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Updated 2019-10-21 20:30
How We Identified the Frat Brothers Holding Guns in Front of an Emmett Till Memorial
by Thalia Beaty and Lucas Waldron ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. For more, read our related story: Here’s Proof Ole Miss Knew Identities of Two Students Who Posed in Front of Shot-Up Emmett Till Sign, But Did Little
The Obscure Charges That Utility Companies Add to Your Bills
by Talia Buford ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. New Jersey was reeling from the Great Recession, and Gov. Jon S. Corzine had a plan. Infrastructure projects, he decided, would help the state shake off the country’s worst economic downturn in generations.In April 2009, the state utility regulator approved nearly $1 billion in projects to install energy-efficient streetlights and replace aging gas lines, and in the process create thousands of jobs across the state.Utilities wouldn’t have to worry about the cost. Instead of tapping their annual budgets, they were given the green light to impose a surcharge on the gas and electric bills of every customer in the state. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Up till then, such surcharges had been rare, used, for example, in the 1970s when Arab oil-producing countries placed restrictions on exports to countries such as the United States that supported Israel, driving the price of oil to quadruple. Surcharges were used to provide utilities some relief from the volatile oil price swings. But instead of being a one-off, the surcharge championed by the Corzine administration a decade ago helped usher in a new era in the economics of energy.Across the nation, local and state governments have turned to utilities to address acute and pervasive infrastructure needs, while utility companies have looked to surcharges as a way to finance those projects — and ensure steady profits. Sometimes, utilities have used revenue from surcharges to pay for things other than infrastructure, many of which customers might expect are already included in their rates: tree trimming (Kansas), smart meters (Colorado) and pension costs (Massachusetts).In New Jersey, gas and electric bills are packed with add-ons that pay for everything from installing solar panels to putting substations on platforms above flood levels. For residential customers, a single charge, added to bills in increments as tiny as a thousandth of a cent per kilowatt hour, can add $35 to $45 a year to costs; for industrial and commercial customers, the charges can add up to tens of thousands of dollars annually. And it’s all on top of the price that regulators have agreed customers should pay for their electricity service. Utility bill surcharges, often added in tiny increments, can add thousands of dollars to the power bills of big commercial customers, like the Kuehne Company, a manufacturer of industrial grade bleach and a New Jersey business since 1919. (Glenna Gordon for ProPublica) The use of surcharges has proliferated over the last decade as the energy landscape has changed substantially. The price of oil and gas has dropped as domestic supplies have increased, and residential energy use has plummeted as appliances and lighting have become more efficient. Still, the national average price of electricity has increased slightly over the last decade, with additional surcharges counteracting any potential savings. That means at the end of the day, many customers have likely noticed little, if any change in their final bills.That remains true in New Jersey, where residential bills last year averaged about $106.28 per month, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Garden State residents consume less energy than residents of almost all other states, but they have the 12th highest price per kilowatt hour in the nation, at about 15 cents in 2018. Some critics say surcharges have made energy costs more opaque and made it harder for customers to know enough about what they’re paying for to push back.“Some of these costs might be for important projects and initiatives,” said Evelyn Liebman, advocacy director for AARP New Jersey. “But the question is: How do you evaluate whether or not the price that you’re asking people to pay is fair and that the benefits outweigh the costs?”To see how surcharges have affected electricity bills, ProPublica examined the charges assessed over the last decade by PSE&G, the utility arm of New Jersey’s largest energy company, PSEG. For PSE&G, adding surcharges has proved to be easier for financing projects than raising rates on its 2.2 million electric customers. The state Board of Public Utilities, which approves rate increases, has to approve surcharges, too, but the waiting period between when the utility spends the money and when it recovers it from customer bills is shorter.PSE&G went eight years before seeking its most recent rate increase — a lengthy, rigorous process intended to ensure that utilities are reasonable in their charges and prudent in their spending. By October 2018, when its most recent “rate case” was completed, the number of surcharges on PSE&G customer bills had grown to 14, from five in 2009. (Of those, three charges are included in the “societal benefits” charge paid by every utility customer in the state and were created by legislation.)This year, PSE&G has added two more surcharges to customer bills, bringing the current total to 16. Most notably, one surcharge, the Zero Emissions Certificate Recovery Charge, raises $300 million to prop up PSE&G’s three nuclear power plants. That charge applies to all New Jersey customers, regardless of who supplies their power. Nationally, the average price of electricity has slightly increased over the last decade, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. But PSE&G said that over the last decade, its customer bills have decreased even with the surcharges, which have financed investments in solar power, energy efficiency and infrastructure upgrades.The company said the spending has helped keep electricity service reliable, created jobs and reduced emissions. “Programs have costs,” Scott S. Jennings, a PSEG senior vice president, said in an interview. “We totally recognize that. But customers are paying far less than was paid in the past.”PSE&G said the median monthly bill for customers who only receive electricity was $102 in 2019, down slightly from 2008 when it was $105. The median bill for customers who receive electricity and gas dropped to $176 per month in 2019 from $249 in 2008. Some of those savings can be attributed to lower fuel costs.“We see that as a win for customers, the economy and the environment,” PSE&G said in a statement. Because the Kuehne Company relies heavily on electricity, surcharges have a significant impact on the company’s bottom line. (Glenna Gordon for ProPublica) No federal entity tracks utility surcharges nationwide, but they have been followed for years by consumer advocates and regulatory groups. The National Regulatory Research Institute, the research arm of the association for utility regulators, has cautioned states to consider the potential impacts of surcharges before approving them, with a 2009 paper recommending that the fees be approved “only in special situations.” A review of the fees conducted for the AARP in 2012 found that at least 30 states add surcharges to customer bills for an array of purposes.In New Jersey, the BPU energy director, Stacy Peterson, said the infrastructure work financed through surcharges needs to be done. Surcharges allow work to be completed more quickly, she said, and the BPU ensures the surcharge revenue is spent properly.“We always have the ability to step in,” she said. “We’re not just approving these blindly.”But some critics say utility regulators have lost sight of their mission when it comes to approving surcharges, particularly for what amount to routine business costs.Regulators “need to remember that the public interest does not mean serving the utilities,” said David Nickel, state consumer counsel in Kansas. “It means serving the public. And sometimes that means looking at the utility and telling them ‘no.’” Bill Paulin, left, and Richard Wilkes, co-presidents of Kuehne, at its Kearny plant. (Glenna Gordon for ProPublica) Chances are, you give little thought to how your electricity bill is calculated. Surcharges capitalize on that.“I don’t half look,” said Michael Denning, a 66-year-old retiree from Kearny, New Jersey, who had come to a PSE&G customer service center in Newark on a recent Friday to pay his bill. “They’re on there, but you can’t do anything.”Other customers said they had not seen the charges and, when approached by a reporter, spent a few minutes shuffling through their bills to decipher what was what.Each cycle, electricity bills are broken up into two buckets: supply and delivery. Supply charges cover the cost of producing power at a plant or buying it from another producer. Delivery charges cover the cost of bringing that power over transmission lines and ultimately to your light switch. Surcharges — also known in the industry as “trackers” or “clauses” — are included in the delivery bucket and are usually assessed as a fee per kilowatt hour of electricity used.For a utility, how it seeks to recover expenses comes down to risk.If a utility chooses to apply for a rate increase, regulators will weigh not only the costs the utility projects for the coming years but also any expenses the utility has made that were not part of its previous rate case. If regulators don’t think the expenses were necessary, they could reject the proposal, leaving the utility on the hook for those outlays.Surcharges sidestep that risk. Where rate cases entail a fuller review of a utility’s operations, the analysis of a surcharge focuses on a single program. Before any money is spent, that single program is given the blessing of regulators, along with a means to collect the cost from customers up front.In New Jersey, PSE&G has made surcharges a critical part of its business strategy. In investor materials from as early as 2009, the company notes that its regulatory strategy is to earn all authorized returns on investments and minimize regulatory lag — the time between when a change in costs for the utility is reflected in the customer’s rates.PSE&G is allowed to earn a profit on some of its investments, and with each program announced came the promise of immediate payback. In a 2011 investor meeting presentation about future investments, the company touted its growth in the solar and energy efficiency arenas alongside receiving approval for immediate repayment through surcharges.Fitch Ratings, one of the major credit rating agencies, raised the utility’s credit rating in 2012, increasing it one notch from BBB+ to A-, its current rating, citing New Jersey’s “constructive” regulatory environment. At the time, PSE&G had recently added a weather normalization surcharge to gas bills that helped guarantee cash flow even when customers saw a mild winter and used less energy. The BPU’s willingness to allow utilities to recover costs in a “timely manner” meant there was a predictable cash flow even in uncertain outside conditions, the credit agency said at the time. Kuehne supplies bleach for water purification. (Glenna Gordon for ProPublica) In a 2014 presentation to industry executives and investors, the company said that it expected to use surcharges to recover 12% of the $11.3 billion invested in solar and energy efficiency programs and an infrastructure hardening program, dubbed “Energy Strong,” which targeted substations that flooded during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.During another presentation, PSE&G said consumers ultimately wouldn’t feel the surcharge for solar and energy efficiency programs because it would replace a surcharge that was expiring of an equal amount. The move, the company noted, would “fully offset the impact to customer bills,” which wouldn’t go up. Of course, bills wouldn’t go down, either, despite lower fuel costs.“We can debate the merits of what we should and shouldn’t do,” said Jennings of PSEG. “And different people will have different perspectives. It comes down to affordability and where you draw the line.”Critics of the charges, however, say projects billed as protecting infrastructure from climate change or increasing reliability are less about improving service and more about ensuring profits.“If you’re a utility and demand is flat, and you get a return on capital, how can you make a capital investment if no one is buying more electricity,” said David Dismukes, executive director of the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University, who testified against PSE&G’s Energy Strong program. “You say that we need to build in ‘resiliency,’ that’s how you do it.”PSEG projected roughly $1.6 billion in earnings for 2019. The company has also paid shareholders increasing dividends every year over the past decade.In New Jersey, surcharges appear to have found a welcoming regulatory environment, especially as the state seeks to ensure its progressive climate policies don’t alienate businesses. It’s a balancing act the state has struggled to pull off. New Jersey has been on the cutting edge of environmental protection legislation, but such efforts were spurred in part by lax enforcement that allowed industrial pollution to do lasting harm to the state’s waterways.For the most part, utility surcharges and the projects they finance attract only fleeting attention — an article in which residents called PSE&G’s utility pole mounted solar panels an “eyesore,” or others describing work done to help the utility recover after Superstorm Sandy.“I don’t even pay attention,” Anthony Boone, a 48-year-old artist, said as he ran errands in Newark. “I just pay it. I guess I should be more in tune, but that’s pretty low on the totem pole.” Kuehne’s control center, where the company’s power usage is monitored. (Glenna Gordon for ProPublica) Some customers did start to pay attention this year after the utility’s parent company, PSEG, sought to impose the surcharge to subsidize its three aging nuclear plants. Without the subsidy, the company said it would have to close the plants, costing the state hundreds of jobs and a key source of clean energy.Suddenly, surcharges were big news, as officials, executives and legislators sparred over PSEG’s demands and the $300 million price tag.State experts said the plants were still relatively efficient and not in danger of closing. But a law enacted in May 2018 to compensate nuclear plants for being a cleaner energy source seemed to tie the hands of the BPU. In April, the board voted to impose the surcharge, even as some of the commissioners expressed misgivings, with one likening PSEG’s threats to extortion. The New Jersey rate counsel, Stefanie Brand, whose office advocates on behalf of customers, recently challenged the subsidy in court. In a brief filed this month, Brand said that if PSEG’s threat was all it took to secure the subsidy, then “the ratepayers of this state truly are being held captive.”As a part of any surcharge agreement, the utility must come back to regulators at a specified point in the project and provide an accounting showing that the money is being spent as stipulated, the BPU said.Regulators say they also review surcharges as part of a utility’s next application for a rate increase. But until a change made last year, utilities could go as long as they wanted without seeking a rate increase and undergoing the requisite review. A new rule, established by the BPU in January 2018, requires any utility with an infrastructure-related surcharge to submit to a full rate review within five years of the surcharge’s approval. (PSE&G is scheduled to file its next rate case by the end of 2023.)“Any expense in a rate case has to be prudent,” said Paul Flanagan, executive director of the BPU. “When they’re spending money on building things, one of the issues is: ‘Is it prudent? Is it gold plated? Are they just spending money to earn money?’” The agency can step in if it believes a charge is being misused, but it almost never does. The BPU doesn’t track such interventions, but of the roughly 1,500 matters that come before the agency annually, Flanagan said interventions have been “fairly rare.”At core, utilities and regulators see surcharges differently.Jennings, the PSEG executive, said surcharges help the company invest wisely, ensuring regulators support a project before any money is spent.“We want to make sure that the other stakeholders, like BPU staff and ultimately the BPU, rate counsel and other key parties agree that it is worthwhile doing,” he said. “They will, through that process, agree that the type of work and basic program is prudent.”However, the BPU’s Flanagan said surcharges are only a way to make sure that necessary upgrades are made quickly, and he rejected the idea that they are a tacit way for regulators to weigh in on how a company makes investments.“The utilities run their companies,” he said. “The board doesn’t run the companies. If the utility feels the need to upgrade the system, they’re capable of doing that.” The plant produces bleach by applying an electric current to salt brine, a process that demands substantial amounts of salt, water and electricity. (Glenna Gordon for ProPublica) Garden State residents pay among the highest prices per kilowatt hour in the nation for their electricity. Brand, the state-appointed advocate for customers, said she is concerned about the proliferation of surcharges.“That kind of surcharge really should be left for extraordinary circumstances and the run-of-the-mill work the utilities should be doing through rates,” Brand said. “If they’re not making enough money to do the work, they always have the ability to come in for a rate case.”While energy costs may not drive decisions about where to live, for big businesses, energy costs can be a significant factor in locating — or relocating — a facility.Major commercial customers, such as chemical plants and large retailers, can buy energy from a third party or generate electricity itself, but the power still has to go through a utility’s distribution and transmission lines, which is where the surcharges are applied. That leaves them with no way to avoid the not-so-small impact of the surcharges.“We have gotten to the point that more money is probably collected at this point through these mechanisms than through base rates,” said Steve Goldenberg, a lawyer for the New Jersey Large Energy Users Coalition, which represents retailers, manufacturers, food chains and pharmaceutical companies. “And that’s the problem.” For the Kuehne Company, which uses electricity to manufacture industrial grade bleach at plants in New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut, surcharges have a significant impact on the company’s bottom line.“We live and die by energy,” said Bill Paulin, the company’s co-president, noting that electricity makes up 40% of the company’s production costs.“Our energy costs are in the millions,” he said. “We spend more on electricity than we do on medical insurance for our employees.”The company, which employs 150 people across its three locations, has been in New Jersey since 1919, and it recently built a new manufacturing facility in Kearny, on the industrial peninsula between Newark and Jersey City. Paulin said the company made the decision to stay because of New Jersey’s access to the Northeast markets, and because of the employees who live in the state. “We live and die by energy,” Paulin said. Here, Paulin and Wilkes walk through the company’s salt storage facility in Kearny. (Glenna Gordon for ProPublica) “We decided to take a chance and do what we needed to do to stay,” Paulin said. Still, the new facility, which was built on the site of the company’s older plant, can be dismantled and moved if costs — such as utility bills — continue to rise, he said.“It wouldn’t be easy or cheap, but we can do it if things get out of whack.”For now, the bills are holding steady, and not by accident.A surcharge, imposed five years ago to cover improvements to the utility’s resilience after Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, was expiring. The program, which collected on average about $4 a month from residential customers and substantially more from commercial customers, would soon be history.But PSE&G had already asked to impose a new surcharge, which would raise $1.5 billion to elevate or close old substations in flood zones. It would be part of Energy Strong II — an extension of the Sandy recovery program.During discussions with the BPU and rate counsel this summer, PSE&G scaled back its proposal, and in September, the BPU approved the next phase of the program. The cost to residential customers will be about $3 each month — almost the same amount as the expiring surcharge for the previous round of the recovery program.For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on the environment. Opening photo by Glenna Gordon for ProPublica.
A University Committee Urged Changes to the Handling of Sexual Harassment, but Leaders Haven’t Said When They’ll Adopt Reforms
by Rachel Otwell, NPR Illinois This article was produced in partnership with NPR Illinois, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released a much-anticipated report this week with recommendations to improve the handling of sexual harassment cases involving faculty.Among the most significant: expanding the definition of sexual harassment beyond the campus’ current standard, hiring more advisers and investigators, and asking candidates for university jobs to waive confidentiality and reveal their disciplinary records.But whether the university’s Board of Trustees will embrace change remains to be seen. Even Robin Kar, a professor of law and philosophy who headed up the committee, was uncertain how the ideas would be received. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Kar acknowledged it could be a challenge to get those at the top of the university system hierarchy to buy into some of the suggested reforms. He noted that years have passed since the board last approved changes to guidelines for staff and faculty.“It happens very rarely,” he told NPR Illinois.The hurdles to reducing sexual harassment at the university were on display Wednesday at a summit hosted at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Panelists noted that many people never report incidents to Title IX offices, which are responsible for investigating sexual misconduct complaints.They also raised concerns about the efficacy of Title IX training, the need to intervene earlier to stop bullying or other problematic behavior, and the handling of gender discrimination issues other than sexual harassment.“We need to focus less on the policies and more on the conduct,” said Kristina Larsen, an attorney and activist. Larsen said that in university settings, administrators don’t have the same amount of power as they do in the corporate world. Colleagues often have as much power as administrators to intervene, she said.“It doesn’t matter whether it’s illegal or not,” she said. Instead the campus community should ask: “What’s ethical? What’s appropriate?”A university spokesperson declined to speculate on when the reforms would be adopted or how much they would cost, but said the institution was committed to “building a safer community.”“It’s too early to determine what final form overall implementation will take and how much that would cost,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to NPR Illinois. “However, the chancellor and provost have made clear that cost will not be an impediment to change.”Concerted calls for change at UIUC began a year ago at a #MeToo forum at the College of Law. An audience member asked about reports of harassment by law professor Jay Kesan. The university had spent two years investigating Kesan, but it kept the findings confidential.Local media subsequently reported that the university investigation included three complainants’ allegations against Kesan, and found that more than 30 witnesses had testified to Title IX investigators. Kesan was determined to have violated the university’s code of conduct and the “spirit” of the sexual misconduct policy. Kesan was forced to forego merit-based pay raises for a limited time, but critics contended the punishment was not serious enough. Student groups called for his resignation. Kesan later admitted to the behavior in a letter to colleagues and apologized. He is currently on a voluntary unpaid leave and is set to return in 2020.Continued media coverage by The News-Gazette, Illinois Public Media and others has kept the issue of faculty sexual misconduct at UIUC under public scrutiny and added to the number of known cases.In August, an NPR Illinois and ProPublica investigation detailed allegations against seven professors in recent years. It uncovered three new cases in which professors accused of conduct including stalking, inappropriate touching and unfair treatment of international students were found in violation of university policy and were then given periods of paid leave. Two went on to new positions, and the other is still on faculty at UIUC.One of the focal points of the summit Wednesday was the need for a new approach to addressing discrimination and harassment within academia as a whole. Panelists said universities need to go beyond the requirements of Title IX and better support victims of sexual misconduct.Larsen told the crowded conference that victims tell her the process of reporting sexual harassment is more traumatizing than the behavior that led them to report in the first place — “100% without exception.” Larsen said a fear of lawsuits from the accused and the influence of university lawyers can keep administrators from doing the right thing. Her advice: “Don’t worry about the liability, worry about doing what’s right.”One of the recommendations from the report was for the university to hire more confidential advisers who can counsel victims without having to report details of the incidents to the Title IX office. Kar said that while putting together the report, he heard from the campus’ director of the Women’s Resources Center, Sarah Colomé, that victims had to wait too long to speak with confidential advisers.A university spokesperson said the Women’s Resources Center is seeking to hire two full-time confidential advisers. The center currently has employees serving part-time in that role.Students also demanded more of a say in the development of new policies.Sudarshana Rao, a senior who is a member of the student government, noted that student leaders had written a letter asking to participate in the negotiations after reading the NPR Illinois-ProPublica investigation.“I think the next steps going forward are to keep this momentum going and the student voice is so, so important,” Rao said. “We have the most to lose if the administration or higher powers choose to abuse their power.” Rachel Otwell is a reporter at NPR Illinois.Alex Mierjeski contributed to this report.NPR Illinois was part of the Illinois Newsroom collaborative, which secured the initial grant for this project.NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Media are part of the University of Illinois System. The university has no editorial control or oversight of news content produced by either. Reporters at NPR Illinois, however, are considered “responsible employees” under the university’s policies and are required to report allegations of abuse to the university. As a result, news tips should be sent to ProPublica staff.Our reporting won’t stop here. Have you faced sexual harassment or violence from a faculty or staff member at a university, college or community college in Illinois? We need your help — here’s how you can get in touch:
The Pro-Trump Super PAC at the Center of the Ukraine Scandal Has Faced Multiple Campaign Finance Complaints
by Mike Spies, Derek Willis and J. David McSwane ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Last year, a Department of Defense contractor quietly donated half a million dollars to a group supporting President Donald Trump’s reelection.Once a watchdog organization noticed it, the contribution raised an alarm. Federal contractors are not allowed to donate to political entities. And groups are required by law to examine all donations for potential legal issues. If they discover that a contractor has made a contribution, the money has to be returned.The other unusual aspect of the donation was the man behind it. Randy Perkins, the founder of DOD contractor AshBritt Environmental, had no history of six-figure contributions to federal political groups, although he has been a regular donor to Republicans for the past 15 years. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat in 2016. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. The watchdog group pointed out that the money came in a day after AshBritt won a supplemental contract award worth $460,000 from the DOD for wildfire cleanup, bringing its contract total to about $1.7 million.Asked about the donation, Perkins said he had meant to make a personal donation to express his support for specific Trump policies: “I actually think this administration cares deeply about children and mental health issues.” He said the contract extension had nothing to do with the contribution.America First Action, the Trump super PAC that accepted the donation, adjusted its report on the source of the funds only after the watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Since America First’s creation in 2017, it has refunded just a fraction of 1% of all the funds it has raised.If you’ve been hearing about America First recently, it’s likely because two associates of presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani were arrested on allegations that they illegally funneled money to the group.But that case is not the only problem that has ensnared the PAC as its role in backing Republican candidates has grown.In another instance, the American subsidiary of a Canadian company made three donations totaling $1.75 million to America First in 2018. In another complaint, the Campaign Legal Center questioned the source of the donation and alleged that Wheatland Tube LLC may have violated laws against foreign nationals contributing to federal campaigns. The company declined to comment on the matter.Last year, Common Cause, the political reform group, asked the FEC to determine whether the Trump campaign had illegally coordinated with America First and America First Policies, a related group that can raise money without disclosing its donors. The complaint alleged that the president and his campaign were improperly soliciting contributions for the two entities.The FEC has not acted on any of these complaints to date, and it currently lacks a quorum to vote on enforcement actions proposed by its staff.“The number of complaints is pretty remarkable,” said Ann Ravel, a Democrat who served as chair of the FEC in 2015.America First communications director Kelly Sadler told ProPublica that the group takes its obligations seriously and goes to great lengths to comply with the law.The PAC has denied any wrongdoing in the criminal case against the Giuliani associates. Sadler said the contribution at the heart of the indictment has been placed in a segregated account and will remain there “until these matters are resolved and a court determines the proper disposition of the funds.”As a super PAC, America First can take unlimited donations from corporations and individuals. In return, it is not supposed to coordinate with campaigns, which are restricted in the amount of donations they may accept.America First has raised more money to support Trump’s reelection than any super PAC. It is currently chaired by Linda McMahon, and it has raised nearly $50 million over the last two years, including about $9 million in this election cycle to reelect Trump.Its affiliated nonprofit group, America First Policies, was co-founded by Brad Parscale, now the president’s campaign manager.McMahon, a former professional wrestling executive, until March was a member of the president’s cabinet, overseeing the Small Business Administration. She also donated $1 million to the PAC, whose public filings show 19 donations of at least $1 million. Linda McMahon meets with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate, in Palm Beach, Florida. McMahon, a former professional wrestling executive, is currently the chair of America First. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo) The PAC’s top donors include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Geoffrey Palmer, a billionaire California developer. Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who run a shipping supplies company, donated half a million dollars each.In the 2018 election, America First spent more than $29 million supporting Republican candidates in House and Senate races. Former Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, a powerful GOP leader, received heavy backing from the PAC — $3 million toward a contest he would go on to lose.The $500,000 donation attributed to AshBritt was among a flood of big donations coming into the PAC in the spring of 2018. The company, based in Deerfield Beach, Florida, does disaster cleanup work.The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint got little attention. Under FEC rules, a committee has 30 days to confirm the legality of a questionable donation or to refund it; nearly three months passed before the PAC amended its filing to show the donation as being made directly by Perkins.Perkins said he tried to rectify the matter by providing “all paperwork to the FEC” and resubmitting forms to America First stating that the funds were in fact drawn from a corporate account that would later be taxed as personal income.“When I wrote the check, I cleared it with America First,” Perkins told ProPublica.Perkins acknowledges that the optics of his America First donation are less than ideal.“The facts might be a problem,” he said. “But they are facts.”A few weeks after Perkins’ donation, the PAC received $325,000 from Global Energy Producers, the Florida energy company that is now at the center of a presidential impeachment inquiry. The PAC was referred to as “Committee 1” in the federal indictment of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. The two men, according to the indictment, were key characters in a coercion campaign to recall the United States ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, which they believed would pave the way for an investigation into Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.The indictment also alleges that Fruman and Parnas promised to fundraise for Sessions. Around the same time, Sessions wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging Yovanovitch’s ouster.Sessions, who is now running for Congress in a new district, did not respond to messages from ProPublica. In a statement issued on his behalf, he acknowledged meeting with the two Florida businessmen several times but said he took no action on their behalf.Sessions denied that his letter to Pompeo was directly related to the meetings. He said he will donate the contributions Parnas and Fruman gave to his campaign to Texas charities. Do you have information about America First Action? Contact Mike at michael.spies@propublica.org, Derek at derek.willis@propublica.org, or David at David.McSwane@propublica.org. Here are other ways to contact us securely.
