professionals, however well regarded and incentivized those ‘helpers’ may be.”Given Buffett’s praise of index funds — specifically, those with low fees — you’d think that all the employees at Berkshire Hathaway companies would get to practice what the boss preaches by being able to invest their 401(k) money in such funds.But you’d be wrong.It turns out that employees of many Berkshire subsidiaries have the same problem — and it’s one that, as we’ll see, also affects millions of Americans outside of Buffett’s companies. To wit, your employer, not you, chooses your 401(k) investment options and your choices may be less than optimal either because your employer doesn’t know any better or because your employer’s interests are different from yours. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email You wouldn’t expect to see this problem at a company run by a brilliant investor like Buffett, but it’s there. I’ve looked at the retirement plans of each Berkshire subsidiary whose investment options I could find on file at the Labor Department, which turned out to be about 50 of the 63 subsidiaries listed on Berkshire’s website.Each offers its own investment options rather than having Buffett or someone else at headquarters pick a package of suitable company-wide investments. That’s not surprising in one sense: Buffett is famously hands-off in how he oversees the companies owned by Berkshire.But the result is that many of the subsidiaries offer little or nothing in the way of index funds. And even when they do offer such funds, different Berkshire employees can end up paying wildly divergent fees for the same investment, depending on which operation they work for. Those differences can cost — or save — them tens of thousands of dollars over the course of decades.Consider two examples that I got from a list assembled by Eli Fried, an investment consultant who advises pension and endowment funds and is the person who brought the Berkshire disparities to my attention. Fried told me he was looking at 401(k) investment options offered by the top companies on Fortune’s list of most admired companies and was surprised by what he found at Berkshire.On the index fund front, there’s a big difference between the S&P 500 index funds that employees of Berkshire-owned NetJets, General Re, GEICO, FlightSafety, Clayton Homes and H.H. Brown Shoe Group can buy, and the one that BoatU.S. employees can buy. BoatU.S. employees pay a fee of 0.62 percent, or $62 a year for a $10,000 investment. That’s more than 15 times the 0.04 percent — $4 a year per $10,000 — that employees of the six other Berkshire companies pay.There are also some big differences in fees among the actively managed funds that Berkshire companies make available. Employees of Business Wire pay a 0.5 percent ($50 per $10,000 invested) for shares in American Funds’ EuroPacific Growth Fund, while employees of Applied Underwriters, Jordan’s Furniture and MiTek pay 1.14 percent ($114 per $10,000).As a longtime Berkshire shareholder, a contrarian from birth and someone who’s watched Buffett for more than 40 years, I was intrigued when Fried approached me. And I was shocked at the huge differences among the plans that emerged when I did my own digging.For example, as of year-end 2016 — the most recent information the Labor Department has on file — Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry offered employees 71 investment options, virtually all of which (other than 10 Vanguard target date retirement funds) consisted of actively managed funds, while Precision Steel Warehouse and Nebraska Furniture Mart offered a relative handful of options, most of which were low-cost index funds. Precision and Nebraska Furniture also offered Berkshire common stock as an investment option, which only a handful of the plans did.There are plenty of other examples of disparities among the plans, but by now, I think, you get the point. The most successful investor of our age, who advises average investors to buy low-cost index funds (which have become wildly popular at least in part because of his longtime advocacy of them) presides over a company where many employees don’t have a chance to invest as he suggests. Read More How Senior Daddies — Like Donald Trump — Are Eligible for a Social Security Bonus There are hidden problems in the safety net, including extra cash for people who have kids late in life. Here are some of the most unfair examples, along with some simple ways to fix them. I would love to give you Buffett’s explanation for this — Berkshire is highly decentralized, as I told you, and it’s possible that until recently he might not have known about the big differences among the plans that its subsidiaries offer — but I can’t.He wouldn’t respond to my detailed request for comment. Nor would Marc Hamburg, Berkshire’s chief financial officer.The four Berkshire subsidiaries I asked to discuss their 401(k) choices wouldn’t respond, either. The four are BoatU.S., Borsheim’s, See’s Candy and Applied Underwriters.Why am I taking you through all of this? Three reasons.First, because when a plainspoken, widely admired investment god like Buffett proves to have feet of clay, I think people should know about it.Second, because the investment choices offered in 401(k) plans are a big deal. Along with Social Security, they are almost certain to be the major retirement vehicles of the future, given the vast shrinkage of traditional pensions. About 63 million people have access to 401(k) plans. Some 87 percent of the retirement plans that serve them now offer at least one index fund, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America. But the biggest portion of employees’ retirement investments still consists of actively managed domestic stock funds, according to the PSCA.Third, because the Berkshire situation typifies the fact that when it comes to 401(k) plans, your employer’s interests may be different from yours.Take target date funds, the big trend in retirement plans these days. You pick a year in which you’ll be old enough to retire — say 2035 — and buy into a fund that gradually changes over to a more conservative investment mix as the target date nears.However, not all target date funds are the same. Vanguard’s consist entirely of low-cost index funds, as do Fidelity’s Freedom Index funds (though not its other target date funds). Their average management fee was 0.13 and 0.12 of one percent, respectively, as of year-end 2016, according to Morningstar. But most other target date funds are actively managed, with fees four or five times as high. I think that a major reason for these differences and for the differences among Berkshire funds is that the more fees an employee pays for her 401(k) funds, the lower the recordkeeping, administrative, custodial and other costs her employer has to pay. In essence, some employers save money by having their employees pick up more of the tab.I stumbled on this back in the day, when I was trying to figure out why an index fund that I owned in my personal Vanguard account carried a lower management fee than in my Washington Post Co. 401(k) account. Someone who shall remain nameless explained to me that this was the way of the world — if I paid less, my employer would pay more.I suspect that if I could get someone at Berkshire or its subsidiaries to talk candidly with me, they’d say this phenomenon explains many if not most of the disparities among the Berkshire plans.In order to get perspective on all this, I discussed the Berkshire situation with two experts — Ric Edelman of the Edelman Financial Services financial planning firm, and Teresa Ghilarducci, a retirement maven who teaches economics at the New School for Social Research in New York. Neither of them knew about the Berkshire situation until I told them about it. “In today’s marketplace, there’s no longer any excuse for saddling employees with high-cost retirement plans. Employers can offer low-cost investments while keeping their own costs very low,” Edelman told me.“The practice of pushing the costs onto employees and offering dozens of funds doesn’t meet today’s standards,” Ghilarducci said.So there you have it. Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting is on May 5. With luck, someone will ask Buffett the questions about Berkshire’s 401(k) plans that he wouldn’t answer when I posed them. It would sure be interesting to hear what he says.
Seeing Journalism Make a Difference in Election Results
by Louise Kiernan I get pretty geeked out about going to vote.I like chatting with the neighbors in line at my polling place, which is a hallway in the middle school both my sons attended. I’m excited to pick up my ballot from the same eye-patched man who has been handing it to me ever since I moved to Oak Park almost 20 years ago. And I never walk out without picking up an “I Voted” sticker and proudly affixing it to my jacket.Voting gives me a voice in the community I deeply care about, occasionally even allowing me to help elect people I know, a local camping-group mom or hockey-team dad running for office. Also, as a naturalized citizen, this small, fundamental act has come to embody for me the privilege and responsibility of living in our democracy.Even so, I never anticipated I’d be so astounded by the primary results in a race for Cook County assessor that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. But that’s what happened Tuesday, and here’s why.For two years, our reporter Jason Grotto has been investigating the Cook County assessor’s office. As a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, he published a three-part series last summer that examined the residential property tax system and found that it benefited wealthy homeowners at the expense of those who lived in poor, mostly minority neighborhoods — and that the county’s appeals process actually exacerbated the inequity.After Jason joined our ProPublica Illinois staff, he and our data reporter, Sandhya Kambhampati, took on an even more ambitious data project. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois They conducted three separate analyses on commercial and industrial property assessments in Chicago and found that the values for more than two-thirds of the city’s properties went unchanged for so long that experts said they almost certainly couldn’t have been assessed. They learned that small-business owners were paying too much on their properties while owners of big buildings, especially downtown, paid too little. And that politically powerful property tax lawyers were making millions off an appeals process that seemed designed to line their pockets — and those of the assessor, who received more than half his campaign funding from those attorneys.The nepotism, patronage and political machinations embedded in Assessor Joseph Berrios’ office were no secret. Journalists, reformers and other politicians had been railing about it for years, all to little effect. But no one had ever done the kind of complex analysis and deep reporting that documented how, exactly, the system was broken.In nine months on our staff — starting even before we launched our website in October — Jason, often working in partnership with former Tribune colleagues, wrote more than a dozen stories pursuing the issue. As the conversation grew louder, other news organizations joined in, adding important, independent reporting and editorials. And on Tuesday, Berrios was voted out of office in a Democratic primary result so unexpected that one article described it as sending “political shock waves across the state.”Of course, other factors likely came into play in his defeat. The Chicago Machine isn’t what it once was and the primary’s winner, Fritz Kaegi, a mutual fund asset manager, threw a lot of his own money into the race. But journalism made a difference and it made a difference in the most profound way.Journalism inspired citizens to walk into the voting booth, one by one, exercising that fundamental act of democracy, to make their voices heard.There is no more powerful impact than that.P.S. We’re not done. Read about what systemic change needs to occur at the assessor’s office here and stay tuned for more.
How the Crowd Led Us to Investigate IBM
by Ariana Tobin and Peter Gosselin Today, we are reporting that over the past five years IBM has been removing older U.S. employees from their jobs, replacing some with younger, less experienced, lower-paid American workers and moving many other jobs overseas.We’ve got documentation and details — most of which are the direct result of a questionnaire filled out by over 1,100 former IBMers.We’ve gone to the company with our findings. IBM did not answer the specific questions we sent. Spokesman Edward Barbini said: “We are proud of our company and our employees’ ability to reinvent themselves era after era, while always complying with the law. Our ability to do this is why we are the only tech company that has not only survived but thrived for more than 100 years.”We don’t know the exact size of the problem. Our questionnaire isn’t a scientific sample, nor did all the participants tell us they experienced age discrimination. But the hundreds of similar stories show a pattern of older employees being pushed out even when the company itself says they were doing a good job.This project wasn’t inspired by a high-level leak or an errant line in secret documents. It came to us through reader engagement. Our investigation took us beyond some of our usual reporting techniques. We’d like to elaborate on this because:
Eroding Protection Under the Law
by Peter Gosselin At the age of 50, the federal law that seeks to protect older American workers from age bias has been enfeebled by court decisions that have widened loopholes for employers and narrowed the ways employees can seek redress.When Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) in 1967, the law was treated as something of an addendum to the Civil Rights Act, which had been passed three years earlier and banned bias on the basis of race, gender, religion and, later on, sexual orientation, among other categories. The 1967 law effectively added age to the list. Courts and lawyers assumed that key provisions of each act applied to the other.In years to come, lawmakers would strengthen some elements of the measure, for example largely banning mandatory retirement and requiring employers to provide more disclosures about the size of their layoffs and ages of those being let go.The original act did provide for some exceptions. Employers could favor younger workers if they could show that “reasonable factors other than age” were involved in their choice for a position. Congress allowed that, if a job required certain abilities such as quick reflexes as a “bona fide occupational qualification,” older workers could legally be passed over for jobs such as jet pilots or police officers. Even with such exceptions, however, the authors of the ADEA and the first generation of judges and policymakers to administer the act warned against letting the measure’s purpose be undercut. Chief among their concerns were that employers might use the exceptions as loopholes to justify firing older workers because, for example, they have higher salaries than younger ones. To this day, federal regulations governing employers’ use of the exceptions say it is unlawful to treat older workers less favorably “based on the average cost of employing older employees.”But in the past few decades, the warnings and cautions of the first generation have been brushed aside in a number of important court cases.One came in 1993, when the Supreme Court expanded an employer’s ability to outflank the age law by ruling that a company hadn’t discriminated on the basis of age in firing a 62-year-old man weeks before he’d have been eligible for his pension. The justices reasoned that since the pension was based on length of service, not specifically age, the man couldn’t sue.In a 5-4 decision in 2009, the high court raised the burden of proof for age bias well beyond what’s required for other kinds of discrimination. It ruled that a 54-year-old financial manager who alleged that he’d been wrongly demoted had to demonstrate the nearly impossible — that effectively there was no factor other than age involved in his demotion.Employers’ core arguments for treating later-career employees less favorably are that older workers cost more in wages and benefits and produce less because of purported cognitive decline. With growing frequency, federal judges have accepted these claims about cost and cognition without requiring companies to provide any evidence to support them.Lawyers for corporations have argued that the text of the law requires a much narrower reading of it than was given in its early years. And, in an increasingly competitive economy, the idea of replacing older workers with lower-cost younger or foreign ones has come to seem almost self-evident to Wall Street and, with mounting frequency, public policymakers.IBM is one company that in recent years has replaced a substantial share of its U.S. workforce with younger, less-experienced and lower-paid workers and sent many positions overseas. A ProPublica investigation found that in making the cuts, IBM has flouted or outflanked U.S. laws and regulations intended to protect later-career workers from age discrimination.Besides the weakening of the age act, two other recent trends in employment law may also have a dampening effect on older workers’ ability to fight discrimination.The first involves arbitration. The Supreme Court, responding to business and conservative warnings about an overburdened judiciary, has dramatically expanded the reach of a 1925 law that enabled some business disputes to be taken to a private third party, rather than to the civil justice system. In recent decades, the high court has extended the law’s reach into virtually every legal link between individuals and companies.Arbitration more often favors employers than employees, studies have shown. But most people don’t have the power to negotiate — or even the time or training to recognize — clauses in their employment contracts that require them to go to a private arbiter instead of a judge with their complaints.“That’s what really surprises people,” said Alexander Colvin, a Cornell University law and labor relations professor, who estimates that more than half of private-sector non-union employees are no longer able to take their age bias claims to court. “Most people think ‘Sure, my employer can make me sign something to get a job. But that can’t possibly mean I can’t go to court to protect my civil rights.”The second legal trend involves employers who impose so-called class-action waivers on their workers, banning them from joining together to bring legal claims against firms in court or arbitration.One of the first big firms to impose such a waiver was D.R. Horton, the nation’s largest homebuilder. (IBM followed suit.) The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2014 that Horton’s move violated longstanding legal guarantees that employees can “engage in …concerted activities for … mutual aid or protection.” In short order, three federal appeals courts rejected the NLRB’s decision while two others affirmed it, dumping the issue in the Supreme Court’s lap.The Justice Department originally argued for the NLRB but, under the Trump administration, has switched sides. During oral arguments at the high court last October, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that extinguishing the rights of workers to band together as a legal class could unbalance U.S. employer-employee relations that have stood since the Roosevelt era, and cut out “the entire heart of the New Deal.”The Supreme Court’s decision could come as early as this month. Even without that ruling, experts said, it’s clear that the other recent changes in labor laws are making it more difficult for people in the later stages of their careers to prove bias.“Older workers could once expect fairness and equality because of our age law. But courts have stripped the law of its protections,” said Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, senior attorney advisor with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the former director of age litigation for the senior lobbying giant AARP.“Older Americans,” she said, “deserve basic civil rights, not second-class status.”
Cutting ‘Old Heads’ at IBM
by Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios’ Defeat Opens the Door to Reform
by Jason Grotto The ouster of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios in the Democratic primary Tuesday paves the way for reform at a government agency that has operated for decades with little oversight or transparency, even though it has significant influence over the pocketbooks of millions of people.It also upends — for now, at least — an arrangement that one insider referred to as a political ecosystem. There, faulty assessments led to a high volume of appeals that benefited a cottage industry of tax attorneys and appraisers. They, in turn, poured contributions into the campaign coffers of the assessor and members of the Cook County Board of Review, which handles property tax appeals.But like any entrenched bureaucracy, the forces at work in Cook County’s convoluted and opaque property tax system won’t easily give way to change. As the recent independent study from the nonprofit Civic Consulting Alliance, or CCA, stated: “Bringing the system into compliance with industry standards will require fundamental changes.”Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle commissioned the CCA study in July following publication of the “The Tax Divide,” which found deep inequities in the county’s residential assessment system.Assuming a court challenge by a third candidate, Andrea Raila, doesn’t void the election, the presumptive winner of Tuesday’s vote, Fritz Kaegi — who will not face any Republican opposition in November — has vowed to bring transparency and professionalism to an office that many concluded has lacked both.Kaegi, an asset manager who put up more than $1.5 million to fund his campaign, also pledged that, if he was elected, he would not take campaign contributions from the property tax appeal industry.Berrios, who has collected millions of dollars from the industry since taking office in December 2010, had vowed to reform the residential assessment system but remained mum on other problems plaguing the assessor’s office.If lasting change at the assessor’s office does take hold, the real winners will be those who have paid the price for an error-ridden system: owners of lower-valued homes and businesses.Even with a new assessor, some remain cautious about prospects for a truly equitable system.“I’m just taking a wait-and-see approach,” said Rozalyn Shelton, who owns a small stone house in the North Lawndale neighborhood that the assessor’s office overvalued for years. “I don’t know what the new person will do. But you try to remain hopeful that something will change.”Benchmarks will help gauge the progress of reform. Here are some of the most important ones:Residential Valuation ModelsFixing assessments for the county’s roughly 1.4 million residential parcels will require creating, testing and deploying new valuation models before assessment notices go out. Thomas Jaconetty, deputy assessor for valuations and appeals, told county commissioners earlier this month the office would develop and implement new models for the city of Chicago’s reassessment, which is slated for this year. Because Kaegi, if elected, would not take office until December, he will inherit whatever system Berrios puts in place.This isn’t the first time the assessor’s office has pledged to improve its residential valuations. In July 2015, the office said it had adopted a new model funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The new model, the office said, was supposed to increase accuracy by 50 percent and fairness by 25 percent.But reporting showed Berrios never actually implemented the new model.“Unfortunately, we have been here before,” said Robert Weissbourd, an economic development expert who led the project to build a new model. “We know from past behavior that the current assessor’s office cannot be relied upon to fix these problems by itself.”A civil rights and fair housing lawsuit filed by three public interest law firms could help ensure residential assessments receive independent oversight and monitoring.“Even with Kaegi’s election, the lawsuit will continue until reforms are done properly and with independent oversight.” said Aneel Chablani, advocacy director for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “The entire system needs to change, and we don’t think it can reform itself. If the election results in an opportunity to work together on that reform, we welcome that.”Commercial and Industrial AssessmentsThe county’s assessment system, experts say, will not be truly reformed until major changes are made to how commercial and industrial properties are valued. But there’s no plan to study or improve commercial assessments.A joint ProPublica Illinois-Chicago Tribune investigation in December found commercial and industrial assessments were even more inaccurate than those for residential properties, with small business owners paying for overvalued properties while downtown skyscrapers were consistently undervalued.One reason for the bad assessments: Crucial information used to value the county’s commercial and industrial properties are still kept on paper or stored on individual spreadsheets, so the information is not easily analyzed and updated. In July, for instance, the Better Government Association found that the assessor’s office didn’t realize a parking garage five blocks from the County Building had been torn down and converted into a surface lot.So the office will need to completely revamp the way it collects and manages data, a potentially lengthy process. Meanwhile, experts say the office should also make public the methods and underlying data used to value commercial and industrial properties to ensure they are in line with best practices.“It’s common for assessment offices to divide the work for residential and commercial, but it needs to be considered as a whole system,” said Richard Almy, a former executive director of the International Association of Assessing Officers, a professional organization that develops guidelines used around the world.AppealsWhile every property tax assessment system involves appeals, experts say a well-functioning one has fewer of them. In Cook County, that will happen when the assessor’s office can defend its assessments and taxpayers start to lose appeals.“One striking feature of the Cook County system is its unusually high number of appeals when compared to other jurisdictions in the United States and abroad,” the CCA study found.It’s no wonder, considering reporting shows the assessor’s office has done a poor job assessing properties accurately the first time. As a result, the vast majority of people win reductions on appeal, so they have an incentive to keep appealing.For months, Berrios and his staff claimed appeals make residential assessments fairer. But the Tribune and the University of Chicago’s Harris School for Public Policy partnered on a study that found appeals actually make the system less fair because wealthier homeowners appeal at higher rates. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois The assessor’s office dismissed those findings, until the CCA report confirmed that the county’s reliance on appeals is a problem for the same reason.For decades now, the office has been geared more toward handling appeals than correctly valuing property. That trend became even more pronounced under Berrios. The number and amount of reductions on appeal skyrocketed during his tenure.What’s more, thousands of commercial and industrial values didn’t change between reassessment periods, which are three years apart. Experts said this indicated the office wasn’t doing its job.“For values to stay exactly the same, that indicates they aren’t doing anything,” said Peter Davis, an expert on assessments who helped write standards for the International Association of Assessing Officers.Changing the focus from using appeals to arrive at assessments to making accurate initial estimates could be the office’s most fundamental reform.Cook County Board of ReviewThe assessor’s office isn’t the only place where taxpayers can lower their assessments. They can also go to the Cook County Board of Review, an elected three-member panel that hears appeals.Even if Kaegi makes strides in improving the accuracy and fairness of the system, many of those improvements would be undermined if the BOR doesn’t undertake similar reforms. The CCA study found that errors increased and fairness got worse after the BOR adjusted assessments, which suggest it, too, must be scrutinized.“The Board of Review in Cook County is unique compared to other jurisdictions,” said Almy. “It is behind even more of a curtain. My concern is that the same lack of transparency will take place, where you have this back room where decisions are being made about the distribution of the tax burden.”TransparencyExperts say none of the potential reforms will work if the assessor’s office fails to become more transparent. Even before Berrios succeeded James Houlihan as assessor, the office operated like a black box, with many taxpayers unable to get basic information about how officials valued their properties.This, according to experts, undermines the credibility of the assessment system.The Tribune, for instance, sought detailed data and records showing how the assessor’s office values residential, commercial and industrial properties, but Berrios denied the newspaper’s request. So the news organization sued the assessor’s office and, in December 2016, won in Cook County CIrcuit Court.Berrios then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court — at taxpayer expense. A ruling is pending.A change in leadership presents an opportunity for change in how the office does business. Those who work in the assessment system and those who study it are cautiously optimistic Kaegi can deliver on his pledges of reform.“There’s an exciting opportunity now to go well beyond just fixing what’s broken,” Weissbourd said. “We could lead the way in developing 21st century governance — and revenue streams to support public works — which are more accurate and fair because they better engage and are more accountable to citizens and businesses.”
A Political Boss Goes Down
by Mick Dumke When it comes to politics, there’s nowhere like Illinois. Throughout the election season, ProPublica Illinois reporter and political junkie Mick Dumke will analyze the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column. If video killed the radio star, big money is sealing the fate of the old Democratic machine.Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, one of the last remaining machine bosses, conceded early Tuesday night to a political newcomer, a nobody, as the old pols used to say. Fritz Kaegi’s apparent victory — pending a possible court challenge by a third candidate to void the election — came after he vowed to fix what has been exposed as a faulty assessment process, one that burdens lower-income property owners while helping the wealthy.But Kaegi wasn’t just any reformer promising to clean up this town. He delivered his message by pouring more than $1.5 million of his own money into his campaign.As the assessor’s race unfolded over the last several months — and especially as the results began to come in last night — I kept thinking about how Berrios got his start in politics nearly 50 years ago: His alderman used clout to get rid of a speeding ticket for him.It wasn’t his first ticket, and Berrios, then 17, was worried about losing his driver’s license. That would have been a serious financial blow to him and his working-class family, he said in a 2016 interview with me and Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader. Berrios’ parents were from Puerto Rico, and during his early years, his family lived at the Cabrini-Green public housing development before moving to the Humboldt Park neighborhood.At a neighbor’s urging, Berrios mentioned the ticket to his precinct captain, one of those guys who’d been given a government job in return for keeping residents happy and getting them to vote for the machine. The precinct captain took Berrios to meet the boss of the 31st Ward, Alderman Tom Keane. Joseph Berrios speaks about his start in politics in an October 2016 conversation with journalists Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky, during their “First Tuesdays at the Hideout” live show. (Video by Chris Buddy) Berrios said he had no idea Keane was one of the most powerful men in the city, controlling not just his Northwest Side ward but the entire City Council as the right-hand man to Mayor Richard J. Daley. As Berrios stood before Keane’s desk, the alderman noted that the neighborhood was changing. He suggested Berrios volunteer for him.“He said, ‘You know, we’re looking for some Hispanic kids to join the organization,’” Berrios recalled. Berrios understood that Keane was offering him a deal: You help me connect with Hispanic voters and I’ll help you take care of your speeding ticket. Berrios agreed.Sure enough, when Berrios showed up for his court hearing, the judge immediately found him not guilty. “I was amazed,” Berrios said. “And that’s how, really, I got started in the game.”Berrios, worried about finding work when he finished school, was happy for the chance to join the machine. He said his first patronage job was cleaning bathrooms in Humboldt Park.“You’d be surprised, under the old system, how many people we were able to help on a day-to-day basis,” Berrios said. “Most Hispanics didn’t finish high school back then. It created opportunities for people who would not have had an opportunity.”But the system also enabled corruption. In 1974, Keane was convicted in federal court of mail fraud for a scheme involving the purchase of tax-delinquent land in city auctions. He then installed his wife as alderman while the ward organization was run by a former aide — who ended up going to federal prison, too. Meanwhile, Berrios rose through the ranks. In 1983, he became the first Hispanic to serve in the Illinois General Assembly. By 2007, he was chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, and three years later, he was elected assessor. He also is an owner of a firm that lobbies government officials.Following in Keane’s tradition, Berrios used his positions to put family members on the public payroll.Yet his grip on power began slipping. Federal court decrees prohibit political hiring and firing for most local government positions, and the ward organizations don’t have as many jobs to hand out. Many voters are sick of insiders profiting off the system.Few people thought rookie candidate Will Guzzardi had even a faint chance when he challenged incumbent state Rep. Toni Berrios, Joe’s daughter, in 2012. But Guzzardi came within 125 votes. Two years later, Guzzardi beat her handily after going door to door for months to talk with voters.“I think we were able to show that the Berrios machine was really a paper tiger, and that they really didn’t have the strength everyone assumed,” Guzzardi told me in an interview last week. “People were really fed up with that brand of politics and wanted something different.”Through it all, Berrios continued to brush off his critics. In speaking about the operations of the assessor’s office, he sounded a little like Mussolini boasting about the trains: “After one year in that office, I got the tax bills out in time,” he said, estimating this saved local governments millions of dollars in borrowing costs.But Berrios appears to have gotten the bills out on time because thousands of commercial and industrial properties weren’t being assessed, as my colleagues Jason Grotto and Sandhya Kambhampati found in months of reporting. In short, the assessor’s office wasn’t doing its job.Kaegi, a financial asset manager, ran for the right office against the right guy at the right time. He depicted his quest as a social cause as much as a political campaign — even as he engaged in the old-school power play of trying to knock a third candidate, Andrea Raila, off the ballot. A state appellate court ruling kept her in the race, but some voters were told their ballots for her wouldn't count, prompting Raila to call for a new election.This wouldn’t have happened when the machine was humming. Fritz Kaegi (Courtesy of Boca Media Group) For now, Kaegi is the winner — and Berrios is the clear loser. It remains to be seen if Kaegi will follow through on his vows to clean up and restore confidence in the assessment system. Voters are hopeful, and quite frankly, the bar is low.Only a couple of the old-school bosses are left. As the machine dies off, the void is often filled by people with the finances and friends to purchase a pathway to office — as we’ve seen with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic nominee for governor.Berrios noted the trend when asked about his practice of accepting campaign contributions from lawyers with appeals before his office.“I am not the governor,” he said. “He can just flip the money out any way he wants to. I need to go out and solicit contributions.”It was a weak excuse for engaging in pay-to-play politics. But it doesn’t mean Berrios was wrong about some of the new bosses getting rid of the old ones.