This Governor Still Guides His Billion-Dollar Business Empire, Even Though He Said He Wouldn’t
by Ken Ward Jr., The Charleston Gazette-Mail This article was produced in partnership with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Last fall, Gov. Jim Justice called reporters to his office in the West Virginia Capitol for a hastily arranged news conference.Sitting behind a table and flanked by GOP lawmakers, the governor touted the latest budget surplus and announced a proposed pay raise for teachers and a plan to fix the state’s underfunded public employee health care plan.But within minutes, he ended the event and dismissed the lawmakers, saying they had pressing state business. The governor took just one question.“Nobody else? Great,” he said, banging his palms on the desk. “Let’s go.” Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Justice had somewhere else to be. Across town, one of his energy companies, Bluestone Coal Corp., was due in federal court. The firm had sued a competitor for $80 million after a drilling accident had flooded a mine. And as Bluestone’s owner, Justice was playing a key role in the settlement talks. The parties spent two days negotiating a deal, and he was there when they gathered in a courtroom to present their agreement to the judge.“May I say something?” the governor asked at one point, according to a transcript of the hearing.“Certainly,” U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston responded.Surrounded by nearly two dozen lawyers, the governor proceeded to explain the finer points of the agreement.Justice’s involvement in his company’s legal matters is a far cry from what he pledged more than two and a half years ago when he took office as West Virginia’s governor. Back then, the billionaire promised to put his business empire aside and focus on public service. In an arrangement that echoed that of President Donald Trump, Justice said his adult children, Jay and Jill, would run his family’s coal mines, resorts and farms.“Being governor,” he wrote in a January 2017 note to state employees, “is a full-time responsibility.”But as his courtroom appearance makes clear, Justice remains deeply enmeshed in his businesses. In fact, he has frequently used official public appearances, and the trappings of his office, to promote them.Over the past year, he has hosted a news conference at the governor’s office to tout a settlement between his coal companies and his administration’s tax collectors. He has used an interview at the governor’s mansion to press his luxury resort’s $75 million lawsuit against its insurance companies. And he’s turned an appearance at a statewide business gathering — held at that same resort — into breaking news about his family’s plans to reopen a coal mine. The governor’s dual roles are now fueling complaints and political headaches, just as Justice is seeking a second term as the state’s chief executive. Critics in both parties say that Justice is an absentee governor, often leaving the state without strong leadership at a time when West Virginia faces key challenges, from a painful economic transition as the coal industry declines to the struggle to emerge from the worst drug overdose crisis in the country.“The governor is running his businesses, and the state of West Virginia gets neglected as a result of it,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat who brought a lawsuit against Justice, alleging the governor is violating the state Constitution because he does not “reside” in Charleston. Justice lives in Lewisburg, near his Greenbrier resort, about 110 miles from the capital, but he has opposed the lawsuit. His lawyers say the Constitution’s term — reside — is too “nebulous” a concept for a court to enforce.On the campaign trail, Republican rival Woody Thrasher is questioning Justice’s commitment to public office. “I think he’s a worker,” Thrasher told a Wheeling newspaper this month. “I just don’t think he works on state government. I think he works on his personal businesses, which quite frankly probably need more help than the State of West Virginia does, if that’s possible.”Justice declined to be interviewed for this report; however, he issued a statement through a spokesman for his companies.In it, he acknowledged his ongoing involvement in his businesses but said his interactions are limited, with his adult children running day-to-day operations. “Because the businesses employ thousands of West Virginians, I continue to have an interest in their success and do check in on them from time to time,” he said. “There are also times where I have specific historical knowledge of a particular aspect of one of the businesses, and Jay and Jill will ask me about it.”His primary interest, he added, is West Virginia.“Above all,” Justice said, “as I travel from one end of the state to the other, my No. 1 focus is continuing to do everything I can as governor to make sure West Virginia will continue to improve, put people in good-paying jobs and attract industry and tourism to our wonderful state.”Unlike his recent predecessors, Justice has refused to place most of his holdings into a blind trust, which would put them under the control of an independent manager and shield him from at least the appearance of a conflict. Instead, the governor has retained ownership in 130 corporate entities, and his assets are valued by Forbes magazine at $1.5 billion. The Greenbrier resort, one of several different business holdings of Justice’s. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail) Many of Justice’s businesses, from coal mines to farms to a casino, are regulated by the state, and some of them do business with the administration.An investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica in August found that, despite what the Justice administration called a “moratorium” on state spending at The Greenbrier, state agencies have paid for more than $106,000 in meals and lodging at the luxury resort since Justice became governor.That report prompted lawmakers to call for an overhaul of the state’s ethics rules. One proposal would make West Virginia the first state to mandate that governors place all of their assets into a blind trust. Separately, federal investigators have issued subpoenas seeking information about the administration’s dealings with Justice’s businesses.Justice has denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly dismissed concerns about his business interests. He maintains that they present no conflicts of interest, because he has stepped away from day-to-day management while he’s serving as governor.Justice’s own actions have undercut that argument.In August 2018, the governor called reporters to the Capitol to talk about his business empire’s delinquent taxes. Millions of dollars in various state levies tied to Justice’s family coal operations had been overdue for years, providing frequent fodder for his political opponents and the media.“Today’s a really neat day for me in that I think we can put to bed once and for all this tax issue that’s been looming around forevermore,” Justice said.Speaking in the reception room just outside the governor’s office — historically used for official government press events — Justice took reporters on a rambling verbal tour of his mining holdings and the challenges of the coal industry. He spoke in detail about how he refused to file bankruptcy to avoid debts, and he outlined the back-and-forth over selling most of his coal operations to the Russian firm Mechel, before buying them back years later.“It has stretched our companies beyond belief to overcome this situation right here,” the governor said. “It’s been a struggle.”But when reporters asked for specifics on how much his companies had ultimately paid in taxes — and whether the governor cut a deal with his own tax collectors — Justice was short on details.“I don’t know what the amount is,” he insisted. “I think that’s a question you would really have to ask my son.” (Justice’s son, Jay, who was not at the news conference, has refused to answer such questions.)Pressed for more information, Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy cited taxpayer confidentiality, but Justice interrupted. “I think you can tell them that it was audited,” the governor told the tax official. Two months later, Justice was focused on Bluestone Coal and its ongoing lawsuit against Pinnacle Mining Co., the operator that had flooded the mine. The negotiating session was scheduled for 10 a.m. on Oct. 2, 2018, in federal court. Justice’s official calendar informed his staff, “DO NOT SCHEDULE” on that day.But with tensions rising over the state’s underfunded health care plan for teachers and other public employees, the governor scheduled a news conference to tout Republican accomplishments.Afterward, Justice traveled to the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse, about a five-minute drive from the Capitol. Although his son, Jay, is the president of Bluestone and attended the conference, the governor was there, too. A court order required “individuals with full authority to settle the case for each party” to attend.When the parties reached a $12 million compromise just after lunch on the second day, Justice sought to clarify the terms of the agreement.The settlement, he explained, gave Bluestone all mining rights — not some, as one of the lawyers had told the judge — to an area of the damaged mine known as the “four-seam.”“At some point in time, there could very well be something that is worth something,” the governor said. “That’s what we negotiated.”He added: “It needs to be all the four-seam that they have, period.”A few months later, as West Virginia teachers went on strike for the second time in as many years and lawmakers considered additional pay raises for the educators, the governor turned his attention to another matter: the financial survival of The Greenbrier, and a major legal battle with the resort’s insurance companies over flood damage claims.Greenbrier lawyers filed the case on Feb. 15, 2019. It got little attention until a week later, when Justice gave an interview in the governor’s mansion to West Virginia MetroNews, in which he discussed his resort’s finances and the lawsuit in great detail.“I’m a pretty smart business guy,” the governor told the news outlet.Describing The Greenbrier as “an incredible resource for our state,” Justice explained how the flood damaged the resort, including halting several expansion projects, and opined about the quality of the property’s insurance.“It is top of the line insurance,” the governor said. “I mean, it is the very best that money could ever buy.”But Justice seemed to stop himself after offering those specifics. “Now, I’ve been away from it, being the governor,” he said. “Forget the governor thing. Please let’s remove me in this.”(The Greenbrier’s lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality, and the resort then sued a consultant that it had hired to help it collect on its insurance policies. That case is ongoing.) Read More Welcome to the Greenbrier, the Governor-Owned Luxury Resort Filled With Conflicts of Interest Gov. Jim Justice is West Virginia’s richest man and owns its most storied resort. When lobbyists and state agencies book there, he profits. Here’s how the governor, dubbed “Big Jim,” became West Virginia’s little Trump. In August, Justice’s public and private interests came together again, at The Greenbrier. The state Chamber of Commerce was holding its annual Business Summit at the luxury resort. Much was on the agenda, from economic development initiatives to tax legislation to efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.Surrounded by hundreds of the state’s top political and business leaders, Justice announced a new initiative, aimed at expanding the state’s natural gas and chemical industries.But off stage, the governor pivoted to his own business dealings. Speaking with a reporter in a television interview, he gave an update on a mine that he had recently purchased in Wyoming County.He provided a detailed account of the sequences for reopening it and putting local miners back to work.“We are probably about three to four weeks from opening,” the governor told WVNS-TV.“The second section will follow in about two months, and the third section will follow after that,” he added, “provided the coal market doesn’t run away from us and everything.” Editor’s note: Ben Salango, a candidate for the Democratic nomination to face Justice in next year’s election, is a minority investor in The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s parent company. He is in the process of selling his stake.Ken Ward Jr. is a reporter at The Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia. Email him at kward@wvgazettemail.com and follow him on Twitter at @kenwardjr.Help us investigate: ProPublica and the Gazette-Mail are working to learn as much as possible about Jim Justice’s 100-plus companies and their business practices. We’d like to hear from you if you’re working for or with Justice’s firms, and are particularly interested in hearing from you if:
I’m Looking for My Next Story
by Melissa Sanchez ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for our newsletter to get weekly updates written by our journalists. I’m writing today from my favorite coffee shop, where I’m camping out to organize my brain and my notes and all the lists of all the things I need to do. I want to tell you about this odd place I’m in right now, in between stories, that’s amazing, luxurious and anxiety-inducing all at once.My editors have told me to take some time — editor’s note: but not too much time — exploring what I want to dig into next. I’ve long been interested in the issues of immigration and labor, so I’m kicking around a few ideas in that general realm. I don’t have a clear story idea at the moment, but I’m getting closer.What’s that process like? For me, it’s casting a very wide net for sources, court records, data and other public records. I’m also reading what’s already been published on the topics, checking out books from the library and looking for documentaries and podcasts to give me ideas. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Talking to people is always the most inspiring and fulfilling part of the search. I recently spent a Saturday afternoon in a brightly lit second-story office with about 30 undocumented immigrant workers who told me about a range of traumatic experiences on the job, including pervasive sexual harassment and watching their co-workers pass out on the job. What they described made me cry on several occasions.I don’t know if what they told me will become a story, but it has already informed my reporting. I filed a half-dozen or so public records requests with federal, state and local agencies to understand workplace conditions. Some of the responses have contained surprising little nuggets that have led to new questions, more records requests and possibly a different story altogether. I’m still figuring it out.I’m also reaching out to advocates, lawyers, researchers, government officials and others to get their thoughts. I am trying to fill my Outlook calendar with in-person meetings (because meeting in person always feels better) about the issues they’re hearing about, what they’d like to know more about and who else I should talk with. It’s kind of a snowball effect. One person might connect me to another, who might tell me about somebody else, who might lead me to somebody with an unexpected perspective or story to tell. And that then triggers more records requests. Photo taken by yours truly of my workstation at Brew Brew, a lovely coffee shop near the Avondale neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago. (Melissa Sanchez/ProPublica Illinois) We’ll see where all of this takes me. I’m trying to keep an open mind and not be too hard on myself for not having a big, amazing story proposal yet. It will come.I’m also interested in hearing your ideas and tips for stories on immigrants, labor or anything else. Please reach out. I’m always happy to talk. You can reach me at melissa.sanchez@propublica.org, at the office at 708-967-5728 or on Signal at 872-444-0011.Thanks for reading.P.S. Does my search for a story sound like something you’d like to try? My colleague Vignesh Ramachandran and I are doing a Q&A with veteran journalist Peter Copeland about his new memoir, “Finding The News,” which is all about becoming a reporter, next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Columbia College in downtown Chicago. Here’s more info about the free event.
We Found Over 700 Doctors Who Were Paid More Than a Million Dollars by Drug and Medical Device Companies
by Charles Ornstein, Tracy Weber and Ryann Grochowski Jones ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Back in 2013, ProPublica detailed what seemed a stunning development in the pharmaceutical industry’s drive to win the prescription pads of the nation’s doctors: In just four years, one doctor had earned $1 million giving promotional talks and consulting for drug companies; 21 others had made more than $500,000.Six years later — despite often damning scrutiny from prosecutors and academics — such high earnings have become commonplace.More than 2,500 physicians have received at least half a million dollars apiece from drugmakers and medical device companies in the past five years alone, a new ProPublica analysis of payment data shows. And that doesn’t include money for research or royalties from inventions. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. More than 700 of those doctors received at least $1 million.“Holy smokes,” said Dr. Walid Gellad, an associate professor of medicine and health policy at the University of Pittsburgh, where he leads the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing. It is “quite striking” how much money doctors were earning from “other activities aside from patient care,” he said.To identify the latest pharma millionaires and other spending trends, ProPublica analyzed more than 56 million payments made from 2014 to 2018 — the first five full years of the federal Open Payments initiative, which requires companies to publicly disclose the payments as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. [See the Chart: Pharma’s Top-Promoted Drugs] Some academics and physicians predicted that the exposure might cause companies to rethink making payments and doctors to rethink taking them. A flurry of studies matched the payment data with doctors’ prescribing choices and found links between the payments and the products doctors chose.But ProPublica’s new analysis shows that the public reporting has not dampened the enthusiasm of the drug and medical device industry for having doctors deliver paid dinner talks and sponsored speeches or paying them to consult on products.In fact, there has been almost no change in how much the industry is spending. Each year from 2014 to 2018, drug and medical device companies spent between $2.1 billion and $2.2 billion paying doctors for speaking and consulting, as well as on meals, travel and gifts for them. (These figures do not include research spending, but they do include royalties.)Roughly the same number of doctors — more than 600,000 — received payments in any given year.That consistency, some academics say, is conspicuous. “It makes me wonder whether patients are using this information or whether physicians are even aware this information is out there,” said Dr. Joseph Ross, a professor of medicine and public health at Yale who has studied pharmaceutical marketing. “It’s almost like it’s not happening.”Holly Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, defended company payments to doctors. “It is not necessarily a negative that the numbers have remained generally flat over the past five years,” she wrote in an email. “That statistic appears to be consistent with companies’ belief that their interactions with physicians have been and remain legitimate, even when subjected to sunshine.”ProPublica first delved into the world of drug company promotional campaigns in 2010 when it gathered the payments made by seven companies that were required to make them public as part of settlements in whistleblower lawsuits. The payments were published in a database called Dollars for Docs, which allowed anyone to look up a doctor and see if he or she received a payment.Today, ProPublica is updating Dollars for Docs with the latest data from the federal government on all payments.Among our findings:Consistency Breeds FamiliarityOver the course of five years, 1 million doctors, dentists, optometrists, chiropractors and podiatrists received at least one payment, most often a meal, from a company. Of those practitioners, more than 323,000 received at least one payment every year. About 240,000 received a payment in only one year. And the rest received payments in more than one year but in fewer than five.For context, there are about 1.1 million doctors in the United States.Dr. Aaron P. Mitchell, a medical oncologist and health services researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said his research has shown that when doctors interact more consistently with a drug company they are more likely to prescribe that company’s cancer drug. The drug industry, Mitchell said, “knows that they need to cultivate relationships over more time, so that’s what they’re really trying to do. It’s not just one drug meal. It’s consistency.”Some Drugs Are Promoted Heavily Year After YearOf the top 20 drugs with the most annual spending on doctors from 2014 to 2018, six made the list in each of the years: Invokana to treat type 2 diabetes, the blood thinners Xarelto and Eliquis, the antipsychotic Latuda, the immunosuppressive drug Humira and the multiple sclerosis drug Aubagio. Another three drugs were on the list for four years: Victoza to treat type 2 diabetes, psoriasis treatment Otezla and the cholesterol-lowering drug Repatha. (Research funding and royalties are not included.)Xarelto topped the list in spending for four years, totaling more than $123 million in payments from 2014 to 2018. In March, its makers, Johnson & Johnson and Bayer AG, agreed to pay $775 million to settle about 25,000 lawsuits claiming that the companies had failed to warn patients that Xarelto could cause fatal bleeding.In statements, J&J and Bayer have said that the allegations lacked merit and that Xarelto is safe and effective. They noted that six cases that went to trial were decided in their favor. [See the Chart: The Number of Big-Ticket Promotional Speakers Is Up More Than 30% in Five Years] Many drugs on the list are in categories where there is fierce competition. For example, seven of the top 20 in 2018 treat diabetes. And in most of the drug classes on the list, “there are more than one available drug — sometimes all with the same mechanism of action — indicated for the same condition selling for very high prices,” Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in an email.According to GoodRx, a drug discount website, the average cash price of a month’s supply of diabetes drugs Invokana, Jardiance and Farxiga is more than $600.“Promotional spending is a major way that manufacturers in these situations distinguish themselves from each other — not by conducting comparative studies or by engaging in substantial price reductions,” Kesselheim said.ProPublica and a number of researchers have examined the types of drugs that prompt the highest payments. Ross, of Yale, and a colleague published an analysis in the British Medical Journal in 2017 that found that the “top promoted drugs were less likely than top selling and top prescribed drugs to be effective, safe, affordable, novel, and represent a genuine advance in treating a disease.”“Our findings suggest that pharmaceutical promotion should be met with healthy skepticism,” the analysis concludes.Prosecutors Say the Payments by Some Drug Companies Are Kickbacks, Despite the Transparency of Open PaymentsThere is a perception among many physicians, including some in academia, that drug company payments are fairly benign — a moonlighting gig that educates other doctors about important medications. But since ProPublica began looking at physician payments, one drugmaker after another has paid tens, or even hundreds, of millions of dollars to resolve allegations of improper, or illegal, marketing tactics.In fact, drug company whistleblowers and federal prosecutors have said explicitly that in some cases the payments were actually bribes and kickbacks. And this behavior has continued despite tools like Dollars for Docs.Here are some recent examples:
Updated: Dollars for Docs
by Mike Tigas, Ryann Grochowski Jones, Charles Ornstein and Lena V. Groeger Search our database.
Texas Tribune and ProPublica Joining Forces to Publish Investigative Journalism in Texas
by ProPublica The Texas Tribune and ProPublica today announced the forthcoming launch of a jointly operated, 11-person investigative reporting unit serving Texas — an initiative that will invest more than $1.6 million a year into critical accountability and watchdog journalism.The investigative unit, which will be based in the Tribune’s Austin newsroom but will power the platforms of both organizations, will begin publishing in early 2020. Recruiting for the team’s senior editor begins today, with the rest of the journalists to be hired shortly.The full team will consist of a senior editor, five reporters, a research reporter and a producer on the staff of ProPublica and a data visuals reporter, engagement reporter and development associate on the staff of the Tribune. All but the producer will be based in Austin; the producer will work out of the ProPublica newsroom in New York.The initiative is being supported by a five-year commitment of $5.75 million from Houston-based Arnold Ventures. Additional support at launch comes from the Energy Foundation, the Catena Foundation, the Charles Butt Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, and attorneys Marc Stanley and Mikal Watts.“No state is more in need of watchdog reporting than Texas,” said Evan Smith, the Tribune’s CEO. “It’s a target-rich environment if you’re in the business of holding people in power and institutions accountable, but the human and financial resources available to realize this worthy mission are always inadequate. Teaming up with ProPublica, the very best investigative journalism org in the country, expands the limits of what’s possible and will serve the public interest in ways that make our state better. This is a big win for all Texans.”“ProPublica is deeply committed to local as well as national reporting, and the stories and issues in Texas are among the nation’s most compelling,” said Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica. “We’re thrilled at the opportunity to dig into them in partnership with our friends at The Texas Tribune, the country’s leading nonprofit statehouse news operation. We’re confident that the result will be more investigative journalism that spurs needed reforms.”“We are delighted to support this endeavor, which brings together two of our most accomplished and tenacious grantees, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune,” said Laura Arnold, co-founder of Arnold Ventures. “Texas is a big state and it needs big journalism to look under each cactus and behind every skyscraper.”About The Texas TribuneThe Texas Tribune is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to engaging and informing Texans on politics, public policy and matters of statewide concern. It is read by nearly 2 million people each month, hosts more than 50 editorial events around Texas each year and has more journalists covering state government than any newsroom in the country. To further its pursuit of statewide engagement, the award-winning Tribune provides all of its content for free to print, radio and television news organizations throughout the state of Texas.About ProPublicaProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. With a team of more than 100 dedicated journalists, ProPublica covers a range of topics, focusing on stories with the potential to spur real-world impact. Its local initiatives include ProPublica Illinois, a 12-person newsroom based in Chicago, and the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, which funds and jointly publishes yearlong projects, currently with 21 local news organizations around the country. Since it began publishing in 2008, ProPublica has received five Pulitzer Prizes, five Peabody Awards, three Emmy Awards, seven George Polk Awards and five Online News Association Awards for general excellence.About Arnold VenturesArnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to improving lives through evidence-based solutions that maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. Arnold Ventures invests in sustainable change, building it from the ground up based on research, deep thinking and a strong foundation of evidence. With more than 100 employees in Houston, Washington, D.C., and New York City, Arnold Ventures focuses on criminal justice, health, education and public finance.Contact:
Listen to Conference-Goers at Trump Resort Chant for “War!”
by Alice Wilder, WNYC This story was co-published with WNYC.Stay up to date with email updates about WNYC and ProPublica’s investigations into the president’s business practices. On Sunday, news broke that a video of a fake President Donald Trump massacring journalists and others had been shown during a conference at one of the president’s resorts last week.The video was swiftly condemned by the White House, the organizers of the pro-Trump conference, as well as Donald Trump Jr. and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who both spoke at the event.“Regardless of political party, we should all reject any and all violence in our politics,” Trump Jr. said in a statement. Get More Trump, Inc. Stay up to date with email updates from WNYC and ProPublica about their ongoing investigations. But the now-infamous video was far from the only violent imagery and rhetoric at the conference, which was held at the Trump National Doral Miami. One of the speakers at the conference opening repeatedly urged the crowd to go to “war” in support of Trump.“We’ve come to declare war!” Pastor Mark Burns told the crowd three times in the Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom. Conference-goers roared back: “War! War!”Burns went on: “Do I have anybody who is ready to go to war for Donald J. Trump, for this nation? I can’t hear you? Anybody? Ready to go to war! Because we’re citizens of the greatest country in the world!” The audience cheered. [Listen to the audio.] Hyperpartisan rhetoric, including references to violence, has become a staple of the president’s campaign and his supporters. Trump himself has egged on crowds with nods to violence.In response to questions, Burns said he does not endorse violence: “Me talking about going to war for Donald Trump is simply a call to action for Republicans to be verbal in support of our conservative values and support for this president.”Later during the conference, radio host Wayne Allyn Root proudly recalled punching classmates as one of the few white students at his predominantly black high school. A “kid comes up to me and I knock him unconscious. Second kid, a week later, I knocked his entire front row of teeth out. He’s on the floor going ‘where are my teeth, where are my teeth,’” Root told the crowd. “My buddies and I were high-fiving and laughing. Man, it was funny.”Root then connected the beatings to politics: “To win in politics, which is the roughest game in the world, you’ve got to be a natural-born killer. Not a wallflower. You’ve got to be a pitbull.” [Listen to the audio.] We recorded the comments at the conference as part of our “Trump, Inc.” reporting project and podcast.Asked for comment, Root said he was simply defending himself. “I don’t recommend violence to anybody, ever,” he said. Asked by whom he was attacked, Root said it was “black students and Italian rough students.”Burns and Root have both long campaigned in support of Trump. Burns gave the benediction on the first day of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, for which he drew criticism for referring to Democrats as “the enemy.” Root also campaigned for Trump during the last election, saying he looked forward to supporters taking over the capital with “pitchforks, jack hammers and blowtorches.” (The Trump campaign declared Roots’ comments “completely unacceptable.”)About a thousand people attended last weekend’s American Priority Festival and Conference. It drew many speakers from the president’s orbit, including Trump Jr., Sanders and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, as well as former Trump campaign aide and now-felon George Papadopoulos.In between sessions, men milled about wearing shirts popular with the extreme right-wing group Proud Boys. One of the shirts read, “Yamaguchi did nothing wrong.” Otoya Yamaguchi was a Japanese ultranationalist who murdered the head of Japan’s socialist party. The back of the shirt shows an image of the killing.Asked for comment, White House spokesman Steven Groves sent an email asserting his responses were “off the record” (we did not agree to this) and saying we should, “Make sure to include Obama and Biden’s violent rhetoric as well.” He did not reply to a request for examples of Obama or Biden using such rhetoric. (Biden has said he would “beat the hell” out of Trump if they were high school classmates, a comment Biden later said he regretted.)Trump Jr. and Sanders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.After the video became public, conference organizer Alex Phillips said the media was ignoring the fact that there had been a panel titled “Political Violence.” That panel focused on left-wing protesters known as Antifa.Phillips did not respond to our request for comment. A spokeswoman for the conference gave the following statement: “The conference was managed in a professional manner with attention to important areas, reputation and relationships. We’ve had amazing media support and attendance and to have any form of violence come from this conference is not only shocking, it’s a sad time for us all.” 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 ProPublica155 Ave of the Americas, 13th FloorNew York, NY 10013“Trump, Inc.” is a production of WNYC Studios and ProPublica. Support our work by visiting donate.propublica.org or by becoming a supporting member of WNYC. Subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.ProPublica’s Thalia Beaty contributed reporting.
Update: We Found a “Staggering” 281 Lobbyists Who’ve Worked in the Trump Administration
by David Mora, Columbia Journalism Investigations ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. At the halfway mark of President Donald Trump’s first term, his administration has hired a lobbyist for every 14 political appointments made, welcoming a total of 281 lobbyists on board, a ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations analysis shows.With a combination of weakened rules and loose enforcement easing the transition to government and back to K Street, Trump’s swamp is anything but drained. The number of lobbyists who have served in government jobs is four times more than the Obama administration had six years into office. And former lobbyists serving Trump are often involved in regulating the industries they worked for. Search the App Trump Town Tracking White House staffers, Cabinet members and political appointees across the government Even government watchdogs who’ve long monitored the revolving door say that its current scale is a major shift from previous administrations. It’s a “staggering figure,” according to Virginia Canter, ethics chief counsel for the D.C.-based legal nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It suggests that lobbyists see themselves as more effective in furthering their clients’ special interests from inside the government rather than from outside.”We tracked the lobbyists as part of an update to Trump Town, our database of political appointees. We’ve added the names of 639 new staffers with the administration and the financial disclosures of 351 political appointees who have filled different positions over the past year, and we tracked the careers of 338 who departed government during the same period.The full extent of the lobbying industry’s influence is hard to measure because federal agencies decline to share details of recusals granted to officials who disclose potential conflicts with their new government roles. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Consider Colin Roskey. Days after leaving a two-decade career as what one former employer called the “smartest” health care lobbyist, he joined the Department of Health and Human Services in January. As deputy secretary for legislation for mandatory health, he headed the portfolio that he tried to influence for most of his career.HHS declined to reveal any recusals he signed while appointed. A spokesman said that “all employees are expected to abide by the ethics rules.”Just days before joining HHS, Roskey listed among his clients major dialysis providers that receive federal payments through Medicare, including Fresenius Medical Care — an industry juggernaut, with more than 330,000 patients in thousands of dialysis clinics in the U.S. A third of the company’s billion-dollar revenue comes from Medicare. A recent revamp in the dialysis industry ordered by Trump, expected to shift millions of dollars from dialysis centers to cheaper home-based options, put Roskey’s office at the heart of regulating how much profit or loss some of his former clients will see in coming years. Roskey said in an interview that he recused himself from this matter.Public records show that Roskey lobbied for at least 27 clients between January 2017 and December 2018 on an array of issues other than dialysis involving public health care programs, from prescription drugs to palliative care. In early October, Roskey stepped out of government and went straight back to work for his old lobbying firm, Lincoln Policy Group, which specializes in health care policy. “Spending time at HHS will make [Roskey] even more valuable to our team — and we are so excited to have him back,” the lobbying firm announced in a statement.Roskey said he had no knowledge of how the new kidney care regulations will be implemented.After his monthslong stint with the Health Department, Roskey said he plans to lobby the legislative branch, which is not prohibited by the current ethics rules. “While working with the government I gained knowledge and background, intellectually and professionally, and I intend to unapologetically utilize those skills for my employer and clients,” he said.The senior-level appointment of a key lobbyist raises concerns for ethics experts like Canter. “There’s no way [he would’ve been hired under Obama] because Trump dropped a key provision of the Obama ethics pledge,” she said.Indeed, an Obama-era ethics pledge clause absent in Trump’s prevented registered lobbyists from seeking or accepting employment with any executive agency that they lobbied the two years prior.Federal laws forbid government employees who have served as registered lobbyists in the two years prior to their appointment from handling the particular matters or the specific issue areas that they used to lobby. Similarly, after leaving the government, all appointees-turned-lobbyists are barred from seeking to influence their former agencies and engaging in behind-the-scenes work with other senior officials across the administration.The revolving door, of course, has been spinning since well before the Trump administration. In 2009, after President Barack Obama took office, ProPublica built a smaller version of Trump Town. During his administration, government watchdog groups also decried the conflicts of interest brought by some political appointees, and The Washington Post tallied 65 lobbyists among Obama’s ranks in five years.One Obama-era alum, for instance, has gone on to lobby for the nation’s largest pharmaceutical industry trade group, according to public records. Bridgett Taylor, who occupied Roskey’s position until Trump took office, left the government to lobby Congress and federal agencies on matters related to those she oversaw at HHS. Taylor declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Taylor’s employer, said that “her lobbying contacts have been confined to Congress,” and that she has not lobbied HHS in her new role. If it’s certainly not new, the enforcement of ethics provisions has lagged under Trump. In governmentwide surveys conducted by the Office of Government Ethics, federal agencies reported only 106 registered lobbyists who joined the administration. In their answers, ethics officers argued that they “don’t know” how many registered lobbyists had been hired or that they didn’t “track the number of individuals who fell into this category.” When asked about referrals for further enforcement of ethics violations, an officer admitted that they “don’t maintain a centralized database of the bases of proposed disciplinary actions.”Jeff Hauser, who heads the Revolving Door Project at the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research, contends that “Trump has organized the executive branch as a mechanism to reward allies and their political power. Lobbyists are hired not because they’re great at the specific matter that they lobby for but because their specialty is delivering political results.”Corporations also see value in hiring former government staffers, as they bring connections within the agencies and exceptional knowledge about regulation. Among the staffers who recently left their administration positions, 29 went to work for K Street firms — as registered lobbyist or not. At least 59 former employees have done so over the past three years.One is Laura Kemper, a former HHS senior official who, within days of leaving her post in March, was hired by Fresenius. Now vice president for government affairs, Kemper heads the company’s policy group.According to lobbying records, she is listed among the in-house lobbyists who have visited Congress, the White House and HHS since March, pushing everything from reimbursement for dialysis services to home dialysis. The records show Fresenius shelled out more than $2.2 million for lobbying activities during the first half of the year.Kemper had also spent years lobbying Congress and federal agencies on behalf of health care companies before joining HHS in March 2017.Her pass through the revolving door tests the boundaries of ethics rules. Indeed, Trump’s pledge prohibits staffers-turned-registered lobbyists from advocating for the special interests of their corporate bosses before the agencies where they used to work for at least five years. It also restricts former employees from behind-the-scenes lobbying with any senior federal official for the remainder of Trump’s presidency. Kemper signed that pledge.Kemper declined to comment. In a statement, Fresenius said Kemper “has strictly followed her legal and ethical obligations and has not been involved in lobbying the administration or anything related to the Executive Order.” Disclosure forms filed by Fresenius “cite the general activity of a team and do not ascribe any particular lobbying activity,” according to its statement. Recently, during an earnings call to investors, Fresenius CEO Rice Powell said that the company has talked to the “appropriate people in Washington,” without naming any particular Fresenius or government staffer. “We are in the midst of commenting and asking questions” with HHS officials, he added.As ProPublica has reported, political appointees who return to lobbying have found ways to tiptoe around ethics rules. Some register as lobbyists but limit their interactions to Congress, leaving colleagues to lobby the executive branch. Ethics restrictions don’t apply to congressional lobbying.One such case is Geoffrey Burr, a lobbyist who joined the Labor Department early in the Trump administration. More recently, he was chief of staff to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. He left the Transportation Department in January and soon became policy director at one of the nation’s largest lobbying firms.According to records, Burr now lobbies for clients with a stake in transportation issues, including The Northeast MAGLEV, the company behind what would be the first high-speed train in the U.S. A January press release announcing his hiring praised Burr’s “high-level involvement with Transportation and Labor [that will] provide clients with the strategic guidance they need to navigate business issues with the administration.”Burr signed the ethics pledge and, according to records, lobbies only Congress, abiding by the rule of not contacting the executive branch. Other partners at his firm lobby the Transportation Department and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.The Transportation Department didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Burr declined to talk.There are also former Trump administration staffers who go back to K Street but don’t register as lobbyists — the Lobbying Disclosure Act only requires those who spend 20% or more of their time lobbying to register.Rebecca Wood and Brooke Appleton held senior Trump administration positions for more than a year at the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department, respectively. Both left the administration and returned to their former employers — this time, in more senior positions.Wood now leads the food and drug practice at Sidley Austin, a powerful law and lobbying firm in Washington, where her colleagues lobby the FDA for various clients. Appleton went from being director to vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association; she leads at least six people lobbying the Agriculture Department and other federal agencies. Appleton declined to comment. Wood said she “advises clients on FDA-related issues and, in doing so, complies with all applicable ethics requirements.”There is nothing illegal about returning to an old employer or being hired by a new one. Nor is there anything wrong with having colleagues who lobby the federal government. But the revolving door does present the possibility of conflicts of interests.“The most important commodity in D.C. is information,” Hauser said. “Former insiders have rare access to strategic intelligence, which is of significant value to corporate entities, and they can do so without registering as a lobbyist.”With the new data just released, Trump Town grew to include 3,859 names, 2,319 financial disclosures and hundreds of other records for Trump’s staffers. Our original goal remains intact: shining a light on the people in charge of running the government and how their career histories might influence their decisions. David Mora is a reporting fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, a team of reporters, faculty and postgraduate fellows who examine issues of public interest. Funding for CJI’s work on this project is provided by the Investigative Reporting Resource, the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia Journalism School.
Trump Town
by Derek Kravitz, Al Shaw, Claire Perlman and Alex Mierjeski, ProPublica, and David Mora, Columbia Journalism Investigations
Mississippi Takes Steps to End Damning Delays in Evaluating Criminal Defendants
by Sarah Smith ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Mississippi’s Department of Mental Health will spend nearly $20 million on a new unit for forensic beds, an investment the state hopes will relieve a long-standing embarrassment: the months, even years those accused of crimes must wait to undergo court-ordered psychiatric evaluations.The change came after a push from the MacArthur Justice Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and close to two years after ProPublica reported the story of a teenager kept four years in jail before being granted his evaluation. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. The old forensics unit, located at the state hospital in Whitfield, had barely a dozen beds. It will now be torn down and replaced by a facility with 83 beds. The development was first reported by Mississippi Today.“We met with state leaders and assured them we would find the most cost-effective way to improve Forensic Services,” said Wendy Bailey, the chief of staff for the Department of Mental Health.The state found the money through bonds, realigning budget priorities and a one-time grant from Medicaid.“We were all on the same page about the existence of the problem,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, an advocacy group. “The state was open to ideas. They have struggled for a while figuring out how to do it.”The state’s decision will, for now, forestall a formal lawsuit. Advocates had considered suing, but instead they opted to work on a solution with the state. Any number of legal groups in other states had won in court, but failed at efforts to implement reforms, said Paloma Wu, the SPLC’s senior supervising attorney for criminal justice reform in Mississippi.Mississippi’s forensic unit is where defendants get evaluated to determine whether they’re competent to stand trial — that is, if they’re able to understand the charges against them and can help their lawyer with a defense. Mississippi’s mental health care has been in a free fall for years. The state’s forensics unit, where inmate mental health evaluations were carried out, had mold, peeling paint and water damage. (Mike Belleme, special to ProPublica) In December 2017, ProPublica reported the story of Tyler Haire, who was arrested at 16 after stabbing his father’s girlfriend. He spent 1,266 days in county jail awaiting evaluation at the state hospital. The county sheriff became one of his biggest advocates, calling the hospital nearly every month and asking to move Haire up the waitlist.Nothing happened.The sheriff was not alone. Throughout Mississippi, judges, family members, defense lawyers and mental health advocates had spent years trying to speed the process of evaluating defendants. But they all ran into the same problem: The forensic unit during Tyler’s wait had just 15 beds for pretrial evaluations for the entire state, despite repeated requests from Department of Mental Health officials, the attorney general and legislators for more money.The unit itself had mold, peeling paint and water damage. Each cell locked individually rather than with a centralized lock that could easily be opened in case of a fire. One legislator called the building “archaic.”The Department of Mental Health has been slowly working on changes over the past two years. In 2018, the department remodeled a 21-bed unit on the state hospital’s sprawling campus into forensic beds. The wait time for initial evaluations now, Johnson said, is around 19 days. But long waits persist for defendants found not competent to stand trial, who are required to undergo court education classes and other treatment so that they can participate in their defense.That now takes about eight months — much shorter than it was two years ago, but far from satisfactory, advocates and officials say.The SPLC and MacArthur Justice Center are still working with the state to fix systemic issues, like a lack of community mental health care resources.“It’s certainly not anywhere near the end of the road,” Wu said. “Treating someone for the first time in their life just to restore their competency so they can plead and sending them to prison where they don’t have adequate mental health care is ethically and morally fraught.”
Amazon Cuts Contracts With Delivery Companies Linked to Deaths
by Patricia Callahan, ProPublica, and Caroline O’Donovan and Ken Bensinger, BuzzFeed News ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This article is co-published with BuzzFeed News. Amazon has abruptly canceled its contracts with three major delivery firms, a move that will put more than 2,000 people out of work and may signal a shift in how the online retail giant plans to deliver millions of packages to homes across the country every day.Inpax Shipping Solutions, based in Atlanta, has told employment regulators in six states that it would lay off at least 925 employees beginning Oct. 2 and would cease all delivery services for Amazon by early December, according to government records. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Another contractor, Sheard-Loman Transport, said in a court filing late last month that its Amazon contract would not be renewed, a move that it called “completely unexpected and a cause for serious concern,” and that is said would lead to the firing of roughly 200 employees in three states. The firm, headquartered in Chicago, said it would cease delivering Amazon packages on Sept. 30.And a third company, San Diego-based Letter Ride LLC, told labor authorities in California and Texas that in early December it would begin laying off 897 drivers, dispatchers and other employees.The contract terminations follow recent investigations of Amazon’s fast-growing delivery network by BuzzFeed News and ProPublica, which focused on how the intense financial and deadline pressure Amazon puts on its growing fleet of independent delivery contractors can lead to worker mistreatment and threaten public safety. The news organizations documented deaths linked to each of these three contractors.In December 2016, a van driven by an Inpax employee hit and killed Telesfora Escamilla, an 84-year old grandmother in Chicago. The driver was charged with reckless homicide but ultimately acquitted. A civil suit brought by the family of the victim claims that Amazon put undue time pressure on Inpax and its drivers; the suit is pending and Amazon has denied responsibility.In June 2018, a 21-year old Sheard-Loman driver, Traivon Hemingway, was killed when his van cut across several lanes of a freeway, also in Chicago, before crashing into a tractor-trailer.That same month, Stacey Hayes Curry, a 61-year-old legal secretary, was run over by a Letter Ride driver delivering Amazon packages in the San Diego office park where she worked. The driver pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter.Curry’s son, Tyler Hayes, said Amazon still needs to do more to make its delivery system safe. “I wish Amazon would prioritize worker and pedestrian safety as it contracts out these last-mile delivery companies but I have yet to see any attempt at improving safety,” Hayes said in an email. “It seems to only want to hide behind third-party contractors as a way to escape responsibility.”Amazon said in a statement: “We work with a variety of carrier partners to get packages to Amazon customers and we regularly evaluate our partnerships. We have ended our relationship with these companies, and drivers are being supported with opportunities to deliver Amazon packages with other local Delivery Service Partners.”As reported by BuzzFeed News and ProPublica, Amazon began building out a network of delivery firms in the U.S. in 2014. Rather than hire its own drivers, Amazon chose to use contractors such as Inpax, Sheard-Loman and Letter Ride that in turn employ drivers. Though Amazon controls many aspects of delivery, down to providing turn-by-turn directions for drivers, it denies all liability when workers are exploited or people are hurt in crashes, leaving the contractor on the hook.Drivers for these firms generally aren’t required to have any delivery experience and are given just a few days of training before being put on the road, at times in poorly maintained or damaged vans with no markings to indicate they are carrying only Amazon packages. Many drivers report being expected to deliver upwards of 300 packages a day, pressure that prompts some to skip lunch and to urinate in bottles. Some of the businesses have struggled. At least three Amazon delivery contractors have filed for bankruptcy protection since 2018, court records show.Meanwhile, drivers delivering Amazon packages have been involved in more than 60 serious crashes, including at least 10 that have resulted in fatalities. Numerous contractors have been found by the Labor Department to have underpaid or otherwise exploited workers, federal records show.Amazon has relied on established logistics firms like Inpax — with large fleets operating in multiple locations — to deliver many of its packages. But in the past year, the company has shifted toward smaller firms working out of just one or two delivery stations. Often, the owners of those newer companies have no experience in delivery or as business owners, and some rely on loans from Amazon to start their new companies.In a letter late last month to three U.S. senators, Amazon disclosed that it has some 800 delivery firms under contract, but it refused a request from the lawmakers — Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio — to provide the names of those firms, calling that information “proprietary.”Sheard-Loman began delivering for Amazon in 2017, and until recently operated out of locations in Illinois, Louisiana and Maryland. Its owners are Jeffery Sheard and Richard Loman, who is also a real estate agent.Last December, Sheard-Loman and Amazon were named co-defendants in two federal lawsuits filed by drivers who alleged the company had underpaid them and were seeking class-action certification. In one of those cases, settlement talks are underway and neither defendant has filed a response; in the other, Sheard-Loman hasn’t filed a response and Amazon has denied liability because it wasn’t the plaintiff’s employer. A third employment suit was filed against Sheard-Loman in August in federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois. In a Sept. 26 filing in that case, the firm said Amazon had declined to renew its contract, but has not yet responded to the claims in the suit.In a brief interview, Loman confirmed that Amazon had terminated its contract, and he said it was unlikely the business would continue as the e-commerce giant was his company’s only client.Court records show that Letter Ride, founded in 2015, has been sued at least 13 times in the past 20 months over crashes or allegations of employee mistreatment. Curry’s family settled a claim with Letter Ride’s insurer and did not file suit. Letter Ride referred a reporter’s calls about Amazon’s decision to terminate its contracts to an attorney, who did not return a call seeking comment. Inpax’s owner, Leonard Wright, has run various companies in the logistics and shipping business since the 1990s. Inpax began delivering packages for Amazon in 2015, and Wright has said that contract brings in 70% of the company’s revenue. His firm has shown signs of growing financial strain for some time. In the past several years, Inpax has been sued by employees, lenders and even its own law firm, all of whom claim they were not properly paid.One of those lawsuits brought against Inpax by employees in Ohio who claim they were underpaid is ongoing, and the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case, Christopher Wido, said he’s considering naming Amazon as a joint employer in the suit. “Make no mistake, regardless of this development, we will continue to pursue these claims vigorously until our clients and the class they seek to represent are paid the wages they are owed,” he wrote in an email. In a court filing, Inpax denied that it failed to pay minimum wage and overtime.This month, Inpax notified regulators in Georgia, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Illinois that it would cease delivery operations for Amazon in those states. Those layoffs were first reported by the Atlanta Business Chronicle and Dallas Business Journal.One driver who recently worked for Inpax said there was “a lot of sadness” surrounding the announcement because “most of the employees have families and bills.” But two other drivers familiar with Inpax said many laid off employees are already in conversations to be rehired by other Amazon delivery contractors operating out of the same warehouses. According to one Inpax employee in North Carolina, there’s already a new contractor poised to take over Inpax’s routes. The employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have either found work with Amazon or one of its contractors or hope to, and feared retribution if they were named.Inpax did not respond to requests for comment.This is not the first time Amazon has elected to cut off established delivery firms on short notice. Read More A Truck Delivering Amazon Holiday Packages. A Crash. A Family That Will Never Be the Same. Two weeks shy of her 85th birthday, Telesfora Escamilla was struck and killed by a van delivering Amazon packages. The driver was acquitted. The family is suing Amazon. In early 2016, it severed ties with a Florida-based firm, VHU Logistics, less than a year after awarding the company its first routes. The firm had complained that Amazon was not paying its invoices on time, leading it to miss payroll for its drivers. That sparked a federal Department of Labor investigation that found Amazon bore responsibility for nearly 200 workplace violations. After canceling its contract with VHU, Amazon sued the delivery company in a bid to recover the back wages the Labor Department ordered the online retailer to pay and was awarded $296,906 in damages by the court. The two parties ultimately settled the matter.And this past spring, Amazon told the California-based owner of three delivery contractors that it would no longer need their services, which the owner said put 875 drivers out of work. When the owner, Thomas Chen, complained, he said Amazon made an offer of $400,000 as part of a separation agreement — later raised to $800,000 — in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement and walking away.Chen, who had taken delivery on more than 100 new vans just weeks before being told he was being cut off, refused the offer and sued Amazon. Court records show the company has not yet responded to that complaint. Read More How Amazon Hooked America On Fast Delivery While Avoiding Responsibility for Crashes Our investigation found Amazon escapes responsibility for its role in deaths and serious injuries even though the company keeps a tight grip on how third-party delivery drivers do their jobs. Do you have access to information about Amazon that should be public? Email any of the reporters: patricia.callahan@propublica.org; caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com; or ken.bensinger@buzzfeed.com. If you want to send tips securely, here’s how.Update, Oct. 12, 2019: After this article was published, Amazon asked us to include a statement that the company had previously issued in response to a request for comment for articles that BuzzFeed News and ProPublica published on Sept. 12 about Amazon's delivery network.“Amazon is proud of our strong safety and labor compliance record across our transportation network of employees and contractors, and we continue to drive improvements that benefit our transportation providers, our customers and the public. We have strict requirements for safety and labor wages and working conditions that meet or exceed the law. We also require comprehensive insurance, competitive wages, working hours and numerous other safeguards for our delivery service providers and regularly audit to ensure compliance. Safety is and will remain Amazon’s top priority as evidenced by the vast percentage of deliveries that arrive on time and without incident.”
Doctor Who Advocated “Unethical” Care of Vegetative Patient Is Placed on Leave
by Caroline Chen ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This story was co-published with NJ Advance Media. Newark Beth Israel Medical Center placed the director of its heart transplant program on administrative leave Thursday while the hospital awaits the results of investigations into whether a vegetative patient was kept alive to boost the program’s survival statistics.“As the most prudent course of action to ensure the complete independence of these internal and external assessments, we have placed the program’s director, Dr. Mark Zucker, on administrative leave pending the conclusion of our review,” Barry Ostrowsky, chief executive of the hospital’s affiliated network, RWJBarnabas Health, and Newark Beth Israel CEO Darrell Terry wrote in an email to employees Thursday night.In the email, which was obtained by ProPublica, Ostrowsky and Terry also told employees that federal and state regulators were on site at Newark Beth Israel and that the staff was “cooperating fully.” The hospital and RWJBarnabas Health “take the recent allegations involving its heart transplant program extremely seriously,” they wrote. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. The hospital, which has also started its own internal audit, confirmed Zucker’s administrative leave in an email to ProPublica. The program remains “fully operational” and “the team continues to see patients and perform transplants,” spokeswoman Linda Kamateh wrote. She didn’t respond to questions about whether Zucker would be paid during his absence, or if anyone else on the team has been placed on leave.The hospital’s action and the flurry of investigations by the New Jersey Department of Health and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services come in the wake of an Oct. 3 ProPublica report that Zucker instructed his staff to keep a patient named Darryl Young on life support, and not to discuss options such as hospice care with his family, until the one-year anniversary of his surgery. Young suffered brain damage during heart transplant surgery in September 2018 and never woke up; he remains hospitalized at Newark Beth Israel.Zucker has led the transplant program for three decades. It is one of the 20 largest programs in the nation by volume, and it has performed 1,090 heart transplants to date, according to the hospital.According to current and former employees and audio recordings of transplant meetings, Zucker was concerned about the program’s one-year survival rate — the proportion of people undergoing transplants who are still alive a year after their operations. Newark Beth Israel’s one-year rate for heart transplants had dipped below the national average, and Zucker was concerned that the program might attract scrutiny from federal regulators.Six out of 38 patients who received heart transplants at Newark Beth Israel in 2018 died before their one-year anniversary. That translated to an 84.2% survival rate, considerably worse than the 91.5% national probability of surviving a year for heart transplant patients, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, which tracks and analyzes outcomes for the government.The one-year survival rate has been a key statistic for transplant programs since it was introduced as a performance metric by CMS in 2007. As part of its push to reduce regulations, the Trump administration finalized a rule in September that relaxes performance requirements for transplant programs. Starting in November, they won’t have to submit data on outcomes, including one-year survival rates, to CMS in order to receive Medicare reimbursement.At two separate team meetings, Zucker acknowledged that the program’s approach to Young’s care was “unethical,” according to the recordings. “This is a very, very unethical, immoral but unfortunately very practical solution, because the reality here is that you haven’t saved anybody if your program gets shut down,” he said in May.ProPublica found that the one-year survival rate was a consideration in the hospital’s treatment of other patients as well. “A lot of you weren’t here for our first lung transplant when we reopened, after we reopened the program,” heart transplant surgeon Dr. Margarita Camacho said at a meeting this past May, according to a recording obtained by ProPublica. “The first lung transplant stayed at the hospital until day 366, was sent out to rehab and died that day.”Ostrowsky told New Jersey lawmakers this week that RWJBarnabas Health would make public the findings and recommendations of the independent consulting firm it had hired to conduct a review of the hospital’s transplant team, NJ Advance Media reported Thursday.In an email to legislators, Ostrowsky said that he was “appalled and infuriated” after hearing the recordings, and that the statements “misrepresented our commitment to patient centered care.” He said the hospital’s “initial review of this complicated case indicates information that conflicts with the reporting,” but gave no specifics. He added that “records we have reviewed confirm that the care this patient received was appropriate and in keeping with medical guidelines.” Newark Beth Israel has not answered any of ProPublica’s specific questions about Young, even though his sister and health proxy, Andrea Young, gave the hospital permission to discuss her brother’s care with ProPublica. Informed by ProPublica of Zucker’s leave, Young said, “It has been my hope all along that the hospital will do the right thing.”State Sen. Joseph Vitale, chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, told NJ Advance Media in an email that he questioned what Ostrowsky meant by “appropriate care,” adding that the larger question is whether the hospital was honest with Young’s family.“Gaming a system that rewards a program for its excellence is deceptive and malpractice,” Vitale said.