Donald Trump Jr. Pushed ‘Blatantly Illegal’ Project In India, Former Official Says — ‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast
by Eric Umansky, ProPublica, and Andrea Bernstein, WNYC Last month, Donald Trump Jr. visited India to tout new Trump properties. Full page ads in India’s top papers announced, “Trump has arrived. Have you?”It wasn’t Trump Jr.’s first trip to India. “I’ve been coming to India for over a decade,” he said during his visit last month. “There’s an entrepreneurial spirit here … it needs no further explanation.”This week on “Trump, Inc.,” we’re looking at the Trumps’ yearslong work in India, where corruption in the real estate industry is endemic.We worked with Investigative Fund reporter Anjali Kamat, whose reporting on the Trumps’ business in India appears in the new issue of The New Republic.As with many of the company’s deals abroad, the Trump Organization’s India projects are all licensing deals. Trump Jr. has been closely involved in much of the work. Listen to the Episode The Trumps’ first India project, in Mumbai, was halted in early 2012 after investigators found significant “irregularities.” The investigators had been tipped off by a state lawmaker who suspected a $100 million fraud scheme and warned of “gross violations” in the project’s plans. Authorities revoked the building’s permits.A few months later, in April 2012, Trump Jr. traveled to Mumbai and, along with partners, met with a top official there to try to get the project restarted.Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, the equivalent of a U.S. governor, had been told Trump Jr. wanted to discuss investing in the state. But instead, Chavan recalled, Trump Jr. and his partners asked Chavan to overturn the decision to revoke the permits.Chavan declined. “I would get into trouble to sanction something that was blatantly illegal,” he told us. The plans were “not within the existing rules.” (Chavan has also described the encounter to The New York Times and Washington Post.)The Trumps were back in India in 2014, after a new government came into power, Narendra Modi’s BJP. The Trump Tower Mumbai — a gold-hued skyscraper that the Trump Organization bills as “unlike anything you have ever seen”—is now slated to finished next year. It is one of five Trump-affiliated projects currently under development in India.The Trump Organization said the projects are doing well. One Trump partner said they booked $15 million in sales on just one day during Trump Jr.’s visit. It was the last day buyers would qualify for an offer by the Trump Organization’s partners to dine with the president’s son.Only a handful of names of buyers in the Trump projects have been disclosed.The Trump Organization, the White House and the developers for the project did not respond to our requests for comment.Remember, we want to hear from you: Do you have information about Trump-branded projects in India? Or do you have photos of them? Let us know.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
How We Collected Nearly 5,000 Stories of Maternal Harm
by Adriana Gallardo About a year ago, ProPublica and NPR launched Lost Mothers, a project investigating the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth in the U.S. We soon learned that the U.S. was one of the most dangerous countries in the developed world to give birth. About 700 to 900 women die each year from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications. For each woman who dies, more than 70 nearly die.We knew the statistics. Maternal advocacy organizations and other sources had provided names of some expectant and new mothers who had died, including Lauren Bloomstein, a neonatal nurse in New Jersey. But we still didn’t have enough of the human stories we needed for this project. So we set out to find women and families willing to share intimate experiences. To do that, we published a request: Do you know someone who died or nearly died in childbirth? Help us investigate. The form asked users about the type of maternal health complication that occurred, about follow-up care, and about lingering long-term consequences. Within a few days of publishing our maternal health questionnaire, we received about 2,500 responses. Today, we have almost 5,000. We’ve had submissions come in from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. We have stories of maternal deaths dating as far back as 1920 and as recent as December 2017. The people who answered that request helped fuel much of the Lost Mothers project. And we’re going to tell you how we did it.How We Got to 5,000 A key reason we elicited 2,500 submissions so quickly was NPR’s reach — it has 6.3 million Facebook followers. NPR posted the questionnaire to its Facebook page the day our questionnaire published. But we wanted to reach more than just an NPR or ProPublica audience. That’s where the shoe-leather social journalism started.Data on maternal deaths is so inadequate that the federal government no longer publishes an official death rate. The estimated 700 to 900 women who die each year largely go unnamed. So sourcing via social media played an important role. To compile our list of women who died from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes, ProPublica reporter Nina Martin scoured social media — primarily public posts on Facebook and Twitter, and the crowdfunding sites GoFundMe and YouCaring. We then verified the women’s basic information using obituaries and public records. We worked with a team of graduate-student journalists from New York University to reach out to family members for additional information. In many cases, persuading family members to participate in our project was hard. They were reluctant to share their personal stories and details. But after making contact and explaining the project, we would share the questionnaire with them directly. Many added their stories to our database even if they felt too traumatized to speak with us.We’ve also had success in the past finding communities on Facebook for various investigations. We approached this one very similarly. We teamed up with CUNY’s Social Journalism graduate class to research and contact hundreds of Facebook groups — everything from baby photographers to breastfeeding affinity groups to local chapters of the March of Dimes. The goal here was to be proactive in our engagement and put our work directly in front of the members of these groups. While this effort didn’t produce a deluge of submissions, it helped us understand which groups were and weren’t interested in this project. We also sought out partners that we believed reached a different audiences than ours and in different parts of the country. We connected with Cosmopolitan.com, The Root, The Texas Tribune, and, after translating the questionnaire into Spanish, Univision.com. Each site embedded the form and asked its audience to help us investigate. Almost 200 entries came in via these partnerships.While all this work was important in connecting with people concerned about the issue, the best way to increase awareness about the questionnaire was a fresh article. With each story that we published, new entries poured in. The link to the questionnaire appeared in the text. And we made sure to close each story with a request to readers to share the article or fill out the questionnaire.Who ParticipatedThe largest group represented in the database were women who suffered life-threatening complication of pregnancy or childbirth. Of the nearly 5,000 responses, more than 4,000 came from this group. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refers to these cases as severe maternal morbidity or near-misses.Of the people who reported nearly dying, almost 700 came from three states: Texas, New York and Illinois. The vast majority nationwide were white. There were 247 Latinas who reported near-misses and 217 African-American women.We also heard from a lot of people who just wanted to share information about a death, even if they weren’t related to or even friends with the victim. When we asked, “What is your relationship to the mother?”, responses included the following:
How Health and Education Journalists Can Turn Privacy Laws to Their Advantage
by Annie Waldman For decades, the Judge Rotenberg Center, a school for children with developmental and behavior disorders in Canton, Mass., employed brutal methods to discipline students, including electric shock therapy. My colleague, Heather Vogell, and I anticipated that government data on student complaints would shed light on the school’s practices, but realized that student privacy laws protected those records from disclosure. By requesting the records with certain personally identifiable information removed, we were able to abide by the law and still document incidents of harsh punishment at the school.Most journalists who cover health or education struggle to obtain government records and data that are vital to our stories and have compelling public interest. While some agencies are reasonably accommodating, others exploit every loophole or gray area in the law to deny public records requests—or delay in the hope that the journalist will move on to another story and stop bothering them. Health and education records are especially elusive because of federal laws that protect the privacy of patients and students.ProPublica has often negotiated with or contested rulings by government institutions to pry data out of them. Our persistence has led to groundbreaking findings, such as our analysis of birth complications for our “Lost Mothers” series. Over the years, I have amassed a variety of tips and tricks on how to overcome or circumvent these restrictions. I shared the following strategies last week with more than 1,200 reporters at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) conference.Know the LawsThe federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows records officers to deny your request under nine restrictions, or exemptions. They protect records related to national security, internal agency rules, trade secrets, internal agency memos, personal privacy (also known as (b)(6) or exemption 6), law enforcement, banks, oil and gas wells, and any records that are exempt under other laws. States also have open records laws, and their exemptions frequently echo federal restrictions.Two key federal laws protect the private information of patients and students: the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Along with exemption 6, these laws are commonly cited in denials of health and education data requests.HIPAA, a 1996 law, aims to make it easier for health care organizations and companies to use electronic records so that medical data can quickly be transferred. It applies to health care offices and institutions (for example: doctors, clinics, nursing homes, pharmacies, universities, insurance companies and more), as well as any organization that electronically transmits health care data, including schools, prisons, and detention facilities.HIPAA’s privacy protections last 50 years after a patient dies. After death, an executor or surviving family member may decide whether to disclose personal health information.Enacted in 1974, FERPA protects the privacy of student’s “education records” and limits disclosure. Federal funds may be withheld if schools violate FERPA. Because nearly all public K-12 schools, colleges and universities receive public funds, nearly every educational institution in the country is covered by FERPA. The protected data includes information such as student or parent names, addresses, Social Security numbers, fingerprints, place and date of birth, as well as educational records.Be Prepared Before Filing a Data Request
Jacksonville Sheriff Admits Race May Have Played a Role in Ticket Writing
by ProPublica Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said this week that “implicit bias” likely played some role in the fact that disproportionate numbers of pedestrian tickets written by his officers in recent years went to blacks.ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union in 2017 reported that 55 percent of pedestrian tickets written over a recent five-year period were issued to blacks despite the fact they made up just 29 percent of the local population.Williams and his office said at the time that blacks had not been targeted in the enforcement of pedestrian violations.The Times-Union had reporters at the forum this week in Jacksonville during which Williams made his statement about implicit bias. Read their full story.
The FBI — ‘Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity’ — Still Working on Diversity
by Topher Sanders For the FBI, the longstanding failure to diversify its ranks is nothing short of “a huge operational risk,” according to one senior official, something that compromises the agency’s ability to understand communities at risk, penetrate criminal enterprises, and identify emerging national security threats.Indeed, 10 months before being fired as director of the FBI by President Trump, James Comey called the situation a “crisis.”“Slowly but steadily over the last decade or more, the percentage of special agents in the FBI who are white has been growing,” Comey said in a speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black school in Daytona Beach, Florida. “I’ve got nothing against white people — especially tall, awkward, male white people — but that is a crisis for reasons that you get, and that I’ve worked very hard to make sure the entire FBI understands.”It’s a charged moment for the FBI, one in which diversifying the force might not strike everyone as the most pressing issue.Trump has repeatedly questioned the bureau’s competence and integrity. Many Democrats blame Hillary Clinton’s defeat on Comey’s decision to announce that the bureau was reopening its inquiry into her emails days before the election. Republicans, echoing Trump’s attacks, have alleged that the FBI’s investigation of the president’s ties to Russia is a politically motivated abuse of power.With some 35,000 employees and an annual budget around $9 billion, the FBI has an array of hiring problems, of which diversity is but one. It needs first-rate linguists and technologists to fight terrorism, and now, with ever greater urgency, cyber-crimes, yet starting pay for an agent in, say, Chicago is only around $63,600. In 2015, a human resources official told the bureau’s inspector general’s office that the agency attracted 2,000 eligible candidates to a recruiting event for its Next Gen Cyber Initiative, but only managed to hire two of them.Yet diversity remains a persistent problem, with a bitter history and, as the FBI official conceded, real operational downsides.Almost 30 years ago, a group of black agents sued the FBI, alleging systemic discrimination by the bureau in the quality of assignments, performance reviews, rates of promotions and overall workplace culture. At the time, about one in 20 agents were black. The numbers were even smaller in the FBI’s senior ranks.A federal judge ultimately concluded there was “statistical evidence” of discrimination at the FBI, and a settlement was reached in 1993 promising reforms. But the black agents were back in court five years later, asserting the FBI had failed to deliver on its promises, and in 2001, another settlement was achieved. That agreement for the first time mandated that an outside mediator be used to handle future discrimination complaints at the bureau.Still, all these years later, the most recent statistics posted publicly by the FBI indicate the bureau remains far less diverse than the population it is drawn from. Black agents in 2014 made up a lower percentage of special agents than they did when the discrimination lawsuit was filed, dropping from around 5.3 percent in 1995 to 4.4 percent, according to the FBI website. About 13 percent of the U.S. population is black. And while nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population is Latino, Latinos made up just 6.5 percent of special agents.ProPublica asked for the most current numbers behind the percentages for each race, but the bureau only provided white and nonwhite numbers. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Emmanuel Johnson, the lead plaintiff in the first discrimination suit brought by black agents in 1991, said he is not at all surprised to learn the bureau’s ranks are still overwhelmingly white, and he rejects what he said has been a common FBI lament: the difficulty of identifying quality, interested black applicants.“I don’t believe it’s a recruiting problem, I believe it’s a hiring problem,” Johnson said. “It’s a very convenient excuse for the FBI — ‘Oh, we can’t find them.’ Well, I don’t believe that’s true. This is how the hiring system works, because it’s controlled by whites.”The FBI says it has made some progress since Comey promised to better address the crisis. In the summer of 2016, the FBI set a target that 40 percent of its special agent applications come from people of color. The bureau hit the target when 43 percent of those applying in 2017 were minorities. So far this year, the bureau said, 47 percent of those who have applied are people of color. The bureau also will host between eight and a dozen recruiting events in 2018 focused on diversity.ProPublica is taking a look at the FBI this year as the nation’s top law enforcement agency confronts questions about its effectiveness, independence and culture. As part of this effort, we spent several weeks speaking with black former agents and officials about the FBI’s attempts to diversify. Nearly all said they loved their careers in the bureau and would recommend the job to others. One said black agents themselves had historically done too little to assist in effective recruitment. But others said the ranks of the bureau still harbor old attitudes about race, and that anyone considering it as a career should do so with eyes wide open.“There has always been a view that this is a white male organization and you guys — [minority agents] — are here primarily as an afterthought,” said Eric Bryant, a former special agent who retired in 2011 after nearly 25 years.By the early 1990s, Johnson had been a special agent with the FBI for almost two decades. He’d worked a full range of cases: violent crime racketeering by the mob terrorism.But in 1991, he took on a very different kind of case, one that would consume years of his life and career: He sued his employer. He and other black agents alleged that white agents with similar qualifications and experience were frequently promoted over black agents, while qualified black agents were repeatedly not promoted, often for vague reasons like “lacking personal skills.” When black agents were promoted, according to the lawsuit, it was to positions with less potential for future advancement.Johnson, who served as an officer in the Marines prior to joining the FBI, said he was spurred to act after he read an article in an FBI bulletin that instructed supervisors to watch female and minority agents and employees more closely and to document any problems, so that if those agents were fired, the bureau could stave off any legal challenges.Johnson said he went to his supervisors with the bulletin and questioned whether it represented how the bureau thought of minority agents. After that exchange, he said, his supervisors began criticizing his performance and creating a document trail. “That’s what really pissed me off,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “These were the people who made the decisions. They proved that it was even worse than I thought.”James Talley entered the FBI as special agent in 1991. Within a year, he was enlisted to recruit for the agency. In 1992, he said, a senior white agent told him how happy he was to see Talley, who is African American, at a recruiting event with black candidates. The white agent said that for years he had been unable to adequately handle the questions he faced when recruiting at black universities — questions Talley would soon face himself.Did the FBI kill civil rights leaders?Did the bureau infect African Americans with diseases?“He was just happy that I would do it,” Talley said of the white senior agent. “Even though he was the guy in charge of basically the Eastern Seaboard.”V.O. Little did some recruiting, too. Little retired from the bureau in 2017 after 26 years of service. For 17 years, in addition to his regular work, he also flew around the country talking to candidates at job fairs and conventions for black fraternities and sororities.Little said his experience taught him that each field office — the bureau has 56 in the U.S. — plays a key role in recruiting. Field office recruiters decide which candidates can take the initial test to apply for the FBI. There is some national oversight of recruiting, Little said, but not a lot.“So you could have a terrible recruiter in a field office,” Little said. “That recruiter may not be receptive to diversity.”Little and others said the test itself could be a hurdle, as well as the overall length of the application process, which could last as long as a year. The bureau has recently revamped the test, swapping out a significant math portion for testing that focuses more on how candidates think and reason through problems.The formal interview stage of the application process could present its own kind of Catch-22 problem, Little and others said. The three-person interview panels were often dominated by white men, perhaps not the best audience for applicants of diverse backgrounds with unique strengths and weaknesses. Talley acknowledged that white panelists might bring negative perceptions of black applicants to the interviews, but said that need not prove decisive. Black applicants ought to be impressive enough to conquer such stereotypes, he said.Julian Stackhaus, who retired in 2000 after two decades with the bureau, was one of the original plaintiffs in the 1991 suit. He believed in the case, he said, but today says black agents share responsibility for their underrepresentation at the agency. He said if current black agents each made an effort to recruit just one black agent a year, the number of black agents would improve significantly over time.“African-American agents, in my opinion, have been derelict in bringing in other African-American agents,” he said.Talley, who said white agents at times seemed intimated by black youth, said retired agents such as himself should be better utilized by the bureau to help recruit. He suggested the bureau create a formal program because, even if current agents did a better job, there simply aren’t enough black agents in the bureau at any one time to get the job done.“I think that would be more effective than having a white person who really doesn’t want to do it,” he said.Former agent Edward Dickson actually helped to put together a plan that would do exactly what Talley suggested — the Special Agent Volunteer Initiative. Dickson said Comey approved the initiative a couple of years ago, but the bureau’s commitment was fleeting.“It was not fully embraced and it was left to die on the vine,” he said. ”I don’t know what you could do to get it started again, and I don’t think they care. Nobody owned it, nobody invested in it and nobody of color was running it.”Asked about that assertion, a spokesperson with the FBI stressed the agency is committed to increasing diversity among women and minorities.“This is important, and it is a goal we are actively working to achieve,” Lauren Hagee said in an email. “We know we are best able to protect the nation when we look like and represent the communities we serve. We know diversity increases cultural competence. We also know that once we understand and leverage the full diversity of our workforce, our operations and investigative and analytical insight are more effective.”The lawsuits brought by black agents over the years were chiefly handled by David Shaffer, a lawyer from Washington, D.C. Shafer said the problems endure.“I still represent minority and female agents,” he said. “They’re still suffering. They still deal with the same stereotypes they were almost 30 years ago.” Shaffer and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sought to bring another case against the FBI around 2010 on behalf of black agents who felt they were being discriminated against in their effort to be promoted to more senior positions. To avoid the suit, Shaffer said, the bureau would simply promote each agent who had sought his legal help, preventing them from putting together a class of plaintiffs.“We had about three named plaintiffs to start with, and the FBI promoted them,” he said. “So we replaced them with more people that needed to be promoted and the FBI promoted them. We never got a chance to fix the system because the FBI wasn’t really interested in doing that. They just wanted to make the case go away.”The FBI had no direct response to Shaffer’s comments.In a 2016 speech at a diversity recruiting event at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, Comey spotlighted an FBI training initiative in which agents study the bureau’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and write essays about King. The bureau surveilled King and attempted, in Comey’s words, to “destroy” him during the civils rights movement.Comey said he wanted new agents to “stare at a piece of our own history.”“Our design there is to make people think deeply, to understand how the values that we aspire to hold were implicated in the way we acted with respect to Dr. King,” Comey said. “I can’t change history, but I can change the way people think about our values and embrace our values.”
Getting to Know Illinois — And You
by Vignesh Ramachandran It’s been seven months since I packed up my California apartment and moved across the country to be the web producer for ProPublica Illinois. Can I consider myself a true Chicagoan yet?You tell me.I have survived the record-setting chilly winter, witnessed dibs, got an infamous orange city parking ticket, eaten many a deep-dish pizza (I’m on team Giordano’s), sat in the front row at a Second City improv show and regularly marveled at the architecture of the corncob towers of Marina City.Living in a new place means you have to work to understand the nuances of a region — its past and present, its norms and quirks. I have a subscription to the Chicago Tribune, tune my car radio to 91.5 FM to listen to public radio and read as much as I can about our state of 12.8 million people. Thanks to my ProPublica Illinois colleagues, most of whom are longtime Chicagoans, and all of you, our list of books about Chicago and Illinois is growing — now up to 53. A February snow storm in Chicago, sans a sufficient snow shovel. (Vignesh Ramachandran/ProPublica Illinois) Mike Royko’s classic “Boss” about Mayor Richard J. Daley taught me that machine politics is all too real here. I’m currently reading and watching two compelling portraits of life on the South Side: WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore’s book, “The South Side,” and “The Chi,” Chicago native Lena Waithe’s television drama.But I know you can’t learn about a place simply through the lens of a paperback or the pixels on a screen. You have to talk to people. Immerse yourself in neighborhoods and communities. Live here.By exploring, I’ve encountered some really great Illinoisans with their own stories of joy and struggle, finding out what issues they care about and where to get good fried plantains.