University of Illinois Told Our Partners They Must Share Sexual Misconduct Tips With Campus Authorities. Here’s How We’re Protecting Our Sources.
by Charles Ornstein Last fall, we chose NPR Illinois public radio reporter Rachel Otwell to join our Local Reporting Network to investigate sexual harassment at public colleges and universities in the state.Her first stories focused on how the flagship campus of the University of Illinois had helped several professors retain seemingly unblemished records even though they were found to have violated its policies, including its sexual misconduct policy. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign allowed them to resign, paid them for periods they weren’t working and, in some cases, kept them on the faculty or promised not to discuss the reasons for their departures. The University of Illinois System holds the license to operate NPR Illinois.Like many of our stories, Otwell’s articles were accompanied by a questionnaire asking other victims of sexual harassment at Illinois colleges and universities to help our reporting by sharing their experiences. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. It’s the kind of hard-hitting package we’ve come to expect from our Local Reporting Network.Within days, the Title IX coordinator at the University of Illinois Springfield, where the station is based, approached the general manager for NPR Illinois and mentioned that Otwell and the staff, as university employees, were considered “responsible employees.” What that means is that under university policy, they are required to “report in detail all incidents of sexual violence, sexual harassment, or other sexual misconduct to the Title IX Coordinator,” according to an FAQ page on the university’s website.(This does not apply to allegations at colleges other than those in the University of Illinois System.)“Given the importance of this topic and the importance of safety at each of our universities, it is critical that Title IX Coordinators receive information regarding potential misconduct,” the university ethics officer wrote in an email to an NPR Illinois reporter and its general manager. “By being informed of potential sexual misconduct, the University may respond appropriately from both an investigative and support perspective.”Our partners at NPR Illinois identified some other public radio stations affiliated with universities in other states that are apparently subject to such policies.NPR Illinois is editorially independent of the university, and neither we nor station officials believed that tips generated by our questionnaire might somehow be covered by the university’s Title IX policies. When we learned of the university’s interpretation of its rule, we took several steps to preserve the confidentiality of tips we received.We generally share tips with our partners, including those in the Local Reporting Network. In this case, however, ProPublica itself will collect these tips and respond to them. The university policy does not apply to us. Read More At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Preserving the Reputations of Sexual Harassers An administrator resigned amid sexual harassment accusations. Another college hired him. A professor was found to have stalked a coworker. She agreed to retire, then won a Fulbright grant. Campus leaders vow reforms, but many say it’s a long road. NPR Illinois reporters will not have access to tips sent to our email address, texts or calls to our phone number or people who fill out our questionnaire unless the cases are already known to the University of Illinois or unless they involve other colleges.We also have added clarifying language to our stories and our questionnaire to make this clear.Separately, NPR Illinois asked the university to exempt reporters from any requirement that they share tips they receive in the news gathering process, saying it hampered the ability of reporters to gather news on an important issue.This week, the university responded by saying it would not do so. “The University has determined that requiring journalist employees to adhere to the ‘responsible employee’ reporting requirements would not violate any constitutional or other legal protections. Instead, maintaining the need for such employees to report would appropriately support the interests of campus safety and advance the principles underlying existing mandatory reporting requirements,” Donna McNeely, executive director of ethics and compliance at the University of Illinois System, wrote in an email.On Thursday, NPR Illinois officials and reporters released an open letter asking the university to reconsider.People should feel secure sharing information with us. We intend to protect their ability to do so.
Trump’s Trillion-Dollar Hit to Homeowners
by Allan Sloan ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This story was co-published with Fortune. In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has been talking about plans for, as he put it, a “very substantial tax cut for middle income folks who work so hard.” But before Congress embarks on a new tax measure, people should consider one of the largely unexamined effects of the last tax bill, which Trump promised would help the middle class: Would you believe it has inflicted a trillion dollars of damage on homeowners — many of them middle class — throughout the country?That massive number is the reduction in home values caused by the 2017 tax law that capped federal deductions for state and local real estate and income taxes at $10,000 a year and also eliminated some mortgage interest deductions. The impact varies widely across different areas. Counties with high home prices and high real estate taxes and where homeowners have big mortgages are suffering the biggest hit, as you’d expect, given the larger value of the lost tax deductions. But as we’ll see, homeowners all over the country are feeling the effects. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. I’m basing my analysis on numbers from two well-respected people: Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s Analytics; and Hugh Lamle, the retired president of M.D. Sass, a Wall Street investment management company.Zandi’s numbers are broad — macro-math, as it were. Lamle (pronounced LAM-lee) is a master of micro-math. It was Lamle who first got me thinking about home value losses by sending me an economic model that he created to show the damage inflicted on high-end, high-bracket taxpayers in high-tax areas who paid seven digits or more for their homes.Lamle starts with the premise that homebuyers have typically figured out how much house they can afford by calculating how much they can spend on a down payment and monthly mortgage payment, adjusting the latter by the amount they’d save via the tax deduction for mortgage interest and real estate taxes. His model figures out how much prices would have to drop for the same monthly payment to cover a given house now that this notional buyer can’t take advantage of the real estate tax deduction and might not be able to take full advantage of the mortgage interest deduction.After I showed Lamle’s model to my ProPublica research partner, Doris Burke, she steered me to Zandi’s research, which I realized could be used to calculate national value-loss numbers.Ready? Here we go. The broad picture first, then the specific. This gets a little complicated, so please bear with me. Zandi says that because of the 2017 tax law, U.S. house prices overall are about 4% lower than they’d otherwise be. The next question is how many dollars of lost home value that 4% translates into. That isn’t so hard to figure out if you get your hands on the right numbers.Let me show you.The Federal Reserve Board says that as of March 31, U.S. home values totaled about $26.1 trillion. Apply Zandi’s 4% number to that, and you end up with a $1.04 trillion setback for the nation’s home owners. That’s right — a trillion, with a T.Please note that Zandi isn’t saying that house prices have fallen by an average of 4%. That hasn’t happened. What he’s saying is that on average, house prices are about 4% lower than they’d otherwise be.Given that the Fed statistics show that homeowners’ equity was $15.76 trillion as of March 31, Zandi’s numbers imply that homeowners’ equity is down about 6.6% from where it would otherwise be. (That’s the $1.04 trillion value loss divided by the $15.76 trillion of equity.)This is a very big deal to families whose biggest financial asset is the equity they have in their homes. And there are untold millions of families in that situation.While Zandi and I were having the first of several phone conversations, he sent me a county-by-county list of the estimated home-price damage done to about 3,000 counties throughout the country. I was fascinated — and appalled — to see that the biggest estimated value loss in percentage terms, 11.3%, was in Essex County, New Jersey, the New York City suburb where I live.In case you’re interested — or just snoopy — the four other counties that make up the five biggest-losers list are: Westchester County, New York, suburban New York City, 11.1%; Union County, New Jersey, which is adjacent to Essex County, 11.0%; New York County, the New York City borough of Manhattan, 10.4%; and Lake County, Illinois, suburban Chicago, 9.9%.You can find Zandi’s county-by-county list in our Data Store. Eyeball the list, and you’ll see that counties throughout the country have home values lower than they would otherwise be. Here’s how it works. Zandi took what financial techies call the “present value” of the property tax and mortgage interest deductions that homeowners will lose over seven years (the average duration of a mortgage) because of changes in the tax law and subtracted it from the value of the typical house. That results in a 3% decline in national home values below what they would otherwise be.The remaining one percentage point of value shrinkage, Zandi says, comes from the higher interest rates that he says will result from the higher federal budget deficits caused by the tax bill. He estimates that rates on 10-year Treasury notes, a key benchmark for mortgage rates, will be 0.2% higher than they would otherwise be, which in turn will make mortgage rates 0.2% higher.Even though interest rates on 10-year Treasury notes are at or near record lows as I write this, they would be even lower if the Treasury were borrowing less than it’s currently borrowing to cover the higher federal budget deficits caused by Trump’s tax bill.If Zandi’s interest-rate take is correct — it’s true by definition, if you believe in the law of supply and demand — even homeowners who aren’t affected by the inability to deduct all their real estate taxes and mortgage interest costs are affected by the tax bill.How so? Because higher interest rates for buyers translate into lower prices for sellers and therefore produce lower values for owners.You can argue, as some people do, that real estate taxes should never have been deductible because allowing that deduction is bad economic policy that inflated home prices and favored higher-income people over lower-income people.But even if you believe that, there’s no question that eliminating the deduction for millions of homeowners inflicted serious financial damage on homeowners who had no warning that a major tax deduction that they were used to getting would be wiped out.As a result, homebuyers who had taken the value of the real estate tax deduction into account when buying their homes had their home values and finances whacked without warning. Interest deductions on mortgage borrowings exceeding $750,000 were cut back, compared with interest deductions on up to $1 million under the old law — but that doesn’t affect anywhere near as many people as the cap on real estate tax deductions does.(A brief aside: Among the modest winners here are first-time buyers who purchased their homes after the tax law took effect and benefited by paying less than they would have paid under the old tax rules.) Manhattan was one of the five biggest losers in Trump’s 2017 tax plan. The value of residential real estate in New York County is 10.4% lower than it would otherwise be. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) Now, to the micro-math.Lamle’s model isn’t applicable to most people because it works only for taxpayers with a household income of at least $200,000 a year who paid at least $1 million for their homes. But the principle underlying Lamle’s model applies to everyone who owns a home or is interested in owning one. To wit: You calculate the tax-law-caused loss of value by figuring out how much a house’s price needs to fall for buyers’ or owners’ after-tax costs to be the same now as they were before the tax law changed.“People buying large-ticket items typically focus on after-tax costs of ownership,” Lamle told me. “The amount that many buyers can afford is affected by limits on their financial resources. Therefore, as their tax costs increase substantially because of the loss of tax deductions, they have less money available to pay for homes and to take on mortgage debt.”At the suggestion of one of my editors, I asked Lamle to use a modified version of his economic model to estimate the tax law’s impact on the value of a theoretical house in the New York City suburb of West Orange, New Jersey, purchased for $800,000 in 2017 by a theoretical family with a $250,000 annual income. Those home value and income numbers are very high by national standards — but middle class by the standards of large parts of suburban Essex County.Real estate tax on that theoretical house would run about $28,900 a year, according to statistics from the New Jersey state treasurer’s office. That tax used to be fully deductible for federal tax purposes. Now, it’s not deductible at all if you assume that the house’s owners are taking the standard deduction on their federal returns. Or that even if they’re itemizing deductions, they’re paying at least $10,000 of state income taxes, which means they don’t get any benefit from deducting property taxes.According to Lamle’s calculations, this inability to deduct real estate tax has reduced the home’s value by $138,720, assuming a 5% mortgage rate. At a 4% rate, the value loss is $173,400. (For the math and assumptions underlying these numbers, see his methodology below.) So if the family put up $200,000 — 25% of the purchase price — to buy the house, more than half of that investment has been wiped out.Obviously, it’s impossible to prove that Zandi and Lamle are right about the impact they say the tax law is having (and will continue to have) on home prices, because there’s no way to gauge the accuracy of their numbers. But the logic is compelling.The loss in home values is crucial because it turns out that lots more people have bigger financial stakes in their houses than in their stock portfolios, which have thrived as the Trump tax law turbocharged corporate earnings and stock prices.In fact, 73.5% of households that own homes, stocks or both had bigger stakes in the home market than in the stock market, according to David Rosnick, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who parsed Federal Reserve data at my request. Now, let’s put things in perspective, set aside home value losses for a minute and talk about the cash that people are getting from Trump’s 2017 tax law. It isn’t all that much for most families. Households’ average federal income tax has fallen by $1,260 a year, according to the Tax Policy Center. That average is skewed by big savings realized by people with big incomes; the median family’s tax cut is only about half as much as the average cut, by the Tax Policy Center’s math.This means that — for taxpayers of higher income and more modest income — the income tax savings are likely small beer compared with the hidden loss inflicted on many of them by lower house values.Back to the main event. And some final — but important — numbers.According to the Tax Policy Center, the Treasury will get $620 billion of additional revenue over a 10-year period because people can’t deduct their full state and local taxes.That, in turn, covers most of the 10-year, $680 billion cost of the income tax break that corporations are getting. So you can make a case that my friends and neighbors and co-workers in New York and New Jersey — and many of you all over the country — are paying more federal income tax in order to help corporations pay less federal income tax.That, my friends, is the bottom line.Doris Burke contributed reporting to this story.
IRS-Funded Review Confirms TurboTax Hid Free Filing From Search Engines, but Says There’s No Need for Major Changes
by Justin Elliott ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. A four-month outside review of the IRS’ partnership with the private tax software industry to provide free tax preparation offered mixed conclusions: It found serious problems in the program and confirmed ProPublica’s reporting this year that companies, including Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, had hidden the free option from search engines. But the report, written by an IRS contractor that has previously supported the industry’s position, also defended the program’s oversight.The review did not recommend sweeping changes. The mandate of the review was to narrowly assess the program to “ensure the continued operations and integrity of the Free File Program.” It did not examine the broader question of whether the premise of the program is sound or look at the IRS’ role in tax filing.The IRS has not yet said how it will respond to the report, which is dated Oct. 3, and whether Free File will change for the 2020 tax season. Consumer advocates said they were disappointed by the lack of proposals for reform.Under the Free File program, the tax prep companies promise to offer free options to 70% of filers, or around 100 million people who make under $66,000. In exchange, the IRS pledges not to create its own filing system, a development that would pose a grave threat to the industry. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. The IRS retained McLean, Virginia-based MITRE Corporation, a major agency contractor, following congressional pressure sparked by a series of ProPublica stories outlining how lower- and middle-income Americans had been tricked into paying for tax prep they could have gotten for free. That included Intuit adding software code to the Free File landing page of TurboTax that hid it from search engines like Google, a practice the company ended only after ProPublica reported it.The 134-page (plus appendices) review, copies of which were obtained by ProPublica, confirmed that Intuit and four other of the 12 companies that signed on to Free File used code to hide their landing pages. It also found that seven of the companies purchased ads for keywords related to free tax filing that directed users to their commercial offerings and away from Free File, as ProPublica documented.The MITRE team conducted in-person interviews with 29 taxpayers in Chicago to test the Free File program. The results confirmed hundreds of taxpayer accounts collected by ProPublica — and a 2008 report by the IRS itself — that Free File is hard to find and use. The Chicago tests found that taxpayers “lacked understanding of what the Free File program is,” “struggled to find the Free File landing page” and “experienced difficulties and confusion with selecting a software offering.”MITRE took a softer view of past criticisms of oversight of the program. Last year, the IRS Advisory Council, a body made up of outside experts, issued a public report on the program that found “the IRS’s deficient oversight and performance standards for the Free File program put vulnerable taxpayers at risk.” The MITRE report states, “What this critique overlooks is the fact that Free File program operates as a public-private partnership and, as such, program oversight is a mutual, collaborative effort with the industry.”At another point, the report summarizes criticisms of the program by the national taxpayer advocate and others who have argued that “low usage rates signal that the Free File program is not working.” The MITRE review states that “the data indicate the issues are much more nuanced and don’t tell the full story.”Tim Hugo, the head of the industry group the Free Alliance, said in a statement that the review “is a vote of confidence in a highly successful program.” Trump’s Tax Law Threatened TurboTax’s Profits. So the Company Started Charging the Disabled, the Unemployed and Students. The move by TurboTax maker Intuit to charge more lower-income customers has helped boost revenue. Advocates criticized the report for adopting the industry’s views on some issues. “Something is rotten in the state of MITRE,” said Dennis Ventry, the University of California tax law professor who led the IRS Advisory Council last year. He particularly criticized MITRE’s analysis of the percentage of people who use Free File: 2% to 3% of the roughly 100 million eligible filers. The review argues that many people prefer to pay to file their taxes, so the true eligibility pool is 30 million. Under that assumption, the rate at which taxpayers use Free File is significantly higher. Ventry said the entire purpose of the program is to offer free filing, so it makes little sense to remove people who paid for services from the eligibility pool.MITRE’s recommendations include seeking to simplify the design of the Free File website and advising the IRS to conduct a review about whether it’s worth doing its own paid advertising for the program.The report acknowledges that MITRE previously came down on the side of industry on the question that is the backdrop of the Free File program: Should the IRS create its own tax filing service? “In 2010, MITRE conducted a feasibility study of the IRS offering its own e-filing program and concluded it was neither cost-beneficial, nor could the IRS keep pace with the innovation of the private sector,” the report notes.The IRS and MITRE didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about the contractor’s selection and impartiality.Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, is battling lawsuits filed by the Los Angeles city attorney and Santa Clara County counsel in California, as well as suits by private plaintiffs that have been consolidated in federal court in the Northern District of California. The suits allege that Intuit tricked lower-income taxpayers into paying for a product they should have gotten for free; Intuit has denied wrongdoing. In that case, Intuit’s attorneys are seeking to compel arbitration. Paul Kiel contributed reporting.Have you worked for Intuit or another tax prep company? We want to hear from you. Fill out our questionnaire or contact Justin at justin@propublica.org or via Signal at 774-826-6240.Update, Oct. 11, 2019: In a statement sent two days after this article was published, a MITRE spokesman said the firm stands by the “integrity and quality” of its work. "MITRE has no relationship with any of the companies that participate in the Free File Alliance, and we strongly dispute any implication that the Free File report or any work performed by MITRE is biased,” the spokesman said.Update, Oct. 14, 2019: Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has been a leading voice in Congress on tax filing issues, criticized the MITRE review in a statement. "This was not the rigorous review needed to ensure all eligible taxpayers are able to easily access and use Free File," he said, adding that "it does not recommend robust action to prevent companies from engaging in deceptive advertising practices, even though it acknowledges taxpayers were steered to paid sites."
How Trump’s Tariffs Are Creating Jobs — for Canadians
by Lydia DePillis ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. A few months ago, Elliot Markillie started getting calls about small boxes.He works for a logistics company near Vancouver, British Columbia, called a52 that handles distribution for big apparel and footwear brands. The brands source their goods from China and had just been hit with steep tariffs, on top of the duties already applied to clothes and shoes.But, the brands had learned, there might be an out: According to U.S. customs rules, packages worth less than $800 — known as the de minimis threshold — don’t have to pay duties at all. They just have to ship items directly to consumers one at a time, rather than in bulk to stores or U.S.-based warehouses.The result: Companies now have an incentive to use fulfillment centers in Canada and Mexico rather than the United States.Here’s how it works. Instead of coming into the Port of Seattle, say, a shipping container or cargo plane full of Chinese goods comes into Vancouver, and pallets full of goods are transferred to a52’s warehouse. As goods are ordered from a52’s clients’ websites, they are individually packaged with a mailing label and sent via a courier service like UPS or FedEx across the border to their destination. There is no tariff code, because there is no tariff, and precious little other information about the contents of each package. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. About 10 of Markillie’s clients have switched to this kind of shipping, he says, or are in the process of doing so.“It’s a huge advantage,” Markillie said. “We already had clients that were doing this ahead of the tariffs. But that’s definitely surged the interest that we’re getting.”As a result, warehousing jobs are now being created in border towns in Canada and Mexico that otherwise would be located in the U.S. The impact thus far is likely small, but it is poised to accelerate as companies adopt the workaround.Experts and retail industry players also warn there’s an increased risk of counterfeits and illicit goods slipping through in a firehose of small shipments that customs officials can’t keep up with.Take the toy business, which doesn’t even have tariffs, but does face a number of consumer safety regulations that are often enforced through the customs inspection process when retailers bring in whole pallets of Barbies or Legos. Items shipped one at a time in containers or air cargo holds filled with thousands of other individual boxes are much harder to police.Rebecca Mond, who represents the Toy Association, says that gives an edge to manufacturers of toys that might be unsafe or fake. “If you were to throw a ball, you could pretty easily catch it,” Mond said. “But if I were to open up a jar and throw all the marbles, you’d have a hard time catching them all.”Another side effect is more subtle: What happens to the United States’ leverage in trade negotiations when tariffs are so easy to avoid? Although the Trump administration’s steep duties have caused real pain for many industries, in general tariffs as a tool are supposed to give other countries an incentive to grant more access to their own markets.That’s what worries Elizabeth Baltzan, a former trade policy counsel to House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee who is now a consultant and senior fellow at the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank.“De minimis loopholes are basically just another way of unilaterally disarming,” Baltzan said. “Other countries don’t do this to themselves.” [ See the Chart: As the Trade War Drags on, Shipments too Small to be Tariffed Are on the Rise ] The Census Bureau, which tracks the approximate dollar value of packages too small to record precisely, shows a 12% increase in shipments from China for 2019 through July over the same period last year. The number of small packages coming into the U.S. jumped 46% in fiscal year 2018 after a steadier rise over the past decade, according to Customs and Border Protection. The agency is now processing 1.8 million such items per day.President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports, which hit a huge swath of consumer goods, are making those shipments a much more valuable channel than they used to be. It’s still less than 1% of total imports from the U.S., but it is growing quickly as companies configure their supply chains to take advantage of it.“We’re talking about businesses and companies that are restructuring their business behaviors to take advantage of this loophole,” said Amy Magnus, director of compliance for customs broker Deringer. “This is an explosion of business. Everybody would like to be able to be a part of this.”The “de minimis” threshold, as the $800 limit is known, is a longstanding part of the international trading system. Countries decide that they don’t want to bother their customs officials with trivially small imports or travelers bringing in gifts, so they wave through low-value items. The exemption’s use had already started to grow, as cross-border e-commerce gained steam — and as a result of a little-noticed change in the law.In 2015, an omnibus customs bill skated through Congress. But it included a large shift in how small shipments are handled: The de minimis threshold quadrupled from $200 to $800, vastly expanding the number of items that could come into the country duty-free and with little paperwork.Industries that have long battled counterfeit goods noticed a competitive uptick from imported knockoffs. According to CBP, 90% of the intellectual property-based seizures it made in 2018 came through international mail or express shipments, the majority of which fell under the de minimis threshold. International mail has also been the main conduit for illicit pharmaceuticals and dangerous drugs like fentanyl.The exemption is also probably larger than it looks, because it’s difficult to tell whether a shipment is actually worth less than $800 or not.“There’s a lot of fudging of invoices now, just to get under that $800 number,” said Dave Bryant, a Vancouver-based importer who also trains people to set up e-commerce businesses. “International sellers more or less have impunity. You get caught, and how are you going to go after someone in China vs. someone in Buffalo?”Customs officials are aware of that problem, and they have announced a pilot program to see what information they could reasonably ask shippers and online marketplaces to provide about small packages that would help inspectors track down infringing content. But it’s voluntary, and the Express Association of America — which represents UPS, FedEx and DHL — said its members haven’t decided whether to participate. Amazon and eBay declined to comment.And then, starting in early 2018, Trump’s new tariffs on Chinese imports tilted the scale even further.Some companies have already set up foreign trade zones to manage tariff payments, but imported goods sold in the U.S. still have to pay them. Columbia Sportswear has foreign trade zones in Oregon and Kentucky, and it is considering what to do if tariffs of up to 52% on goods like waterproof footwear aren’t removed soon.“Moving these things is not something we want to do,” said Peter Bragdon, the company’s chief administrative officer. “But once more parties have invested outside the U.S., there are going to be people invested in keeping things the way they are. Fast forward five years, you could just say, let’s have the e-commerce done elsewhere.’”Columbia Sportswear is part of a coalition that’s lobbying to allow goods routed through foreign trade zones to also benefit from de minimis treatment, arguing that they’re better able to monitor for any counterfeit goods or illicit drugs. That would at least weaken the incentive to move distribution across the border and help protect warehouse employment — like the 6,700 jobs in Columbus, Ohio’s foreign trade zone, which is occupied mostly by consumer goods companies like Burton and the Gap.“In my estimation, this flat out encourages offshoring,” said the zone’s manager, Angie Atwood. “You can serve from just a few hours north the same customers in the same amount of time.”But allowing foreign trade zones to fulfill e-commerce orders duty-free would expand the exemption, not narrow it, which doesn’t help domestic companies that benefit from tariffs because they produce goods in the U.S. instead of importing them.The bigger problem for those being affected by the offshoring of fulfillment: Powerful industry associations remain in favor of it, from the National Retail Federation to the National Association of Manufacturers. U.S. brands and retailers are now in a situation where direct-to-consumer imports can avoid extra inspections and paperwork as well as the cost of astronomically high tariffs. In order to capitalize, larger companies are setting up e-commerce operations in Canada and Mexico with the help of specialized logistics providers.“ELIMINATE DUTIES?” one brochure from San Diego-based XB Fulfillment reads. “A guide for e-commerce companies to use new customs regulation 321 to do just that!” The brochure then names 29 companies that it says are now delivering orders to the U.S. from a Mexican fulfillment operation, including Dell, Crocs, Sony and Honeywell. All of those either did not respond or declined to comment to ProPublica.E-commerce platforms also love the de minimis exemption, but not for the obvious reasons.Amazon, for example, prioritizes delivery speeds too much to easily take advantage of cross-border de minimis shipments. The surest way to get something to a Prime member fast is to stock the item at a distribution center nearby, and a warehouse in Canada or Mexico might be too far away to fulfill the promise of one-day shipping.For that reason, Amazon says it’s not changing its vast delivery network in order to import goods duty-free itself. However, a small-scale seller might source inventory from abroad — say, coffee cups from Mexico — in shipments worth less than $800 each, and then send them into Amazon’s fulfillment system, so the tariffs are avoided anyway. “That seller is 100% benefiting from de minimis,” said Amazon spokeswoman Jill Kerr.EBay doesn’t have any distribution operations of its own, but its members almost exclusively use de minimis shipments both for deliveries and returns; it’s encouraging its sellers to write their members of Congress asking them to support keeping the threshold where it is.And they’re having to play defense these days, because the White House may want to change it.In congressional hearings, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has sympathized with the critics of the de minimis exemption and voiced concern about potential abuse. And in the updated North American Free Trade Agreement, the chapter on trade facilitation includes a footnote that says parties could lower their de minimis thresholds to match those of other parties. Despite concerned letters from representatives, Lighthizer has not said he wouldn’t seek the authority to do so in the bill Congress will have to pass to implement the agreement.In that way, Lighthizer seems to agree more with the Canadians, who have fought hard to keep their de minimis threshold low — just 20 Canadian dollars, and $150 in the new NAFTA.Since Canada also imposes a national sales tax at the border, allowing de minimis goods to come in tax-free under a higher threshold would mean losing government revenue. Domestic retailers have also been slower to adopt e-commerce than their American counterparts, and so most of their goods would be at a huge price disadvantage to anything arriving under a raised de minimis threshold.According to Karl Littler, senior vice president for public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, a pair of shoes that cost $50 when imported under de minimis would have to retail for $68 if sold in a store.“From a domestic merchant perspective, we have to bear the cost of duties on imports, and we have to collect and remit sales taxes, and we’re the ones who invest and hire here,” Littler said. “So why the hell are you letting a warehouse in Schenectady get an $18 advantage on a $50 pair of shoes?”
Feds to Investigate Hospital Alleged to Have Kept Vegetative Patient Alive to Game Transplant Survival Rates
by Caroline Chen ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. The federal agency that oversees transplant programs said it would investigate Newark Beth Israel Medical Center after ProPublica reported that the hospital was keeping a vegetative patient on life support for the sake of boosting its survival rate.The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “takes allegations of abuse and mistreatment seriously,” spokeswoman Maria LoPiccolo said in an email on Monday. “CMS is actively monitoring the situation and is in close communication with” New Jersey’s Department of Health, she added. The department said Friday that it was reviewing the allegations.CMS works with state health departments to review transplant programs and determine if they are eligible for Medicare reimbursement. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. ProPublica’s investigation found that Newark Beth Israel’s transplant team was worried about the possibility of being disciplined by CMS after six out of 38 patients who received heart transplants in 2018 died before their one-year anniversary. That translated to an 84.2% survival rate, considerably worse than the 91.5% national probability of surviving a year for heart transplant patients, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, which tracks and analyzes outcomes for the government.The team appeared to tailor medical decisions for at least four patients because of these concerns. In the case of Darryl Young, a heart transplant recipient, members of the medical staff didn’t offer options like hospice care to his family because they wanted to make sure Young lived at least a year after his surgery, according to current and former employees familiar with his care. In an audio recording obtained by ProPublica, Dr. Mark Zucker, the director of the heart and lung transplant programs, told the team at an April meeting, “I’m not sure that this is ethical, moral or right,” but it’s “for the global good of the future transplant recipients.”In response to the concerns raised by the article, Newark Beth Israel said that it would conduct an “evaluation and review of the program, its processes and its leadership.” It later added that it had hired an outside consultant to perform the review. Dr. Herb Conaway, a New Jersey assemblyman and chair of the Legislature’s Health and Senior Services Committee, called for the transplant team’s actions to be reviewed. “The implicated doctors must face consequences if the allegations are indeed accurate,” he said in a statement on Friday. “Their actions are a stain on the entire medical community, and they must be held accountable for what they have done to both this patient and his family.”The editorial board of The Star-Ledger in Newark, which co-published the ProPublica investigation, urged prompt scrutiny of the hospital. “This is astoundingly unethical, and if true, should prompt firings of those involved and a federal and state review,” the board wrote. “The Attorney General’s Office should look into it, too, in case there’s something criminal here.”The Attorney General’s Office and the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners would not confirm or deny the existence of investigations, a spokeswoman said.
An Unseen Victim of the College Admissions Scandal: The High School Tennis Champion Aced Out by a Billionaire Family
by Daniel Golden and Doris Burke This article is published in partnership with The New Yorker. Get the best of The New Yorker, in your inbox. Sign up now.ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This story is exempt from our Creative Commons license. On a Monday morning in April 2017, students at Sage Hill School gathered in its artificial-turf quadrangle, known as the Town Square, to celebrate seniors who were heading to college as recruited athletes. The 10 honorees lined up behind an archway adorned with balloons. One by one, they stepped forward as their sports and destinations were announced. Patricia Merz, the head of the private high school in Newport Coast, California, placed a lei in the appropriate college’s colors around each student’s neck.Most of the students were recruits to low-profile Division III programs. Only three had committed to play Division I college sports. Two were the captains of Sage Hill’s girls’ volleyball and girls’ soccer teams, bound for Columbia University and the University of Denver, respectively. The other, Grant Janavs, played tennis. As his shirt and blue-and-gray lei both showed, he would attend Georgetown, the elite Catholic university in Washington, D.C. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. The Town Square is framed on three sides by Sage Hill’s gym, library and administration building. As Adam Langevin watched the ceremony with other seniors, sitting on four rows of steps at the quadrangle’s open end, across from the archway, he was stunned. Adam had been Sage Hill’s top tennis player for four years, and he had lost only three singles matches as a senior. He had trained long hours with renowned coaches, hit with college stars and budding pros, and acquitted himself well in regional and national tournaments. Although his two-handed backhand needed work, Adam had developed a solid serve and a forehand that one of his coaches, the former college and professional player Ross Duncan, described as “pro potential, tour level.” Between tennis and classes, he’d had little time left for other extracurricular activities or a social life. In four years, he’d attended only two school dances, and had no romantic relationships, or even casual lunches with friends. He’d sacrificed it all for his goal of playing for the best Division I college tennis team he could.And yet his dream had narrowly eluded him. Although he would likely have played for a weaker Division I program, such as Georgetown, he had his heart set on California Polytechnic State University, which matched his academic interests and is a perennial contender in the Big West Conference. Unlike Georgetown, Cal Poly typically ranks among the top 75 of the more than 250 Division I men’s college tennis teams in the country. Earlier that month, Adam held back tears when a coach at Cal Poly phoned him in calculus class and said that there was no spot left on its team for him. He had been beaten out by players of similar ability whom the coaches had identified as prospects earlier. Desperate to hide his shame and embarrassment from classmates, he immediately fled school. That afternoon, when his father, Rick Langevin, came home, he found Adam sitting on the hood of his car in the driveway, disconsolate.Now Grant was being celebrated as a future Division I Georgetown tennis player. When Grant had mentioned that he would be playing for Georgetown, Adam had privately thought that Grant was deluding himself. In their freshman year, Grant had played doubles regularly for Sage Hill, but, as the team improved, he lost his starting position. As a senior, Grant wasn’t even on the team. He hit the ball hard but sprayed his shots outside the lines; he couldn’t stay in a rally for more than three or four strokes. Grant had a private coach who went to his matches and practices, but he still didn’t get better. Adam sometimes wondered if Grant would prefer playing for fun rather than competing.“I must admit it, I was jealous,” Adam recalled in June, as he sprawled on a couch in the living room of his family’s home, part of a residential development on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Adam, 5-foot-10 and a sturdy 155 pounds, wore white socks without sneakers because he was recovering from surgery for an ingrown toenail, a common tennis malady. “He was living my dream after I worked for so many years,” Adam told me. “I was known as the tennis kid. That’s what I did. Grant gets up there, and I felt people looking over. ‘Why aren’t you up there?’ The whole team was like, ‘What?’ It was really, really frustrating.” Langevin and his high school tennis coach, A.G. Longoria (Courtesy of the Langevin family) A.G. Longoria, who served as Sage Hill’s tennis coach from the school’s founding, in 2000, to his retirement, in 2015, coached both players. Adam “was the better athlete and devoted much more time to tennis as this was his number one passion — he was in an elite tennis academy, had high performance coaches and played USTA tournaments almost every week,” Longoria told me in an email. “He got good in a hurry” and “could have played at Georgetown.” By contrast, “Grant was limited by his form (strokes) which all his coaches tried to correct but either he could not or would not change them. I am guessing that Adam was surprised, as many were, that Grant was going to play for Georgetown.”When Adam told his parents that Grant was a Georgetown tennis recruit, his father speculated that Grant’s billionaire family had endowed a building at the university. Grant’s mother, Michelle Janavs, is the daughter of Paul Merage, who, with his brother, co-founded Chef America Inc., which created the Hot Pockets microwavable snack. Universities frequently reward donors by giving their children or grandchildren an edge in admissions.Nearly two years later, in March, 2019, the actual explanation emerged. An independent college-admissions counselor named William (Rick) Singer pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston to fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice in a case known as Operation Varsity Blues. Singer’s clients had paid him more than $25 million to help their children enter an array of selective colleges with bogus credentials. He bribed college coaches and athletic officials to misrepresent students as recruited athletes, and he paid proctors at testing sites to improve their scores on the SAT or ACT by secretly correcting wrong answers. One billionaire family paid Singer $6.5 million for their daughter’s admission to Stanford. Her application to Stanford was embellished with false credentials for the sailing team, according to a court filing by prosecutors. The university expelled the student, according to news reports, but she and her parents have not been charged in the case. Stanford’s sailing coach, who pleaded guilty, admitted to taking bribes to help some of Singer’s clients, but he spent the money on the sailing program rather than himself. The 33 parents who were charged included the television actresses Lori Loughlin, who pleaded not guilty, and Felicity Huffman, who apologized and was sentenced to 14 days in prison. There were also two Sage Hill trustees: Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of Pacific Investment Management Company, or PIMCO, one of the world’s largest bond managers, and Grant’s mother, Michelle Janavs.In May 2017, after Georgetown admitted Grant, a foundation controlled by his grandfather had wired $400,000 to a California nonprofit that Singer had set up — the Key Worldwide Foundation, according to court documents. Prosecutors said that Singer, through that foundation, paid Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst more than $2.7 million in “consulting” fees to designate at least a dozen applicants, including Grant, as tennis recruits. Ernst, who declined to comment through his lawyer, pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy. Grant was not charged in the case, and no evidence has emerged that he knew or suspected anything inappropriate regarding his recruitment. His mother and Singer appear to have engineered his acceptance to Georgetown without him being aware of their alleged scheme.Michelle Janavs’ alleged bribes continued after Georgetown admitted Grant. She paid $200,000 for her older daughter to get into the University of Southern California for beach volleyball, according to prosecutors. (The daughter had been on Sage Hill’s junior-varsity team.) She paid another $100,000 to rig both of her daughters’ standardized-test scores: a proctor on Singer’s payroll corrected their answers so that their scores would be within a preselected range. Janavs pleaded not guilty to conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud and money laundering. (Her lawyers declined to comment. Grant did not respond to requests for comment.) Michelle Janavs, Grant’s mother, leaving a federal courthouse in Boston following a hearing. She has pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) Media coverage of Operation Varsity Blues has highlighted the accused celebrities, tycoons and coaches. The culpability of the students who gained admission has also been widely debated: Did they know of the bribery, or were they deceived by their own parents, like Grant? The elite colleges involved have portrayed themselves as helpless victims. In reality, they created the conditions for Singer’s scheme, from the lower admissions standards for athletes to the ever-increasing selectivity that ratchets up parents’ desperation. They’ve tacitly sold admissions slots for decades to major donors, yet professed shock that their coaches would as well.Less understood is that the repercussions extended beyond the families and colleges entangled in the scandal. The true victims were other, and perhaps more deserving, high school students and athletes, like Adam. For every student like Grant who benefited from Singer’s crimes, there was a student who aspired to attend premier schools and sports programs. Despite their stronger credentials, some were rejected. To students like Adam, the scandal shows that the college-admissions game offers shortcuts, but only for the wealthy and well-connected. “Grant is a nice person, but he’s a god-awful tennis player,” Adam told me. “I knew he wouldn’t see a day on court. He would never play a match for Georgetown.”In the wake of Rick Singer’s guilty plea, media reports portrayed him as a criminal mastermind who deftly hid his activities. He shrewdly exploited procedures that were vulnerable to abuse — such as college-admissions committees taking a coach’s word for an applicant’s athletic prowess. But Singer didn’t fool everyone. Long before 2011, when court documents indicate that his bribing of coaches and test administrators began, he was notorious among some guidance counselors and college advisers for boosting students’ chances by pretending that they were racial minorities or by burnishing their extracurricular activities. Singer had a white applicant identify himself as Hispanic to qualify for affirmative action, a former business associate told me. “It blew up,” this person said, after “the college questioned it because he didn’t put it on the SATs,” which ask about ethnicity. Many of Singer’s associates — other independent counselors, high school guidance counselors, his own employees — suspected him of cheating. At least one prep school banned him from its campus. It didn’t matter. Singer knew how to appeal to the panic of wealthy parents who fear that their children will not get into exclusive universities. He promised the certainty they craved, and at a bargain price compared with the legal donation needed to improve their chances. In 1994, Singer, a former high school and college basketball coach, established Sacramento’s first independent college counselor business. A pioneer in the high-priced field of coaching college applicants, Singer helped upend the admissions process by increasing the advantage enjoyed by the affluent. Soon well-off parents — doctors, lawyers, businesspeople — were clamoring, and paying, for his advice. What he lacked in expertise, he made up for in chutzpah. “I did see him tell a kid, ‘You mind if I put in your application you were in the Key Club?’” the former associate recalled. When Singer requested brochures from colleges, he told them that he was working with more than 500 students; the actual number was about 50. “He did embellish, even back then,” the former associate said.Margie Amott, another independent counselor in Sacramento, said that she knew a parent who hired Singer. The mother was astonished when Singer revamped her son’s college application, claiming that he had organized a fantasy football league, marketed an international blog on social responsibility, written several short films for television, spoken Spanish at home, ranked as a top-50 junior tennis player and coordinated the basketball program at Helen Keller Park. None of it was true, and there was no such park in Sacramento. The mother paid Singer’s bill, stopped working with him and had her son fill out the application accurately.In 2004, Singer burnished his credibility by assembling an advisory board for his counseling firm, CollegeSource. The board included five higher-education heavyweights: William Bowen, Donald Kennedy and Ted Mitchell — the former presidents of Princeton, Stanford and Occidental College, respectively — as well as the former UCLA chancellor Charles Young and the former Princeton dean of admission Fred Hargadon. In January 2008, more than a decade before Singer’s guilty plea, Jon Reider, then the director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and a former senior admissions officer at Stanford, emailed advisory board members Kennedy, Hargadon and Mitchell and urged them to stop working with Singer. Rick Singer, architect of the college admissions scandal, leaving federal court in Boston, where he pleaded guilty to fraud, racketeering and other charges. (Steven Senne/AP Photo) “Do you want to be associated with this guy? He is the epitome of sleaze in the private counseling business,” wrote Reider. “How did he get your names onto his website? There are some decent independent counselors, but he isn’t one of them . . . . .We can’t stop this guy, but we can slow him down a bit.”Reider knew all three of the prominent administrators from his time at Stanford. Hargadon had been Stanford’s dean of admission before moving to Princeton, and Mitchell had earned three Stanford degrees and been Kennedy’s deputy. Mitchell’s response disappointed him. “I strongly disagree that Rick is the ‘epitome of sleaze,’” Mitchell replied to Reider. “Don and I got involved with Rick when he was trying to get college access info to poor kids and ‘break the code,’ for kids who didn’t have access to private counseling. . . Do you know Rick? He’s a decent guy, Jon, and I’d love to find a time to introduce the two of you.” Reider pushed back. “There are ways to go about this business in an ethical way, so that you do not earn the disapproval of other professionals. I am the tip of the iceberg.”Mitchell went on to serve as the U.S. undersecretary of education in the Obama administration and the president of the American Council on Education, a higher-education lobbying group. When asked for comment after Singer pleaded guilty, Mitchell downplayed his ties to the disgraced counselor, saying that he “served briefly nearly 15 years ago in an unpaid role in an advisory board of one of his previous ventures.” Mitchell also expressed surprise, saying that he was “shocked, sad and angry that someone I thought I knew could perpetrate these crimes.”In 2012, as he was carrying out what would become the biggest college-admission scandal in the country, Singer relocated from Sacramento to Newport Beach, where the Langevins lived. Adam Langevin was then a middle school student striving to become a tennis star. At the age of 4, he had taken his first tennis lesson. By the time he turned 8, the court was the only place he wanted to be. He trained four to five hours every other day at an academy run by Phil, Taylor and Jenny Dent — a father, son and daughter-in-law who had all been ranked among the top 60 players in the world. In 2010, Taylor Dent had blasted the fastest serve ever at Wimbledon — 148 miles per hour. The Dents’ academy practiced at the same club where the Sage Hill varsity tennis team trained. Adam sometimes hit with high school players who were four to five years older than him, which improved his game. When Adam began playing tournaments, he found that he also loved competing. “I just enjoyed being out there,” he said. Tennis trophies, books and memorabilia in Langevin’s bedroom at his parents’ home. (Kendrick Brinson for ProPublica) Adam’s father, a realtor and recreational tennis player, and his mother, Alisa, a homemaker, encouraged his passion for the game. Unlike some tennis parents, they prioritized education as well. Neither Rick nor Alisa had graduated from college, and they hoped that Adam would do so. “He’s extremely academic,” Alisa told me. “I felt that also needed to be nourished.” Until Adam entered ninth grade, they didn’t let him have a cellphone and limited his television viewing to an hour a day. He listened to audiobooks about world history and Greek mythology. As a seventh grader, Adam startled one of Rick’s real estate clients, who was purchasing a 17,000-square-foot home with outdoor pools and a movie theater, by identifying a painting on the ceiling as a copy of Raphael’s “The School of Athens” and the figures in a backyard sculpture as Pygmalion and Galatea.As a child, Adam dreamed of turning pro, but, as that began to seem unrealistic, he switched his sights to playing Division I college tennis. Players with such lofty goals are often home-schooled so they have more time to practice and travel to national tournaments. When Adam asked his parents if they would consider home-schooling, they pointed out that he also loved science and might make a career of it. Sage Hill, which opened a science center with seven labs and four classrooms, in 2014, offered a far superior academic program to anything available online.After Adam enrolled at Sage Hill, he initally balked at joining its tennis team. College coaches, he knew, pay scant attention to high school matches. They notice tournament results and the Universal Tennis Rating, or UTR, which enables them to compare U.S. and international prospects. But his father told him that, as Sage Hill’s top player, he had to support his school. For the next four years, high school and tournament practices and matches consumed Adam’s time.In the 2017 Sage Hill yearbook, seniors were asked what they would like to say to their future selves. The responses from Grant and Adam were strikingly different. “Nothing because the future is going to be great,” Grant wrote. “You worked so impossibly hard to get where you are,” Adam wrote. “Remember that.” Their divergent attitudes were also reflected in their approach to academics and athletics. William Dupuis, who taught chemistry at Sage Hill and had both young men in class, said that Grant scraped by with B’s in first-year chemistry. Adam was “very good, very hard-working.” Entries for Grant Janavs and Langevin in Sage Hill School’s 2017 yearbook. They gave very different answers to the question, “What would you like to say to your future self?” (Kendrick Brinson for ProPublica) Longoria, the former Sage Hill coach, used a startling expression to convey how much Adam sacrificed for the sport. He “suicided” tennis, Longoria said. “He was all in.” Already the team’s best player as a freshman, Adam steadily improved, and his skill and drive set an example for his teammates. As a junior, he damaged a tendon in his left wrist, rendering him unable to hit his normal two-handed backhand. Instead of sitting out matches, he donned a brace and played doubles for Sage Hill, protecting his wrist by serving and volleying, and slicing the few backhands he couldn’t avoid. Adam enjoyed encouraging others. “My intensity for the sport got a lot of guys playing tournaments,” he told me. Rival coaches noticed. “He was a top-notch player and a great kid,” said T.J. Reynolds, the coach of Crean Lutheran High School, in nearby Irvine. “He stood out as a freshman to me. He was relentless, he would never give up. He played with a lot of intensity. As he got older, he started adding offense to his game.” A junior tennis website assessed Adam as a three-star recruit (out of five stars) and ranked him 135th nationally in 2017.Grant was less single-minded about tennis. He enjoyed other pastimes, like surfing. His response to a yearbook question about his bucket list suggested a thirst for adventure. Grant said that he hoped to skydive, ride an elephant and send a message in a bottle. Longoria said that Grant couldn’t or wouldn’t change his unorthodox tennis strokes. He “hit a wall” and was replaced in the starting lineup. Longoria credited Grant for being “very ethical” and a “great competitor.” Once, Sage Hill’s hopes of defeating another school rested on a tiebreaker in Grant’s match. In the key rally, Grant made a correct line call in favor of his opponent on a close shot, depriving Sage Hill of victory. “Ninety percent of kids” would have called it the other way, Longoria, who is now a consultant to Sage Hill’s tennis program, said.Grant’s mother supported the team and appeared to respect boundaries. “She opened up her beach house for team barbecues,” Longoria said. Like other parents, “she bought a lot of things for the team. But she never said, ‘I want my son to start.’” It didn’t occur to the coach that she might find another way to burnish Grant’s tennis resume.In 2000, a group of Orange County parents and community leaders opened Sage Hill, the first nondenominational, nonprofit private high school on the Southern California coast between Irvine and San Juan Capistrano. Nestled in the hills above the Pacific Ocean, with a clock tower and low-slung concrete buildings painted to look like terra cotta, Sage Hill quickly gained a reputation for academic excellence. It also thrived financially. As of June, 2017, its net assets were $76.3 million. Depending on market conditions, its endowment fluctuates between $18 million and $20 million. The former Major League Baseball commissioner and U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth was integral to the school’s founding. The Sage Hill gym, known as the Ube, is named after him, and his daughter served as the chair of the school’s board. Current Sage Hill parents include the former Los Angeles Lakers standout Kobe Bryant, whose daughter Natalia plays volleyball for the school. “Most of the billionaires in Newport have a child or grandchild at Sage,” Adam’s father, Rick Langevin, told me.At first, Sage Hill was strict with donors. It didn’t let them dictate how their money would be spent. When Bryant offered to fund a gym if he could practice there at night, the school turned him down, according to Longoria, the former tennis coach. Over time, financial pressures caused the school to loosen its approach. Today, buildings, classrooms, locker rooms and sports facilities are named for donors — with exceptions, such as the A.G. Longoria Center Court, which honors the ex-coach’s service. The exterior wall of the Sage Hill Athletic Complex displays 60 disks of varying sizes, with donors’ names printed on them. One of the largest is labeled “Merage Family Janavs Family.” In 2014, the year after Grant enrolled in Sage Hill, a foundation operated by his mother, Michelle Janavs, donated $82,500 to Sage Hill, and she became a trustee. After her two daughters also enrolled at Sage Hill, Janavs gave the school another $190,000. Torrey Olins, the school’s spokesperson, declined to comment on “rumors about who may or may not have considered making donations for our facilities.” She said that the school has “always recognized those who donate money, time or talents to our community.” The athletic complex at Sage Hill School displays disks with the names of donors, including Janavs’ family. (Daniel Golden/ProPublica) Ninety percent of Sage Hill’s almost 550 students pay the school’s roughly $40,000 a year tuition. Ten percent receive financial aid. A former student who received financial aid told me that many classmates donned expensive brand-name clothes and a few wore a different outfit every day. A May 2018 article in the student newspaper accused the school of grade inflation. The story, headlined “Inflated Grades, Inflated Egos, Inflated Futures,” reported that 70% to 75% of all grades given in the previous semester were A’s or A-minuses. There were few C’s and no D’s or F’s. Teachers told the newspaper that the school initially had rigorous academic standards, and that the soaring grades were a response to parental pressure and diminished enrollment caused by the 2008-9 financial crisis. “I remember when I got my first B, I was so surprised,” a 2017 graduate, Andrea Flores, told me in an interview. “I didn’t know they gave B’s.”No evidence has publicly surfaced that Sage Hill participated in or was aware of Singer’s bribery of college coaches and test docents. The school says that its “consistent practice has been to not communicate directly with independent college counselors” and to recommend against their use. One prep school consultant, though, estimated that up to a fourth of Sage Hill parents may rely on independent counselors to help their children get into top colleges. One of them was Michelle Janavs, who hired an independent counselor for Grant. The counselor was well-respected and certified in both college counseling and educational planning. (The counselor asked not to be named and did not acknowledge that Grant was her client until I had identified him by other means.)The counselor told me that she worked with Grant for three years, guiding him toward academic programs in sports management. She felt that it was a field that suited both his personal interests and his family connections; through a holding company, his aunt, Lisa Merage, co-owns the Sacramento Kings, a National Basketball Association franchise, as well as the Golden 1 Center, the team’s home arena. The counselor didn’t see tennis as a realistic route to college, given that Grant couldn’t start for his high school. Apparently, Grant’s mother thought differently. Early in Grant’s senior year, Michelle Janavs asked Longoria to recommend Grant to the coach at either the University of Southern California (her alma mater) or UCLA. (Longoria initially said that it was USC, and later said that it was UCLA.) “I was sort of surprised,” Longoria recalled. Janavs’ request put him in an awkward position. Longoria believed in taking care of his players, and he never refused to write recommendations for them. But, he also valued his professional reputation, and “we all knew Grant couldn’t play” at either university, he said.To protect himself, Longoria developed a code for recommendation letters that would please the parent and send the correct signal to college coaches. His letters always contained four paragraphs — one each about tennis, academics, family and outside interests. Longoria put tennis first if the player could start for the college team; second if he could be a backup; third if he couldn’t make the team but was responsible enough to be a student manager and handle equipment, laundry and other duties; and fourth if the candidate couldn’t help in any way and Longoria was simply pacifying the family. For Grant’s recommendation, the first two paragraphs were about his grades and his family. Tennis was third. “He could maybe be a manager,” Longoria told me. Apparently grasping his message, coaches declined to recruit Grant. His mother then insisted that Grant apply to Georgetown, which doesn’t offer an undergraduate degree in sports management and had not been on his initial college list. After the family visited Georgetown, Janavs fired the counselor and told her that they were going to work with a second counselor they had hired. His name was Rick Singer.Federal prosecutors later found that Singer had a connection at Georgetown: Gordon Ernst, who had coached both men’s and women’s tennis there since 2006. Ernst had also given lessons to Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama. College coaches, especially in sports played by the wealthy, often supplement their modest salaries by taking outside pupils. Not long after Michelle Janavs hired Singer, he emailed her that he had spoken to Ernst: “I just spoke to Gordie and let him know” that Grant had applied to Georgetown.Grant’s first college counselor, surprised by her sudden dismissal, checked out Singer’s website and found it to be “strictly a sales pitch.” Although Singer lived five blocks from her house, and 8 miles by car from Sage Hill School, she had never met him. Though she joined professional associations and visited college campuses to stay up to date, Singer didn’t appear to do either. “It seemed like he was gaining a big following, but I didn’t see him at any conferences or any college tours,” the counselor said. “He wasn’t part of that professional counseling landscape. It’s baffling to me that no one was vetting him.” A few months later, when Sage Hill announced that Grant would play tennis for Georgetown, the counselor immediately sensed Singer’s handiwork. Because they had both worked with the same student, she worried about damage to her own reputation. She wanted her clients and colleagues to know that his methods were not hers. She warned fellow counselors about Singer and added a sentence to her standard contract with parents: “I do not pay coaches, administrators or others in the admission process.” Michelle Janavs called to let her know — for the counselor’s records, Janavs said — that, in addition to Georgetown, Grant had been admitted to a prestigious university that did have an undergraduate sports-management program, one that he and the counselor had selected as a fit for him. When the news of Operation Varsity Blues broke, the counselor felt vindicated. “Although I never met Rick Singer, I suspected that he engaged in unethical behavior,” she wrote in an email to her clients. “Students should not be thinking about manipulating the system but instead focusing on their own personal growth and journey. I believe in your student and you should too.”Georgetown University’s admissions office has long maintained a strict policy against dealing with independent counselors. Its official contact is with high school counselors, and it won’t talk to independent counselors or accept recommendations or other materials about a candidate from them. But Singer didn’t need to approach the admissions office; he could approach Ernst, the tennis coach. Ernst may have initially classified applicants as tennis recruits as a favor to friends and not taken bribes, according to a person familiar with the situation. Court documents say that Georgetown accepted the older daughter of Douglas Hodge, the former PIMCO CEO, as a tennis recruit in 2008 but do not mention any money changing hands. “I spoke to my connection at Georgetown and he will work with us,” Singer wrote in an email to Hodge. “He helped me get two girls in last week.”Singer told Hodge that his daughter’s chance of getting into Georgetown based on academics was 50% “at best,” but that “there may be an Olympic Sports angle we can use.” The application she submitted included fabricated victories in multiple United States Tennis Association tournaments. She didn’t play tennis at Georgetown and