Correction: Trump’s Pick to Head CIA Did Not Oversee Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah
by Raymond Bonner, special to ProPublica On Feb. 22, 2017, ProPublica published a story that inaccurately described Gina Haspel’s role in the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaida leader who was imprisoned by the CIA at a secret “black site” in Thailand in 2002.The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.Our account of Haspel’s actions was drawn in part from declassified agency cables and CIA-reviewed books which referred to the official overseeing Zubaydah’s interrogation at a secret prison in Thailand as “chief of base.” The books and cables redacted the name of the official, as is routinely done in declassified documents referring to covert operations.The Trump administration named Haspel to the CIA’s No. 2 job in early February 2017. Soon after, three former government officials told ProPublica that Haspel was chief of base in Thailand at the time of Zubaydah’s waterboarding.We also found an online posting by John Kiriakou, a former CIA counter-terrorism officer, who wrote that “It was Haspel who oversaw the staff” at the Thai prison, including two psychologists who “designed the torture techniques and who actually carried out torture on the prisoners.”The nomination of Haspel this week to head the CIA stirred new controversy about her role in the detention and interrogation of terror suspects, as well as the destruction of videotapes of the interrogation of Zubaydah and another suspect. Some critics cited the 2017 ProPublica story as evidence that she was not fit to run the agency.Those statements prompted former colleagues of Haspel to defend her publicly. At least two said that while she did serve as chief of base in Thailand, she did not arrive until later in 2002, after the waterboarding of Zubaydah had ended.The New York Times, which also reported last year that Haspel oversaw the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, published a second story this week making the same point. It quoted an unnamed former senior CIA official who said Haspel did not become base chief until late October of 2002. According to the Times, she was in charge when al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times.James Mitchell, the psychologist and CIA contractor who helped to direct the waterboarding of both suspects, said in a broadcast interview on March 14 that Haspel was not the “chief of base” whom he described in his book as making fun of Zubaydah’s suffering.“That chief of base was not Gina,” Mitchell told Fox Business Network. “She’s not the COB I was talking about.”Mitchell’s book, “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” referred to the chief of base in Thailand as both “he” and “she.”We erroneously assumed that this was an effort by Mitchell or the agency to conceal the gender of the single official involved; it is now clear that Mitchell was referring to two different people.ProPublica contacted Mitchell in 2017 to ask him about this passage in his book. Facing a civil lawsuit brought by former CIA detainees, he declined to comment.At about the same time, we approached the CIA’s press office with an extensive list of questions about the cables and Haspel’s role in running the Thai prison, particularly her dealings with Zubaydah.An agency spokesman declined to answer any of those questions but released a statement that was quoted in the article, asserting that “nearly every piece of reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part.”The CIA did not comment further on the story after its publication and we were not aware of any further questions about its accuracy until this week.The February 2017 ProPublica story did accurately report that Haspel later rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters, where she pushed her bosses to destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding. Her direct boss, the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, ultimately signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a shredder. Her actions in that instance, and in the waterboarding of al-Nashiri, are likely to be the focus of questions at her confirmation hearings.Dean Boyd, director of the CIA’s office of public affairs, praised Haspel’s 30 years of public service and said Thursday in a statement that her qualifications and capabilities would be evident in the hearing process.“It is important to note that she has spent nearly her entire CIA career undercover,” Boyd said. “Much of what is in the public domain about her is inaccurate. We are pleased that ProPublica is willing to acknowledge its mistakes and correct the record regarding its claims about Ms. Haspel.”A few reflections on what went wrong in our reporting and editing process.The awkward communications between officials barred from disclosing classified information and reporters trying to reveal secrets in which there is legitimate public interest can sometimes end in miscommunication. In this instance, we failed to understand the message the CIA’s press office was trying to convey in its statement.None of this in any way excuses our mistakes. We at ProPublica hold government officials responsible for their missteps, and we must be equally accountable. This error was particularly unfortunate because it muddied an important national debate about Haspel and the CIA’s recent history. To her, and to our readers, we can only apologize, correct the record and make certain that we do better in the future.—Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chiefUpdate, March 13, 2018: President Donald Trump has nominated CIA deputy director Gina Haspel as the agency’s new chief. We published the story below on Feb. 22, 2017.In August of 2002, interrogators at a secret CIA-run prison in Thailand set out to break a Palestinian man they believed was one of al-Qaida’s top leaders.As the CIA’s video cameras rolled, security guards shackled Abu Zubaydah to a gurney and interrogators poured water over his mouth and nose until he began to suffocate. They slammed him against a wall, confined him for hours in a coffin-like box, and deprived him of sleep.The 31-year-old Zubaydah begged for mercy, saying that he knew nothing about the terror group’s future plans. The CIA official in charge, known in agency lingo as the “chief of base,” mocked his complaints, accusing Zubaydah of faking symptoms of psychological breakdown. The torture continued.When questions began to swirl about the Bush administration’s use of the “black sites,” and program of “enhanced interrogation,” the chief of base began pushing to have the tapes destroyed. She accomplished her mission years later when she rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters and drafted an order to destroy the evidence, which was still locked in a CIA safe at the American embassy in Thailand. Her boss, the head of the agency’s counterterrorism center, signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a giant shredder.By then, it was clear that CIA analysts were wrong when they had identified Zubaydah as the number three or four in al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden. The waterboarding failed to elicit valuable intelligence not because he was holding back, but because he was not a member of al-Qaida, and had no knowledge of any plots against the United States.The chief of base’s role in this tale of pointless brutality and evidence destruction was a footnote to history — until earlier this month, when President Trump named her deputy director of the CIA.The choice of Gina Haspel for the second-highest position in the agency has been praised by colleagues but sharply criticized by two senators who have seen the still-classified records of her time in Thailand.“Her background makes her unsuitable for the position,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., wrote in a letter to Trump. “We are sending a classified letter explaining our position and urge that the information be immediately declassified.” That’s not likely to happen. ProPublica has combed through recently declassified documents, including CIA cables and Zubaydah’s own account of what he endured, and books by officials involved in the CIA’s interrogation program to assemble the fullest public account of Haspel’s role in the questioning of Zubaydah. The material we reviewed shows she played a far more direct role than has been understood.Asked to respond to the specific allegations about Haspel, a CIA spokesperson said only that, “Nearly every piece of the reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part.” We reminded the spokesperson that many of the specifics came from books written by former CIA officials and cleared before publication by the agency. He declined to say which aspects of the reporting, or those books, were incorrect but did provide a long list of testimonials to Haspel’s skills from present and former intelligence officials.Critics of Haspel’s appointment argue that her past is particularly relevant in light of Trump’s shifting statements on the value of torturing terror suspects. During the campaign, former director of Central Intelligence Michael Hayden said in response to Trump’s endorsement of torture that “if any future president wants (the) CIA to waterboard anybody, he’d better bring his own bucket.” After he won the election, Trump said he was persuaded by his secretary of defense, James Mattis, that torture is not effective. The Trump administration recently drafted and then withdrew a draft executive order asking American intelligence agencies to consider resuming “enhanced interrogation” of terror suspects.Much of the material we reviewed for this story referred to Haspel only by her title, chief of base, or “COB.” Three former government officials, however, said the person described by that title in books and declassified documents was Haspel. As chief of base, these officials said, Haspel signed many of the cables sent from Thailand to CIA headquarters recounting Zubaydah’s questioning. The declassified versions of those documents redact the name of the official who sent them. One declassified cable, among scores obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the architects of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, says that chief of base and another senior counterterrorism official on scene had the sole authority to halt the questioning.She never did so, records show, watching as Zubaydah vomited, passed out and urinated on himself while shackled. During one waterboarding session, Zubaydah lost consciousness and bubbles began gurgling from his mouth. Medical personnel on the scene had to revive him. Haspel allowed the most brutal interrogations by the CIA to continue for nearly three weeks even though, as the cables sent from Thailand to the agency’s headquarters repeatedly stated, “subject has not provided any new threat information or elaborated on any old threat information.”At one point, Haspel spoke directly with Zubaydah, accusing him of faking symptoms of physical distress and psychological breakdown. In a scene described in a book written by one of the interrogators, the chief of base came to his cell and “congratulated him on the fine quality of his acting.” According to the book, the chief of base, who was identified only by title, said: “Good job! I like the way you’re drooling; it adds realism. I’m almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that.”Haspel was sent by the chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism section, Jose Rodriquez, the “handpicked warden of the first secret prison the CIA created to handle al-Qaida detainees,” according to a little-noticed recent article in Reader Supported News by John Kiriakou, a former CIA counterterrorism officer. In his memoir, “Hard Measures,” Rodriquez refers to a “female chief of base” in Thailand but does not name her.Kirakou provided more details about her central role. “It was Haspel who oversaw the staff,” at the Thai prison, including James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two psychologists who “designed the torture techniques and who actually carried out torture on the prisoners,” he wrote.Kiriakou pleaded guilty in 2012 to releasing classified information about waterboarding and the torture of detainees, and served 23 months in prison.The CIA officials in Thailand understood that the methods they were using could kill Zubaydah and said that should that happen, they would cremate his body. If he survived questioning, Haspel sought assurances that “the subject will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”So far, that promise has been kept. Zubaydah is currently incarcerated at Guantanamo. His lawyers filed a court action in 2008 seeking his release, but the federal judges overseeing the case have failed to issue any substantive rulings.Zubaydah was seized in a raid in Pakistan in late March 2002, during which he suffered life-threatening bullet wounds in his leg and groin. The CIA had long been hunting for Zubaydah, who had worked as what one former government official described as “administrator” at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The camp was started by the CIA during the Soviet occupation, was not under the control of al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden, the official said, but Zubaydah had on occasion supplied false passports and money to al-Qaida operatives.American doctors saved Zubaydah’s life, and after he was stable enough he was drugged, gagged, trussed and blindfolded, and put on a CIA charter flight. In order to avoid being traced, the plane flew around the world, stopping in several places, including Morocco and Brazil, before landing in Thailand.While still hospitalized, Zubaydah was interrogated by the FBI, led by Ali Soufan, an Arabic speaker. According to Soufan, Zubaydah, who was generally cooperative, provided the FBI interrogators with valuable intelligence on the overall structure of al-Qaida.His information also confirmed what the CIA already believed, that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. A talkative sort who expressed a willingness to cooperate, Zubaydah gave the FBI information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla for plotting to detonate bombs in the United States. Zubaydah, who was born in Palestine, said that while he believed in jihad, the 9/11 attacks were not justified because they killed innocent civilians.CIA officials were convinced that he knew about plots in America, and with the horror of 9/11 still fresh, the agency was determined to prevent another attack. A month after Zubaydah was captured, Haspel drafted a cable titled “Turning Up the Heat in AZ Interrogations.”Soon after, he was put into isolation for 45 days, kept awake with loud music and doused with cold water. During this time, the ALEC team at CIA headquarters, which was assigned to find Osama bin Laden, sent questions to Thailand for the team to ask Zubaydah; they went unasked, and unanswered, because he was in isolation.The FBI and CIA clashed over whether or not Zubaydah was fully cooperating on the subject of possible future attacks. The agency’s view prevailed, and counterterrorism officials sought permission for harsher measures.In late July, the CIA team conducted a “dress rehearsal … which choreographed moving Abu Zubaydah (Subject) in and out of the large and small confinement boxes, as well as use of the water board,” Haspel notified Washington.A few days later, she wrote, “Team is ready to move to the next phase of interrogations immediately upon receipt of approvals/authorization from ALEC/Headquarters. It is our understanding that DOJ/Attorney General approvals for all portions of the next phase, including the water board, have been secured, but that final approval is in the hands of the policy makers.”By this time, the source on whom the CIA had based its assessment that Zubaydah was number three or four in the al-Qaida organization had recanted his testimony, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture released in 2014. The agency would ultimately conclude that Zubaydah was not even a member of al-Qaida. Read the Story ‘Incommunicado’ Forever: Gitmo Detainee’s Case Stalled For 2,477 Days And Counting The Senate torture report chronicled the CIA’s interrogation of high-profile detainee Abu Zubaydah, but the justice system’s treatment of his habeas corpus petition has largely escaped notice. “So it begins,” a medical officer on Haspel’s team wrote on the morning of Aug. 4, 2002.Later that year, when journalists began asking the CIA and the White House about a “black site,” in Thailand, the CIA rushed to close it. Zubaydah was again drugged, trussed, blindfolded, and put on another secret CIA flight to another black site, this time in Poland.Haspel moved to cover up the agency’s operations at the Thai base. The chief of base told the security officer “to burn everything that he could in preparation for sanitizing the black site,” Mitchell wrote in his book, “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” which was published late last year.According to Mitchell’s account, the security officer asked the chief of base whether he should include the tapes; he was told to hold off until “she” could check with Washington.She was told to retain them. A few years later when she was back in Washington and chief of staff to the director of operations for counterterrorism, Jose Rodriquez, the man who had sent her to Thailand, she continued to lobby for destruction of the tapes.“My chief of staff drafted a cable approving the action we had been trying to accomplish for so long,” Rodriquez writes in his memoir. “The cable left nothing to chance. It even told them how to get rid of the tapes. They were to use an industrial-strength shredder to do the deed.”Without approval from the White House or Justice Department, Rodriquez gave the order.In a twist of fate, destroying the tapes drew more outside scrutiny of the program. Disclosure of the shredding prompted the Senate Intelligence Committee to begin its long-running examination of the torture program. The result was a 7,000-page report that drew on thousands of highly classified cables relating to the Bush administration’s rendition and detention program and concluded torture was not effective.
Flawed Assessments Caused $2 Billion Shift in Property Taxes, Study Finds
by Jason Grotto In the first effort to measure the cost of Cook County’s error-ridden assessment system under Assessor Joseph Berrios, a new study estimates that at least $2.2 billion in property taxes was shifted from undervalued Chicago homes onto overvalued ones between 2011 and 2015.Because the county’s assessment system is skewed in favor of high-priced homes, the errors amount to a staggering transfer of wealth that benefited Chicago’s most affluent homeowners at the expense of people who own lower-priced homes.The study, released Thursday by the Municipal Finance Center at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, was conducted by Professor Christopher Berry, a critic of the assessor’s office who testified at a County Board hearing in July about flaws in the county’s assessment system.The analysis involved calculating a citywide fair tax rate using the tax bills of homes that sold, then seeing how those tax bills differed from the amount that would be expected if the assessor valued property fairly.Under Berrios, the study found, flawed assessments caused as much as $1 billion to be shaved off the tax bills of Chicago’s most expensive residential properties — those in the top 10 percent of value, or single-family homes and condos worth more than $1 million on average.Because the amount of property taxes collected each year is fixed, that means hundreds of thousands of other taxpayers made up the difference, with the lowest-valued homes shouldering a disproportionate amount of the tax shift.“Everyone — even the assessor — now agrees that the system is regressive,” Berry said. “But I wanted to know how much money is at stake. The answer is easily in the billions. These dollars are being taken from some of our citizens who can least afford it and used to pay the taxes of the wealthy. It’s unconscionable.”The assessor’s office dismissed the U. of C. study as a political ploy aimed at influencing the March 20 primary election. Officials also accused Berry of having an ax to grind because the office did not adopt a new residential valuation model he helped design in 2010 with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.“Clearly, Professor Berry is upset that his model was exposed to have flaws and deficiencies,” the assessor’s office said in a statement. “We are saddened by Professor Berry’s lack of professionalism in releasing this report four days before the election and not giving us the opportunity to review it.” Read the Full Study Tax Shifting Due to Regressive Assessments (PDF)
New in Nonprofit Explorer: People Search
Scott Klein Today we’re launching a new feature in our Nonprofit Explorer database. You can now search for board members and key employees who work at nonprofit organizations by name. The database includes everyone listed on nonprofit tax returns filed electronically between 2014 and 2017. The data includes each person’s reported title and base compensation.You can find the people search on the Nonprofit Explorer front page if you click on the “Search for People” tab in the blue search box.You can use this new search feature to, for instance, look into nonprofit boards that Donald Trump — the president as well as his son — are on. As with any people search, some common names will yield some unintended results: See, for instance, the board membership of Donald “Skip” Trump, M.D. (no relation) who is on several nonprofit boards. Use the App Nonprofit Explorer Use our database to find almost 616,000 tax-exempt organizations and see details like their executive compensation, revenue and expenses, as well as download their tax filings going back as far as 2001. Or see the board memberships of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his Hollywood super-agent brother Ari and their brother Dr. Zeke Emanuel (full name Ezekiel). Or at least, people with those names.You can click through from the search results right to the Form 990 with that name listed. For those familiar with nonprofit disclosures, the search returns data from a field filled out by nonprofits in their IRS Form 990 tax returns called “Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, Highest Compensated Employees, and Independent Contractors.”The data was extracted from the huge IRS data release by Jacob Fenton, who is publishing an open source project based on the work he did for Nonprofit Explorer, along with a trove of reference materials.The people search feature builds on an update we launched last year that lets you view the full text of millions of nonprofit returns. Like that update, this one is made possible thanks to a lawsuit brought by Public.Resource.Org that required the IRS to release electronically filed Form 990s in a structured data format. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email The Nonprofit Explorer people search is available for the years released as raw data by the IRS. So while we have nonprofit information going back to at least 2012, people search only goes back to filings from 2014. You may find older tax years in people search because sometimes nonprofits file or amend returns from previous years.Millions of people have used Nonprofit Explorer to check up on nonprofits, including journalists, researchers and everyday users looking to understand charities before they donate to them.
‘Walking While Black’ Wins Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting
by ProPublica A team of journalists from ProPublica and the Florida Times Union won the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting. ProPublica’s Topher Sanders, Lucas Waldron, Ranjani Chakraborty and Kate Rabinowitz and the Florida Times Union’s Ben Conarck were honored for their joint project “Walking While Black,” which showed that police use pedestrian tickets in a racially disproportionate way in Jacksonville, Fla.The story was conceived after a viral video last summer showed a young African-American man in Jacksonville being ticketed and threatened with arrest for jaywalking, as well as failing to carry an ID card. Seeing potential for a larger story, the two newsrooms teamed up for a project that confirmed a systemic problem.Pedestrians can be ticketed for 28 different infractions in Jacksonville, including failing to cross a street at a right angle and not walking on the left side of a road when there are no sidewalks. Sanders and Conarck found that black residents were overrepresented in every category, receiving 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville while accounting for only 29 percent of the population. They also staked out downtown locations to witness dozens of uniformed officers violating the same pedestrian laws for which their agency issued citations.“This was an original, ingenious partnership between a national nonprofit journalism outlet and a local newspaper to illuminate an easily overlooked form of enforcement—jaywalking tickets—and, with deep data and shoe-leather reporting, show how something most consider a minor infraction has become an egregious form of racial targeting, and represents misguided police work and an ineffective way to spend public money,” said competition judges.The investigation prompted the sheriff to seek guidance from the local state attorney on whether his officers were properly interpreting the statutes, and he ordered officers to cease writing erroneous tickets for pedestrians who did not have ID on them. The sheriff’s office also initiated bias training for officers who work in Jacksonville’s predominantly black communities, and state transit experts said the articles armed them with additional evidence for rewriting Florida’s pedestrian statutes.Another ProPublica project, Thousands of Criminal Cases in New York Relied on Disputed DNA Testing Techniques by Lauren Kirchner, was one of two finalists for the Nakkula Award. The story focused on New York City’s proprietary DNA software (known as the Forensic Statistical Tool, or FST) that has been used to analyze difficult DNA samples from crime scenes in the city and across the nation. Some scientists and defense lawyers say FST may be inaccurate, potentially putting innocent people in prison — but the medical examiner’s office had long kept its source code secret. Following the investigation, a federal judge unsealed the code, allowing ProPublica to publish it online, and the New York City Council passed a bill to establish a task force to study how city agencies use algorithms in decisions that affect New Yorkers’ lives.Co-sponsored by the University of Colorado College of Media, Communication and Information and the Denver Press Club, the Al Nakkula Award recognizes a reporter, or team, for outstanding accomplishment in police reporting. Learn more about the award here.
Some States No Longer Suspend Driver’s Licenses for Unpaid Fines. Will Illinois Join Them?
by Melissa Sanchez Legislators across the country are starting to rethink laws that tie driving privileges to the ability to pay fines, as evidence mounts that those laws disproportionately hurt poor and minority motorists.That’s beginning to happen, too, in Illinois, where state lawmakers introduced a bill last month — after a similar bill last year was unsuccessful — to end license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets.The legislation likely will face its biggest opposition from the City of Chicago, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually from tickets and uses the threat of license suspensions as leverage against indebted drivers. Ticket debt sends thousands of motorists into bankruptcy each year, ProPublica Illinois reported last month.In a follow-up analysis, ProPublica Illinois found that low-income, black motorists from Chicago’s South and West sides bore the brunt of the more than 21,000 license suspensions issued across the state last year to drivers with at least 10 unpaid parking tickets or five unpaid tickets from automated red-light or speed cameras.That analysis, of data* from the Illinois Secretary of State and the U.S. Census Bureau, showed:
‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast: Where’d Trump’s Record Inauguration Spending Go? ‘It’s Inexplicable’
by Ilya Marritz, WNYC Find “Trump, Inc.” wherever you get your podcasts.Last month, the committee that ran President Donald Trump’s inaugural festivities released basic details about its revenues and spending. Trump raised $107 million, almost twice the previous record, and spent $104 million. The committee’s tax filing showed that $26 million of the spending went to an event planning firm started in December by a friend of the first lady.It’s not clear how the firm spent that money, or how most of the money raised for the inauguration was used. The tax filing doesn’t show spending by subcontractors, nor is it required to do so.In this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.,” we dig into the inauguration. We’ve found that even experienced inaugural planners are baffled by the Trump committee’s massive fundraising and spending operation. We also noticed that two members of the inaugural committee have been convicted of financial crimes, and a third — the committee’s treasurer — was reportedly an unindicted co-conspirator in an accounting fraud. Listen to the Episode Greg Jenkins led former President George W. Bush’s second inaugural committee in 2005, which raised and spent $42 million (that would be $53 million in today’s dollars). Asked about how Trump’s team managed to spend so much more, Jenkins said, “It’s inexplicable to me. I literally don’t know.”“They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did,” Jenkins said. “So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”Steve Kerrigan, who led both of former President Barack Obama’s inaugural committees, agreed. “There was no need for that amount of money,” said Kerrigan. “We literally did two inaugurations for less than the cost of that.”According to Trump’s filing, slightly more than half of the money went to four event planning companies, including the firm owned by the first lady’s friend, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. Her company, WIS Media Partners, paid the co-creator of “The Apprentice,” Mark Burnett, to help with the festivities, as The New York Times reported.Melania Trump has since cut off her work with Wolkoff after the disclosure of the spending. Wolkoff and WIS Media Partners did not respond to a request for comment.We asked the White House and the inaugural committee about fundraising and spending related to the inauguration. Officials did not agree to be interviewed on the record.We also looked at members of the inaugural committee, which had about 30 people in leadership and fundraising roles.The committee’s treasurer, Doug Ammerman, was named by prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in a tax shelter fraud in the early 2000s, according to The Wall Street Journal. Ammerman was a partner at the accounting firm KPMG, which later admitted criminal liability. A Senate investigation from the time includes emails from Ammerman suggesting he was aware of the scheme.Ammerman is also currently accused in a shareholder lawsuit of dumping stock in a grilled chicken chain, El Pollo Loco, where he was on the board, ahead of a bad quarterly report. Ammerman did not respond to requests for comment.The finance vice-chair for the inaugural committee, Elliott Broidy, pleaded guilty in 2009 to paying bribes to get investments from the New York state pension fund. His felony conviction was later downgraded to a misdemeanor. Broidy, a top Trump fundraiser, has also come under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Broidy did not respond to requests for comment.Another inaugural organizer was Rick Gates, the former deputy to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Gates pleaded guilty this year to lying to the FBI and to conspiracy in a vast money laundering scheme, charges that came from Mueller’s office.At the time that Gates worked on the inauguration, he had not been indicted, but his dealings with former Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych had already come under scrutiny. Gates’ business partner, Manafort, was forced off of the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016 after it was reported he got nearly $13 million of undisclosed payments from Yanukovych. Gates did not respond to requests for comment. Read More The Desperation, Secrecy and Conflicts of Jared Kushner’s Company — ‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast This week on “Trump, Inc.,” we dive into Son-in-Law Inc. We found one more thing that set this inauguration apart: Some of the donations are almost impossible to trace. As the Center for Responsive Politics reports, two “dark money” groups, which do not disclose their donors, gave $1 million each. Trump’s inaugural committee appears to have been the first to accept significant donations from dark money groups.Kerrigan, Obama’s inauguration chief, said he would have rejected a check from a group designed to preserve donor anonymity. “I would have said, ‘Prove who you are and if you can’t pass vet, I’ll have to give the check back,’” Kerrigan said.There are also, of course, many donors we do know about. Like other presidents, Trump raised millions from corporate contributions and wealthy individuals. The securities and investment industry contributed the most, nearly $15 million. Other top industries included real estate, casinos, oil and gas, and mining — each of which later benefited from various presidential initiatives and policies. The existence of a contribution, of course, doesn’t mean that’s the reason for a policy change.Click here to explore OpenSecrets’ analysis of inaugural contributions. And click here to check out journalist Christina Wilkie’s easy-to-search spreadsheet of inaugural donors.Remember, we want to hear from you: Help us answer all the questions that Trump’s inaugural committee won’t. Do you have information about how the money was spent or what subcontractors were used?We also want to hear your questions. What would you like to know about Trump’s businesses? What confuses you?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
Measuring the Toll of the Opioid Epidemic Is Tougher Than It Seems
by Charles Ornstein As the opioid epidemic rages across the country, data tracking its evolution often lags far behind.A few months ago, I set out to compile data on opioid prescribing, overdoses and deaths, as well as treatment options.It was more difficult than I expected: Much of the data was out of date, some was hard to find and some data contradicted other data, making conclusions difficult. I put the datasets I could find into a tipsheet, which I shared last week at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in Chicago.When Bruce Greenstein took over as chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in mid-2017, he, too, was taken aback by the hurdles to finding complete, current information — particularly on overdose deaths. View the TipsheetReporting accurately on the opioid epidemic requires having current, reliable data to track how it’s evolving and the toll it’s taking. This tipsheet will help provide data sources. “We’re focused on addressing the opioid epidemic and we kept citing 2015 data on deaths caused by opioid overdoses,” he said. “I just thought there had to be a better way for us to allocate resources, to identify the most problematic areas that needed help and support.”Since then, Greenstein and his staff have worked with federal agencies to publish data earlier, even if it’s preliminary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now releases provisional data on drug overdose deaths, by state, which is only a few months old. Greenstein’s office has also encouraged government agencies to share more information with each other and with the public, and it has held a code-a-thon to identify ways in which data can be used to help solve the epidemic.Deaths are only one way to measure the opioid epidemic, however.As most people know by now, opioids come in both legal forms (prescription painkillers) and illegal ones (heroin and street fentanyl). One major focus of health officials and prosecutors has been to reduce the overprescribing of opioids for chronic pain.For now, the only publicly available data that identifies individual physicians and the number of opioids they prescribe comes from the Medicare Part D program, which covers more than 40 million seniors and disabled people. The data shows the percentage of each doctor’s overall prescriptions that are for opioid drugs. The most recent data, however, is from 2015. (ProPublica has created an easy-to-use tool to compare doctors’ prescribing patterns to those of others in the same specialty and state.)Also, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year released opioid prescribing data for each of its hospitals, comparing rates in 2012 to those in 2017.At a higher level, the CDC releases data on prescribing rates by county and state. But it measures the rate in a different way than Medicare, looking at the number of opioid prescriptions per 100 residents.Because the measures are different, they can sometimes appear contradictory. In Medicare, for example, Piatt County, Illinois, which is near Champaign, has among the highest opioid prescribing rates in the state. About 9 percent of all Medicare prescriptions filled in 2015 were for opioids, compared to 4.7 percent for the state as a whole.But CDC data for the same year showed Piatt County below the state average — 40.9 prescriptions per 100 residents compared to 59.1 prescriptions per 100 residents for all of Illinois.The CDC data is based on more than prescriptions in Medicare. It comes from QuintilesIMS, a health information company that gathers data from 59,000 retail pharmacies, which dispense nearly 88 percent of retail prescriptions in the country, the CDC website says. “More times than not, we say they’re both important, they just tell you different things,” said Dr. G. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Johns Hopkins University, who has studied opioid use. “There’s no single data point that tells the whole story.”That said, Alexander said he puts more value in the CDC number because it looks at the quantity of opioids used. “This has been a volume-driven epidemic, and injuries and deaths are highly correlated with overall opioid volume on the market.”Another way to track the epidemic’s toll is to examine overdoses and hospitalizations that result from opioid use. CDC has updated its overdose data to be closer to real time, even though some deaths are still under investigation. You can find provisional counts of drug overdose deaths, as well as deaths by drug or drug class.But even that data is problematic. It relies on coroners or medical examiners to accurately report deaths as overdoses. A new study by Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that these deaths are vastly undercounted. For instance, the CDC estimated that 33,091 drug deaths involved opioids in 2015; Ruhm estimates that the actual number is more like 39,999.Some states have also acknowledged flaws. Rhode Island disclosed in 2016 that it had undercounted overdose deaths. And a USA TODAY Network-Tennessee investigation in 2017 found that drug deaths “are fundamentally flawed and represent an under-count of the toll taken by opioids.”“It really comes down to the fact that our country functions on a totally silly patchwork system” of tracking causes of death, said Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. “It’s a question of data speed, but it’s also a question of data quality.”The CDC published data last week that found that emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses increased by about 30 percent in the United States from July 2016 to September 2017. The CDC broke out data for each region and for 16 states with a high number of opioid-related deaths.Hospitalization data for all states can be found on the website of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, but that data is only current through the end of 2015.For the moment, there’s even less data on drug treatment, especially broken out at a local level. The best comes from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Its National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services tries to identify all known substance abuse treatment facilities in the U.S., both public and private.Last year, the Urban Institute, using Medicaid data, produced a report on the rapid increase in Medicaid spending on medications to treat opioid use disorder. It offers a state-by-state breakdown. But the Medicaid program only covers the poor and working poor, and the data is not broken out by county or locality.Depending on where you live, some of the best data comes from state and local agencies. I was really impressed with the dashboards created by states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which provide a look at various aspects of the epidemic. The city of Tempe, Arizona, publishes a real-time dashboard of EMS calls likely related to opioids. Cincinnati, Ohio, publishes a similar dashboard for heroin overdoses.Many states, however, lag far behind. One of the biggest challenges with opioids is defining success, experts say.Beletsky said he’s interested in the percentage of people who are on maintenance treatment for addiction after a nonfatal overdose. Alexander said he would like to know about the rate of new cases of opioid use disorder or addiction, something which currently isn’t tracked. Both said changes in the opioid prescribing rate is less significant.“If you just think about prescribing, what’s the right level of prescribing?” Alexander said. “Ultimately, what really matters is the quality of care that people are getting, both with respect to the management of their pain but also the identification and treatment of opioid use disorder.“If at the end of the day we really care about how well people with pain are doing, do any of these data really capture that?” he added. “Probably not.”