graduated in 2013. Hodge, who pleaded not guilty to fraud and money-laundering charges, declined to comment through his lawyer. (His daughter did not respond to requests for comment.) Ernst was able to shepherd a dozen applicants incapable of playing Division I tennis into Georgetown without drawing attention in part because recruits aren’t always chosen for their athletic skills. Though athletic scholarships are generally allotted to the most promising recruits, who are counted on to be key contributors to the team’s success, an array of other factors can affect selection of nonscholarship players. A marginal athlete with a high GPA or SAT score may be chosen to offset the lesser academic records of top recruits.Universities also often favor major donors’ children to fill out the last spot or two on a roster. In 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times, UCLA’s athletic department ushered in a track and field recruit, even though her personal best times weren’t fast enough for her to make the team, after her parents pledged a $100,000 gift. A university investigation concluded that families of tennis walk-ons at UCLA “made substantial donations to the program under circumstances that might suggest the donations were expected at the time the student was admitted.” Several families endowed coaching positions at Yale shortly before their children enrolled there, and Harvard’s fencing coach sold his home for almost double what it was worth to the father of a prospective recruit, The Boston Globe reported. In July 2019, Harvard fired the coach for violating its conflict-of-interest policy.Longoria, who spent 15 years as a college coach, told me that administrators sometimes asked him to make room on his roster for the child of a donor. “You’d get a call from a dean, ‘Can you help us out?’” he said. “‘This family is very important to the school.’” If the student could play at all and wasn’t disruptive, Longoria would go along with it. Tennis aficionados who saw the Sage Hill announcement that Grant would be playing tennis at Georgetown assumed that he had some edge. “He would not have been recruited to play in the top six at Georgetown,” one said. “He certainly could have been a guy who could have hit with the team.” He added, “A lot of great tennis players who could play college tennis never get the opportunity, and a lot of mediocre players end up on the team.”Ernst, the Georgetown coach, exploited the wide latitude that coaches enjoy in the admission of recruited athletes. Every year, universities designate their total number of admissions slots for preference — at Georgetown, it is usually 158 — and the athletic director divvies them up by sport. Each coach then vets prospects with the admissions coordinator for athletics, develops a prioritized list of recruits who are academically acceptable and submits the list to the admissions committee for formal approval. Crucially, the admissions committee takes the coach’s word regarding the candidates’ athletic prowess. Admissions officers then review their academic credentials. Many universities bend academic standards more for recruited athletes, especially those at or near the top of the coach’s priority list, than for any other applicant group, according to a landmark 2001 study, “The Game of Life,” by James Shulman and William Bowen (the same former Princeton president who served on Singer’s advisory board). From 2010 through 2015, Harvard admitted 86% of recruited athletes, compared with 6% of nonathletes, according to a filing in the recent lawsuit challenging affirmative action there. Typically, athletic directors also trust the coaches, and they don’t vet recruits or closely monitor admissions files. “He deceived everybody,” a person familiar with the situation said, referring to Ernst. “It’s not that hard to do. There’s no coordination between athletics and admissions. These are minor sports, low on visibility, beneath the radar screen.”Ernst was undone not by his own actions but by Singer’s decades-old habit of misrepresenting white clients as minorities to qualify them for affirmative action. The person familiar with the situation told me that another university had contacted a high school counseling office about a student whom it was eager to enroll. Her application to that university portrayed her as African American and the first in her family to attend college, qualifying her for two admissions preferences. Startled, the high school replied that the student was white and her parents were college graduates. The high school counseling office then called Georgetown, where she had also applied, to find out how she was portrayed on that application. Georgetown records showed her as a tennis recruit. When the high school said that she didn't play tennis, Georgetown began investigating. As it identified and talked with bogus tennis recruits, it uncovered a common thread; Singer had been their private college counselor. Georgetown placed Ernst on leave in December 2017 and fired him, in 2018, for violating university policies.The case broke open when a suspect in a securities fraud case sought leniency by admitting to authorities that he had agreed to pay Yale’s longtime women’s soccer coach to designate one of his daughters as a recruit. The coach led investigators to Singer, who became a government informant. His calls with parents were recorded, including conversations with Janavs about getting her older daughter into USC as a beach volleyball recruit and fixing her younger daughter’s ACT score. Janavs worried that her younger daughter would suspect something was amiss. “She’s not stupid,” she told Singer. “How do you do this without telling the kids what you’re doing?” Singer replied, “Oh, in most cases, Michelle, none of the kids know.”Langevin’s tennis trophies and medals in his parents’ home. (Kendrick Brinson for ProPublica) Adam Langevin could have been a top player at a Division II or Division III college. Several Division III colleges courted him avidly, including the University of Redlands, in Redlands, California. Although schools in that division don’t give athletic scholarships, Redlands offered academic merit aid to reduce his tuition. “We followed and recruited him for the better part of a year,” Geoff Roche, the tennis coach at Redlands, said. “He had a very complete game. He was very focussed, very mature, extremely competitive. We felt he had all the ambition and the drive to take his game to the next level. His best tennis was still ahead of him.”Adam could also have made some Division I teams. The U.S. Naval Academy, a Division I program, contacted him, but it requires a five-year service commitment, for which his peanut allergy could have disqualified him. After years of training, practice and sacrifice, Adam had no desire to be the best player on a lesser team. He wanted to continue to push himself. “I want to compete, to learn, to get better,” he told me. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo was his choice. It was the right distance from home. It had a strong chemistry department and a combined program that would allow him to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years. And Adam’s Universal Tennis Rating was similar to that of the varsity’s bottom rung. He had a fighting chance.Cal Poly coach Nick Carless told me that Adam is “at the Division I level. He’s pretty close to some of the lower guys on my team.” The difficulty, he said, was timing. Most college coaches sign up players a year in advance, so his roster was already set when he learned of Adam, he said. “Adam got in touch with me relatively late. It’s really bad timing for a really great kid who loves the sport, is passionate about it, and put in the hours.” Carless said that four of Cal Poly’s 12 players are foreigners, who increasingly compete with American players for roster spots in college sports like tennis. Overall, more than a third of Division I tennis players today are international students, reducing the roster spots available for U.S. players. Carless also acknowledged that “hands-on” majors like chemistry pose a scheduling challenge. “If you’re traveling as an athlete and you have a major that requires a lot of labs, you have to be there in person,” he said. “Other majors have online work or video conferencing. Many of our athletes at Cal Poly tend to be business majors because of the flexibility.”Even after being passed over, Adam didn’t give up. He enrolled at Cal Poly with a new plan. He would be more motivated than ever, practice harder than ever, take lessons from the coaches, play club tennis and dedicate himself to improving his game until a spot opened up and he would be worthy of joining the team. “The greatest feeling is proving someone wrong and being successful,” he said.Sage Hill administrators are sensitive about the school’s connection to a scandal that has made headlines. They instructed faculty and staff not to speak to me and to notify the school’s director of communications if I contacted them. When I tried to visit, security personnel escorted me off campus, even though I was the guest of an alumna. Then they escorted her out, too.The school’s board, administration and faculty were “shocked and felt betrayed” by the allegations against Janavs and Hodge, Olins, the school’s spokesperson, told me. “The alleged actions are contrary to everything the school has stood for since its founding.” A review by its outside counsel concluded in June that no Sage Hill administrators or college counselors knew of “dishonest activities by students or parents in the college admission process” and that “no current trustee engaged in dishonest conduct.” The modifier “current” referred to the fact that both Hodge and Michelle Janavs have stepped down as trustees. Janavs’ sister-in-law, Lisa Merage, remains on the Sage Hill board.Singer’s lawyer, Donald Heller, declined to comment. When I reached Singer directly, he politely thanked me for the opportunity but declined as well. “Nobody will talk to you until after sentencing,” he said. Langevin is studying chemistry and playing on Cal Poly’s club tennis team. (Kendrick Brinson for ProPublica) As Adam predicted, Grant has not played tennis for Georgetown, nor even been listed on its roster. Though Georgetown has expelled two students involved in the scandal, Grant remains enrolled and appears to be majoring in computer science. “Our review focused on whether students knowingly provided false information to the university during the admissions process,” a Georgetown spokeswoman said.The Cal Poly coach, Carless, encouraged Adam to transfer to another university where he would make the tennis team. “I just kind of felt bad I didn’t have a spot for him,” Carless told me. “I said: ‘You can play. I see your work ethic, I see your love for the game. You could reach out to schools that are lower in the rankings or losing a lot of seniors.’” Adam considered transferring, but he stayed at Cal Poly and is glad he did. His life has expanded to include a girlfriend, a fraternity and chemistry research guided by a professor. He’s playing No. 1 singles on Cal Poly’s club team — and still trying to walk onto the varsity squad. For his 21st birthday, in June, his parents paid for a 90-minute off-season lesson with Carless.Ross Duncan, one of Adam’s former private coaches, regrets that his dream of playing on a strong Division I team hasn’t panned out. “I think what stood out with him — and why I feel bad he never got the opportunity — is that his game still had a lot of room to grow,” Duncan said. “His style of play was aggressive. His game would have translated well to college tennis.”Before leaving the Langevins’ home, I asked Adam a hypothetical question: How would he have felt if he had been recruited, like Grant, by a Division I team, only to find out that it was because someone had bribed the coach? “It wouldn’t feel right,” he told me. “My goal is to earn it. It’s not about being on the team. It’s about proving to yourself who the best player is. That’s how you become a legend. That’s what makes the best the best.”
ProPublica Will Fund More Local News Investigations in 2020
by ProPublica ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network is seeking six additional local accountability projects to fund in 2020.ProPublica will pay the salary, plus a benefits allowance, for reporters at partner news organizations who will each spend one year tackling an investigative project that is important to their communities. Projects can shine light on problems involving local governments, sheriffs, jails, companies, nonprofits or regional issues.Reporters will collaborate with a ProPublica senior editor, and they can receive assistance with data analysis, research, design, audience development and engagement.Applications for these new slots are due Oct. 30. Here are the details for those interested in applying. We will also host a webinar at 3 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Oct. 15, to answer questions about the application process. Sign up now.The new group of reporters will begin work on Jan. 2.ProPublica launched the Local Reporting Network at the beginning of 2018 to boost investigative journalism in local newsroomsOne of our partners this year, MLK50, a nonprofit news organization in Memphis, Tennessee, reported on how the area’s largest hospital system sued and garnished the wages of thousands of poor patients, including its own employees, for unpaid medical debts. The hospital subsequently said it would raise the minimum wage it pays employees, dramatically expand its financial assistance policy for hospital care and stop suing its own employees for unpaid medical debts.The Anchorage Daily News, in a first-of-its-kind investigation, found that one in three communities in Alaska has no local law enforcement: no state troopers to stop an active shooter, no village police officers to break up family fights, not even untrained city or tribal cops to patrol the streets. Following that coverage, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr visited Alaska and later declared a state of emergency, releasing millions in federal funds to devote to the problem.In Rhode Island, The Public’s Radio reported how 911 call takers were not trained to provide CPR instructions by phone and about people who died after those call takers failed to give proper guidance. The state legislature is poised to add money for training in the coming year’s budget.If your organization is selected, the reporter will continue to work in your newsroom but will receive extensive guidance and support from ProPublica. The work will be published or broadcast by your newsroom and simultaneously by ProPublica.News organizations in cities with populations of fewer than 1 million people are eligible to apply. We are not looking to fund beat coverage, but instead to enable your organization to do ambitious accountability projects that would not otherwise be done.Applications should be submitted by newsroom leaders for a particular project and a specific reporter. If you lead a newsroom and are interested in working with us, we’d like to hear from you about:
While Trump Cracked Down on Immigration, a Republican Megadonor Sued for a Special Visa
by Jake Pearson ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. As two of the most prolific political donors in the Donald Trump era, billionaires Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein have supported the president’s “America First” agenda. Elizabeth, the president of their shipping supplies company, recently wrote to customers: “Personally, I am an American first. I care about American jobs.”But when it comes to business, their company has sought special visas for foreign workers — going so far as to sue the government to secure one at the same time federal officials implemented the president’s more stringent immigration policies.The suit, filed February in federal district court in Illinois, came after the administration rejected the company’s 2018 petition to hire a full-time software engineer from India, court records show. The company sought a type of visa, called an H-1B, that allows foreign workers with special skills to stay in the U.S. for temporary periods. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Uline Inc., a Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, company that competes with Staples, FedEx Office and OfficeMax, regularly seeks temporary work visas reserved for non-U.S. workers, the company said in a statement.The Uihleins back conservative candidates and groups that have advocated not only for crackdowns on illegal immigration, but also for stemming legal migration to the U.S.In court testimony last year in an unrelated case in Texas, Richard Uihlein, who is the company’s CEO, was asked if his contributions to a group that supports conservative representatives were meant to aid not just immigration reform but a tougher immigration policy. Uihlein responded: “I would say that’s correct, yep.”During the 2018 cycle, federal campaign finance records show, Richard Uihlein gave more than $38 million to conservative candidates and groups and his wife, Elizabeth, gave more than $1.5 million. The only individual donor who gave more to support Republicans during the 2018 cycle than Richard Uihlein was Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.Richard Uihlein’s recent political donations included $2.5 million to the failed Illinois gubernatorial campaign of Jeanne Ives, who ran an ad featuring an actor wearing a hoodie, his face covered, thanking her opponent for making the state a “sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals.” He also gave $100,000 to a super PAC supporting the failed senate campaign of Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who ran for office amid allegations that he’d sexually molested underage girls. Moore, a staunch supporter of aggressive policies to curb immigration, backed legislation that would’ve halved the number of green cards issued in the U.S. Richard Uihlein made a large donation to a super PAC supporting the senate campaign of Roy Moore, the Alabama judge accused of molesting underage girls. (Scott Olson/Getty Images) In March, the Uihleins gave $500,000 each to America First Action Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC staffed with former administration officials, federal campaign records show. In addition, the couple attended Trump’s inaugural after each contributed $250,000 to his inaugural fund.The worker on whose behalf the company sued appears to have been caught up in a Trump administration effort to scrutinize applications for H-1B work visas. In April 2017, Trump signed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order that instructed immigration officials to propose new rules to “protect the interests of United States workers in the administration of our immigration system.”That effort has been effective. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied 14% of H-1B petitions filed on behalf of H-1B holders seeking to continue working in the U.S. through the second quarter of this fiscal year, up from 3% of such petitions in fiscal year 2015, according to an analysis of government data by the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit public policy group.Lawyers for Uline, which the Uihleins started in 1980, withdrew their lawsuit months after filing it, telling the court that immigration authorities had approved a subsequent visa petition for the worker.Uline boasts that it’s one of the biggest distributors of shipping, industrial and packing materials in North America. In its visa application, Uline told the government it employs 5,200 workers nationwide and brings in $3.6 billion in gross annual income.The worker, Abhishek Nimdia, told ProPublica that he enjoyed working at Uline and questioned whether the Uihleins actually support the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies.“I don’t think they are against immigration in any way, because if they were, why would they support me?” he said in an interview.In a statement provided by an outside publicist, Uline said that the company’s visa “decisions are made without the visibility of or approval from Liz and Dick Uihlein to support our growing business.” No one from Uline discussed the visas of its current employees on H-1Bs with administration officials, the statement said.Richard Uihlein said in a statement provided by his executive assistant that he’s always been in favor of legal immigration. “Highly skilled immigrants with H-1B visas help contribute to the growth of both Uline and the US economy as a whole,” he said.Matthew Bourke, a spokesman for USCIS, said in a statement that the agency “does not consider political affiliations or political connections when adjudicating benefit requests.”Nimdia’s experience navigating the H-1B visa process during the Trump administration isn’t unique, said Jonathan Wasden, a former government lawyer who specializes in visa cases.Immigration officials wary of litigation will usually relent once sued over H-1B denials like Nimdia’s — but only deep-pocketed employers can afford to take on the fight, Wasden said. The administration’s enforcement approach is a “ploy to eliminate people and make it as miserable as possible for H-1Bs to stay in the country,” he said. Read More The Administration Rushed on a Sweeping Immigration Policy. We Found Substantive, Sloppy Mistakes. Trump’s new immigration policy applies more harshly to families of U.S. citizens in the military than to families of noncitizens in the military. Experts think it’s an error that suggests officials are pushing policies even they don’t fully understand. Nimdia was originally employed by a Uline contractor. Uline sought to hire him as a full-time employee last summer, telling USCIS he’d be working to “design, develop, and implement automated testing and tooling solutions” as a “Quality Assurance Automation Engineer” at a prevailing annual wage of about $71,400, according to a copy of his visa application. The company also sought to sponsor Nimdia’s wife.USCIS challenged Uline’s assertion that Nimdia’s job was a “specialty occupation,” asking the company for more information because its prior description of his duties was written “in relatively generalized and abstract terms” that didn’t adequately detail his job duties.Uline responded with more information, but immigration officials again denied the visa, reaffirming their earlier position. That’s when Uline sued.Nimdia, emphasizing that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of his employer, said the job with Uline was the latest stage in an almost nine-year stint working in the U.S. on temporary visas.“They hired me as a contractor, liked me very much and they wanted to sponsor me,” he said. “There was a little hurdle. That’s the short story.”
Pharmaceutical Companies Are Luring Mexicans Across the U.S. Border to Donate Blood Plasma
by Stefanie Dodt and Jan Lukas Strozyk, ARD German TV, and Dara Lind, ProPublica ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This story was co-published with ARD German TV. Every week, thousands of Mexicans cross the border into the U.S. on temporary visas to sell their blood plasma to profit-making pharmaceutical companies that lure them with Facebook ads and colorful flyers promising hefty cash rewards.The donors, including some who say the payments are their only income, may take home up to $400 a month if they donate twice a week and earn various incentives, including “buddy bonuses” for recruiting friends or family. Unlike other nations that limit or forbid paid plasma donations at a high frequency out of concern for donor health and quality control, the U.S. allows companies to pay donors and has comparatively loose standards for monitoring their health. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Donating plasma too frequently can hurt a donor’s immune system. A donor’s level of the antibody immunoglobulin G should be screened every four months under guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But in the U.S., donors are still allowed to give plasma up to 104 times a year, far more than in most other countries. Selling plasma has been banned in Mexico since 1987.Genesis, a 21-year-old Mexican studying to be a paramedic, who asked that her last name not be used for her protection, said she gives plasma twice a week in El Paso, Texas. She said she often faints, gets migraines and has numbness in her limbs. The more she donates plasma, the weaker she feels. “I have trouble lifting stuff, problems with my muscles.”Like many Mexicans donors, Genesis comes into the U.S. on temporary visas, which allow non-immigrants to visit family, shop or “engage in commercial transactions, which do not involve gainful employment in the United States.” Watch: “Blood Trade — Health vs. Dollars” ARD German TV The plasma companies contend their payments are not wages as defined under the law. They classify them as “compensation” for donor time, since the process often requires long waits and an hour or more hooked up to plasma extraction equipment.“Plasma donors are compensated because of the time and commitment involved in being a regular plasma donor,” said the pharmaceutical company Grifols, which is based in Barcelona, Spain, and runs 17 plasma donation centers along the U.S.-Mexico border, more than any other company.The companies also say they carefully monitor donors and follow all safety procedures.These flyers show that U.S.-based plasma centers accept Border Crossing Cards issued with temporary visas. The practice falls into a gray area of federal immigration law.As the Trump administration clamps down on most traffic at the southern border, U.S. immigration agencies have done little to stop the stream of Mexicans using their B-1/B-2 visas to visit plasma centers. In interviews with ARD German TV, some former plasma center employees said they routinely recommended that clients lie to U.S. Customs and Border patrol about the purpose of their U.S. visits.“If people are using a B-1/B-2 visa to cross the border to sell plasma, they could be putting that document at risk,” said Roger Maier, a spokesman for CBP, the agency that examines visas at the border. “We strongly encourage people to not use their documents for that capacity.”Maier said agents “have a lot of discretion in our ability to allow people to enter the United States based on the documents they present.” Asked if the use of visitor visas to donate plasma violates the law, he said, “I’m sorry, it’s a gray area, but I can’t give you a yes or no.”The U.S. State Department said later that the visa rules do not address “the legality of this specific purpose of travel.” The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which includes El Paso, did not respond to requests for comment. Blood plasma donors in the Talecris donation center in El Paso, Texas, a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border. (Thomas Bergmann/ARD) The U.S. is the largest supplier of blood plasma in a $21 billion global market. FDA data shows that of the 805 plasma donation centers in the U.S., 43 are located along the southern border, up to 62 miles from Mexico.The border clinics are the most productive, according to internal Grifols documents obtained by ARD. While most U.S. centers receive around 1,000 paid donations a week, centers at the border count more than 2,300. The documents show that border centers also rank highest in donor frequency; they top of list of centers with customers who donate 75 times or more per year.Companies say they follow numerous safety precautions and seek new donors because they face a critical need as demand increases for lifesaving pharmaceutical products made from plasma, a yellowish fluid extracted from blood that contains antibodies that defend against disease.The centers are mainly owned by Grifols, the Australia-based CSL and BPL, an emerging player headquartered in the U.K. U.S.-based GCAM Inc. has four centers along the southern border. The FDA requires companies to monitor patient health before each donation. In some CSL centers, the payment amount depends on body weight, which determines how much blood plasma can be collected. Donors weighing between 110 and 149 pounds receive $20 per donation, while donors between 175 and 400 pounds earn up to $40. However, a person who doesn’t finish the donation for any reason doesn’t get paid.Calculating the exact number of Mexican donors coming into the U.S. is difficult because the companies do not disclose this data to state or federal agencies. ARD German TV obtained two weeks of donation counts for all the Grifols facilities in the U.S. from earlier this year, including those along the Texas-Mexico border.Grifols employees at five centers along the border, who requested anonymity to protect their jobs, estimated that Mexican citizens make up 60% to 90% of donors each day, depending on the facility.Based on those estimates, nearly 10,000 Mexican citizens donated plasma at those five Grifols centers during each of the two weeks. Thirty-eight additional plasma donation centers operate in the border area.Reporters from ARD German TV and Searchlight New Mexico, an investigative news organization, talked to more than 50 plasma donors from the Mexican cities of Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Nogales and Matamoros, and they found that most use their plasma payments to cover basic needs like food, electricity, diapers and clothes. A typical worker in Ciudad Juárez makes about $9 a day.Genesis lives just across the border from El Paso. Selling blood plasma in the United States is her only income; she’s crossed the border twice a week for three years. Her father, Gamaliel, introduced her to making a living this way.Genesis, like most Mexican plasma donors, relies on a B-1/B-2 temporary visa to gain entry. In July alone, the State Department issued or renewed 84,804 Border Crossing Cards for Mexican citizens.Most donors interviewed by ARD and Searchlight said that they give CBP officials a reason for their trips that obscures the real purpose. Donors are anxious and uncertain, but willing to take the risk. “I understand it is not illegal,” Gamaliel said. “But, if you get to an officer in a bad mood, they could take your visa. So it’s better not to tell.” The 44-year-old fitness trainer runs his own gym in Ciudad Juárez, but he hardly makes $100 a month. For nine years, he’s donated twice a week to cover his and his youngest daughter’s basic needs. Genesis said she tells CBP she’s visiting an aunt who lives in the U.S., but she rarely does so; instead, she goes directly to the lab. For the petite student, the moment right before crossing the border into El Paso is the most stressful. “I can never be sure. Who will be the officer on duty, what will they say or think. There’s always a chance they don’t believe you.”The subterfuge is necessary because, at best, crossing into the U.S. to donate plasma for money falls into a questionable area of the law. While neither the State Department nor CBP calls plasma donation payments illegal, the law doesn’t define specifically if visa rules prohibit them. There haven’t yet been any investigations or prosecutions of plasma labs.Potential liability for the pharmaceutical companies is even muddier. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which regulates legal immigration into the U.S., says that companies could be subject to charges if they engage in a “pattern or practice of knowingly hiring unauthorized aliens,” including people who are in the U.S. legally but not legally authorized to work.The Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, a trade organization representing for-profit plasma-producing pharmaceutical companies in North America and Europe, said in an email that donors are not employees of plasma centers and “only a person lawfully permitted to be in the United States can be accepted as a donor.” A flyer in Spanish offers $300 for blood plasma. U.S.-based plasma centers accept Border Crossing Cards issued with temporary visas, a practice that falls into a gray area of federal immigration law. (Lauren Villagran/Searchlight New Mexico) CSL and Grifols, the dominant companies at the U.S. border, declined interview requests but gave written statements. Grifols emphasized that “all donors, regardless of where they come from, must comply with all necessary health, regulatory and legal requirements to donate. There are no exceptions.” CSL said the company “complies with all laws in the countries in which we operate.”BPL said in a statement it was “following all applicable guidelines that exist to promote the safety of both plasma donors and the patients who use plasma derived therapeutics.”GCAM did not reply to a request for comment.Grifols offers bonuses to lure donors. Only if donors give at the maximum frequency allowed by FDA they receive the full payment.Blood and vaccines rank among the most valuable U.S. exports. In 2018, the U.S. collected 41 million liters of plasma intended for the production of medicine, and almost half of that was shipped abroad.Around 78% of blood plasma exported from the U.S. ended up in Germany, Spain and Austria, where Grifols, CSL and others operate large high-tech plasma processing plants. A large portion of the drugs produced are then reimported and sold in the U.S. Asylum-Seekers Who Followed Trump Rule Now Don’t Qualify Because of New Trump Rule Migrants hoping for U.S. protection have been waiting in Mexico for months, as the U.S. allowed fewer than ever to enter. Then it changed the rules entirely. There is little information about the long-term consequences of frequent plasma donations. Some scientists argue that a donor’s antibodies should be tested after every fifth donation, and some European countries like Germany require this. But the FDA in a statement defended its requirement that levels be checked every four months, saying, “We recognize that regulators in other countries may reach different regulatory conclusions even when considering the same data.”Genesis keeps losing weight, leaving her perilously close to the 110-pound minimum required for donation. To avoid getting turned away at the clinics for being underweight, which has happened in the past, Genesis said she regularly fools the scales by putting water bottles in her pockets. Her trick has never been noticed.When our reporters asked Genesis to get her blood levels examined, the lab results confirmed what Genesis felt. The test showed a dangerously low immunoglobulin G level. According to Paul Strengers of the International Plasma Fractionation Association, a trade group for not-for-profit collectors of blood plasma, the loss of antibodies can damage the immune system and lead to serious infections like pneumonia. The doctor who conducted the blood tests suggested that she stop donating plasma until her body is fully recovered. But, Genesis said, “stopping is a luxury I cannot afford.” Lauren Villagran of Searchlight New Mexico contributed to this story.