How Do We Keep Bias Out of Stories?
by Jason Grotto At the beginning of the year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. The questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. Today, ProPublica Illinois reporter Jason Grotto answers an inquiry about how we deal with the potential for bias in reporting.What steps does ProPublica have in place in the editorial process to reduce and control bias? — Scott DysonThe truth is, journalism has long struggled with the idea of bias and, through many periods since the founding of the Republic, much of the press has sometimes been openly partisan. “Objectivity,” relatively speaking, is a more recent cultural standard. So, I look at the idea of bias as part of a lengthy and ongoing conversation, one I hope will never end.First, it’s important to point out that ProPublica focuses mainly on investigative journalism, which is a particular genre that makes its reporting different than, say, political coverage. In most cases, investigative stories make an argument rather than just capture both sides of an issue. The stories often have a particular structure: Some person, government agency or other entity allegedly did something wrong and harmed others. Almost always, the wrongdoing is set against a standard — a law, ethical practice or norm.So on a certain level, some point of view is baked into investigative stories because, in many cases, reporters begin with a tip or data that suggests wrongdoing and then set out to determine if it occurred.When a colleague and I exposed how Chicago Public Schools lost more than $100 million using high-risk borrowing to fund school construction projects, we worked from the premise that school officials should be prudent with education funding. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Before we embark on a story, there is a long process of vetting the idea. Reporters often write pitch memos that give broad outlines of what might be uncovered, after doing some spadework. In doing so, both reporters and editors make sure multiple viewpoints are sought.In the reporting, we have to be sure the question we pursue can be answered with verifiable facts. The key is “verifiable.” That is, any fact presented in a story must be based on documents, data or reliable, on-the-record human sources.When I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, I did a series of stories about union officials who violated state law by double- or even triple-dipping on pension payouts, collecting money from both public and union pensions for the same work. The investigation launched after we got a tip. We nailed down the story by digging through years’ worth of documents from public pension funds and union records filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.By lining up the two sets of records, we showed union officials flouted state law by collecting two pensions for the same work. That contributed to the underfunding of public pension funds union members relied on for retirement.As I dug through records and did interviews, I looked for evidence that knocked down or mitigated our premise. Every reporter should seek out facts that might produce a counternarrative. You don’t want to have tunnel vision.The idea is to ensure fairness and accuracy, the twin pillars of high-quality journalism.One thing I love about our shop at ProPublica is that we go out of our way to provide source documents, as we did with our work on sexual assault allegations at the Red Cross. If we do a large data analysis, we often provide detailed methodologies along with the data so readers can delve into the evidence we present. A great example of this is ProPublica’s recent series on bankruptcies.Because every fact in every story springs from verifiable information, journalists are obsessed with fact-checking their stories, which is another way we ensure accuracy. This process entails going back over every fact in a story and re-checking primary source information before publication. You can’t have fairness without accuracy. You also can’t have accuracy without fairness, and that brings us to another important part of the process: what I refer to as layered editing. Any significant news story you encounter in a top-flight operation has been reviewed by multiple editors. Each editor searches for claims in the story that aren’t backed up and pokes at leaps of logic that aren’t buttoned down.When I worked at the Miami Herald, I had an editor who used to call us into her office to go over findings in a story. We used to say that we were “going into the box,” a reference to the great, old cop show “Homicide: Life on the Street,” because it was like being interrogated. Reporters love that level of scrutiny before publication. It helps you sleep better.Here at ProPublica, we often partner with other news outlets, which means reporters not only have three or four editors from our group combing through our work but also editors from our partner publications.I have a mantra for another way we make sure to tease out any kind of slant that may not be accurate or fair: no surprises. By that I mean, anyone mentioned in the story should know before publication what the story will say and have a chance to respond — not only to specific facts but also to how the story is framed.Subjects of an investigation should be given every opportunity to challenge both the premise and the facts. That doesn’t mean you put whatever they say into a story. Their responses need to be verified and fact-checked, too.I recently wrote a series of stories about the Cook County property tax assessment system. The series showed that the office of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, one of the state’s most powerful politicians, knowingly produced flawed assessments that caused lower-income homeowners to pay disproportionately more in property taxes than wealthy ones. Before we published the series’ first three parts, we sat down with Berrios’ staff for a lengthy and detailed interview. We went through the major points in the drafts of the stories and gave the assessor’s staff the opportunity to push back on our findings. After those first stories ran, the office declined to make officials available for an interview.As we prepared the fourth part of the series, we sent the assessor’s office a note outlining our main points and asking for another interview. Berrios and his staffers refused, sending along a prepared response. We wrote another letter, this one laying out in greater detail what our reporting had found, and what we planned to publish. We even used language from a draft of the story to make sure they understood the story’s tone. That ensured they had every opportunity to respond.This part of the reporting process is so important that investigative journalists sometimes send subjects certified letters to ensure they understand what’s coming and have a chance to respond.Of course, we also rely on readers to keep us honest. It’s why we work hard to engage with you and solicit feedback. If we cross a line, or violate our standards, we have every hope that you’ll call us on it.
The Trump Administration’s Campaign to Weaken Civil Service Ramps Up at the VA
by Isaac Arnsdorf Last June, President Donald Trump fulfilled a campaign promise by signing a bipartisan bill to make it easier to fire employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The law, a rare rollback of the federal government’s strict civil-service job protections, was intended as a much-needed fix for an organization widely perceived as broken. “VA accountability is essential to making sure that our veterans are treated with the respect they have so richly earned through their blood, sweat and tears,” Trump said that day. “Those entrusted with the sacred duty of serving our veterans will be held accountable for the care they provide.”At the time, proponents of the bill repeatedly emphasized that it would hold everyone — especially top officials — accountable: “senior executives,” stressed Senate Veterans Committee chair Johnny Isakson; “medical directors,” specified Trump; anyone who “undermined trust” in the VA, according to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Shulkin advocated for the measure, called the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, by highlighting a case in which the agency had to wait 30 days to fire a worker caught watching porn with a patient.“I do not see this as a tool that’s going to lead to mass firings,” Shulkin said last June. “I would never support that as secretary. I see this as a tool that’s going to be used on a small number of people, who clearly have deviated from accepted practices and norms.”The law’s effect was nearly instantaneous: Firings rose 60 percent during the second half of 2017, after the law took effect, compared to the first half of 2017. Since June, the VA has removed 1,704 of its 370,000 employees.But if top officials were the target of the law, a ProPublica investigation suggests the legislation misfired. In practice, the new law is overwhelmingly being used against the rank and file. Since it took effect, the VA has fired four senior leaders. The other 1,700 terminated people were low-level staffers with titles such as housekeeper (133 lost their jobs), nursing assistant (101 ousted) and food service worker (59 terminated), according to data posted by the VA.VA spokesman Curt Cashour defended the high proportion of low-ranking employees among the terminations. “Culture spans the entire organization,” he said in a statement. “As with any government agency or business, VA has more rank-and-file workers than senior leaders, and we hold them accountable when warranted, regardless of rank or position.”Some of the fired workers surely deserved it. But some were guilty of minor infractions — such as arriving late to work — that wouldn’t previously have received as harsh a punishment, according to union officials and a letter sent to Shulkin on Feb. 26 by six Democratic senators.Indeed, some Congress members who supported the bill are now expressing reservations. “My intention was not to get rid of housekeepers if these are things that can be corrected with training and HR and management,” said Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking member on the House Veterans Committee, at a hearing in mid-February. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., one of the bill’s co-sponsors, wrote Shulkin on Feb. 13, expressing concern that “the initial data indicates that removal efforts are being targeted on less senior, frontline employees rather than managers who play a critical role in establishing cultures of accountability that protect whistleblowers.” Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email What’s more, it’s not just junior VA staffers who are losing their jobs. Whistleblowers and people who filed discrimination complaints are among those being fired, in several cases reviewed by ProPublica. That means a law intended to protect whistleblowers may be doing the opposite. Retaliating against such employees remains illegal, but the new law makes it much harder for them to defend themselves.“The VA feels they can do whatever they want with people with impunity,” said Eric Pines, an employment lawyer who represents multiple fired VA workers. “It’s a day-and-night feel since the Trump administration came into office.” (The Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, an independent federal agency that investigates retaliation against whistleblowers, said it’s too soon to say if complaints have increased since the law took effect.)Trump’s State of the Union address suggested that the VA is just the beginning. The president wants to make it easier to terminate workers in every federal agency. “All Americans deserve accountability and respect, and that is what we are giving them,” the president said in the speech. “So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”Advocates of shrinking the federal bureaucracy cheered. Concerned Veterans for America, an organization backed by the Koch brothers, tweeted, “The VA Accountability Act has started to work, now President Trump is ready to replicate it across other federal agencies.” Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., who had introduced legislation that would expedite firing across the federal government, issued a statement asserting that his bill was “answering President Trump’s call for Congress to empower Cabinet secretaries with the authority to inject merit back into the federal workforce.”Trump’s remarks worried defenders of the civil service. “Make no mistake: this is a plan to politicize federal employment and allow the administration to hire and fire on the basis of politics rather than merit,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. The government workforce is different from the private sector, civil service advocates say, for good reason: It’s all that stands between the smooth administration of government services and a return to 19th century habits of politicians doling out jobs to unqualified cronies.And some fear the experience at the VA shows that removing protections against firing will only encourage more firings. The agency had more than 40,000 job vacancies even before the wave of firings. If reducing the workforce makes the VA less effective, it will only reinforce the argument that the agency is broken and needs to be cleaned out. “We really do need to modernize the civil service,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit providing leadership training to federal employees. “However, firing feds faster is not going to result in the better government we all want.”In the Oval Office, Trump displays a portrait of Andrew Jackson, an iconoclastic populist whom he admires. Jackson was determined to shake up Washington when he took office in 1829. He was convinced that the then-tiny federal bureaucracy was corrupt, complacent and working to undermine him. Jackson made disloyalty to him a disqualification for government service and replaced officeholders with political allies and old pals. A senator famously defended Jackson’s appointments by saying “to the victor belong the spoils.”The “spoils system” lasted until 1881, when a thwarted job-seeker named Charles Guiteau, believing his campaign support for James Garfield entitled him to a diplomatic post, shot the new president. Congress responded with the Pendleton Act, establishing that government hiring should be based on merit, not politics. The civil service expanded in step with federal power in the 20th century. As part of a wave of post-Watergate reforms, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 required cause to fire federal workers. The law established the Merit Systems Protection Board to decide disputes. Learn More About Trump’s Appointees Trump Town Tracking White House staffers, Cabinet members and political appointees across the government Employment lawyers say that advocates of reduced civil-service protections exaggerate the obstacles to firing federal workers. The process deters some managers from taking action, according to a Government Accountability Office review, while multiple surveys of federal supervisors concluded that poor performers amount to only 1 to 3 percent of the federal workforce. A more recent MSPB survey found supervisors split on whether federal employees have too many rights.When federal agencies do try to remove an employee, they almost always succeed. In the past five years, the MSPB has reversed just 4 percent of the cases it reviewed, according to the board’s reports. The VA has a worse record: It loses at the MSPB 16 percent of the time. “The VA screws it up more than most,” said Debra D’Agostino, a lawyer who represents federal workers. “But that’s the fault of HR, not a problem with the law.”The notion of making it easier to fire VA employees gained traction in 2014 after news broke that officials at the Phoenix VA hospital were manipulating records to hide long wait times. CVA, which was founded in 2012 and pushed for fast-track firings as early as 2013, seized on the scandal to organize a protest and lobby Congress to pass a new law curbing protections for VA officials. The resulting measure targeted only the most senior career employees. Among the first fired was the director of the offending Phoenix facility.The Phoenix scandal hardened an already bad reputation for the VA, even though the agency’s health care remains popular with veterans. An independent assessment ordered up by the 2014 law concluded that long waits weren’t widespread and the quality of VA health care was generally as good or better than in other health systems. But politically, the damage was done.CVA insisted that the 2014 reforms didn’t go far enough, and pushed for reducing protections for all VA employees, not just senior leaders. In 2015, a CVA policy task force proposed turning the VA into a government-chartered nonprofit corporation (like Amtrak), complete with the “authority to hire and fire employees in a manner consistent with that in the private sector.” (CVA didn’t answer a request for comment.)Candidate Trump embraced CVA’s position. Three of the 10 proposals in his campaign’s plan to reform the VA involved firing or punishing bad employees. As president, Trump gave the former head of CVA’s policy task force, Darin Selnick, significant influence over veterans policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council. Selnick and like-minded allies in the administration have clashed with Shulkin over the direction of the VA, particularly over how much it should rely on private health care.Meanwhile, the Accountability Act seemed to be something everyone could get behind. It passed the House 368 to 55 and the Senate by a voice vote. Shulkin, Trump and CVA have all touted it as a major accomplishment, as have lawmakers and veterans groups. The White House referred questions to the VA, where spokesman Cashour said the law “is one of the most significant federal civil service reforms in decades and is helping instill across the department the type of workforce accountability veterans and taxpayers deserve.”The new law passed just after a federal appeals court overturned the dismissal of Sharon Helman as director of the Phoenix VA. Under the 2014 law, Helman could get an initial decision from an administrative judge at the MSPB but wasn’t permitted to appeal to the board’s three presidentially appointed members. The appeals court found that procedure unconstitutional on the grounds that it gave too much power to the administrative judge.The new VA accountability law took a different approach, one that’s even tougher on fired employees. Now, senior executives can’t appeal to the MSPB at all. They have the right to sue in federal court, but that’s a lengthy and costly process. Lower-level employees can still bring their cases to the MSPB, but functionally haven’t been able to appeal to the three-member panel — because Trump hadn’t appointed anyone to it. (On March 12, Trump nominated two new members to the MSPB, Dennis Dean Kirk and Andrew Maunz, who are awaiting Senate confirmation.) “They’ve hamstrung the ability of the board to do its job,” said John Palguta, a retired MSPB official and expert on the federal workforce.The new law makes it much quicker and easier for the VA to fire people. Instead of having to show that the majority of the evidence supports a firing, the agency needs only “substantial” evidence, a much lower threshold. “Almost the allegation itself is enough,” said Don Edge, a union officer in San Antonio. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin listens before Trump signs an executive order at the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images) Critics are calling that an unfair double standard in the wake of a blistering report by the VA’s inspector general that faulted Shulkin for misusing taxpayer resources on a trip to Europe. Shulkin has disputed the investigation’s findings, saying the IG’s office selectively omitted countervailing evidence and didn’t give him enough time to respond to the allegations.That, critics say, is precisely how the new law treats VA employees. “Why is no one putting together how ironic this is that he can dispute this report and still have his job?” said Ibidun Roberts, an attorney with the American Federation of Government Employees. “Our employees are fired for much less.”The VA now must provide written notice to fire an employee, but not 30 days’ notice as before. The employee has only seven days to respond, instead of as many as 30 in the past. Once the VA finalizes its decision, the employee has seven days to appeal, down from 30. The law also stripped the MSPB’s power to lighten penalties — the judge can uphold or reverse a firing, but can’t reduce it to a suspension.Plaintiffs’ lawyers contend that discriminatory firings have increased. JP Chandler, a longtime member of the VA’s police force in Los Angeles, was fired in November after he failed a firearms test because of a problem with his eyeglasses. Failing the test wasn’t a fireable offense at the time (he could have been reassigned to another role), but managers changed the policy and then used it to fire Chandler. Chandler alleges the removal was retaliation for an age discrimination complaint he filed after being passed over for a promotion. That complaint is still pending with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Chandler said he also mistakenly left a shift a few hours early once.) “I have worked hard 60+ hours a week for the last 3 years for my department because I CARE for the Veterans and their families,” Chandler said in a written complaint he provided to ProPublica. “Suddenly, I became the ‘bad guy’ after filing an EEO complaint, and [was] targeted.” A file clerk in West Virginia was fired after making an EEOC complaint that she needed accommodations for PTSD, according to her lawyer, Kevin Owen. Another of his clients, a veteran who worked as a cook, got fired for an argument that someone else started and became homeless. “Since he’s homeless he can’t pay his cellphone bill, and I don’t know how to find him,” Owen said.Protecting whistleblowers was the second objective of the VA law. It created a new unit, the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, to field their complaints. But critics say the law is having the opposite effect, because whistleblowers are now less able to defend themselves against emboldened managers. “It makes people more afraid to come forward for fear of being fired and having less protection to challenge it,” said Cathie McQuiston, the AFGE’s deputy general counsel. Cashour, the VA spokesman, said employees who believe they face retaliation should contact the accountability office.But some suspect the accountability office is acting on management’s behalf instead of defending people who reveal problems or wrongdoing. Doug Massey, a union official who works at the Board of Veterans Appeals, complained about a supervisor to Peter O’Rourke, the head of the accountability office. An investigation was launched, Massey said — but it focused on Massey, not the supervisor, and was conducted by an aide to the supervisor Massey had complained about. (The investigation centers on claims that Massey had created a hostile work environment, allegations he said were fabricated in retribution for his complaint.) O’Rourke, who became the VA’s chief of staff on Feb. 16, referred questions to Cashour, who disputed Massey’s account. “Those claims are false,” Cashour said, adding that the investigation of Massey was warranted. “VA does not tolerate retaliation.”Another employee, Melissa Mason, was fired after bringing concerns to management. ProPublica reviewed hundreds of pages of emails, complaints and responses in her case — including internal documents written by the VA. Ironically, the problem stemmed from the fact that Mason, then the chief of medical administration service for the VA system that covers the regions of Laredo, Corpus Christi and more in Texas, wanted to avoid the very problems that led to scandal in Phoenix. A 30-year veteran of the agency with a spotless record, Mason, 54, complained of a long backlog in medical appointments. When a supervisor wondered why her metrics looked bad, she answered that the problem was a lack of physicians. She didn’t want to reset the clock on appointments, which she said “would look like we are gaming the system … to make the number look good.”Eventually, after Mason escalated the issue to a more senior supervisor, she was reprimanded for “not following instructions” on a training document, according to a memo obtained by ProPublica. Mason countered that she lacked staff and had received conflicting directions. The reprimand was eventually withdrawn.Still, sensing hostility, Mason asked to be transferred to a different facility. She filed a whistleblower complaint with OSC, claiming mismanagement and retaliation.In March 2017, Mason was given a performance-based bonus but two months later received her first-ever unsatisfactory review. She agreed to take a demotion and pay cut. At that point she was just hoping to stick it out until she became eligible to retire.But Mason’s situation kept getting worse. She started facing investigations, which never went anywhere, for belittling a subordinate (who denied it ever happened) and for falsifying time cards (because she helped log out an employee who had to leave for a family emergency). She later discovered, through documents she obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, that officials said to be careful what documents they showed her because she’s a “documented whistleblower.” With her termination looking increasingly likely, in August last year she expressed her frustrations in an email to VA chief Shulkin. “I don’t want to be a whistleblower,” she wrote. “I don’t want to be in the papers, on TV, interviewed or in front of Congress. ... I told the truth. I don’t want to be punished for telling the truth. I just want to be left alone to do a job.”On Aug. 22, Mason received notice that she was being fired under the new law for conduct unbecoming a federal employee, failure to follow policies and procedures, and lack of candor.She left work only to be given a temporary reprieve: As long as OSC was investigating her whistleblower complaint, the VA couldn’t end her employment. OSC told the VA to let her return to work pending its review.“Ms. Mason has cases that are currently active before the Office of Special Counsel and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” said VA spokesman Cashour. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is cooperating fully in these matters to ensure her rights as a federal employee are protected. We cannot comment further on these pending matters.”Today, Mason remains on the job — but she doesn’t feel shielded by the Whistleblower Protection Act. “I’m so tired of the BS,” she confided to a coworker in an instant message. “They can still mess with me. Just in a different way.”
Injured Nuclear Workers Finally Had Support. The Trump Administration Has Mothballed It.
by Rebecca Moss, The Santa Fe New Mexican Nearly three years ago, President Barack Obama responded to long-standing concerns that workers exposed to toxic chemicals at the country’s nuclear weapons labs were not receiving proper compensation.Obama created an advisory board to be composed of scientists, doctors and worker advocates. Their recommendations have led to significant changes, including the repeal of a rule that made it more difficult for workers who’d been injured in the last two decades to get compensation.President Donald Trump and his administration have taken a different approach: His Labor Department has let nearly all of the board member’s terms expire — and so far hasn’t nominated new ones.“For two years our board put a lot of brain power and cutting-edge expertise into developing recommendations,” said Ken Silver, an occupational health professor at East Tennessee State University, who until last month was a board member. “Without appointing another board, those recommendations may disappear into the ether.”Silver was one of 14 members on the Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health whose terms expired in February. The remaining member’s term expires in the middle of this month. The Department of Labor has kept silent on when it will appoint a new board. Meetings have been put on hold until further notice, according to the Labor Department’s website.The department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, in a letter sent this week to Cold War Patriots, a workers’ advocacy group, an agency official said nominations are still being reviewed.The now-defunct board is among a long list of vacancies that plague the Department of Labor, where four of 14 key politically appointed positions lack nominees, and five others haven’t been confirmed by the Senate, according to data collected by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. More broadly, the Trump administration has faced ongoing criticism for its inability to fill key government jobs — and keep high-level jobs staffed. The vacancies have in many cases depleted the ability of federal officials to do their jobs and made it more difficult for people to access public services, critics say. The ProPublica Local Reporting NetworkThis story is part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, an initiative supporting seven local and regional newsrooms this year as they work on important investigative projects affecting their communities. The topics include conflicts of interest, housing, mental health care, criminal justice and workplace safety. Read more about the journalists we’re collaborating with. Chris Lu, who served as deputy labor secretary under Obama, said his former agency is hamstrung with so many positions vacant.“You have seen this happen throughout the federal government,” he said. “It reflects a larger level of disorganization, some might say dysfunction.”“It is very troubling that this board is allowed to lapse,” he said, adding that the board was critical to making needed changes in the compensation program.The advisory board’s main function is to serve as a check for the Department of Labor’s Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which has faced criticism for delaying sick workers’ claims for years and being deliberately complex and opaque. Though its recommendations aren’t binding, the Labor Department under Obama took action on some of them.Since 2001, the illness compensation program has paid upwards of $14 billion in medical benefits and compensation to more than 118,000 Department of Energy employees who worked at the nation’s nuclear facilities such as Los Alamos National Laboratory, and have been diagnosed with radiation- and chemically-induced diseases. Thousands of additional claims are pending. (A separate board, which remains active, advises the federal government on radiation-related claims.)But the way in which the Labor Department has administered the program has been criticized. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that in roughly 10 percent of toxic substance claims reviewed, officials had denied them without looking at the scope of the chemicals and risks present at the work site. Moreover, the GAO found, decisions over benefit awards contained inaccuracies — including the wrong medical conditions — and were not consistently reviewed by supervisors.Another GAO report from 2010 found there was no independent oversight or expertise in how the department handled chemical-related claims. As a result, there was little way to show decisions were scientifically or medically sound, the report found. It also found limited transparency in how the department handled chemical claims.Advocates say the now-defunct board was changing things and are concerned about what its absence might mean, particularly if it drags on.Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who supported legislation to establish the board in 2014, said he and workers’ advocates are concerned about the board’s lapse and said it could harm the scientific integrity of the Department of Labor program.“DOL’s failure to reappoint the board by last month’s deadline is worrisome, and I urge the department to take quick action to ensure qualified individuals are in place as soon as possible,” he said in an email. “Any extended lapse of the board would be extremely concerning and potentially hazardous to the health and livelihoods of workers throughout New Mexico and the nation.” Read More Federal Watchdog Identifies New Workplace Safety Problems at Los Alamos Lab The birthplace of the atomic bomb couldn’t account for a toxic metal used in nuclear weapons production, potentially exposing workers to harm. The National Nuclear Security Administration acknowledges its oversight was “insufficient,” but says it is not aware of any workers who were exposed. New Mexico is home to two of 17 national laboratories — Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories — and receives the most Energy Department funding of any state.Last December, Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both of Washington state, wrote to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, urging him to reappoint the 13 members of the board who asked to continue serving, saying the recommendations made by the board have “strong scientific and medical rationale and have been thoroughly debated.” (Two members did not want to be reappointed.)“The [compensation] program is vital to many of our constituents who have and continue to work at Hanford in extremely hazardous conditions,” they wrote, referring to the Hanford nuclear site in their home state. They added that the board has only acted to improve the program’s handling of toxic exposure claims.Many of the claims date back decades, when worker protections were minimal — or absent. It was commonplace for workers to perform dangerous tasks for months or years without protective clothing, masks or health monitoring, and without being told of the potential risks. Some board members and doctors say they are seeing more workers whose claims are tied to exposures in recent years.Cold War Patriots and the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, another national organization that supports the rights of nuclear workers, sent similar letters to the Labor Department asking for current members to be quickly reappointed.Workers advocates are also concerned about the Trump administration’s handling of other labor issues. In the last year, the administration has repealed executive orders put in place by Obama that required federal contractors to disclose labor law violations. The Labor Department also overturned recordkeeping enforcement for workplace injuries and illnesses and stalled regulations that would have better protected workers from silica exposure, which can cause lung cancer.The vacant board may indicate larger issues with oversight for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.“It is a complicated program,” said Dr. Steven Markowitz, who was the board’s chairman and is a professor at Queens College at CUNY School of Public Health in New York. “It took us a while and I think we are still learning. If they were to appoint a new set to go through that learning curve again, that would be kind of a shame.” While the board is only required to meet twice a year, in its first two years it held six full board meetings and 17 subcommittee meetings. Markowitz said delays in appointments will further set back future board meetings, which must be scheduled in the Federal Register at least six weeks out, and could create a loss of momentum.During their last meeting, on January 30, board members compiled a nine-point list of pending items and suggestions for a new board to address, such as reassessing the standard by which workers’ chemical exposures are reviewed during the claims process and gathering data on the types of claims the Labor Department most frequently denies.Silver, the former board member, said the board served as a check against “a sometimes insular bureaucracy, so without our board, policies and procedures for adjudicating these claims will regress to stale thinking.”The board was created only after years of intense lobbying. In 2014, Congress passed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, calling for the board to be appointed by the president. In June 2015, Obama issued an executive order, transferring that authority to the labor secretary, effectively giving the department the power to decide who would hold it accountable.Over the next nine months, lawmakers reached a compromise with the White House. Rather than have then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez select the board, a three-member team of senior federal officials reviewed and recommended the 15 final nominees. Perez appointed their choices. Finally, in April 2016, the toxic substances board convened for the first time.It is not clear if Acosta, the current labor secretary, will follow the same process. Udall said he hopes the new board members will be as independent as the ones they will replace.“Protecting our workforce and compensating workers exposed to harmful substances is of paramount importance,” Udall said. “Especially when the federal government itself is the employer.”
We’ve Updated Our Campaign Widget to Better Help You Follow the Money
by David Eads Look closely at these two versions of “The Money Game,” our widget to chart contributions to candidates in the Illinois governor’s race. The two versions — one the original, the second updated to include data from two years earlier — tell different stories: Original: Updated: In the first, which looks at fundraising dating to Jan. 1, 2017, Gov. Bruce Rauner shows no self-funding. That’s correct: The Republican incumbent didn’t donate any money to his campaign in 2017 or the first two months of 2018.In the second, which dates to Jan. 1, 2015, we get a more comprehensive view of Rauner’s contributions across the board. It shows he gave his campaign fund, Citizens for Rauner, $50 million on Dec. 20, 2016.If you just look at the first version, Rauner isn’t self-funded.If you look at the second, he is. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Our decision to update the widget to include data from earlier years points to another bit of tricky business: the definition of a campaign. In many cases, candidates and their supporters create political action committees, or PACs, that span election cycles and engage in activities that don't fit the traditional functions of a campaign. PACs frequently transfer money to other PACs to support other candidates or causes.Citizens for Rauner is focused on the governor’s re-election, but it also pours money into the campaigns of candidates for other offices. For a time, some of his campaign aides ran a separate PAC that supported or opposed other state legislative candidates.In the end, we decided to track everything coming into and going out of the candidates’ own campaign funds, but not PACs run by supporters or allies. The best we can do is be transparent about how we’re choosing to present numbers. There will always be tradeoffs.
ProPublica Wins Five SABEW Awards for Business Journalism
by ProPublica The Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) announced today that ProPublica won five awards in its Best in Business competition recognizing excellence in business journalism.Marshall Allen’s “Wasted Medicine” won for health/science. The series identified shocking examples of the hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. wastes each year on health care. Allen’s work also pointed to solutions that could save money, making more dollars available for other needs and lowering the cost of care for everyone.“Too Broke for Bankruptcy” by Paul Kiel and Hannah Fresques won in the investigative category. Their reporting showed that the bankruptcy system routinely fails those it is meant to aid and punishes poor black Americans in particular. Securing never-before-released data and doing sophisticated analysis, they showed in stark detail that blacks were failing to finish their bankruptcy payment plans in startling numbers—leaving them in worse straits. Zooming in closer on a couple of cities, they found this cycle of loss was driven largely by a particular style of bankruptcy practiced by white attorneys in the South.The “Automating Hate” series won in the technology category. The collaboration with The New York Times and German news organizations -- by Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Lauren Kirchner, Ariana Tobin, Madeleine Varner, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Rob Weychert, Noam Scheiber, Hannes Grassegger, Stefanie Dodt -- exposed the underside of Facebook’s success by documenting sometimes illegal policies that the world’s largest social network has long hidden. Among other practices, the series revealed that Facebook was enabling right-wing groups to target pitches to “Jew Haters,” landlords to block African-Americans from seeing ads for apartments, and dozens of companies to limit recruitment ads to younger workers.Peter Elkind’s “The Billion-Dollar Loophole,” co-published with Fortune, won for banking/finance. The investigation exposed a popular charitable donation tax scheme for the very rich that is being manipulated to make big profits, and how it’s costing the government billions in lost revenue.Michael Grabell’s “Sold for Parts” won in the explanatory category. A collaboration with the New Yorker, it told the story of how Case Farms, a chicken processing company with plants in Ohio and North Carolina, built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants — undocumented, and some underage — and subjecting them to harsh, even illegal, workplace conditions. The company then used their workers’ undocumented status to get rid of them if they protested or were injured on the job.Learn more about the SABEW Awards, and see a list of all the winners here.
The Trump Appointee Behind the Move to Add a Citizenship Question to the Census
by Justin Elliott In December, the Department of Justice requested that the Census Bureau add a question to the 2020 survey that would ask respondents to reveal whether or not they are U.S. citizens. Since ProPublica first reported the DOJ’s letter, civil rights groups and congressional Democrats have announced their opposition, arguing that in the midst of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown, the question will lead many people to opt out of the census, resulting in an inaccurate population count.A lot is at stake. The once-a-decade population count determines how House seats are distributed and helps determine where hundreds of billions of federal dollars are spent.But one question regarding the December letter remained unclear. The letter was signed by a career staffer in a division of the DOJ whose main function is handling budget and procurement matters. Who, observers wondered, was actually driving the policy change?Emails obtained by ProPublica in response to a Freedom of Information Act request provide an answer: The letter was drafted by a Trump political appointee who is best known for his work defending Republican redistricting efforts around the country.John Gore, who since last summer has been the acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, drafted the original letter to the Census Bureau, the emails show. In one email, Arthur Gary, the career official who signed the letter, noted that it was sent “at the request of leadership, working with John.”Gore came to the Trump administration from the law firm Jones Day, where he was an appellate specialist best known for defending a range of Republican state redistricting plans that were attacked as racial gerrymandering by opponents. Gore, for example, helped defend a Virginia redistricting that was ultimately thrown out by a court which ruled that the legislators had focused too much on race. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email The emails show Gore sending a draft of the census letter to Gary in early November under the subject line, “Close Hold: Draft Letter.” Gary signed and sent the letter the next month and then emailed a note to Gore confirming it was being mailed.It’s not clear why Gore, who did not respond to a request for comment, didn’t sign the letter himself. The Justice Department press office also did not respond to requests for comment.ProPublica previously reported that Gore wrote a filing changing the department’s position in litigation challenging Texas’ voter ID law. The Obama-era DOJ had pursued litigation claiming that the Texas statute intentionally discriminated against minority voters; the Trump administration then withdrew the claim. Gore wrote the filing largely by himself but asked career attorneys who’d long been involved in the case to sign it.A decision on adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census is expected by the end of the month and will be made by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.Separately, the Trump administration has taken a second step that suggests a philosophical commitment to including citizenship questions as part of the census. It selected as its first political appointee at the Census Bureau a longtime legislative aide to former Sen. David Vitter. The Louisiana Republican made headlines for years by repeatedly introducing controversial proposals for the census to ask about citizenship and immigration status.Christopher Stanley, who left his job on Capitol Hill late last year, will take one of the Census Bureau’s three politically appointed positions, as the chief of congressional affairs. It’s not clear when Stanley will begin but a spokesman for the Commerce Department confirmed the selection to ProPublica. The position does not require confirmation by the Senate.Stanley does not appear to have made public statements about the census. But he was Vitter’s legislative aide when the senator introduced a series of measures to change the census that elicited fierce opposition. Stanley worked as an aide to Vitter, first in the House and then in the Senate, for over 15 years, ultimately rising to be the senator’s legislative director. Before the last census in 2010, Vitter led a legislative effort to get the bureau to add a question about citizenship. It failed. At the time Vitter criticized the system of congressional apportionment for being based on the count of all residents, not just U.S. citizens. “States that have large populations of illegals would be rewarded for that. Other states, including my home state of Louisiana, would be penalized,” he said at the time. The proposal was attacked by civil rights groups.Vitter tried again in 2014. And in 2016, he introduced another amendment that would have required the census to ask about both citizenship and immigration status.Since the U.S. Constitution was adopted, the full, once-a-decade census has always inquired about U.S. residents — or “free persons” as the original language put it — rather than citizens. At times in the past, the census inquired about citizenship, but last did so in 1950. The Census Bureau currently asks about citizenship on a much longer survey that goes to a small percentage of U.S. households.Stanley did not return requests for comment.Asked if Stanley’s selection signaled anything about the administration’s policy on the census, Department of Commerce spokesman James Rockas said: “We value Mr. Stanley’s many years of Capitol Hill experience. Legislative affairs aides implement policy, they do not decide it.”Vitter’s stated reason for adding a citizenship question — to change congressional apportionment — contrasts with the December letter from the Department of Justice to the Census Bureau. That letter argues that more data on U.S. citizens is needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Florida’s Governor Will Sign Bill Expanding Workers’ Comp Benefits for First Responders
by Abe Aboraya Josh Vandegrift was just starting a 24-hour shift for the Cocoa Fire Department on Florida’s Space Coast when the call came in: A pedestrian had been hit by a vehicle about 100 yards from the station where he worked.Vandegrift and other firefighter paramedics responded by ambulance, and Vandegrift cleared bystanders out of the way.“I looked down and I saw my brother’s face on the patient,” he said.Nate Vandegrift, his younger brother, had been hit by a commercial van crossing the street. Josh Vandegrift reverted back to his training and began to treat his brother. Then he was removed from the scene by police officers. “I remember just absolutely losing it in the middle of the road.”Nate Vandegrift died July 30, 2016, about eight hours after the accident. Since then, Josh Vandegrift has had nightmares and flashbacks. He avoids the intersection if possible. The ProPublica Local Reporting NetworkThis story is part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, an initiative supporting seven local and regional newsrooms this year as they work on important investigative projects affecting their communities. The topics include conflicts of interest, housing, mental health care, criminal justice and workplace safety. Read more about the journalists we’re collaborating with. Doctors diagnosed Vandegrift with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by reliving an event through flashbacks and nightmares, and he began having trouble at home and at work. He took his sick time and vacation time, and when that ran out, coworkers donated their sick time to him. When that ran out, in August 2016, he applied for workers’ compensation.A few weeks later, he got a letter from the Florida Department of Financial Services, which administers the state’s workers’ compensation system, denying his claim for lost wages. The reason cited: “Per Florida statute, medical benefits only are payable for a mental or nervous injury.”“I had to go back to work or resign, basically,” said Vandegrift, who returned to work. “I have good days, and I have really bad days, and everything in between. Every day, I walk through a different part of hell and have to figure out how to navigate it.”Right now, Florida first responders can get medical coverage under workers’ comp if they get PTSD on the job, but not lost wages. About a third of states have similar laws.But that’s about to change. The Florida Senate approved a bill on Saturday that would cover lost wages for first responders with PTSD, and the House followed suit on Monday.Today, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he would sign the bill. Read More First Responders in Florida Aren’t Covered for PTSD. That May Change After Parkland. Like many states, Florida does not provide lost wages to first responders disabled with PTSD. A bill that would change that is now gaining momentum after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month. “I intend to sign it as soon it makes it to my desk,” Scott said, speaking at an event to honor firefighters who died in the line of duty last year. “What this will do is ensure firefighters suffering from PTSD can receive workers’ comp benefits."Florida Chief Financial Officer and Fire Marshall Jimmy Patronis called PTSD a “hidden killer” of first responders.“This benefit is needed so we ensure that our firefighters don't have this as their only option, our first responders don't look to suicide as the outlet to sort through the demons they deal with and these horrific images,” Patronis said.Changing the law has not been easy. Legislation was introduced after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016. The shooting left 49 people dead. At least three first responders to the shooting have publicly disclosed that they have a PTSD diagnosis.But the bill languished in Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature last year, and a related measure’s prospects were uncertain this year. After the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, in which 17 people died, the bill’s main opposition backed off.The Florida League of Cities had been against the bill, raising concerns about the costs to local governments that pay for police and fire departments. But the league dropped its opposition after the Parkland shooting.Gerry Realin, a former Orlando Police Department officer, was the first to publicly disclose a PTSD diagnosis after Pulse. He spent hours inside Pulse, preparing the 49 dead to be transported.During the final vote in the Florida House on Monday, Realin was watching from the gallery. He was given a standing ovation by lawmakers. He said it was a new feeling. “It was the first time it seemed like our leaders were backing me up,” Realin said.Realin said other first responders dealing with PTSD have reached out to him for guidance.“Some of them recently, I told them to just hold on because I think change is coming,” Realin said.Before the final floor vote, Florida Rep. Matt Willhite, a Democrat from Palm Beach, looked up to the gallery where Linda Benoway was watching. Willhite told her he was sorry.Her son Stevie LaDue, 55, committed suicide in September. Before his retirement after 30 years as a Tampa firefighter, he tried to get workers’ comp because of PTSD. When the state denied his claim, he had to go back to work and pay back the time he missed. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email “Why I say I’m sorry to you is because the system failed you, and prior to today, we failed you,” Willhite said. “Your son, this may have saved his life.”After Willhite spoke, the bill passed unanimously.The bill comes too late for Vandegrift, one of dozens of first responders who have answered WMFE and ProPublica’s request to hear from first responders suffering from PTSD. The legislation will cover people who make a workers’ comp claim after October 1, 2018, as long as the triggering event was within the prior year.That means Parkland first responders could be covered, but responders to the Pulse nightclub shooting would not. Vandegrift said he knew before he started advocating for the law that it likely wouldn’t apply to him.“If anything happens in the future, something is in place now so nobody will have to go through what I went through and what Gerry [Realin] went through, just trying to get help to be better,” Vandegrift said. “You know, to be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
Apply to Be ProPublica’s Newest Design Fellow and Help Build Our Local Reporting Network
by ProPublica We’re seeking a design fellow to be part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, our recently announced initiative to support local journalism.We’re covering the salaries of, and providing editorial support for, reporters to do investigative journalism at seven local news organizations across the country this year. We’re also collaborating with those newsrooms to create the most compelling presentations for their work. That’s where this fellowship comes in.The fellow will work as part of our award-winning Design & Production group, collaborating directly with team members to build story packages that are both exemplary pieces of journalism and forward-thinking in terms of design and execution. The Design & Production group values inclusive, user-focused design and does not adhere to the idea of service desks or assembly lines.What to expect from this role:
What We Found in Trump’s Drained Swamp: Hundreds of Ex-Lobbyists and D.C. Insiders
by Derek Kravitz, Al Shaw and Isaac Arnsdorf When the Trump administration took office early last year, hundreds of staffers from lobbying firms, conservative think tanks and Trump campaign groups began pouring into the very agencies they once lobbied or whose work they once opposed.Today we’re making available, for the first time, an authoritative searchable database of 2,475 political appointees, including Trump’s Cabinet, staffers in the White House and senior officials within the government, along with their federal lobbying and financial records. Trump Town is the result of a year spent filing hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests; collecting and organizing staffing lists; and compiling, sifting through and publishing thousands of financial disclosure reports. We found 187 former lobbyists who work in the Trump administration. Here’s what we found: At least 187 Trump political appointees have been federal lobbyists, and despite President Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp,” many are now overseeing the industries they once lobbied on behalf of. We’ve also discovered ethics waivers that allow Trump staffers to work on subjects in which they have financial conflicts of interest. In addition, at least 254 appointees affiliated with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and at least 125 staffers from prominent conservative think tanks are now working in the federal government, many of whom are on teams to repeal Obama-era regulations.Drilling down even further, at least 35 Trump political appointees worked for or consulted with groups affiliated with the the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, who also have a network of advocacy groups, nonprofits, private companies and political action committees. At least 25 Trump appointees came from the influential Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank founded in 1973, and at least two came from Heritage Action, its related political nonprofit. Heritage says the Trump administration, in just its first year, has enacted nearly two-thirds of its 334 policy recommendations.We also found — for the first time — dozens of special-government employees, or SGEs, who work as paid consultants or experts for federal agencies while keeping their day jobs in the private sector. This rare government gig allows them to legally work for both industry and the Trump administration at the same time. Under the Obama administration, Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, benefited from this policy while simultaneously working at the State Department, the Clinton Foundation and a corporate consulting firm, drawing scrutiny from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Government Accountability Office.Roughly 60 percent of the Trump administration officials included in our analysis have financial disclosure reports. We have requested these reports for the rest. Since our last update of financial disclosure records in August, we have added 660 such reports from across the government. SGEs are paid consultants or experts for federal agencies while keeping their day jobs in the private sector. We also did a more limited version of this project in 2009, at the start of the Obama administration. As part of this year’s analysis, we compared the number of appointees in the first year of both the Obama and Trump administrations who had been active lobbyists in the two years prior to their nomination for Senate-confirmed government jobs. Even though the Trump administration has lagged significantly behind previous administrations in appointing people for such positions, more Trump appointees were recent lobbyists than Obama appointees: Trump had 18 in his first year, while Obama had 14.“Focusing on novel scandals alone can distract from the enormous scale of the Trump administration’s embrace of revolving-door hiring,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research.The pipelines between conservative policy think tanks — namely the Heritage Foundation and the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce — and the Trump administration are clear, as is their effect on federal policy.Just before Trump took office last January, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, one of the main conservative advocacy groups funded by the Koch Brothers, unveiled a deregulatory wish list. The action plan highlighted 19 Obama-era policies affecting the environment, labor and technology that Freedom Partners wanted gone. “This strategy can help to unravel eight years of regulatory overreach starting immediately,” the organization’s vice president, Andy Koenig, wrote in an accompanying press release. 125 appointees in our database formerly worked at conservative think tanks. A few weeks later, Koenig joined the White House as a policy assistant, putting him in a position to implement his former employer’s agenda. Sure enough, just over a year later, the administration has acted on 16 of the 19 suggestions that Freedom Partners listed.The moratorium on federal coal leases? Lifted. The Paris climate agreement? Withdrawn. The Clean Power Plan? Repealed. The FCC’s net neutrality policy, the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s arbitration rules? All reversed.Freedom Partners and the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.The Trump campaign had a small staff and was light on policy chops, so it leaned heavily on personnel from the Koch network and the Heritage Foundation during the transition. “When you have a president committed to strong deregulatory policy, there’s no better place to figure out what regulations put a stranglehold on the economy than to go to the Koch network and the Heritage Foundation,” said Marc Lampkin, the co-chair of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s lobbying practice and a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner. “It makes perfect sense that they would be part of the intellectual breeding ground for the administration.”The Heritage Foundation has touted its influence over Trump’s agenda. On Jan. 23, the organization said the Trump administration embraced two-thirds of the 334 policy recommendations in its “Mandate for Leadership,” such as shrinking national monuments in Utah, preventing taxpayer funding for international groups involved in abortion (known as the Mexico City Policy), raising military spending, and withdrawing from UNESCO.Heritage cited the efforts of about 70 of its former employees working throughout the transition and administration. Our analysis found 28 officials who used to work at the Heritage Foundation and its advocacy arm, Heritage Action. Not all political appointments are announced. In digging through lists of special-government employees, we found several in key positions in the Trump administration, including Wendy Teramoto, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s chief of staff and a longtime aide at his private equity firm; James D. Ray, a George W. Bush-era staffer who worked as an unpaid consultant at the Department of Transportation while keeping his job as a principal in KPMG’s infrastructure consulting practice; and Leonard Wolfson, who was lobbying on behalf of the Mortgage Bankers Association on Capitol Hill one week before getting paid $64 per hour as an expert at the Department of Housing and Urban Development the next week.Wolfson’s case is a prime example of the inherent business conflicts in such arrangements: Wolfson is a well-known housing lobbyist among House Republicans and served in the Bush administration at HUD from 2005 to 2008. Senate records show Wolfson was actively lobbying on banking legislation and regulatory issues in April and May.By mid-May, Wolfson had taken a relatively rare position as an outside “expert” at HUD while he was still employed at the 2,200-member lobbying group. To take the HUD gig, Wolfson took an unpaid leave from the Mortgage Bankers Association. He didn’t fully resign from the group until July 31.At HUD, Wolfson worked on getting nominees for senior positions at the agency through the backlogged and slow Senate confirmation process, according to HUD officials.Reached for comment, a HUD spokesman denied there was any conflict. “There was absolutely no overlap,” said Brian Sullivan. “He took one hat off and put another one on.”His paid government consulting work this past summer was not previously disclosed. And in December, Wolfson himself was appointed and confirmed as HUD’s assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations.We’re releasing Trump Town as a resource for journalists, researchers and the public. Its goal: to increase understanding of who the current administration’s taxpayer-funded decision-makers are and how their work histories and financial holdings might influence public policy.
How We Compiled Trump Town
by Derek Kravitz, Al Shaw and Claire Perlman Much like previous administrations, President Donald Trump’s team has filled hundreds of appointed positions with allies who can be trusted to carry out their agenda. These appointees include campaign staff, old policy hands at conservative think tanks and former lobbyists who worked on the issues their new agencies cover.A series of required public disclosures filled out by these new appointees tell us who they are. Finding more about these people, including examining their employment histories and probing for any conflicts of interest they may have, is key to ensuring that the people the president has put in positions of enormous influence and power have the best interests of the public in mind.As we did at the beginning of the Obama administration, ProPublica has published a database of who Trump has appointed to run the federal government. Here’s how we assembled it, as well as the caveats to keep in mind if you want to use the data.First, we requested staffing lists of Trump administration political appointees from federal agencies and the Office of Personnel Management, the government’s human resources department, through the Freedom of Information Act.To be more specific, we requested lists of Trump administration political appointees at federal agencies made since Jan. 20, 2017, on a rolling basis. Eighteen agencies and the OPM, which maintains information on all political appointees, have provided employee names at different times over the past year, while three other agencies said they had no new employees to report. Several of the officials on this list have since moved to other agencies or left the federal government. We obtained additional employee information, including job start and end dates, via several rounds of public-records requests to the 24 federal agencies that hired the appointees. So far, 20 agencies have provided this information, while two other agencies said they had no employees to report.We also requested information on the identities and job details of special-government employees, or SGEs, who are paid consultants or experts for federal agencies while keeping their day jobs in the private sector. We have received lists of these employees from seven agencies and are awaiting responses from more than a dozen others.Assembling a list of staffers who work directly in and for the White House has been more difficult, as the White House is exempt from FOIA. We compiled lists of these staffers by partnering with other news organizations and asking the public to help.In April, in partnership with The Associated Press and The New York Times, we created a shareable spreadsheet of the White House office staffers we were able to find out about. The White House released a staff list and salaries in July but has not updated that list.Once we found the names of White House staffers, we requested their financial disclosures from the White House counsel’s office. Some White House disclosure forms have yet to be processed by government attorneys and others have yet to be filed by the new employees. Vice President Mike Pence’s office has refused our requests for copies of the financial disclosures its staffers are required to file.We collected other financial disclosures from Senate-confirmed officials through the U.S. Office of Government Ethics website.We also cross-referenced the data on the OGE’s website with the political appointee tracker maintained by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit group that advises on presidential transitions.For non-Senate-confirmed political appointees at federal agencies, we requested financial disclosures using government forms and ethics offices staffed by attorneys.ProPublica made individual requests to agency ethics offices through an administrative process required by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. These requests were for financial disclosure forms, which include:
Trump Town
by Derek Kravitz, Al Shaw and Claire Perlman
‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast: The Desperation, Secrecy and Conflicts of Jared Kushner’s Company
by Eric Umansky, ProPublica, and Andrea Bernstein, WNYC We’ve seen headline after headline about Jared Kushner. We’ve heard that Trump’s son-in-law company has been on a global search for cash, that the company got giant loans from two big financial firms after Kushner met with officials from the companies in the White House, and that countries believe they can manipulate Kushner through his “complex” business arrangements.Just like his father-in-law, Kushner has not fully divested from his family’s business. He still owns at least $761 million in assets. Meanwhile, the company has found itself owing hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that comes due in less than a year.All of this while the company has worked very hard to keep some of its partners a secret.It all gets back to a familiar question: How can we know whether Kushner is operating in interests of the country or his company?For our episode, we contacted Kushner Companies, which said it “is financially very strong,” and that “Jared Kushner is not in any way involved in the management of the business.” Jared Kushner’s attorney’s spokesman, Peter, Mirijanian told us that Kushner “has followed the ethics advice he has received for all of his work which include the separation from his business and recusals when appropriate.” Listen to the Episode Joining us on the podcast are Bloomberg’s David Kocieniewski and Caleb Melby, who’ve broken a series of stories about the Kushner Companies financial stress. They take us on a tour of some of the Kushner Companies’ marquee properties.And then we take a different kind of tour with ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, who has tracked the travails of Kushner Companies tenants in Baltimore apartment complexes — and the extent to which the Kushner Companies will go to avoid naming their partners.Listen to the episode.And remember, we want to hear from you: Do you happen to know who the Kushner’s business partners are? Perhaps you know about other Kushner financial transactions or his White House meetings?We also want to hear your questions. What would you like to know about Trump’s businesses? What confuses you?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
ProPublica, NPR ‘Lost Mothers’ Series Wins Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting
ProPublica ProPublica and NPR’s series on maternal mortality in the U.S., ‘Lost Mothers’, is the winner of the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Administered by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, the Goldsmith Prize recognizes journalism that encourages good government and public policy by “disclosing excessive secrecy, impropriety, and mismanagement, or instances of particularly commendable government performance.”“Lost Mothers” explored why the U.S., which spends more per capita on health care than any other country, also has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. With stories by ProPublica reporters Nina Martin, Adriana Gallardo and Annie Waldman, as well as NPR special correspondent Renee Montagne, their reporting called out those culpable and showed a way forward that could save lives and families that are too often destroyed by preventable tragedies.The series included intimate narratives of mothers who perished after failing to receive basic care; data analysis that established beyond a doubt the greater risks faced by African-American women; and a first-of-its kind database of the personal stories behind this issue.A key element of the project was a callout, asking people who knew someone who died or nearly died in pregnancy or childbirth to tell ProPublica their stories. Almost 4,500 readers responded, including 3,862 who said they had almost died themselves. These women shared their insights on everything from choosing a provider to grappling with the emotional fallout in a ProPublica article outlining their advice.Prompted by “Lost Mothers,” two state legislators in New Jersey introduced a bill to heighten monitoring of maternal deaths and encourage hospitals to adopt life-saving treatment protocols. The series also had an immediate impact on the lives of readers. Days after giving birth, Marie McCausland in Ohio, Cassi Foley in California, and Nelly Wright in Oregon all suffered from intense pain and rising blood pressure. Yet doctors didn’t tell them how to recognize complications, or dismissed their symptoms as normal. What helped save them was reading a “Lost Mothers” article about a woman who died because her preeclampsia—a type of high blood pressure that only occurs in pregnancy or postpartum—wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late. Recognizing themselves in her plight, the women persisted in seeking treatment, and survived.Learn more about the Goldsmith Prize here.