How a Politically Powerful Family Muscled a Nonprofit Out of Some of a City’s Most Valuable Land
by Jeff Pillets and Nancy Solomon, WNYC This article was produced in partnership with WNYC, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. For decades, Camden, New Jersey, has exemplified urban decay. A steady exodus of residents and jobs turned the once-thriving industrial port into the state’s poorest city. The waterfront was mostly parking lots and vacant land. More than half the city’s budget was funded through state aid.In the fall of 2013, state lawmakers sought to change that. Promising economic renewal, the Legislature passed a bill creating lucrative tax breaks for companies that agreed to move to distressed communities, with special incentives for Camden.Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, the city’s leading nonprofit, was already poised to take advantage. It had just signed an agreement with the state giving it the right to purchase a business park known as the L3 complex.Located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the 17-acre site offered some of the best office space in town. The nonprofit’s leaders envisioned millions of dollars in rent that would finance a long list of community projects, from new parks and recreation centers to farmers markets and job training. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. But the Norcross brothers had other ideas.The most powerful political family in the state had spent months helping to engineer the tax break law. George E. Norcross III, a prolific Democratic fundraiser and power broker, had championed the idea among lawmakers; his brother Philip Norcross, a lawyer and lobbyist with deep ties to local and state government, wrote parts of the legislation; and a third brother, Donald Norcross, then a state senator and now a member of Congress, had co-sponsored it. Once the law passed, the Norcrosses’ allies, business partners and clients took advantage.On a frigid morning in March 2014, Philip Norcross met with Cooper’s Ferry’s top executive at City Hall. Norcross told him that even though the nonprofit had exclusive rights to buy L3, another group was now interested in purchasing and developing the complex, according to correspondence among nonprofit officials. That group’s principal player was one of George Norcross’ former business partners.Cooper’s Ferry’s leaders initially resisted. “As you know, we do believe we can do this on our own,” the nonprofit CEO wrote to its board chairman. “I am OK w a conversation but don’t want to lose out on the opportunity.”Three months later, however, the nonprofit changed course. It wrote a letter to the state that June, saying it wanted to transfer its option to buy the L3 complex to the group connected to George Norcross. By the time the deal closed at the end of the year, there was another partner as well: a subsidiary of Cooper University Health Care, where Norcross is the board chairman.What happened in those three months — detailed in internal documents, memos and emails obtained by WNYC and ProPublica — offers a rare window into how the Norcross political machine wielded influence over development in Camden after the state adopted the new tax break program.Whether companies abused that program is now the subject of state and federal investigations. Sources with knowledge of the federal inquiry say real estate transactions in Camden are also being explored by investigators. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of a probe.In May, an investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that, of the $1.6 billion in tax breaks awarded to companies in Camden, $1.1 billion went to firms with ties to George and Philip Norcross. George and Philip Norcross have denied any wrongdoing and defended the incentives as a tool to revive the state’s impoverished cities. Vacant Homes in the Cooper Point neighborhood, near the waterfront. Cooper’s Ferry Partnership wanted to buy the L3 building so that it could reinvest the profits in Camden's crumbling neighborhoods. (Hannah Yoon, special to ProPublica) Much of the correspondence about the L3 deal involves John Sheridan, a prominent Republican attorney and the chairman of the Cooper’s Ferry board who, along with his wife, died in a violent incident in late 2014 that remains unsolved.Sheridan held two positions: In addition to being chairman of Cooper’s Ferry, he was the CEO of Cooper University Health Care — where he reported to the chairman, George Norcross. (Cooper University Health Care and Cooper’s Ferry are separate entities.)Throughout 2014, the documents show, Sheridan fielded a series of calls and emails from Cooper’s Ferry’s top leaders recounting their interactions with Philip Norcross as he intervened in the L3 deal.Philip Norcross had no official role with Cooper’s Ferry, but he was chairman of the Cooper Foundation, the fundraising arm of Cooper University Health Care. The hospital system would eventually end up as a tenant and co-owner of the disputed office complex. A spokesperson said he was also involved as a “real estate expert” offering “pro bono” assistance.Seeking to retain a stake in the L3 site, Cooper’s Ferry officials found themselves “trying over and over again to come up with something that will get past Phil,” Sheridan wrote in a memo.The records show that Sheridan kept George Norcross in the loop and consulted with him at critical moments.George and Philip Norcross declined interview requests for this story. A spokesman for the two brothers said their roles at the hospital system and as civic leaders gave them a legitimate business interest in the L3 transaction and the broader development of the Camden waterfront. He said Cooper’s Ferry would have been unable to execute the transaction without long-term rental income from the hospital system.“Cooper’s Ferry was proposing to begin something it had never done — the purchase, redevelopment and management of a large scale property,” said the spokesman, Dan Fee. “And [they] intended to use Cooper University Health Care funds to finance it.” That made the hospital system indispensable, he added.There is no mention of such an integral financing arrangement in public records or other documents reviewed by WNYC and ProPublica, including those provided by representatives of the Norcrosses, though Cooper University Health Care was approached as a possible tenant that could benefit from tax credits.Records show Cooper’s Ferry was in advanced talks with a deep-pocketed developer that did not rely on the hospital system and was prepared to present a preliminary deal to the nonprofit’s board. “We will not be able to replace it with a better deal,” wrote David Foster, the president of Cooper’s Ferry.Fee said neither George nor Philip Norcross profited personally from the L3 transaction. The Norcrosses’ influence has, in fact, reshaped Camden in ways that have benefited them and their associates. The tax break law set off a flurry of interest in city land. In the wake of the L3 deal, George and Philip Norcross and their business partners went on to purchase five properties that were once owned by public entities, totaling nearly a dozen acres along the Delaware River. That’s almost half of the prime waterfront real estate that is part of the city’s redevelopment plan that runs from the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Adventure Aquarium.Fee said the development opportunities attracted hundreds of millions of investment dollars and thousands of jobs to the waterfront. But neighborhood activists and organizers say the benefits flowed to a small number of political insiders and have not met the needs of the community.“It’s just not decent,” said Amir Khan, a prominent Camden activist who has been critical of the Norcrosses. “How much more evidence do we need that the system is stacked against us? How much more public property goes to Norcross and his friends without us seeing a penny?”For Cooper’s Ferry, the first sign of trouble came at a meeting at Camden City Hall.In March of 2014, Anthony Perno, the Cooper’s Ferry CEO, found himself in the same room as Philip Norcross. They were at a weekly session where the mayor and other local leaders discussed development related to the nascent tax break program. That day, Perno wrote in an email to Sheridan, Norcross said he knew of a group that was also interested in the L3 project.As it turned out, the backers were Ira M. Lubert, a Philadelphia real estate investor and onetime business partner of George Norcross, and Howard Needleman, a South Jersey landlord who leased space to Cooper University Health Care. Lubert had already partnered with Norcross to bid unsuccessfully on a bankrupt golf course in Cherry Hill, according to media reports.Neither Lubert nor his representatives responded to phone calls and emails requesting an interview for this story. Needleman, in a brief interview, dismissed questions about his role as part of a “witch hunt,” but he declined to provide any details.“The documents speak for themselves,” he said. “I’m aware of the investigation that is going on, and you should ask the people being investigated.”After the City Hall meeting, Philip Norcross emailed Perno asking for a copy of documents related to the L3 deal. “Please send as soon as possible,” he wrote.Perno wasn’t in the best position to say no.He had already run afoul of George Norcross once, for appearing on the cover of NJBIZ magazine for a feature on the new tax break program — an initiative George and his brother Donald, the lawmaker, had helped pass.George Norcross emailed the story to Sheridan and other associates. “Please read attached. Could his head fit in City Hall?” he wrote about Perno. “Thank God we have him in Camden or otherwise nothing would ever happen.” Norcross then floated the name of a possible replacement. The Sept. 30, 2013, cover of NJBIZ, featuring Anthony Perno. The cover angered George Norcross. Sheridan begged George Norcross not to retaliate against “a loyal soldier that you and Donald can count on in the future.”Now, Philip Norcross wanted a private company, not the nonprofit, to take the lead on the L3 project, according to Cooper’s Ferry emails. It would show that Camden could attract outside investment.Cooper’s Ferry balked at the idea of using Norcross’ hand-picked developer as a private partner who would take over its ownership stake in the building. The nonprofit was lining up financing and potential tenants. National firms like Lockheed Martin had already expressed interest in renting space.Sheridan floated Cooper University Health Care as a potential tenant. In an email, writing as CEO of the hospital system, he asked a Cooper’s Ferry executive to sketch out what such a deal would look like. The proposal showed that the potential tax breaks for moving 400 employees into the complex could cover Cooper University Health Care’s rent for a decade.The Norcross spokesman now points to Sheridan’s involvement in the lease proposal as a conflict of interest, because Sheridan was on both sides of the transaction. It is one of the reasons George and Philip Norcross intervened, Fee said. Nevertheless, documents show hospital executives were excited about leasing the L3 building and told Sheridan to proceed.“The L-3 is the best deal by a long shot,” wrote CFO Doug Shirley in an email to Sheridan. “No other option can touch it.”Fee said Cooper University Health Care was more comfortable working with Needleman, based on past partnerships that went back two decades.Outside counsel, Fee said, informed Sheridan that “he had to remove himself from the discussions” around L3 in the spring of 2014, though it’s unclear when exactly that notification came.But the records show that Sheridan continued to be involved on the Cooper’s Ferry side, and Sheridan’s son disputes the claim of a conflict.“My father’s actions protecting Cooper’s Ferry never once put him in conflict with Cooper Hospital,” said Mark Sheridan, a prominent lawyer who served as counsel to his father during the negotiations. “My father’s only conflict was with those whose bidding he appropriately refused to do.”Meanwhile, Cooper’s Ferry executives struggled to maintain control of the project. They began talks with Lubert and Needleman, who wanted full ownership, but they also reached out to other potential development partners. At the top of their list was Mack-Cali Realty Corporation, which had developed high-profile projects along Jersey City’s booming waterfront. Read More Meet the Congressman Defending Questionable Tax Breaks for a Company Connected to His Rich Brother After multiple issues have surfaced with Holtec International’s New Jersey tax break application, Rep. Donald Norcross, its biggest congressional supporter (and the brother of a Holtec board member) is playing defense. Within weeks, the nonprofit had hammered out a potential deal with Mack-Cali that would have allowed Cooper’s Ferry to keep 50% ownership of the L3 campus. Top executives of Cooper’s Ferry were pleased. “We selected a partner who is far and away the best for the project and for Camden,” they wrote in a memo.But Lubert and Needleman, the Norcross-affiliated developers, weren’t ready to abandon their bid. According to an email by Foster, the president of Cooper’s Ferry, Needleman said he was “looking for the full acquisition” and would take up the matter with Philip Norcross.Within days, Perno and Philip Norcross met in person to discuss the L3 deal. It was a 90-minute session. Afterward, Perno and Foster called Sheridan with bad news: Norcross told him that Cooper’s Ferry executives were “‘persona non grata’ with George and Phil” and Sheridan himself was “co-opted” by Cooper’s Ferry, according to an account of the conversation Sheridan wrote for his files.George Norcross and his politician brother, Donald, had to be the public face of Camden development, Sheridan wrote: “George and Don only.” Sheridan did not elaborate as to why. And if Cooper’s Ferry didn’t “get out of the real estate business,” its top officials, specifically Perno and Foster, would be out of a job, the notes say.Perno and Foster declined comment for this story.In an effort to preserve Cooper’s Ferry’s bid and defend its executives, John Sheridan sought to appease the Norcross brothers. In a draft memo, he wrote that Cooper’s Ferry “respects your leadership and has been trying to demonstrate that in many ways.” Perno, he noted, had referred the Philadelphia 76ers to Philip Norcross; the NBA team became one of Norcross’ marquee clients, winning $82 million in tax breaks to set up shop in Camden.Discussing potential legislation that would create a state park along the Camden waterfront, Sheridan wrote: “It won’t go anywhere until you sign off.”He also outlined why the L3 deal was so important to Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. If the nonprofit owned the site, it would have a consistent revenue source. “If not,” Sheridan wrote in the memo, “CFP will be left to scratch together enough money every year to operate and will likely wither away over time.” It’s unclear if Sheridan ever sent the document to the Norcrosses. But in early May, he met Philip Norcross in person at his law firm, Parker McCay. He wrote down a list of talking points, showing that he planned to argue against firing staff — in particular, Foster, the Cooper’s Ferry president.“I have a duty of loyalty and good faith and I need to act in a way consistent with that responsibility,” Sheridan wrote.It’s also unclear what happened in the meeting. But emails suggest that the L3 complex was slipping from Cooper’s Ferry’s grasp. Two days later, the nonprofit executives linked up with Norcross’ hand-picked developers. Sheridan met with Lubert and later that afternoon joined up with Perno and Foster to meet Needleman; in a memo, Sheridan said they discussed, in part, “George and Phil’s views of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and its leadership, including me.”The next day, the nonprofit leaders appeared to give up the idea of owning L3. They wrote to Lubert and Needleman and asked them to name their terms.The price of the building, $32.5 million, was the same amount that Cooper’s Ferry had agreed upon with the state Economic Development Authority.Under the terms of the final agreement, which closed in December 2014, Needleman and Lubert became majority owners of the property, with a 51% ownership stake. The remaining 49% went to a subsidiary of Cooper University Health Care.By that time, the hospital system had won approval for $40 million in tax breaks after claiming that its employees were at risk of going to a competing site in Pennsylvania. Fee said the hospital system used the tax credits to finance the purchase of its share of the L3 building.A special panel named by Gov. Phil Murphy later reported that Cooper University Health Care misled the state on a separate issue — by claiming it might move the jobs out of New Jersey. The hospital system, which has hired criminal defense attorney Abbe Lowell, has denied any wrongdoing.Cooper’s Ferry Partnership ultimately received a one-time payment of $600,000 for its option to buy the L3 building, which covered costs incurred during two years of work on acquiring the office property.The nonprofit soon went through a shake-up.According to his LinkedIn profile, Foster left Cooper’s Ferry that summer and began working at a real estate development firm in the greater Philadelphia area.Perno saw his influence diminish through a reorganization of the nonprofit; he left last year. According to a plan that Sheridan sent to Philip Norcross, Cooper’s Ferry would bring on new board members to create a closer link between the nonprofit and the hospital system, and limit its work to smaller community projects like parks.Sheridan and his wife of 47 years, Joyce, died in late September 2014 at their home in Montgomery Township, about 6 miles outside Princeton. Firefighters responding to a fire in the master bedroom found the bodies of both Sheridans with stab wounds and other injuries.Somerset County prosecutors initially concluded that Sheridan had killed his wife and then himself. But the state Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled that John Sheridan’s death was not suicide. His death certificate now lists his manner of death as undetermined. In the wake of the L3 deal, George and Philip Norcross and their business partners went on to purchase five properties that were once owned by public entities, totaling nearly a dozen acres along the Delaware River. That’s almost half of the prime waterfront real estate in the city’s redevelopment plan that runs from the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Adventure Aquarium. (David L. Lewis/WNYC) Speaking at a memorial service for the couple, George Norcross remarked how he and Sheridan, as leaders of opposing political parties, appeared as a “very odd couple to many people.”He praised Sheridan’s dedication to Camden and told a moving story about how Sheridan had argued passionately to build Cooper University Health Care’s new cancer center in the city rather than out in the suburbs.“Camden is a different place because of his vision,” Norcross said.Today, Cooper’s Ferry pledges what it calls “inclusive prosperity” that benefits neighborhoods and residents as well as corporations on the waterfront. The CEO is a Norcross ally, and the board of directors includes many businesspeople affiliated with the companies that the Norcross brothers brought to Camden with the help of the tax break program, including Cooper University Health Care.Cooper’s Ferry did not return calls for comment. But Fee said, “It is undeniable that Cooper’s Ferry has continued to grow and take on even larger projects and responsibilities in recent years and has been a key leader of the city’s renaissance.”Some activists, however, dismiss the nonprofit as a tool to enrich political insiders. The group’s website and annual report offer pages of glossy pictures and praise of Donald Norcross and projects owned by George Norcross.“Cooper’s Ferry Partnership is Camden’s shadow government, if you will,” said Thomas Knoche, a community activist, teacher and author of a 2005 book about George Norcross’ political machine in Camden. “It’s hardly democratic. It’s an elite group that brings together corporate and development leaders, and pretty much their agenda is to do what’s going to benefit them.”The L3 complex now has competition for the distinction of being the finest office space in Camden.In the past four years, nearly a dozen office buildings and high-tech manufacturing centers have sprouted along the waterfront, thanks to the $1.6 billion in tax breaks. Like the L3 site, most of the new buildings are linked closely to Norcross and his political empire.“When people ask me, ‘Is Camden’s renaissance real?’” Norcross said in March, speaking at the annual meeting of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, “it’s a resounding yes.’” Alex Mierjeski contributed to this report.This report was produced with support from the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism, City University of New York.ProPublica and WNYC are spending the year investigating the power and influence wielded by party bosses in New Jersey’s political system. If you know something about the state’s controversial tax incentive program, we’d like to hear from you. We’d particularly like to hear from:
Senators Frustrated by Amazon’s “Evasive” Response to Questions on Driver Safety
by Patricia Callahan, ProPublica, and Caroline O’Donovan and Ken Bensinger, BuzzFeed News ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This article is co-published with BuzzFeed News. Amazon has refused a request from three U.S. senators to disclose the names of the companies that deliver millions of packages to homes across the country, providing what one lawmaker called “evasive” responses to questions about the e-commerce giant’s network of delivery contractors.Last month, Senators Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown demanded information from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos after the company’s delivery network was the subject of investigations by BuzzFeed News and ProPublica. Those reports found that Amazon uses contractors to carry out an increasingly large share of its deliveries and that the system has led to worker abuses and jeopardized public safety. When problems arise, Amazon denies responsibility, saying it can’t be held to account for the actions of independent contractors, though the company keeps a tight grip on how the drivers do their jobs. At least 10 people have died in crashes involving Amazon delivery providers, ProPublica found. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Now in a letter responding to those senators, Amazon said that safety is its “top priority” and that it sets “standards that meet and often exceed legal requirements.” Amazon sent the letter late Friday and the senators shared it with BuzzFeed News and ProPublica this week.Saying he was “deeply disappointed by Amazon’s evasive response,” Blumenthal added that it gives him “no confidence that the company is committed to preventing the types of tragedies chronicled by BuzzFeed and ProPublica.”“At a minimum,” Blumenthal said, “Amazon is falling far short of its responsibility to ensure its contractors are following labor laws and regulations.”The letter said Amazon runs background checks on companies that apply to deliver its packages and regularly audits its more than 800 delivery contractors for “compliance with legal and safety requirements.” In declining the request from the senators to reveal the names of those companies, it called that data “competitive, confidential business information.”The company also sidestepped a question from the senators about whether it has attempted to “thwart the creation of a union.” Amazon said only that it “respects its employees’ right, and those of our delivery providers, to choose to join or not join a labor union.” The letter did not address reports that Amazon executives had met with delivery contractors in Chicago in 2017 to advise them on how to prevent organizing, and that it had held a similar meeting with delivery contractors in Canada. The only Amazon delivery provider that successfully organized lost its routes and ceased operating in that state soon thereafter, the BuzzFeed News report found.The U.S. Department of Labor has uncovered numerous employee abuses at firms delivering for Amazon, including shorting worker pay and failing to pay overtime. In its letter, Amazon said it requires its delivery contractors to offer a host of benefits and “provide their employees with competitive wages of at least $15 an hour.”Yet a review of online job listings on Wednesday turned up at least two Amazon delivery contractors — one of which has contracts with the e-commerce firm in more than a dozen states — seeking to pay drivers $14 an hour in some areas. Seven others advertised delivery jobs with wage ranges starting as low as $13 an hour, although some of those job postings said they could go as high as $16 an hour. View note Amazon, which also relies on UPS and the U.S. Postal Service to deliver packages, began creating its own delivery network in 2014 and has since contracted with hundreds of firms — many of them operating unmarked white vans — to carry boxes and envelopes to their final destination.As BuzzFeed News reported last month, some of those contractors have extensive histories of financial disarray, serious crashes and labor law violations. Although Amazon said in its letter that it “terminates contracts” with firms that have repeated labor violations, federal records show several companies still under contract that have been sanctioned multiple times by the Labor Department.In the letter to the senators, Amazon appears to ignore the existence of such contractors, referring only to the latest iteration of its delivery network, rolled out just last year and featuring dark gray or blue Amazon-branded vans.Amazon notes that drivers for its delivery firms receive four days of safety training before being put on the road, but it is unclear when Amazon began providing that training, and it is substantially less than what UPS provides its drivers. At least one of the new generation of Amazon firms, based in Southern California, has already been sued by a driver who claimed she was denied mandatory meal and rest periods and sick leave, and was not paid correctly, court records show.“Amazon’s response gives me no confidence that the company is going to take full responsibility for the delivery of its packages and make sure all contracted companies are complying with labor law,” Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said in a statement. “Amazon must make the safety and the working conditions of all of its delivery drivers a top priority. I will continue to pressure them until they do so.”A spokeswoman for Warren, a Democrat representing Massachusetts and a candidate for president, said that “Amazon should be focused on getting to the bottom of these troubling reports and learning how it can do better by its third-party contract workers, not on trying to lobby Congress to look the other way.” Read More How Amazon Hooked America On Fast Delivery While Avoiding Responsibility for Crashes Our investigation found Amazon escapes responsibility for its role in deaths and serious injuries even though the company keeps a tight grip on how third-party delivery drivers do their jobs. Amazon would not provide additional comment beyond the contents of the letter.It did, however, invite the three senators to “tour any of our facilities” in order to “see first-hand how we are committed to safe operations for our customers, employees, and third party delivery partners across our network.”Blumenthal did not seem inclined to take the company up on its offer.“If Amazon were committed to proving its safety record, it would throw open its books and invite real scrutiny into its relationships with third-party delivery companies,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “Amazon’s time would be better spent working to provide specific answers to the questions we asked and addressing the troubling issues we raised.”Here’s the full text of Amazon’s letter. Do you have access to information about Amazon that should be public? Email any of the reporters: patricia.callahan@propublica.org; caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com; or ken.bensinger@buzzfeed.com. 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“It’s Very Unethical”: Audio Shows Hospital Kept Vegetative Patient on Life Support to Boost Survival Rates