Trump’s Company Removes Presidential Seal From Golf Course
by Katherine Sullivan The Trump Organization says it has removed golf markers bearing the presidential seal from one of its golf courses.As ProPublica and WNYC reported yesterday, President Trump’s company recently ordered dozens of presidential seals to be used as golf tee markers. It is illegal to use the presidential seal for commercial purposes.In a statement Tuesday morning, a spokesman for the company said, “The plaques were presented to the club by a small group of members, who are incredible fans of the President, in honor of Presidents day [sic] weekend. They were temporary and have since been removed.”As our story noted, an order form for the markers lists them as being bought by “Trump International.”The Trump Organization declined to answer further questions from ProPublica, including where the seals have been used, whether the president sought authorization from the White House counsel’s office, and why the Trump Organization has removed the seals.After issuing a call on social media, we were pointed to an Instagram account containing photos of the presidential seal marker at a golf course. The photos were posted on Sunday evening, before our story was published, and the photo included a caption saying, “My shot landed at the 45 yard marker on 10 at Mar A Lago. Not too shabby.” The account was deleted after commenters noted its connection to our story.Trump’s Mar-a-Lago does not itself have a golf course, but members are given access to nearby Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, a short drive away.ProPublica/WNYC was first directed to the existence of the markers after receiving a tip from a listener to the Trump, Inc. podcast.
Atomwaffen, Extremist Group Whose Members Have Been Charged in Five Murders, Loses Some of Its Platforms
by A.C. Thompson and Ali Winston At least four technology companies have taken steps to bar Atomwaffen Division, a violent neo-Nazi organization, from using their online services and platforms to spread its message or fund its operations.The action comes after ProPublica reports detailing the organization’s terrorist ambitions and revealing that the California man charged with murdering Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old college student found buried in an Orange County park earlier this year, was an Atomwaffen member.Activists and journalists with other media outlets have criticized the tech firms — among them chat services, web merchants, social media channels and gaming platforms — for enabling the outfit, which has members in 23 states and Canada, records show.Here’s a breakdown of what’s happened since ProPublica reported on Feb. 23 that chat logs used by Atomwaffen showed members celebrating Bernstein’s murder. Bernstein was gay and Jewish, and Atomwaffen members took to calling his accused killer, Samuel Woodward, a “one man gay Jew wrecking crew.”DiscordDiscord was designed to allow video gamers to communicate with one another while immersed in multiplayer online games, but over the past year it has been co-opted by white supremacists who have used it to share bomb-making manuals, plot the violent confrontations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and, in the case of Atomwaffen, revel in the killing of Bernstein. Scattered across the country, Atomwaffen members relied on Discord to disseminate confidential information and make organizational plans.After ProPublica obtained more than 250,000 Discord messages posted by Atomwaffen members and reprinted excerpts of those messages as part of our Feb. 23 article, Discord quickly shut down the group’s server.Discord’s terms of service “specifically prohibit harassment, threatening messages, or calls to violence,” the company said in an emailed statement to ProPublica. “There were a handful of servers that violated these ToS recently and were swiftly removed from the platform. We will continue to be aggressive to ensure that Discord exists for the community we set out to support — gamers.”YouTube and SteamAtomwaffen had long posted its propaganda videos, which are full of violent imagery and racist messaging, on YouTube, where the group had its own channel. Then Motherboard, the Daily Beast, and the Anti-Defamation League took on the video-sharing giant.As the Daily Beast noted, Atomwaffen seemed to be in clear violation of YouTube’s policy on hate speech, which bans videos made with “the primary purpose of inciting hatred against individuals or groups based on certain attributes, such as: race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, sexual orientation/gender identity.”At first, YouTube balked at pulling down the videos, which call for “race war now” and the mass murder of Jews. But on Feb. 28, the company reversed its position and terminated the Atomwaffen channel.Still, a second channel maintained by the group, SIEGEtv, which promotes Nazi ideology, is online and active.Motherboard, an arm of Vice Media, also discovered that there was an Atomwaffen group on the community discussion board of Steam, a gaming platform.“The group only has 17 members, but their accounts are a disturbing grab bag of Nazi imagery and Atomwaffen-style propaganda,” Motherboard reported. “The group’s description section clearly states its racist worldview. One member has used the screen name ‘PURE ARYAN 100%,’ and uses a photo of South Carolina mass murderer Dylann Roof as his avatar.”Valve, the parent company of Steam, has deleted the group.InktaleUntil recently, Atomwaffen used Inktale, an online t-shirt retailer, to fund its operations through the sale of Nazi-themed t-shirts. Shirt designs celebrated figures like Charles Manson and Atomwaffen’s ideological inspiration, longtime Nazi James Mason. (The t-shirt with Mason’s image read “Give hate a chance.”)On Feb. 24, Twitter users began confronting the company.
Win or Lose in GOP Primary for Governor, Jeanne Ives Helps Push Illinois to the Right
by Mick Dumke When it comes to politics, there's nowhere like Illinois. Throughout the election season, ProPublica Illinois reporter and political junkie Mick Dumke will analyze the state's political issues and personalities in this occasional column. Republican governor hopeful Jeanne Ives was on her way to a recent campaign stop in the northwest suburbs when she got a call from one of her five kids. There was a problem: After promising to drop off his lunch at school, she’d forgotten all about it.“These are things Bruce Rauner does not worry about — I assure you,” said Ives, a state representative from Wheaton, as she hung up the phone.No matter the issue — even if it’s a teenager’s forgotten sandwich — Ives never misses the chance to highlight her central campaign theme: While she represents and stands up for middle-class families, Rauner, the millionaire incumbent governor, has repeatedly sold them out.It doesn’t matter that Rauner has spent much of his first term blasting the state’s Democratic leadership and pushing to restrict union power — attacks urged on by the right. Ives is now the candidate of choice for a network of top conservatives, many of them former Rauner supporters, who believe he has turned out to be liberal, weak and dishonest.The odds of Ives winning the Republican nomination seem long. In a left-leaning state, Rauner is more centrist than Ives, and certainly better funded — his campaign has collected $82 million in donations since 2015, including more than $57 million from the governor himself. That dwarfs the $3.7 million total received by Ives’ campaign funds.But even if Ives loses, her campaign will have continued conservatives’ long crusade to push Illinois politics to the right. According to that narrative, the state is suffering because Democrats and go-along Republicans squander money on the undocumented, the undeserving and themselves. The more often conservatives tell the story, the more they can hope it’s accepted by the mainstream. Ives is the most recent vehicle for that message. In Republican circles, “anyone who knows, who pays a lick of attention to state government, supports Jeanne — pro-life people, budget [watchdog] people,” said Brian Timpone, a business owner and conservative activist who donated $10,000 to Ives’ campaign. “In the event she loses, we’ll have two Democrats running for governor.”Ives calls herself a “proud” conservative, and neither her backers nor her critics disagree. But while her admirers say the West Point grad is smart, principled and tough, she was widely condemned after she described same-sex marriage as “disordered.”Her mission in politics, Ives often says, is to look out for taxpayers. She said she voted for Rauner in 2014 because he said that was his goal, too. Instead, she said, Rauner was outmaneuvered by House Speaker Michael Madigan and has failed to deliver on promises to confront the state’s deep fiscal problems.But her break with Rauner didn’t come until he signed two Democrat-authored bills last year that infuriated social conservatives: one that restricts cooperation between state officials and federal immigration authorities, the other broadening access to abortion, including for some public aid recipients. Ives and other Rauner critics say he promised to veto the abortion bill and then flip-flopped. Ives has used those issues to fire up the Republican base’s conservative wing, which backers say she needs in a primary. She has criticized Rauner for failing to embrace President Donald Trump. And, in February, she generated outrage when her campaign aired an ad featuring actors who “thank” Rauner for paying for abortions, protecting “illegal immigrant criminals” and allowing a transgender person — played by a large man in a dress — into girls’ bathrooms.Ives won’t say who wrote the ad, calling it a “group effort.” But she stands by its message.The ad illustrates more than the direction of her campaign. It showed Ives had plenty of money to air it because she had the support of many of the state’s top conservative donors and operatives — many of whom, like her, had previously backed Rauner.The “thank you” ad was released just days after Ives’ campaign reported two donations totalling $2.5 million from Richard Uihlein, the Lake Forest businessman who is a frequent donor to conservative causes around the country, including organizations led by the right-wing billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. Once upon a time — during the last election cycle — he gave $2.6 million to Rauner. Uihlein is one of the leading financial supporters of the Illinois Policy Institute, the influential nonprofit think tank that for years has led an attack on government spending, regulations and union rights. He has also contributed more than $12 million to the Liberty Principles super PAC, which is run by Dan Proft, a senior fellow at the institute who said he’s currently on leave to focus on political work. Proft said he is an unpaid adviser to Ives.Many other conservatives with connections to the institute have also contributed to the Ives campaign. They include John Tillman, the CEO of the institute, who gave $5,000 in February. Elizabeth Weiss, who gave Ives $25,000, is married to investment manager Dick Weiss, an institute board member.Ives has also been backed by Illinois Liberty, another political action committee formed and run by leaders of the institute. The committee donated $10,000 to an Ives campaign fund in October, shortly before she launched her run for governor.In an email, Proft didn’t respond to questions about his specific role in Ives’ campaign, or whether he had helped line up donors for it. Proft said it shouldn’t be a surprise that the donors who contribute to his PAC would rally behind “a conservative reform candidate for governor against a traitor like Rauner.”“What are the odds, 1:1?” he wrote.Though they work together “tightly,” Ives said Tillman, Proft and other leaders of the institute did not recruit her to the race. “Obviously they don’t work for me, at all, but when we can help each other on a policy solution, we do,” she said.But Ives said they are not in lockstep, noting that she opposed a school-funding bill last year though Proft pressed for her support because it provides tax credits for private schools. She thought it was a bad deal for taxpayers.“I’m like, ‘No, not doing,’” she said.No matter what happens in the primary, the conservative battle to pull the Republican Party to the right — and the state with it — will not end with Ives, just as it hasn’t ended with Rauner. You can put your money on that — just as the crusade’s wealthy backers have. We’ve Updated ‘The Money Game,’ Our Illinois Governor’s Race Fundraising Widget Loading...Read more about this free, embeddable widget.
We’ve Updated ‘The Money Game,’ Our Illinois Governor’s Race Fundraising Widget
by David Eads Loading...We’ve updated “The Money Game,” our Illinois governor’s race fundraising widget, with improvements to the design and data, as well as the addition of automated cards to share on social media.The data changes are the most significant update. We’re now tracking campaign contributions across a four-year window, compared to two years in the previous version. That’s because many candidates stockpile and transfer money among multiple campaign funds over several campaign seasons.So you’ll see Gov. Bruce Rauner’s contributions to his own campaign have increased. That’s because Rauner gave himself $50 million on Dec. 20, 2016, less than two weeks before our original time window started.In the era of perpetual political campaigns, looking at the full period after the last gubernatorial election provides a richer view of what each candidate has been up to and a better understanding of where the money came from.We’ve also added a cumulative fundraising chart for each candidate and what we hope is an improved summary line.And you can now follow the campaign funding on Twitter and Facebook; we are generating a new social card every morning for you to share. Follow along at @ilgovrace on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks to reader Jim Kang, who gifted us some code he developed at Spotify to make this work.
Two Governments That Remained Silent — and Three Women Who Refuse to Be Quiet
by Cynthia Gordy “Whenever I land in places like Allende, places in Mexico that have lived under siege, I look first for women,” said ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson on Thursday. “I find that women, especially when it comes to the safety of their communities or their families, are less afraid of upsetting the powers that be. So if you can get a woman to open up and talk, they tend to do so with breathtaking openness and honesty.”At an event co-hosted by ProPublica, Audible, National Geographic and the Washington Office on Latin America, Thompson took attendees behind the scenes of her reporting on an investigative oral history that unveiled the tragic story of a drug cartel’s deadly assault on the small Mexican town of Allende in 2011.The story recounted how gunmen from the Zetas drug cartel – seeking vengeance against an alleged informant – swept through Allende, kidnapping and killing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men, women and children. Brushed aside as another ugly incident of cartel violence, the slaughter was barely a blip in the United States or Mexico. Through interviews from both sides of the border, however, Thompson revealed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and its botched operation had triggered the massacre in the first place.Three survivors of the assault spoke with Thompson at Thursday’s event: Claudia Elena Sánchez, a psychologist, who lost her 15-year-old son Gerardo, in the massacre; Etelvina Rodríguez , a school teacher, who lost her husband, Everardo Elizondo; and María Eugenia Vela, a lawyer, who also lost her husband, Edgar Avila.“In this story, we have two governments that have remained silent — and three women who refuse to be quiet,” Thompson said.María Vela on how the Mexican authorities handled the case: “The authorities at that time were totally apathetic. It was a loudly spoken secret that they had no intention of investigating, had no intention of helping. You can't file a complaint because they say that you had to say the names of the persons who had carried out the event. How could I say if I didn't know? I thought that it was sufficient for me to say my husband had disappeared, and there is no word of where he left, for them to investigate. I thought that would be enough, but no. They said if I filed a complaint, I was going to have problems because then they were going to come after me or they were going to bother me and go to my house and knock on my door. So, the authorities never took any interest in investigating, to this day.”Claudia Elena Sánchez on returning to the ranch where her son Gerardo and others were killed: “What we did is, I had many rosaries and prayer chains that we had taken, so we created a grave there. We had a cross, and I began throwing around rosaries. And the priest who came behind me; I began to do like that. And then we prayed for my son and for all of the human beings who they killed there.It was a genocide, Ginger. You hear about Rwanda in 1994. At that time, I was getting married, and you can't imagine the situation, and now we had it right in front of us. It's not possible for people to take other persons' lives, to kill them and burn them. Where can there be so much cruelty? And then you're not given the body, the corpse of your loved one. What right do they think they have? The politicians, those in the government, they have no idea of the pain that it causes in your family, for them to destroy your family. Now, seven years later, I can tell you that I'm strong and that I have a passion to live, and I can tell you that, when I see my children, Gerardo is still with me. If I'm still here, it's because that angel continues to give me life from the day he was born, and they were not able to take us down.”Etelvina Rodríguez on finding out that the United States played a role in the massacre: “I think that it was irresponsible. They don't have any idea how they mutilated our families, our lives, the lives of our children and of society in general because a phenomenon was created in a particular case of Allende that was an extreme situation of abuse of violence, of indifference to what many of us have been going through. And all of this because of a bad decision by some persons, by bad processes that we have no idea about because we are people who are law‑abiding citizens. We work day to day, and we inculcate values in our children such as respect for others, for life, and that's what they did to us. We're not a bad community. We're not a region where this is anything normal. Nonetheless, we have suffered the consequences, and this has changed all of us.” The event also previewed an excerpt from The Making of a Massacre, a five-part Audible original series developed from ProPublica’s reporting. The first episode is available for free on Audible now, and additional episodes will roll out later this year. Sign up for our email newsletter to get updates.
ProPublica Is Seeking Fellows for Its Electionland Project
by ProPublica We are looking for data and reporting fellows to join one of America’s most innovative (and fun) investigative newsrooms to work on covering the 2018 election. You won’t be covering the horse race — you’ll be covering voting itself: voting rights, election integrity, cyber security of election systems, etc. And you’ll be helping journalists across the country cover it, too.Electionland started in the run-up to the 2016 election. It was the largest collaborative journalism project ever to cover a single event. More than 1,100 journalists took part. This is your chance to be at the very center of its next chapter. You’ll report your own stories — like this one — and help support dozens of hand-picked journalists do local reporting — like this — on voting rights and election integrity.Reporting fellows at ProPublica have gone on to work at The New York Times, Bloomberg, Politico, NPR, Center for Public Integrity and the Chicago Tribune — as well as ProPublica itself.The fellowship is full time, runs from early June through the election, and is paid. It will be based at our newsroom in New York.There are two kinds of fellowships available: Reporting and Data/Interactive Graphics.For the reporting fellowship, we’re looking for someone who:
The Price They Pay
by Katie Thomas, The New York Times, and Charles Ornstein, ProPublica
The Six Stages of Trump’s Resistance
by Peter Elkind In the grand scheme of his many legal and regulatory conflicts, President Donald Trump’s spats with state regulators over damaged wetlands and excess water use at his New Jersey golf courses seem almost trivial. Trump ultimately was fined $147,000 — less than he banks from a couple of new memberships at the two private country clubs where he was cited for breaking state law. Both disputes were resolved during his presidential campaign and went unnoticed in the press.Yet, as small as the sum was for a man like Trump, these two episodes are telling, not just because his resistance to oversight seems so disproportionate to the underlying allegations, but also because they provide a revealing anatomy of the five primary stages of Trump response. They could be summarized as Delay, Dissemble, Shift Blame, Haggle and Get Personally Involved. (The elements can be used in any order, more than once.) Often, there’s a sixth stage, too: Offer a job to one of the key players on the opposing side. Trump deployed those tactics again and again in his titanic real estate battles in New York, and his mega-dollar fights over casinos in New Jersey, according to Wayne Barrett’s biography, “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall.”The stakes may have been smaller on the golf courses, but documents and interviews show the playbook was the same. Historically, Trump’s approach has proved effective, and so it was in New Jersey. The Trump Organization’s repeated infractions at the two clubs lingered unresolved for years. In the end, Trump paid just a fraction of the penalties that state law allows. Then the key regulator, who helped negotiate the generous terms, signed on to a job in the Trump campaign.The conflicts with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection began on a 500-acre property once owned by disgraced carmaker John DeLorean, which Trump bought for $35 million in 2002. Situated in horse country 40 miles west of Manhattan, the site is now familiar as the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. It’s where President-elect Trump paraded cabinet aspirants before the media; where he plays golf on warm-weather weekends; and where he’s spoken about wanting to be laid to rest after his final deal is done.Trump transformed the property, building two golf courses, a 25-meter heated pool, tennis courts, clubhouse, fitness center, guest cottages and a helipad. The president has a home at the club; so do Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who were married there. The membership fee has been variously reported at between $100,000 and $350,000.The violations at Bedminster date back to 2009. At the time, Trump had recently added a second golf course and was making improvements on the first. In the process of reshaping the land — building tee boxes and cart paths and clearing lines of play — his workers chopped down trees, uprooted vegetation and covered open waters. Trump was legally permitted to make changes on the property, but state law required that certain portions, particularly sensitive wetlands, be left untouched.The Bedminster mini-saga began with what appeared to be a forthright admission of responsibility. On May 29, 2009, Edward Russo, then Trump’s environmental consultant, “self-reported” damage to 4.34 acres of wetlands, open waters and wetland transition areas. In doing so, the Trump Organization was seeking forgiveness under a DEP policy that allows as much as a 100 percent reduction in fines for offenders who voluntarily disclose violations “in a timely manner” and correct them promptly.Subsequent violations would not be self-reported in a timely manner — indeed, they wouldn’t be self-reported at all — and the series of infractions would take six years to resolve. Indeed, before the first problem was even addressed, state inspectors began discovering more damage during follow-up visits, a problem that continued over the succeeding two years. The violations seemed to multiply faster than the Trump promises to fix them. It didn’t help that Trump’s representatives sometimes dissembled. In August 2009, for example, a state inspector discovered that trees had “suspiciously” been removed from protected wooded wetland corridors near eight Bedminster golf holes — coincidentally, just where it would be necessary to allow golfers to play through.Trump’s consultants insisted a state-approved forestry plan allowed the tree-cutting, according to state inspection reports. An examination of the plan showed just the opposite: The plan recommended “no tree harvesting” where workers had cut paths.New Jersey officials appeared to lose patience. They formally served Trump National with a six-page “Notice of Violation” in May 2011, warning: “ALL UNAUTHORIZED ACTIVITIES MUST CEASE IMMEDIATELY.” The state demanded a prompt plan to avoid further damage and restore the protected areas. DEP officials met again at the course two months later to discuss the situation — only to discover even more “new areas of violation.”Time kept slipping away and by 2013, Trump’s consultants made a new attempt to avoid responsibility, this time by shifting blame. They fingered two improbable culprits, according to a chronology later prepared by the state: the New Jersey Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Trump’s team insisted, in a May 2013 meeting, that considerable environmental damage had occurred at the direction of those institutions, which were collaborating with Trump to create grassland bird habitat on the property.Both New Jersey Audubon and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials dismiss the notion they had anything to do with damaging protected areas. “Any kind of practice we would recommend wouldn’t adversely affect the wetlands,” commented Fish and Wildlife biologist Brian Marsh, who worked on the Bedminster project. “We’re all about doing restoration and enhancing habitat.” In addition, the habitat work hadn’t begun until the fall of 2012 — more than a year after Trump’s club had already been cited for the destruction of wetlands. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Asked about the environmental conflict, Russo said that Trump executives have barred him from commenting publicly. (He ended more than a dozen years as a consultant for the Trump Organization shortly after the presidential election.) Russo self-published a book entitled “Donald J. Trump: An Environmental Hero,” and citing that book, he dismissed the state complaints as “technical paperwork matters.” He characterized what he called efforts to “expand and enhance habitats” at Bedminster as a “tremendous environmental success.” He also acknowledged that environmental groups had nothing to do with any violations and added, “The DEP’s inference that I was in any way blaming Audubon and Fish and Wildlife was not my intent at all.”Emails to the Trump Organization seeking comment went unanswered.Nearly four years into the Bedminster spat, the case remained unresolved. In February 2013, state officials drafted a proposed consent order to settle the matter. It cited Trump’s club for damaging nearly 16 acres of protected areas — more than three times as much as the club had reported back in 2009.Still, it would take another two and a half years to reach a settlement, as the Trump Organization haggled over what damage it could and couldn’t restore to its natural state — the latter because it was deemed essential for the “playability” of the golf course. Said DEP regional enforcement supervisor Peter Keledy: “They were defending every square inch.” To compensate for those sections, Trump offered instead to establish several acres of new wetland and “natural areas” elsewhere on the property.Meanwhile, the Trump Organization was racking up violations at its second country club, in Colts Neck, near the Jersey Shore. Trump had purchased the 300-acre golf course out of foreclosure in 2008, spent millions to upgrade the property, and renamed it Trump National Colts Neck.But he had a problem: Irrigating the course properly, in Trump’s view, required far more water than the site was allowed under its state permit. It was already using about twice its annual limit.In 2011, Trump sought a new permit that would more than triple his yearly water allowance. This was not a popular request at a time when Colts Neck Township had just suffered a drought. Almost all the houses in the community relied on groundwater wells, and some had gone dry the previous summer.Relations between the township and Trump were prickly. Residents bristled at his proposal to build a landing pad for his helicopter at the club. Colts Neck rejected the helipad but Trump then waged an extended court fight, including appeals, and won. That prompted the township’s mayor to decry his “bully mentality.” For a person who helicoptered into town, Trump seemed very sensitive to noise: He was so irked by a dog whose barking disturbed his golf game that he personally sent a police officer to the home of one neighbor to complain, according to a statement the neighbor gave to the board of adjustment.After a public hearing, the state granted Trump a new water permit in August 2011 with the big increase he wanted, but only if he met certain conditions. Trump would need to make costly alterations to three irrigation ponds on the course, and construct a fourth. This would assure that the club’s increased water use came from sources that weren’t likely to drain the supply for homeowners. But relying on the ponds would also require the club to periodically draw them down to water the property, leaving a mucky eyesore for golfers.Clearly unhappy about the situation, Trump got personally involved. In October 2012, he called DEP Commissioner Robert Martin to discuss the matter. What Trump said is unknown, but a letter that Martin sent him afterwards alluded to the discussion: “The location of this golf course with respect to the availability of water supply is very challenging,” Martin wrote Trump. The commissioner urged him to fulfill the conditions spelled out in the water permit. “That may be the best way for you to manage through the costs of this project,” Martin wrote.Having seemingly not gotten what he wanted, Trump chose to ignore the restrictions. For five consecutive years starting in 2011, Trump National Colts Neck blew past its annual water limits. “Once he was caught going over, it’s not like he stopped and waited until he got more allocation,” said Timothy Anfuso, township planner for Colts Neck. “He kept using the water the whole time.” The Trump Organization received annual notices of its violations, warning of “substantial monetary penalties” — up to $50,000 per day per offense. In theory, that meant the organization could’ve been fined millions (though “cooperative” violators would unlikely face fines of that magnitude, according to the DEP, since the agency’s goal is to bring violators back into compliance and restore any damage).The state’s long-running conflicts with the two Trump golf clubs continued into the spring of 2015, when Trump was preparing to announce his candidacy for president. On April 9, Russo, Trump’s environmental consultant, met with John Giordano, the agency’s assistant commissioner for compliance and enforcement, who had overseen both matters since his appointment two years earlier.The logjam finally came unstuck. Russo promised to take steps to “alleviate” the agency’s “compliance concerns” at both Trump National properties, according to a “Dear Ed” letter summarizing the meeting that Giordano sent afterwards. “The Department appreciates your willingness to voluntarily undertake these actions thereby making an adversarial relationship unnecessary,” Giordano wrote. “I look forward to continuing this cooperative relationship as the most efficient and effective means to address the Department’s concerns.”Six months later, in October, Giordano and Russo signed a consent order settling the Bedminster issues. It required restoration and improvements to compensate for the damaged areas; placement of markers identifying protected areas; training of golf course staff to avoid future violations; and detailed monitoring reports. The agreement imposed no fines.The Colts Neck dispute was settled in April 2016. By then, Giordano had moved to another post in the agency, leaving Raymond Bukowski, a career agency official, to finalize a second consent order. This one required the Trump Organization to cut its water use by planting drought-resistant grasses, irrigating less of the course’s acreage, and installing sophisticated irrigation systems. Mostly, Trump Colts Neck would meet its needs by buying rights to use 15 million gallons annually from New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest water utility. (Russo said the Colts Neck golf course “had never complied with the water allocation rules of the State of New Jersey” before Trump bought it. “We saved the club,” he asserted, “and brought all environmental issues including water allocation into compliance.”)In this case, the DEP did assess a fine: Despite five years of violations, just $294,000 — before cutting the amount in half, to $147,000 (plus $2,790 in interest), as part of the settlement. Bukowski asserts that Trump got no special treatment. A few months later, in August 2016, Giordano left DEP to join the Trump campaign. He then became deputy general counsel to the presidential transition committee and later joined an administration “landing team” at the Energy Department. Giordano then went to work at a Philadelphia law firm and was subsequently considered for appointment as a U.S. attorney for the region, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. That article quoted David Urban, a lobbyist and senior Pennsylvania adviser to the Trump campaign, explaining that Giordano “put a lot of work in for the president.” Giordano told the Inquirer he was “prepared to serve my country and support the president’s agenda, whether that’s in the public or private sector.”Ultimately, however, another attorney got the appointment. In December, Giordano, now 43, was reported to be considering a run for a New Jersey congressional seat. Recently, he posted a photo of himself with Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a Philadelphia Union League lunch, where Sessions began his speech by recognizing Giordano as a “Trump administration alumnus.”Giordano did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.Meanwhile, the agreements with the state did not spell an end to the environmental problems. In April 2017, a year after the Colts Neck settlement, the Trump Organization received yet another notice from New Jersey regulators. Its golf club in Colts Neck had exceeded its monthly water limits five times in 2016. The state and the Trump Organization have not resolved the violation.
‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast Extra: The Trump Organization Ordered Golf Course Markers With the Presidential Seal. That May Be Illegal.
by Katherine Sullivan, special to ProPublica President Donald Trump loves putting his name on everything from ties to steaks to water — and, of course, his buildings. But now the Trump Organization appears to be borrowing a brand even more powerful than the gilded Trump moniker: the presidential seal.In recent weeks, the Trump Organization has ordered the manufacture of new tee markers for golf courses that are emblazoned with the seal of the president of the United States. Under federal law, the seal’s use is permitted only for official government business. Misuse can be a crime.Past administrations have policed usage vigilantly. In 2005 the Bush administration ordered the satirical news website The Onion to remove a replica of the seal. Grant M. Dixton, associate White House counsel, wrote in a letter to The Onion that the seal “is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement.” Listen to the Podcast After listening to the new ProPublica/WNYC podcast “Trump, Inc.,” a listener brought the signs to our attention.Eagle Sign and Design, a metalworking and sign company with offices in New Albany, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky, said it had received an order to manufacture dozens of round, 12-inch replicas of the presidential seal to be placed next to the tee boxes at Trump golf course holes. Two tee markers are placed on the ground at the start of a hole on golf courses to indicate where golfers should stand to take their first swing.“We made the design, and the client confirmed the design,” said Joseph E. Bates, who owns Eagle Sign, declining to say who the client was. A table of presidential seal tee markers at Eagle Sign. This photo was provided to ProPublica by a source. An order form for the tee markers reviewed by ProPublica and WNYC says the customer was “Trump International.” The Facebook page for Eagle Sign and Design shows a photo of the markers in an album with the caption “Trump International Golf Course.”It is unclear how many Trump International golf courses will feature the markers. The Trump Organization owns four courses with the “International” name in the U.S. and abroad, with a fifth course in Bali, Indonesia, in the works.Eagle Sign makes a wide array of tee markers out of bronze and aluminum, and has made other signs for Trump’s courses, according to its website. At some of Trump’s golf courses, tee markers have sported the Trump family crest, which he took from the family that originally owned Mar-a-Lago without permission and then altered by adding his own name.Ethics experts have long been on the lookout for signs that the Trump Organization would exploit the office of the presidency for commercial gain. Several said that using the presidential seal on the company’s golf courses would fall into this category.A law governs the manufacture or use of the seal, its likeness, “or any facsimile thereof” for anything other than official U.S. government business. It can be a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in prison. The Six Stages of Trump’s Resistance When state regulators tried to get the future president to address a few environmental problems on two golf courses some years ago, little did they know they’d be treated to a multi-year lesson in how he handles regulatory challenges. The “law is an expression of the idea that the government and government authority should not be used for private purpose,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University specializing in government and legal ethics said. “It would be a misuse of government authority.”The Department of Justice declined to comment on whether it was aware the seal had been used by entities outside the government. The White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to request for comment.The presidential seal was first sketched out by President Millard Fillmore in 1850 and the current design — which shows a bald eagle with an olive branch in its right talon, a bundle of 13 arrows in the left, and a scroll bearing the words “E pluribus unum” in its beak — was chosen by President Truman and made official in a 1945 executive order.The seal that adorns the president’s speaking lecterns is handmade by the Institute of Heraldry, a department of the Army located at Fort Belvoir in Virginia that designs and provides guidance related to military and governmental symbols.Versions of the seal have occasionally been put to personal use by past presidents. George W. Bush and Barack Obama had custom sets of golf balls made with the seal. Ronald and Nancy Reagan had a set of presidential china bearing the seal, and there have even been M&M’s and jelly beans that featured the seal.In this case, the difference is that a private company is using the seal, said Richard Painter, vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government accountability group. Painter also served as an associate White House counsel during the George W. Bush administration.“If we had heard of a private company using it for commercial purposes, we would have sent them a nasty letter,” he said.
When You Can’t Afford to Go Bankrupt
by Paul Kiel A ritual of spring in America is about to begin. Tens of thousands of people will soon get their tax refunds, and when they do, they will finally be able to afford the thing they’ve thought about for months, if not years: bankruptcy.It happens every tax season. With many more people suddenly able to pay a lawyer, the number of bankruptcy filings jumps way up in March, stays high in April, then declines.For the past year, I’ve traveled the country trying to understand why bankruptcy often fails those it’s supposed to help. I analyzed millions of filings and interviewed dozens of judges, lawyers and people struggling with debt. The answer turns out to be simple: People are too broke to go bankrupt. Filing costs money, as does hiring an attorney, which is the best way to make sure you actually get debt relief.“It’s kind of a worthless solution if you can’t pay because you don’t have money,” said one man who lives in a trailer park in a small town outside Indianapolis. “It’s a sad realization that the legal system isn’t there for us.”Scores of people considering bankruptcy told me the same thing again and again: If they had $1,000 to pay an attorney, then they probably wouldn’t need to file in the first place. “It’s funny how you buy bankruptcy,” marveled Trina Wright of Memphis.People who hire lawyers to help them file under Chapter 7 have their debts wiped away almost without fail, national filing data shows. And debtors with attorneys fare far better than those who go it alone, filing pro se. Studies show clear benefits for those who successfully wipe out their debts, from higher credit scores to higher incomes. Moreover, this sort of targeted relief can help buoy the broader economy.Those who can’t afford attorneys often turn to bad options with predictably bad outcomes. Some try to wrangle the complicated bankruptcy forms on their own, risking costly mistakes. Others are lured by unregulated “petition preparers” who promise bankruptcy on the cheap. In Los Angeles, I found a whole industry of petition preparers who often flout bankruptcy laws because of a lack of enforcement.“If we had adequate access to our legal system,” a judge there told me, vulnerable people with debt “would not be this wonderful ripe field for picking by the fraud artists.”In the South, debtors often avoid the up-front costs by filing bankruptcy under Chapter 13. Unlike Chapter 7, which clears debts after a few months, Chapter 13 is a payment plan that usually lasts five years. Lawyers in the South will often start a Chapter 13 for $0 down, allowing their much larger fees (usually $3,000 to $4,000) to be paid through the plan. This provides immediate protection to low-income debtors, but most are unable to keep up with the payments. Once their cases are dismissed, their debts return.Faced with options like these, many people simply try to muddle through, often under the threat of having their wages seized by creditors.Over the past decade, the number of consumer bankruptcies filed each year has ranged from about 800,000 to 1.5 million. That’s a small share of the millions of financially struggling households, and researchers have long argued that many more people would benefit from filing. And while the reasons someone may or may not file for bankruptcy can be complex, it’s clear that an important ingredient is affordability.So if attorney fees can determine whether, and how, someone declares bankruptcy, can anything be done about them? The good news, I found, is that the answer is yes. The bad news is that none of the fixes are easy. In a Chapter 7 case, attorney fees, like any other debt, are wiped out. As a result, most bankruptcy lawyers require that clients pay in full before filing. There’s ample evidence that people struggle to gather the money to do this. It’s what you’d expect in a country where nearly half of adults say that if they were hit with an emergency expense of $400, they wouldn’t have the cash on hand to cover it. Black Americans are particularly likely to have low savings, resulting in a variety of bad outcomes such as being unable to save up to file for bankruptcy.A 2005 bankruptcy bill made the problem worse. In the name of preventing people from cheating their lenders, the bill heaped new requirements on debtors and their lawyers. The scope of such abuses was questionable, but the burdens of the new requirements drove up attorney fees nationwide by about 50 percent. The average attorney fee for a Chapter 7 today tops $1,100, with court fees adding $335 more. The result? Fewer filings, especially by low-income people.The cleanest solution would be to change the law to allow more flexibility in how debtors pay their lawyers for Chapter 7 cases.Crafting “a mechanism where people could pay their attorney fees over time would make Chapter 7 more accessible,” said Judge Elizabeth Perris, who retired in 2015 after serving as a bankruptcy judge in Oregon for over 30 years. Perris co-chairs The American Bankruptcy Institute Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy, a panel of experts working on potential improvements to the system to be released later this year.Perris said the panel will likely make a specific proposal about attorney fees, but whether Congress will take action is less certain. “We’re not naïve,” said Perris. “We understand it might be difficult to get legislative changes through.”The idea has at least one influential backer in Congress. When I asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a bankruptcy scholar herself, about it, she responded, “There’s a lot for a family to consider when making the painful decision of whether, when, and how to file for bankruptcy. Whether they can pay their lawyer in installments should not be one of them.”In the interim, there are some lawyers who try workarounds: One of the oldest is for clients to hand over a stack of postdated checks before filing. After the case is filed, these checks are deposited over several months, resulting in a jerry-rigged installment plan. Most judges have decided that arrangement violates the law, but not all.In a 2015 opinion approving the use of postdated checks, Chief Judge C. Ray Mullins of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia wrote, “To deprive struggling debtors of willing counsel in such a time of need is markedly opposite of the intentions of the Bankruptcy Code.”In the Southern District of Alabama, the chief bankruptcy judge, Henry Callaway, is working on a different fix. Troubled by the fact that more than 70 percent of bankruptcies in the district are under Chapter 13, he’s drafting a rule that would allow lawyers to break their fees into two parts for a Chapter 7 filing instead. The first would cover services rendered before the bankruptcy petition is filed; the second, services afterward. Because the second agreement is signed after the petition, it has a different legal status and isn’t wiped out like other debts. Unlike in a Chapter 13 case, where debt relief is conditioned on completing a payment plan, this would give clients relief and then allow payments to lawyers over time.With a rule, he hopes, local attorneys will be more willing to try something different. “Lawyers are not going to do something unless they’re sure they’re not going to get in trouble for it,” he said.It is, to be sure, a convoluted arrangement. But some judges consider it legal, including a federal appellate court and bankruptcy judges in Florida and Michigan. Its growing popularity has already spawned a cottage industry to facilitate payments. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email BK Billing launched in 2016 to manage the two-part agreements for lawyers, usually with clients paying $0 up front. The company helps attorneys craft what they say are legally defensible client agreements and processes the payments.So far, the company has worked with a “few hundred” attorneys in more than 40 states, said David Stidham, the CEO. But because few judges have decided whether such arrangements are legal, there is wide uncertainty about the BK Billing model. “It’s so wild west right now,” he said.Sean Mawhinney, the company’s president, said he used the two-part Chapter 7 arrangement when he practiced as a bankruptcy attorney in Utah, where BK Billing is based. Offering Chapter 7 for $0 down made a huge difference for clients, he said, especially those who were having their wages garnished.“If they can stop the bleeding and get their case filed quickly, then they can make a reasonable payment to the attorney,” he said.But, of course, BK Billing is a business, and its services come with a cost that can cause problems of its own. To reduce the risk of clients defaulting, BK Billing pays attorneys up front and charges a 25 percent fee. So, if an attorney normally charges $1,000, BK Billing will pay the attorney $750 and then collect $1,000 from the debtor over the following year.To account for the fee, attorneys are then tempted to charge more. But Stidham said attorneys must be “willing to take a discount.” Attorneys told me, however, that it was hard to resist boosting their fee.Late last year, the U.S. Trustee for the Central District of California filed a complaint against a local firm for, among other alleged violations, doubling its fees after moving to BK Billing’s model. The U.S. Trustee, the arm of the Justice Department that oversees the bankruptcy system, called the fees unconscionable and is seeking fines against the firm, which argues that its fees are reasonable for the extra services it provides.Compared with these complicated maneuvers, another solution to the problem of attorney fees seems blessedly simple: Make legal help with bankruptcies free. But civil legal aid organizations, which are the main source of this kind of assistance, are also financially strapped.“We don’t have enough resources to provide bankruptcy services in all of our counties,” said Steven McGarrity, executive director of Community Legal Aid, which serves clients in central northeast Ohio.This year, his group, along with legal-services organizations in 11 other states, will begin using a new tool called Upsolve to help more poor debtors file. Developed by a nonprofit in New York, Upsolve is a kind of TurboTax for bankruptcy, walking debtors through the process of gathering the necessary documentation and asking questions in plain language. The software populates the small stack of forms necessary to file, and then a lawyer reviews them. Cases are filed pro se, but if complications arise, the debtor can get help from the lawyer.“It was a way for us to expand the volume of people we can help without a lot of resources on our end,” said McGarrity.Perhaps in the future, free help will be available to all who need it. Or maybe Congress will rewrite the law to allow debtors to pay attorneys over time. In the meantime, people struggling with debt will keep on doing what they’ve always done: waiting and hoping for relief.
How Senior Daddies — Like Donald Trump — Are Eligible For a Social Security Bonus
by Allan Sloan, ProPublica, and C. Eugene Steuerle, special to ProPublica Would you believe that President Donald Trump is eligible for an extra Social Security benefit of around $15,000 a year because of his 11-year-old son, Barron Trump? Well, you should believe it, because it’s true.How can this be? Because under Social Security’s rules, anyone like Trump who is old enough to get retirement benefits and still has a child under 18 can get this supplement — without having paid an extra dime in Social Security taxes for it.The White House declined to tell us whether Trump is taking Social Security benefits, which by our estimate would range from about $47,100 a year (including the Barron bucks) if he began taking them at age 66, to $58,300 if he began at 70, the age at which benefits reach their maximum.Of course, if Trump, 71, had released his income tax returns the way his predecessors since Richard Nixon did, we would know if he’s taking Social Security and how much he’s getting. There’s no reason, however, to think that he isn’t taking the benefits to which he’s entitled.Meanwhile, Trump’s new budget proposes to reduce items like food stamps and housing vouchers for low-income people. It doesn’t ask either the rich or the middle class to make sacrifices on the tax or spending side. And it doesn’t touch the extra Social Security benefit for which Trump and about 680,000 other people are eligible.The average Social Security retiree receives about $16,900 in annual benefits. Does it strike you as bizarre that someone in Trump’s position gets a bonus benefit nearly equal to that?Does it seem unfair that by contrast to Trump, most male workers — and for biological reasons, an even greater portion of female workers — can’t get child benefits because their kids are at least 18 and out of high school when the workers begin drawing Social Security retirement benefits in their 60s and 70s?Trump is eligible for the Late-in-Life-Baby Bonus, as we’ve named it, because the people who designed Social Security decided in 1939, about five years into the program, that dependents and spouses needed extra support. They didn’t think much (if at all) about future expansion in the number of retirees, primarily male, who would have young kids.The Late-in-Life-Baby Bonus goes to about 1.1 percent of Social Security retirees and costs about $5.5 billion a year. That’s a mere speck in Social Security’s $960 billion annual outlay.Yet the Late-in-Life-Baby Bonus is a dramatic — and symbolic — example of hidden problems that plague Social Security, problems that few non-wonks recognize and that reform proposals have largely ignored.Those problems are why the two of us — Allan Sloan, a journalist who has written about Social Security for years; and C. Eugene Steuerle, an economist who has written extensively about Social Security, co-founded the non-partisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and is the author of “Dead Men Ruling: How to Restore Fiscal Freedom and Rescue Our Future” — combined forces to write this article.We want to show you how we can help Social Security start heading in the right direction before its trust fund is tapped out, at which point a crisis atmosphere will prevail and rational conversation will disappear. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Calling for Social Security fixes isn’t new, of course, but the calls usually focus primarily on fixing the increasing gap between the taxes Social Security collects and the benefits it pays.For us, however, the Late-in-Life-Baby Bonus is an example of why reform should not only restore fiscal balance but should also make the system more equitable and efficient, more geared to modern needs and conditions, and more attuned to how providing ever-more years of benefits to future retirees puts at risk government programs that help them and their children during their working years.If all that mattered were numbers, we could easily provide better protections against poverty with no loss in benefits for today’s retirees, while providing higher average benefits for future retirees. But that works only if the political will is there to update Social Security’s operations and benefit structure. After all, a system designed in the 1930s isn’t necessarily what we’ll need in the 2030s.And make no mistake about how important Social Security is. Millions of retirees depend heavily on it. According to a recent Census working paper, about half of Social Security retirees receive at least half their income from Social Security — and about 18 percent get at least 90 percent of their income from it. Add in Medicare benefits, and retirees’ reliance on programs funded by the Social Security tax are even higher.Given the virtual elimination of pension benefits for new private-sector employees and the increasing erosion in pensions for new public-sector employees, Social Security will likely be needed even more in the future than it is today.Simply throwing more money at Social Security isn’t the way to solve its imbalances, much less deal with the Late-in-Life-Baby Bonus and some of the other bizarre things we’ll show you.Money-tossing would just continue the pattern of recent decades that provides an ever increasing proportion of national income and government revenue to us when we’re old (largely through Social Security and Medicare), and an ever smaller proportion when we’re younger (anything from educational assistance to transportation spending). This shortchanges the workers of today and tomorrow who will be called upon to fork over taxes to cover the costs of Social Security and other government programs for their elders.We began with the Late-in-Life-Baby Bonus because giving people like Trump — a wealthy man with a young child from a third marriage — an extra benefit unavailable to 99 percent of retirees is a dramatic example of how problems embedded in Social Security cause inequities and problems that few people other than Social Security experts know about.Think that we’re overreacting to a minor quirk? We aren’t. Here are some additional aspects of Social Security that we think violate standards of equal justice and common sense:There’s the Single Parent Shortchange, whereby many single parents — largely mothers with below-average earnings — pay Social Security taxes to cover spousal and survivor benefits for other people even though the solo parents can’t receive them. Sure, many people contribute toward benefits they will never see, especially if they die before retirement age. But the Single Shortchange strikes us as horribly unfair. Single parents are among the lowest income payers of Social Security taxes. Why should they subsidize other folks’ never-working spouses in a way that gives the biggest benefits to the best-off people?Then there’s the Agatha Christie Benefit: Some divorced people get a bonus from Social Security only if their former spouse dies. And the Serial Spouse Bonus: If someone has had, say, three spouses, each might get the same full spousal and survivor benefits available to the one lifetime spouse of another worker — provided that each marriage lasted at least 10 years. If a marriage lasts nine years and 364 days, the spouse gets zippo. The Equal Earner Penalty means that a couple with two people each earning $40,000 gets about $100,000 less in lifetime benefits than a couple with one spouse earning $80,000 and the other earning nothing. This happens even though both couples and their employers pay identical Social Security taxes.Many if not most of these inequities would be illegal in private retirement plans.Fixing the Late-in-Life-Baby Bonus and the other inequities we mentioned (as well as plenty that we omitted) is more about remedying injustice than cutting costs; giving some people more benefits and others less would pretty much offset each other.The system needs to be overhauled not simply to become more fair by giving less to the Trumps of the world and more to the less fortunate among us, but because Social Security, created in the 1930s, was largely constructed around a world in which married women were expected to stay at home. People also had shorter lifespans then and retired later, so that today retirees receive benefits for 12 more years on average than retirees in the system’s earlier days.Back in 1965, there were about four workers for every person drawing benefits. Currently the ratio is in the low threes. Now, the decline in birth rates is hitting with a bang as baby boomers retire en masse, with the ratio expected to fall to about 2.2 in 2035. Each baby boomer retirement leads to an increase in takers and a decrease in makers.Not dealing with this decline in workers-to-beneficiaries — a good chunk of which is caused by Social Security treating people as young as 62 as “old” — has broad implications for the revenues available for all government services, not just Social Security, as well as for the growth rate of our economy.Even as fewer workers support more retirees, the average value of Social Security retirement benefits continues to rise. Look at the increasing “present value” of Social Security benefits for a two-income 65-year-old couple earning the average wage each year and expecting to live for an average lifespan.In 1960, such a couple needed to have on hand $269,000 (in 2015 dollars) in an interest-bearing account to cover the cost of their lifetime benefits. Today, it’s about $625,000. In 2030, it will be about $731,000. And in 2055, when a Millennial age 30 this year turns 67, the full retirement age under current law, the present value of scheduled benefits hits seven digits: $1,029,000. Include Medicare, and benefits are about $1 million for today’s couple, rising to $2 million for the millennial couple. These benefit-value increases are caused by a combination of longer lives for retirees and Social Security formulas that increase benefits as wages rise.These numbers matter because Social Security isn’t like an Individual Retirement Account or a pension plan that sets money aside for you today for use when you retire. It’s mainly an intergenerational transfer system: Today’s workers pay Social Security taxes to cover their parents, who previously paid to cover their parents, who paid to cover their parents. That’s the way the system has worked since its founding in 1935. Social Security taxes paid by current workers and their employers get sent to beneficiaries, not stashed somewhere awaiting current workers reaching retirement age.The system does have a trust fund that in the early 1980s was about to run out of money. A crisis loomed. As a result, after a report by the Greenspan Commission, Congress in 1983 enacted reforms that included gradually raising the normal retirement age (but not the early retirement age) and subjecting some Social Security retirement benefits to federal income tax.This led to temporary surpluses while baby boomers were in their peak earning years. But now that boomers are retiring rapidly, Social Security’s tax revenues are falling farther and farther behind benefits being paid out.The trust fund is projected to run dry in about 15 years. Meanwhile, every year without reform adds to the share of the burden required of the young, who already are scheduled to have lower returns on their Social Security contributions than older workers.Do you think that if someone offered millennials a choice, they would want to face huge student debt, declining government investment in their children and higher future taxes (which are inevitable as deficits mount) — in exchange for a more generous retirement than today’s retirees get? Or would they prefer a system that treats them and their children better when they’re younger?We’re both way past millennial age — but we know which we would prefer.Now, we’ll show you how we can tweak Social Security to address the problems we’ve discussed without cutting benefits for current retirees or denying future retirees average benefits higher than current retirees get.It’s about math. Social Security pays out far more than would be required to provide well-above-poverty-level benefits to all elderly recipients. Future growth in the economy will help tax revenues and benefits rise, which would give us room to modify the payout formulas and deal with problems that this iconic program isn’t addressing. Those problems include poverty and near-poverty for millions of retirees, particularly the very old. That problem is greater for people who retired at 62 rather than waiting for their full retirement age, a move that locks them into lower payments for the rest of their lifetimes.How can we orient the system more progressively to the needs of modern society, provide a stronger base of protection for all workers, and slow the growth rate of benefits to bring the system into better balance? To shore up Social Security permanently, it’ll be necessary to slow down the overall growth in benefits, encourage more years of work and end the pattern of people having ever-longer retirements as lifespans increase and Social Security doesn’t adapt its rules. At some point, it will also require a revenue (i.e., tax) increase, too.Here, in simplified form, are some suggestions for making Social Security more modern and more fair.
She Owed $102,158.40 in Unpaid Tickets, but She’s Not in the Story
by Melissa Sanchez At first, we thought it was a typo, a misplaced decimal. Bankruptcy records showed that a woman from Chicago’s South Side owed the city $102,158.40 for unpaid tickets. Could one person really rack up that much ticket debt?“Nobody will believe me,” she later told me. “But every single year, they send me 30 pages in an envelope with all the tickets. I just throw it away. I don’t look at it. It’s really stressful. You don’t understand how stressful it is to be in debt.”I’ve spent the past five months going down one avenue after another to figure out why thousands of Chicago drivers turn to Chapter 13 bankruptcy to cope with debt stemming from parking and traffic camera tickets. We published our story this week in partnership with Mother Jones.The woman didn’t make it into the story, but our conversations haunt me.As reporters, we often talk to more people than we’ll ever include in a story. It’s part of the research, just like reading the archives, crunching the numbers, wading through court files.We have to make hard choices about who ends up in a story and who doesn’t. I left out the $102,158.40 woman for a number of reasons, including that we prefer not to use anonymous sources and she was too ashamed to be identified.More than anything, I worried readers would see her as emblematic of this cycle of ticket debt and bankruptcy when, in reality, most people with ticket debt owe significantly less. The typical debt to the city for people who, in 2017, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy was approximately $3,900, according to our analysis of federal bankruptcy files. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois But I want to tell you a little bit about her, and about some of the other people I spoke with, because though they were not in the story, they helped inform it. According to city records, this woman has gotten 298 tickets since 2011. More than half are $200 tickets for not having a required city sticker. After a couple of months, unpaid tickets double and eventually accrue a 22 percent collection fee, turning a $200 citation into a $488 debt.She said she used to make $300 a week as a restaurant cook and couldn’t afford to get an annual sticker, which costs $87 for most passenger vehicles. Now, she said, she makes $11.50 an hour as an ambulance driver.“There’s no way I could afford my rent, take care of my kids, and pay tickets,” she said.It no longer surprises me to learn that people bury their heads in the sand when they’re drowning in this kind of debt.This woman filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy last year, mostly to hold onto her driver’s license. Without it, she would lose her ambulance job.I met others who filed for bankruptcy to prevent the city from taking away their licenses, or to reinstate a license that had been suspended. Drivers who accumulate five unpaid traffic camera tickets or 10 unpaid parking tickets risk losing their license in Illinois.Some employers — including the city and its sister agencies — won’t hire applicants who have debts to the city, including unpaid tickets. When I met Sharron Lee in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in October, she was wearing a lanyard for Harris & Harris, a company the city contracts with to collect ticket debt. I thought she might be there as a debt collector. Turned out she owed the city about $11,000 in unpaid tickets herself, according to bankruptcy records. She’d filed for bankruptcy to qualify for a job as a firm debt collector.“It’s ridiculous,” said Lee, who has filed for bankruptcy more than a half-dozen times in the past decade. “A lot of people are in debt or filing for bankruptcy because of tickets.”We’ve profiled a few more people who have struggled with the consequences of their unpaid tickets. Some managed to pay off their debts; others are now in bankruptcy court.You can read their stories. By sharing them, we hope to start a conversation about how Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection affect people’s lives.If you have a story to share about how ticket debt has affected you, I’d love to hear about your experiences. As I continue reporting on Chicago tickets, license suspensions and other kinds of debt to government agencies, please reach out if you have story ideas or tips. I’m at melissa.sanchez@propublica.org.
State Department Likely toExtend Cuts toU.S. Embassy in Cuba
by Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is poised to permanently extend the drastic cuts it made to the United States diplomatic staff in Cuba last fall after mysterious incidents in which 24 Americans were injured there, State Department officials said.The staff reductions would have a major impact on U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba, the officials said, obscuring Washington’s view of a historic political transition on the island and limiting the contacts of American diplomats with Cuban officials, political dissidents and others. U.S. officials said the State Department has already informed the Castro government that it will likely not meet its annual commitment to admit at least 20,000 Cubans under a 1994 migration agreement. That deal was meant to discourage Cubans from trying to reach the United States aboard homemade rafts and boats. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Officials said a decision memorandum that was sent to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week included a proposal to keep only the emergency staff of 18 diplomats who have been assigned to Havana since the temporary reassignment of about 25 others last September. Under the department’s regulations, it has until March 4 to either send some diplomats back to their posts or reduce the staff indefinitely.The State Department’s chief spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said Tuesday that the department was still weighing what to do about staffing the Havana embassy. “We haven’t made a decision just yet,” she said.Most of the diplomats who were ordered out of Havana did not want to leave. In a private letter obtained by ProPublica, 35 diplomats and spouses who worked in the embassy appealed to senior State Department officials just before the withdrawals to be allowed to remain in Cuba if they chose.“We are aware of the risks of remaining at Post,” the group wrote on Sept. 21. “And we understand that there may be unknown risks. We ask that the Department give us the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether to stay or leave.”A State Department spokesperson declined to comment directly on the letter. But last October, responding to earlier reports that some diplomats in Havana did not want to leave their posts, Nauert said she understood that they “believe firmly in our mission” and wanted to remain. “However,” she added, “when our Secretary looks at the situation and says, ‘We can’t protect you because we don’t know what is causing this, and we don’t know who is responsible,’ he has to make that decision to bring our folks home.”Several diplomats first reported hearing strange, high-pitched sounds in their homes at the end of 2016, just after the election of President Donald Trump signaled an end to the rapprochement between the two countries under the Obama administration.The first four people who came forward, ProPublica reported recently, were all intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover. Shaken by the noises, which in some cases seemed almost like beams of sound, they and others in the embassy assumed some kind of high-tech harassment by the Cuban security forces.But the Cuban government — which has appeared strongly committed to better relations with the U.S. (and the surge of tourism and investment that came with them) — has vehemently denied any involvement in the incidents. Over the past year, Cuban officials have said they would do whatever they are asked to stop the problem, and U.S. national security officials say that Cuban authorities have cooperated closely with FBI agents who visited the island to investigate. Their inquiry has turned up no evidence to implicate the Cuban government, officials who have been briefed on it said. Read More The Sound and the Fury: Inside the Mystery of the Havana Embassy More than a year after American diplomats began to suffer strange, concussion-like symptoms in Cuba, a U.S. investigation is no closer to determining how they were hurt or by whom, and the FBI and CIA are at odds over the case. A ProPublica investigation reveals the many layers to the mystery — and the political maneuvering that is reshaping U.S.-Cuba relations. A Gangster Place in the Sun: How Spain’s Fight Against the Mob Revealed Russian Power Networks Despite that, Trump administration officials have blamed Cuba for failing to protect the diplomats, arguing that the government of President Raúl Castro has such control over life on the island that it would be impossible for any attacks to take place without its knowledge.The State Department issued a formal warning that Americans could be at risk if they traveled to the island. It also ordered 17 of the 26 Cuban diplomats in Washington and their families to leave the country. Those forced out included members of the commercial section, which worked with U.S. businesses seeking to invest in Cuba, and all but one of the embassy’s four consular officers.The flow of American tourists has declined substantially since last summer, a change that has been felt especially by Cubans who rent out rooms to travelers, operate small restaurants called paladares, or run other small businesses that depend on such visitors.“The travel warning has been devastating to the Cuban entrepreneurs who had benefitted from the policy of travel and openness,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, who visited the island in January. “That’s who we say we want to help, and they’re dying on the vine.”Flake, a longtime proponent of greater engagement with Cuba, had traveled to Havana in August 2015 to attend ceremonies for the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, 54 years after President Eisenhower severed relations. When Flake returned to Havana in this year, he said in an interview with ProPublica, he found the modernist glass-and-concrete chancery building sadly empty. “It was devastating to see basically just a skeletal staff,” he said.State Department officials said that the emergency staff is capped at 18 — but the embassy has been run of late by as few as 11 or 12 diplomats. That’s roughly the number that Fidel Castro tried to impose in 1961, when he complained that the embassy had become “a nest of spies” trying to subvert the revolution. (Eisenhower said then that such a small staff would “render impossible the conduct of normal diplomatic relations.”)At a potentially critical moment of political transition in Cuba — Raúl Castro has said he will relinquish the presidency in April — current and former U.S. diplomats voiced concern that Washington will lose insight as well as its growing influence.“It’s really essential to see what’s happening in Havana and around the country in order to understand where Cuba is headed,” said Vicki Huddleston, who headed the U.S. mission in Havana from 1999 to 2002. “Essentially we’ve gone from the largest diplomatic presence in Cuba to a very small and isolated one.”Brian Latell, a retired CIA analyst of Cuba who now teaches at Florida International University, cautioned that the two countries could still conduct diplomacy, and that it’s hard to predict how much Washington’s understanding of Cuba would be impaired by a much smaller staff. But he suggested that the big picture was already clear: “The bilateral relationship is restored to some of the darkest days of the cold war.”A prominent Cuban dissident, Marta Beatriz Roque, said the U.S. withdrawal had already had a “dramatic” impact on human rights advocates on the island, all but eliminating their access to American diplomats and making it much more difficult for dissidents to travel to the U.S.“Basically, I would say the interaction with the U.S. Embassy right now for us is at a level of zero,” she said in a telephone interview from Havana. “The embassy is not getting the information it needs about the human rights situation in Cuba. Our contact before was frequent. Now there is no contact.”Roque said that during a recent trip to the U.S., she described those circumstances to Cuban-American representatives in Congress, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, both of whom have supported the cutback. “Everybody was aware of the problem, but nobody gave me a solution,” she said.Asked about such concerns, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, said the U.S. Embassy in Havana “has long been a lifeline, and important symbol, to the democratic opposition.” In a statement, he added, “It is imperative that the United States continue its solidarity with the Cuban people in their democratic aspirations.”Consular activity at the embassy has ground almost to a halt, State Department officials said. With just one or two officers covering emergencies for visiting Americans and visas for Cuban officials, thousands of Cubans seeking to visit or immigrate to the U.S. have been forced to travel to third countries to submit their requests at American consulates there.After months in which the U.S. Embassy in Havana issued more than 800 immigrant visas each month, the number fell to 168 in September and only 16 in October, according to State Department statistics. In November, it rose again to 196 and in December it was 22.Cubans who want to apply for an immigrant visa to the U.S. must now do so at the U.S. Consulate in Bogota, Colombia, an additional step that Cubans have said typically costs them hundreds or thousands of dollars more in travel costs. It has prompted a chorus of complaints from people in Cuba, where the official average monthly salary is about $25, supplemented by subsidized food and free health care and education. Nonetheless, the number of visas issued rebounded to 883 in January, after the Bogotá process was fully implemented.Some State Department officials said the visa-processing delays could be substantially remedied even with a reduced consular staff in Havana, but they added that the State Department and immigration authorities have still not produced any plan to do so.If the department’s travel warning is extended along with the so-called ordered departure of the embassy’s non-emergency staff, educational officials said it would likely force the cancellation of about half of the U.S. college and university foreign-study programs that have been established in Cuba, because of their inability to obtain insurance.On Thursday, an alliance of 28 American tour operators and educational travel groups called on the department to downgrade its travel warning for Cuba from its current Level Three (“reconsider travel”) to a Level Two (“exercise increased caution”), asserting that there are no confirmed cases of private American citizens in Cuba being affected like the injured diplomats. The State Department has said it has been contacted since last September by 19 American tourists who have reported having felt similar symptoms after travel to Cuba, but it did not investigate or verify any of those cases. The tour alliance also noted that Cuba was voted the “safest country in the world” for travel at the recent Madrid International Tourism Fair.Although human rights and migration have long been top-priority issues for Cuban Americans in South Florida and other parts of the United States, the impact of the embassy staff cuts have prompted relatively little political outcry thus far.Political analysts said the muted response may partly reflect the fact that the travel obstacles disproportionately affect a more recent (and less politically established) generation of Cuban immigrants. William LeoGrande, a specialist in U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America at American University in Washington, D.C., noted that Cuban Americans and others may also have avoided criticizing the withdrawal because of the circumstances that precipitated it.“When people on the street in Miami realize that their relatives can’t come and visit or can’t migrate because there’s no consular section at the U.S. Embassy, that has to have a political impact,” he said. “But U.S. personnel were thought to have been attacked, and we still don’t know who did it. So, I think people don’t want to be out in front of that when they think that it could maybe have been the Cubans.”In a Feb. 15 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, specialists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine found that 21 of the injured Americans had suffered a potentially “novel” type of mild brain injury caused by an unknown directed force, rather than head trauma. The authors also discounted the thesis — advanced by Cuban officials and others — that the affliction might have resulted from mass psychogenic illness.But the JAMA report did not solve the mystery. An accompanying editorial pointed out the limitations of the study, such as the fact that an average of 203 days passed before the experts evaluated patients, raising questions about whether patients who came forward later were aware of symptoms reported by earlier ones. A lack of baseline data and other information about the patients also made it difficult to exclude other potential causes for some of the ailments, the study found.“A unifying explanation for the symptoms experienced by the US government officials … remains elusive,” the editorial said.
Help Us Investigate PTSD in First Responders
by Abe Aboraya, WMFE, and Beena Raghavendran, ProPublica ProPublica and WMFE are investigating post-traumatic stress disorder and how it affects first responders and their families.Whether it’s called shell shock or combat fatigue, there has long been a recognized link between war and the symptoms we now call PTSD, such as reliving an event through flashbacks and nightmares. That broad recognition often isn’t there for police officers and firefighters — even as more mass shootings bring the scenes of war to U.S. soil.Psychiatrists now recognize that continued exposure to so-called bad calls over the course of a career can have a stacking effect, leading to PTSD. PTSD rates in first responders haven't been studied at a national scale, but smaller studies of firefighters have found it to be anywhere between 6.5 percent and 37 percent. We know PTSD not only affects the first responder, but also those around them.And PTSD can lead to suicide. By one survey, one in 15 paramedics and EMTs has attempted suicide. That rate is more than ten times higher than for the general population.We want to understand the magnitude and the experiences of PTSD in first responders — not only how many are out there, responding to calls and struggling in silence, but the specifics of what they are going through.It’s why we’ve created a questionnaire for first responders and the people closest to them. Your stories will help fuel our reporting and broaden our understanding of the trauma in a group that feels it.We recognize that these stories are sensitive and hard to talk about, but we are listening — and we will do everything in our power to protect your privacy. Our reporting is only as strong as the people who come forward to share their stories. This form requires JavaScript to complete.Powered by Screendoor.
First Responders in Florida Aren’t Covered for PTSD. That May Change After Parkland.
by Abe Aboraya, WMFE A Florida bill to assist first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder has found new life in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.At least three first responders to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which killed 49 people, have publicly disclosed that they have a PTSD diagnosis, and advocates have been trying to expand workers’ compensation coverage in Florida since then. A bill to address that failed in Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature last year, and a similar measure’s prospects were uncertain this year.After the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, in which 17 people died, the bill gained momentum, though only a few days are left in the legislative session. On Monday, the measure unanimously cleared its final committee hearing in the Florida House, the last step before a floor vote. Today, it passed its final Senate committee. Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith lost a friend in the Pulse nightclub shooting. But he also became friends with another man who was pulled from the club by Omar Delgado, an Eatonville police officer diagnosed with PTSD after the shooting.Smith, a Democrat, voted for the bill to expand coverage Monday, along with 18 other members of the committee.“Many of the first responders from the mass shooting in Parkland are going to need this bill,” Smith said. “Some of them probably don’t even know it yet.”PTSD, which is characterized by reliving an event through flashbacks and nightmares, often isn’t diagnosed immediately in the aftermath of a tragedy. Being hypervigilant and startling easily are normal reactions to experiencing or witnessing trauma. It becomes a disorder if the symptoms don’t subside in a month or two, or start causing trouble at home or at work.To try to head it off, officials from the International Association of Fire Fighters flew into Florida the same night as the Parkland shooting to work with first responders and help them deal with their emotions. Fourteen students and three staff members died that day; 18 others were wounded but survived.The team from the firefighters union included people who have had PTSD themselves and responded to incidents like the Columbine High School shooting. It’s something they’ve done after every major event in recent memory — from the Pulse nightclub shooting to the Oct. 1, 2017, attack in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.“There is a fear that if you reach out for help within your own department, there may be adverse action,” said Jim Brinkley, the director of occupation health and safety for the union. “You may be removed from duty, you’re not allowed to get back on the rigs. By having those who serve outside the area come in, we find the members are more likely to open up and tell us exactly how they’re feeling.”Lt. Rob Ramirez, a firefighter with the city of Margate, was dispatched to the casualty collection point during the Parkland shooting. There, people who were injured inside the school were assessed and treated before going to the hospital.Ramirez said the scene was chaotic, and that first responders were overwhelmed with victims who had what he called “battlefield” injuries. Two shooting victims died at the triage scene.“We transported a total of 14 victims off scene, all of them with major traumatic injuries,” Ramirez said. “As you can imagine, these small frame, small-bodied high school children taking these large caliber weapons, multiple rounds, to the torso, legs, arms, extremity. It was very chaotic.”Ramirez said he’s “doing well” since the event, but he thinks about it often. And he worries about PTSD developing in the Parkland first responders.“The men and women that responded to that call ... are not the same men and women that walked away from it,“ Ramirez said. “I know I’m not the same person I was the morning I went to work as who I am today, two weeks after the call. This changes you as a person.“ First responders treat a victim outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) PTSD isn’t talked about as much as other job hazards facing first responders and, indeed, Florida law doesn’t fully deal with it. Right now, Florida first responders can get medical coverage under worker’s comp if they get PTSD on the job, but not lost wages. About a third of states have similar laws.If they need time off work to go into treatment, or the PTSD is so bad as to be disabling, they must also have a physical injury to have their salaries covered.Gerry Realin, an Orlando Police Department officer on the hazmat team, left a family vacation the morning after the Pulse nightclub shooting to respond. His job was to document and process the 49 dead inside the club. He spent four or five hours inside Pulse, with no air conditioning in a sweltering Florida summer, wearing a hazmat suit with no helmet. His boots turned yellow and then red from the blood and body parts.The sights and smells left Realin with PTSD. He has flashbacks. Depression. Difficulty sleeping. The PTSD didn’t get better.Outside the Florida workers’ compensation system, he was granted a disability pension from the police department about a year after the shooting. He also sued the Orlando Police Department within Florida’s workers’ compensation system for about $26,000 in lost earnings potential.Florida Judge of Compensation Claims Neal Pitts ruled against Realin in January.“If he had sustained even a minor accompanying physical injury, he would be entitled to both medical and indemnity benefits,” Pitts wrote. “To change this outcome would require action by the Legislature, should they deem it necessary.”Realin’s wife, Jessica, has made it her mission to change the law. When she heard there were still bodies inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the day after the shooting, she started to cry, thinking about someone doing the same job as her husband after Pulse.“I promise you, [PTSD] is an ugly monster that will consume your entire world and tear you apart from the inside out,” Jessica Realin said. “If this bill doesn’t get passed, I don’t know how many more first responders we’re going to lose to this illness.”Florida Rep. Matt Willhite, a Palm Beach representative who’s also a firefighter and paramedic, said first responders doing triage at a scene like the one in Parkland have to decide which children can be saved and which are too far gone. “Now they’re gonna start thinking — could I have done something for another one? Could we have stopped this tragedy?” said Willhite, a Democrat. “Seeing the visions and thoughts and sights of the horrific aspect of this. But not to mention, they don’t get to just turn it off because every news channel they turn on right now, it’s all over the news.”Willhite, a sponsor of the bill expanding coverage, said the Parkland shooting shows there could be another event, or even just a bad 911 call that puts someone over the edge. He said he doesn’t want the death toll attributable to the Parkland attack to include “first responders who take their life because of this.”Until now, the bill’s main sticking point has been financial.The Florida League of Cities prepared a white paper looking at the costs to local governments. It assumed that, of the 81,470 first responders in Florida, 2.1 percent to 6.4 percent would get PTSD in a given year. It assumed that every one of those responders would take six months or a year off work.With an average annual salary of $54,728, the group came up with a price tag of $15.3 million to $95.5 million annually in lost wages.“There’s a significant financial impact by putting this benefit into law,” said David Cruz, a lobbyist with the Florida League of Cities, told lawmakers at a committee hearing last month.Such concerns tanked the bill last year. It got one hearing, at which Realin brought half-a-dozen first responders and widows who had lost first responders to suicide to testify and lend their support. After 25 minutes of testimony, lawmakers in the committee unanimously approved the measure.But the bill never advanced beyond that stage. This year, the bill had more momentum; even before Parkland it had gotten four unanimous “yes” votes in committee.Still, it had three more committee hearings to clear before the full House and Senate could vote, and in one case, it didn’t make it on the agenda until the committee’s last hearing. Until this week, the bills were different in the House and Senate, and there were fears it would die in committee again.On Monday, two hours before the bill was going to be heard in its first committee hearing since the Parkland shooting, Florida’s chief financial officer, who is also the state’s fire marshal, sent a press release calling the Florida League of Cities’ opposition to the bill “disgraceful.” He called the league’s report flawed and said the group doesn’t “care about the first responders who make up the communities they represent.”At the hearing two hours later, Cruz, the Florida League of Cities lobbyist, stepped up to the microphone. But instead of talking about the costs of the bill, as he had at every previous committee hearing, he told lawmakers the league now supports the bill.The bill could go to the floor of the House Friday for first reading; it is also expected to be considered by the Senate soon.
An Industry Group Says the Trump Administration Is Run “Like a Bad Family Owned Small Business” — And They Love It
by Justin Elliott What does American business really think of President Donald Trump?One candid glimpse emerges in a pair of PowerPoint presentations delivered last year by top executives of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), one of the construction industry’s national trade groups.Trump, the presentations state, is an “autocratic leader” who regularly “humiliates [his] senior team” and is running the administration “like a bad family owned small business.” One presentation quotes the president’s statement that infrastructure should be “easy” and follows it with a rhetorical eye-roll: “Really?????”At the same time, the presentations make clear that the industry group views Trump as a godsend for their agenda of rolling back environmental and labor regulations.Here’s how Jeff Shoaf, the group’s longtime chief lobbyist in Washington and now chief operating officer, put it in a July 2017 PowerPoint, which appears to have been inadvertently posted on the website of the organization’s Texas chapter: AGC spokesman Brian Turmail told ProPublica that saying the administration is “run like a bad family owned business” wasn’t intended to be pejorative. “Since so many of our members are family owned small businesses,” he said, the language in the slide is “a way that makes it relatable to them. One of our jobs is to explain to our members what is happening in Washington, as we work on their behalf.” AGC says it represents more than 26,000 firms around the country.Another slide, under the heading “Legislative Agenda,” lets a photograph summarize the group’s view: The image of the dumpster fire, Shoaf said, referred to the Republicans’ failed attempts to repeal Obamacare last year.Shoaf said he views the Trump administration as being “run more disruptively than shoddily. They’re not wedded to the normal talking points that either Barack Obama or George W. Bush came with.”Following the descriptions of the administration’s dysfunction, the PowerPoint pivots to describing what it characterized as major successes in the construction industry’s “regulatory roll back” agenda since Trump entered office. “With President Trump in office, there are many Obama administration executive orders, rules, and other requirements in AGC’s crosshairs,” it says.The group touts major victories in the form of repealed or delayed environmental and labor regulations: A quick guide to the shorthand:
¿Has visto a ICE o a la Patrulla Fronteriza en tu comunidad? Cuéntanos tu historia.
by Kavitha Surana, ProPublica, María Sánchez Díez, Univision News, and Adriana Gallardo, ProPublica Read in English.Una mujer que fue a la corte en busca de una orden de protección que mantuviera alejado a su exnovio abusivo. Una niña de 10 años que viajaba en una ambulancia rumbo al hospital para ser operada de urgencia. Un grupo de hombres que salieron de una iglesia que servía como refugio para indigentes durante el invierno.Todos ellos tienen algo en común: fueron arrestados por agentes federales de inmigración el año pasado en lugares públicos que son esenciales para su supervivencia básica. Y, sin embargo, ninguno fue considerado por los agentes como una de sus “ubicaciones sensibles”.Oficialmente, tanto el Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas como la Oficina de Aduanas y Protección de Fronteras (ICE y CBP respectivamente por sus siglas en inglés) dicen que “generalmente” evitan arrestar, interrogar o vigilar en “ubicaciones sensibles”, como lugares de culto, hospitales, escuelas, bodas, funerales y manifestaciones públicas.Sin embargo, esta política considera excepciones: los juzgados y los lugares de trabajo, por ejemplo, no cuentan con protección especial contra las actividades de los oficiales de inmigración. Tampoco el retén fronterizo donde la ambulancia de la niña fue detenida. Y, aunque ciertos edificios — como las iglesias — están supuestamente vedados, nada impide a los agentes interceptar a los inmigrantes tan pronto como salen de ellos. Además, basta la aprobación de un supervisor o argumentar que el caso es una “circunstancia urgente” para que a los agentes se les permita actuar en las “ubicaciones sensibles”.Al mismo tiempo que ICE amplía el alcance de sus actividades bajo la administración Trump, algunos legisladores han estado pidiendo más transparencia y supervisión sobre dónde y cómo operan sus agentes. El pasado 18 de enero cinco representantes demócratas enviaron una carta al Departamento de Seguridad Nacional solicitando que se haga una investigación independiente sobre las actividades federales de inmigración cerca de las localizaciones sensibles. Una portavoz de ICE dijo que los arrestos en estos lugares son “extremadamente raros”, pero también señaló que la agencia no mantiene un conteo de las mismas.Univision Noticias y ProPublica queremos saber más sobre dónde están operando ICE y la Patrulla Fronteriza y también sobre cómo se ve afectada tu vida diaria por sus actividades: ¿Te ha afectado a ti o a tus conocidos alguna actividad de los agentes de inmigración? ¿Has cambiado de hábitos o has dejado de ir a algún lugar por temor a las operaciones de ICE y la Patrulla Fronteriza? This form requires JavaScript to complete.Powered by Screendoor.