by Caroline Chen ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This story was co-published with NJ Advance Media and WNYC. On a Thursday morning this past April, 61-year-old Darryl Young was lying unconscious in the eighth-floor intensive care unit of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. After suffering from congestive heart failure for years, Young, a Navy veteran and former truck driver with three children, had received a heart transplant on Sept. 21, 2018. He didn’t wake up after the operation and had been in a vegetative state ever since.Machines whirred in his room, pumping air into his lungs. Nutrients and fluids dripped from a tube into his stomach. Young had always been fastidious, but now his hair and toenails had grown long. A nurse suctioned mucus from his throat several times a day to keep him from choking, according to employees familiar with his care. His medical record would note: “He follows no commands. He looks very encephalopathic” — brain damaged. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. That day, in another wing of the hospital, where a group of surgeons, cardiologists, transplant coordinators, nurses and social workers gathered for their weekly meeting in a second-floor conference room, his name came up.“Anything on Darryl Young?” asked cardiologist Dr. Darko Vucicevic, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by ProPublica.“Need to keep him alive till June 30 at a minimum,” responded Dr. Mark Zucker, director of the hospital’s heart and lung transplant programs.Since the transplant, Young had suffered from pneumonia, strokes, seizures and a fungal infection. The Newark transplant team believed that he would never wake up or recover function, according to current and former staff members familiar with his case, as well as audio recordings. Yet they wanted to do all they could to keep his new heart beating. [Hear the exchange between Vucicevic and Zucker.] The recordings show that the transplant team was fixated on keeping him alive, rather than his quality of life or his family’s wishes, because of worries about the transplant program’s survival rate, the proportion of people undergoing transplants who are still alive a year after their operations. Federal regulators rely on this statistic to evaluate — and sometimes penalize — transplant programs, giving hospitals across the country a reputational and financial incentive to game it. Newark Beth Israel’s one-year survival rate for heart transplants had dipped, and if Young were to die too soon, the program’s standing and even its own survival might be in jeopardy.June 30, Zucker explained at the meeting, was the date of the next report by a federally funded organization that tracks transplant survival rates. “If he’s not dead in this report, even if he’s dead in the next report, it becomes an issue that moves out six more months,” he said in the recording.Zucker cautioned the staff against offering Young’s family the option of switching from aggressive treatment to palliative care, which focuses on comfort, until September, which would mark one year since his transplant. “This is very disingenuous, right? It’s very unethical.”Dr. Martin Strueber, a transplant surgeon who has since left the hospital, then expressed hope that the transplant team could “move the program forward ... to a status that we never ever have this discussion again,” or even have to “think about this ethical dilemma of keeping somebody alive for the sake of the program.”Dr. Navin Rajagopalan, the heart program’s medical director, wanted to make sure the family hadn’t already requested palliative treatment. “They've not asked...for us to withdraw care?” he asked. “I’m playing devil’s advocate” he went on. “It’s not as if they’re asking for this and we’re saying no, we cannot do this.”Zucker replied, “We haven’t refused anything they’ve asked.” He added, “We just haven’t raised withdrawing it.”In the ensuing months, the doctors continued to leave Young’s family in the dark, according to his sister Andrea and employees familiar with Young’s care. They didn’t want to run any risk that the people who loved him would interfere with their agenda: boosting the program’s numbers. “I’m not sure that this is ethical, moral or right,” Zucker told the team at the April meeting, but it’s “for the global good of the future transplant recipients.”In 2007, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which tracks outcomes of all organ transplants, set quality standards after a number of high profile mishaps at other hospitals, including a teenage girl receiving a heart and lung with the wrong blood type. Under those rules, the one-year survival rate has been “the magic number,” according to Laura Aguiar, principal of consulting firm Transplant Solutions.If a program’s survival rate fell too far under its expected rate, which was calculated by a CMS algorithm, the agency could launch an audit. If the audit uncovered serious problems, CMS could pull a program’s Medicare certification, meaning that the federal health care insurer would stop reimbursing for transplants. This penalty can be “devastating,” Aguiar said, because many commercial insurers and some state Medicaid plans only pay for procedures at Medicare-approved programs. Hospitals charge about $1.4 million for a heart transplant, consulting firm Milliman reported in 2017.In the past decade, more than 20 transplant programs lost Medicare funding after CMS found deficiencies; most shut down, according to the agency. An additional 40 reached a Systems Improvement Agreement with CMS, allowing them to continue receiving federal funding while getting back into compliance with the agency’s requirements. In 2008, Johns Hopkins’ liver transplant program entered into such an agreement with CMS because of lower-than-expected performance outcomes. More recently, CMS cut off funding to Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center’s heart transplant program, following an investigation by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle revealing a high rate of patient deaths. The hospital initially appealed but then opted instead to reapply at a later date.To bolster their survival rates, some transplant centers have turned down patients who were considered too sick or rejected organs that were deemed imperfect. Critics have said that this conservative approach can deprive patients of the chance to receive lifesaving treatment and waste potentially usable organs at a time when the demand for them far outpaces the supply. A photo of Darryl Young just before his heart-transplant surgery at Newark Beth Israel hospital on Sept. 21, 2018. (Demetrius Freeman for ProPublica) Newark Beth Israel shows another facet of how transplant providers can game the system, a ProPublica investigation found. Worried that the transplant program’s existence was threatened by a downturn in its survival rate, doctors appeared to tailor medical decisions to the metrics for at least four patients, and they sometimes didn’t consult adequately with patients and family members.This story is based on medical records, emails and text messages, and interviews with family members as well as eight current and former staff at Newark Beth Israel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their jobs or future employment in the field. The recordings were corroborated by staff members who were present during those discussions and verified the identities of the speakers.Newark Beth Israel said in a statement that, in response to the concerns raised by ProPublica, it is “conducting an evaluation and review of the program, its processes and its leadership.” In an apparent reference to the recordings, it said that “disclosures of select portions of lengthy and highly complex medical discussions, when taken out of context, may distort the intent of conversations.” The hospital also said that its transplant program “has saved countless lives” and consistently met or exceeded all regulatory guidelines to maintain funding and certification, including providing one-year survival rates.The hospital didn’t respond to questions about Young, even though his family signed a release allowing Newark Beth Israel to discuss details of his care. A spokeswoman said its statement was made on behalf of Zucker and other transplant team members, as well as hospital administrators. Strueber declined comment separately, saying he “was not directly involved in the care of Mr. Darryl Young nor in the interactions with his family.”The hospital also emphasized its commitment to being transparent with patients and their families. “Our patients are our utmost priority and communication with our patients and their families is paramount in enabling our team to provide the best and most comprehensive care,” it said.In Darryl Young’s case, though, the staff’s reluctance to discuss treatment options with his family appears to run counter to the American Medical Association’s code of ethics, which encourages physicians to communicate “routinely” with patients about their care goals. When a patient is not able to communicate, the physician “has an ethical responsibility to candidly and compassionately discuss these issues with the patient’s authorized surrogate and document the surrogate’s decision in the medical record.” Withdrawing life-sustaining treatment is ethically acceptable, the AMA adds. “When an intervention no longer helps to achieve the patient’s goals for care or desired quality of life, it is ethically appropriate for physicians to withdraw it.”After listening to the recordings, Young’s daughter, Taccara Beale, was furious. “How dare you take it upon yourself to withhold such information from any family?” Beale said. “They took a decision away from us.”Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine, reviewed transcripts of the recordings, including discussions about Young. “The management of this patient is egregiously unethical,” he said. “Prolonging ‘dying’ to preserve a flawed transplant program makes a mockery of transplant medicine and is an assault on both ethics and compassion.”Founded in 1901, Newark Beth Israel has 665 beds and prides itself on its heart and lung transplant program. RWJBarnabas Health, a hospital network with which Newark Beth Israel is affiliated, counts it among “the best heart transplant hospitals that patients can trust.” A large banner on the hospital’s brown brick facade proclaims, “1,000 hearts transplanted. Countless lives touched.” One of the top 20 programs in the country by volume, it has performed 1,090 heart transplants to date, according to the hospital.Another banner declares that Newark Beth Israel has New Jersey’s only lung transplant program. The hospital transplants far fewer lungs than hearts; 16 lungs in 2017 and 15 in 2018, compared with 49 hearts in 2017 and 38 in 2018. The lung program shut down temporarily in 2013 because of a lack of staff. For most of 2019, it has had only one lung surgeon.Zucker has been the director of the heart transplant program for 30 years. His team currently includes five cardiologists and a surgeon, according to the hospital’s website, plus nurses, transplant coordinators, social workers, dieticians and a pharmacist. Dr. Margarita Camacho, the surgeon who performs the vast majority of heart transplants, including Young’s, has been at the hospital since 2005. She’s well known for her practice of retrieving donor hearts in person: traveling to the donor’s hospital, inspecting the heart and bringing it back for surgery. A donated organ should be used within four to six hours of removal, so once a heart becomes available, it needs to be flown to the recipient’s hospital and rushed to the operating room. In a 2013 video posted online by Newark Beth Israel, Camacho boards a plane and says, “I’m very well suited for this job, because I love it, I really do love what I do — I’m very fortunate, but I also can survive on cat naps.” A heart transplant is a complex and difficult operation. Surgery can last eight hours. Afterward, patients must take medication for the rest of their lives in order to prevent their immune system from rejecting the new heart.Nonetheless, most transplants are successful, at least by the government’s one-year metric. The national probability of surviving for a year for heart patients transplanted between January 2016 through June 2018 was 91.5%, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to track and analyze transplant outcomes. (SRTR publishes the semiannual reports that Zucker referred to when he said that Young needed to be kept alive until at least June 30.)From 2008 through 2017, Newark Beth Israel’s annual one-year survival rate for patients receiving a heart transplant has never dipped below 85.7%, rising as high as 96.9% in 2012, according to SRTR. But its performance declined in 2018 for reasons that remain unclear. Of 38 patients who received a heart transplant, six have already died within a year of their surgery, according to current and former staff. The causes ranged from complications after severe oxygen deprivation to the brain to a parasitic infection.The six deaths translated into an 84.2% survival rate. If Young were to be the seventh, the rate would slip further, to 81.6%, well below the national average — and unlikely, the transplant team worried, to escape the federal government’s attention.For nearly a year now, Andrea Young has commuted an hour each way from Trenton every week to sit by her older brother’s bedside, holding his hand and praying for his recovery. She is also Darryl’s health care proxy; he had designated her to make decisions about his treatment, in the event that he was unable to do so himself.Andrea, who is 59, retired at 55 from a decadeslong position as an analyst at the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. She and Darryl had always been close. He joined the Navy at the age of 18 and served four years on the USS Kitty Hawk, naval records show. After spending time on opposite coasts, both siblings returned to New Jersey, where their mother’s family lived, to settle down. They both loved keeping up with the news, sometimes calling each other as late as 11 p.m. to discuss a breaking story on cable TV.“We talked every day,” she said. “We’d call sometimes two times, even four times in a day. Now I feel a big void.” Andrea Young, Darryl’s sister and health proxy, misses her brother. “I feel a big void.” (Demetrius Freeman for ProPublica) After a heart attack, Young received a mechanical pump, known as a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, in 2014, according to his sister and medical records. The implanted device is often used as a bridge to transplant, helping to keep a patient’s heart going while waiting for an organ match. The LVAD comes with a control unit, and batteries are worn in a holster. Showers are awkward because the equipment must stay dry.Young was always impeccably dressed, wearing a suit to medical appointments. He spent so much time chatting with the nursing staff that the meetings would often run over, according to employees. He never complained, his sister said. He loved life and was hopeful that a heart transplant would help him continue to enjoy it.After about three years on the waitlist, Young received a call from Newark Beth Israel late at night on Sept. 20, 2018, Andrea recalled. A heart was available. He was told to arrive at the hospital as soon as possible and went into surgery the following day. At Newark Beth Israel, surgery candidates aren’t required to spell out their wishes for care in the event of being incapacitated, and Young didn’t.Initially, his family was told that the operation had gone well, and there was no reason to worry, his sister said. A few days after the transplant, Andrea Young spoke with Camacho on the phone and asked why her brother hadn’t woken up yet. Camacho reassured her, saying she’d seen many patients in similar situations make “a full recovery,” Andrea recalled.As days turned into weeks, she became increasingly concerned. “I didn’t have a good feeling,” she said. “None of the doctors were very forthcoming. I felt like they were hiding something.”About three weeks after the surgery, Andrea Young said, she requested a meeting with her brother’s medical team. But first, she went to her local library and checked out some neurology textbooks. Although her hands were full with two children she had adopted — brothers who were 5 and 6 years old — she made time to pore over the textbooks, trying to prepare so she could ask the correct questions. “I studied them for six hours, trying to understand,” she said.At the meeting, she asked if the surgeon had seen any sign that her brother’s brain was deprived of oxygen during the surgery. Camacho said no, Young recalled. It was another cardiologist, whose name Andrea can’t recall, who told her around this time that Young’s MRI showed brain damage.“I asked, Which part of the brain? And he said, ‘Every part, but just a very small part of each section,’ and that gave me hope. Now I know it was false hope.”Typically, if a patient suffers brain damage in an operation and doesn’t wake up, doctors are supposed to meet with the family to explain the prognosis and options for care. “You’d explain in a direct and empathetic way that it’s not likely that this person will recover in a clinically meaningful way and then the question you’d hone in on is, ‘If your loved one were awake to hear this, what would he or she want?’” said Dr. Ali Zarrabi, assistant professor of medicine and palliative care physician at Emory University School of Medicine. The options presented would range from hospice care — which typically entails removing machine support, such as a ventilator, and not administering antibiotics for an infection — to a do not resuscitate order in case of cardiac arrest, to life-sustaining therapy. But even though a few staff members suggested that the team schedule a meeting for Young’s family to discuss options for his care, including hospice, the medical staff didn’t have this conversation with Young’s family, according to Andrea and employees familiar with his care.Doctors also didn’t inform Andrea when her brother contracted C. auris, a dangerous fungal infection that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is a “serious global health threat” because it is difficult to identify and is often resistant to multiple drugs.According to text messages reviewed by ProPublica, Darryl Young had been treated for the infection at least once by early March. But Andrea said she only learned about it when a social worker mentioned it to her in late May. She searched on Google for information about the fungus.“I had to ask for every meeting,” Andrea said. “I had to dig and dig and dig. I was on my own trying to do the technical research.”Several nurses as well as a social worker were remarkably compassionate and caring toward her brother, Andrea said. Still, she struggled to get basic cosmetic care for him, she said. It grieved her to see his physical appearance neglected, with his toenails overgrown. She said she requested that the medical staff trim his nails, but it took four months before someone finally tended to them. After listening to recordings of Newark Beth Israel’s staff discussing Darryl Young’s case, his daughter, Taccara Beale, was furious. “How dare you take it upon yourself to withhold such information from any family?” she said. (Demetrius Freeman for ProPublica) Leaders of the transplant program saw no alternative to keeping Young alive, employees said. Camacho, the heart surgeon, has more than once told staff that Young needs to “take one for the team,” according to two people with direct knowledge of these remarks.At a meeting in May, Zucker articulated the trade-off. “This is a very, very unethical, immoral but unfortunately very practical solution, because the reality here is that you haven’t saved anybody if your program gets shut down,” he said, according to an audio recording obtained by ProPublica. Young “unfortunately became the seventh potential death in a very bad year, all right, and that puts us into a very difficult spot,” Zucker said.If Young died too soon, he continued, CMS might force the program to enter a Systems Improvement Agreement. “You haven’t saved anybody if you spend $2 million in an SIA trying to defend your program, bringing outside reviewers in for two years to supervise every single transplant you do.”According to Aguiar, the transplant consultant, $2 million is actually a low estimate of what an SIA would cost a hospital. “Usually transplants are the treatment of last resort, and you have patients referred as they’re approaching end-stage organ failure, so if there’s no more transplant program there, referrals can dry up,” causing a hospital to lose business beyond the direct expense of an SIA, she said.For several months, administrators at a weekly hospital-wide meeting known as the “Bed Board” kept asking the transplant team why Young was occupying a hospital bed, rather than being sent to a long-term care facility, according to the recordings. Hospitals typically prefer short stays because they need beds for other patients and can start losing compensation if insurance runs out or the insurer thinks the patient should be released or transferred. Care in an ICU unit typically costs more than $3,000 a day, according to a 2005 study of U.S. hospitals’ billing data, and about $1,000 more when the patient is on a ventilator. (Young is supported by a ventilator overnight.) He is covered by Medicare and Medicaid, but Newark Beth Israel doesn’t bill insurers until a patient is discharged. So, for the time being, the hospital was absorbing the cost of Young’s stay.As the hospital’s chief operating officer, Douglas Zehner ran the “Bed Board” meetings. At a July transplant team meeting, Zucker said that Zehner approved the plan to keep Young in the hospital, according to an audio recording obtained by ProPublica.Zucker said Zehner called him one night and said, “We, as an administration, have made a decision ... to house this man indefinitely so that he doesn’t become a mortality,” according to the recording. Zehner was promoted July 30 to regional chief financial officer for RWJBarnabas Health.No matter how much treatment Young received, his prospects for long-term survival in a vegetative state were dim. Patients like him can be sustained by ventilators and feeding tubes but are likely to die within a couple of years, said Dr. Randi Huo, a palliative care physician at the Everett Clinic in Everett, Washington.“You’re looking at recurrent infection — he’s fed through a tube, he could get bed sores, he has an opening in his throat, which means he’s at risk of pneumonia,” she said. “Eventually, organisms will become resistant enough that nothing works. Then he would become septic and die.”Even if Young isn’t in pain or distress, Huo said, his loved ones should decide the course of his care. “If the care he’s receiving is not appropriate to the life he wants to live — if medicine is not serving him, then why are [they] doing this?”The one-year survival rate has dictated Newark Beth Israel’s treatment of other patients besides Young, according to employees and the recordings.“A lot of you weren’t here for our first lung transplant when we reopened, after we reopened the program. The first lung transplant stayed at the hospital until day 366, was sent out to rehab and died that day,” Camacho said at the May meeting, according to a recording obtained by ProPublica.The month before, Zucker had a similar recollection:“We did the same thing once with a lung transplant patient and this was just critical, remember? Keep that lady alive?”It isn’t clear if Camacho and Zucker were talking about the same patient. One former employee recalled a lung transplant patient who stayed for exactly a year. “It was done on purpose and they wouldn’t let her be discharged out,” the ex-employee said.Even for transplant patients whose conditions were not as critical as Young’s, the one-year date has been a consideration. Yosry Awad went to Newark Beth Israel on May 13 for a routine biopsy of his new heart, according to a medical record. His one-year anniversary was coming up in two weeks, on May 27.During his hospital visit, the checkup revealed that a measure of the pressure of the blood in the heart, called filling pressure, was high, according to staff familiar with his care. The medical team decided to admit Awad and treat him with diuretics, which can help reduce blood pressure.Awad had suffered multiple serious complications after his transplant surgery the previous year, including a cardiac arrest that required his heart to be temporarily supported by a machine that performs the functions of the heart and lungs, according to medical records. Given his history of complications, Newark’s staff was anxious to make sure he would reach his one-year date, according to three people familiar with Awad’s case. [Hear the exchange between Camacho and Zucker.] A week and a half later, Awad was still at Newark Beth Israel. By that point, there was no medical reason requiring that he stay in the hospital, according to the three people. But the medical team delayed his discharge.A medical record viewed by ProPublica stated that Awad “remains in very good spirits and is hopeful to go home prior to the holiday weekend. Per the medical team he will remain hospitalized through 5/27 to hit his one year anniversary.”After the weekend, the transplant team joked about Awad. “Well today is his one year, so congratulations!” said cardiologist Vucicevic. “Discharge!” chimed in medical director Rajagopalan, according to an audio recording and employees who witnessed the conversation.In an interview at his home, Awad acknowledged that he had wanted to go home in May and spend Memorial Day weekend with his family. As far as he knew, he said, the hospital kept him because of his blood pressure problems. He added that he is grateful for the heart he received at Beth Israel. “I know I’m lucky,” he said.“We are not doctors or nurses, how would we know” whether his stay was justified, asked his sister and caregiver, Nagwa Helmy, who said she was satisfied with the hospital’s care of her brother. Although Awad signed a release allowing the hospital to discuss his care, it did not respond to questions about him.Another patient, who received both a heart and kidney transplant, similarly had a hospital stay extended until his one-year anniversary, according to two staff members familiar with his care. The patient’s family did not respond to requests for comment. Medical records reviewed by ProPublica show he was admitted at the end of last January with abdominal pain. About three weeks before the anniversary, Zucker instructed staff to “keep him alive,” one employee recalled. When he reached the milestone on a Thursday in late March, the record noted, “1 year anniversary.”He was discharged the following Monday.It wasn’t until late July, 10 months after Young’s surgery, that anyone at Newark Beth Israel consulted his sister about his future care.Andrea Young recalled that she was leaving the hospital, already late to pick up her sons from school, when cardiologist Dr. Laurie Letarte asked her permission to do a procedure to see if the fungal infection had spread to Darryl Young’s heart.Letarte asked “what I would like to have done for my brother with respect to his treatment,” Young recalled. Letarte, though, didn’t go into detail about her brother’s prognosis or options such as a do not resuscitate order.Taken aback, Andrea said she responded, “I’m not making any absolute decisions.” She said she asked Letarte to continue standard care for her brother for now. Nobody from the hospital followed up on the 10-minute conversation, Andrea said.A few weeks later, sitting in her living room while her two boys zoomed up and down the stairs, bouncing onto the couch for a hug then running off to grab toys, Andrea mused about her desires for Darryl. Family photos of Darryl Young. (Demetrius Freeman for ProPublica) Wrestling with the pressure of making the correct decisions for her brother, she said she wasn’t sure about hospice care, if it meant removing Young’s ventilator. “I’m not ready to make that kind of decision,” she said, adding that other family members might want to visit him first.But she was contemplating a DNR order. “Why resuscitate someone who loved life so much?” she wondered.After listening to the audio recordings of the transplant team’s meetings, she shook her head. “I know that what happened could’ve not been intentional, but at the very least, they could be honest,” she said. “People should be able to make informed decisions for themselves and their loved one.”She wondered if her brother could possibly be brought home to his own apartment someday.“I want him to have the wind in his hair and the sun on his face,” she said. “I want him to be as comfortable as he can.”On a Tuesday at the end of August, I accompanied Andrea on her weekly visit to her brother. On the eighth floor, we had to stop outside his room to put on gowns and gloves — precautions against an infection that could kill him.Darryl Young’s eyes were open, drifting over the ceiling. They did not connect with Andrea as she leaned over the bed, greeting him.“Hi Darryl, how are you today?”Young’s corner room overlooked the street. It was bare of any personal effects — no photographs or cards to give a clue about the man who had been in the hospital for nearly a year. Instead, he was surrounded by machines. On the right of the bed was a monitor to track his vital signs. On the left was the ventilator used at night to help him breathe, and hanging near him, a bottle of nutrients and a bag of liquid for hydration. Every inhalation was accompanied by a gurgling noise, perhaps caused by mucus in his tracheostomy tube. The only other sound in the room came from the TV over the bed, set on CNN, which was warning of a hurricane approaching Puerto Rico.Young asked a passing nurse if the doctors were around, and she was told that Zucker and Letarte weren’t on the floor. She asked if anyone could tell her how her brother’s most recent procedure had gone. The hospital staff had told her that they would drain his lungs because he had a bout of pneumonia, and she had asked if someone could call her afterward and update her, but nobody had. The nurse said he didn’t know.Young turned back to her brother. She pulled up a song on her phone: “Lean on Me,” which had been their mother’s favorite tune.She held her phone close to his ear so he could hear the lyrics: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on....”With her other hand, she stroked his face and arm.“It’s OK,” she murmured. “You can close your eyes if you’re tired, you can sleep.”Around that time, Andrea Young sat down and wrote a short statement, expressing her feelings about her brother’s treatment. “These revelations are deeply disturbing,” she wrote. “I will be forever grateful to those who had the courage to come forward, possibly putting themselves at risk, to expose this hospital’s wrongdoing. It is my hope that the appropriate action will be taken against the hospital as well as the doctors involved for such a betrayal of trust and for inflicting such pain upon me, my family, and many other families as well.”As part of the Trump administration’s deregulatory push, it is relaxing performance requirements for transplant programs. Under a rule that was finalized last month and will take effect in November, transplant programs won’t have to submit data on outcomes to CMS to receive Medicare reimbursement. However, SRTR will continue to report one-year survival rates, and CMS says it will still monitor quality of care and investigate complaints.Three days before the anniversary of Young’s transplant, Andrea Young was met at the hospital by a cardiologist and a social worker. They told her that Darryl was now stable enough to consider a move to a long-term care facility. The social worker offered to start looking up facilities. Andrea Young asked why, after all this time, they were planning to transfer him. She didn’t get a clear response, she said.On Sept. 21, one year after his operation, Darryl Young was still alive, and still at Newark Beth Israel. After so long in a vegetative state, the chances of a patient regaining the ability to communicate are “grim to none,” said Dr. Joseph Safdieh, associate professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine. But for the hospital, Young now counted as a victory. Audio editing by Lucas Waldron. Lylla Younes and Alex Mierjeski contributed reporting and research to this article.Update, Oct. 4, 2019: The New Jersey Department of Health, which is responsible for inspections of transplant programs on behalf of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Friday that it is gathering information and reviewing the allegations against the hospital. Meanwhile, Newark Beth Israel said it has hired a transplant consulting firm to conduct its review. It said the firm would have "complete independence and support."
They’re Retired. They’re Insured. The Government Pays for It. And Trump Loves It.
by Akilah Johnson ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. THE VILLAGES, Fla. — It was happy hour on a typical Thursday, and Debi Hahn was twisting and shouting with the rest of the M-T Heads (pronounced: empty heads) at a bar on the main town square. Today, her right hand was wrapped in a purple bandage matching her colorful top.She and a friend were talking about surgeries, cancer and rising treatment costs, even in a community with a health care model seen as an innovative — and frugal — alternative to traditional Medicare. “I have a lot of squamous cells,” the 67-year-old confided, detailing her string of past, present and future skin cancer treatments and her $95-a-month cost for an experimental chemotherapy cream.“Cocktails make it better,” said her friend, whose hand was bandaged too.Welcome to The Villages, one of America’s largest retirement communities, a sprawling Central Florida haven that bills itself as “Florida’s friendliest hometown” and has a vision to become “America’s healthiest.”This is not a place where seniors idly watch the world go by. Instead, think Fort Lauderdale spring break circa 1985, except all the revelers are over 55. It’s a place where friends meet in bars to dance, drink and maybe puff medical marijuana vape pens and celebrate softball outcomes with cans of cold Bud Light. M-T Heads (pronounced: empty heads), followers of The Villages’ group Music With Mike & Terrie, dance and drink at Amerikanós Grille in The Villages. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) It is a community of 115,000 residents that decided to make medical care a golf-cart ride away in 2013 by creating its own health system, paid for by Medicare but managed by the Minnesota-based health insurance giant UnitedHealthcare. The company is a leader in a movement intended to give patients more choice, while offering insurers a big share of federal Medicare dollars.Now, as President Donald Trump campaigns for reelection while fighting an impeachment effort in Washington, it is the place he’ll visit on Thursday to trumpet this privately run alternative as a model of what Medicare should look like. Under Medicare Advantage, the federal government still foots the bill, but it is a starkly different model than the universal, Medicare-for-all plans some Democratic presidential candidates are pushing.Medicare Advantage has come under scrutiny recently from everyone from health care advocates to the U.S. Department of Justice. Insurers in the program have been criticized for cherry-picking customers by moving into the healthiest communities that offer the best chance of profit and for overbilling the government for unjustified services. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Advantage plans were initially billed as a way to contain costs, but it’s unclear if that actually happened. Some studies found the average annual costs were about the same between the two programs, while others have said Medicare Advantage is actually more expensive.The Villages, experts say, is exactly the kind of well-to-do, relatively healthy community that Medicare Advantage insurers have focused on — and it’s where Trump will sell his approach before an invitation-only crowd.Billed as an official White House visit, the president can expect a supportive political audience in a pocket of Florida an hour northwest of Orlando where seniors like Hahn praise Trump for his efforts to, as she puts it, “straighten this country out.”“I love Donald Trump,” Hahn said. “I wouldn’t care if we had Trumps from now until eternity.”Hahn’s enthusiasm is mainstream in The Villages, with its mostly white, middle-class, Republican residents set amid pastureland and billboards selling semi-automatic rifles. It has a 2,000-member Villagers for Trump club. Debi Hahn in her home. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) “President Trump is doing a phenomenal job,” 68-year-old Dr. Rosalind Gamba, a naturopathic medical doctor, said just before The Villages Republican Club meeting began last month. She and her husband waited to marry until he was eligible for Medicare because his insurance costs were too expensive. Now, they are both covered by The Villages’ privately run Medicare Advantage plan.“Like Trump says, we should be taking care of our own first,” Gamba said. “We shouldn’t keep paying for people who don’t belong here.”Trump was supposed to visit The Villages in August, but he had to reschedule after back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.While there is a growing number of independent voters here like Randy Fritts, who says, “I don’t discuss religion or politics with my friends because I still want them to be my friends,” The Villages is a GOP stronghold in a critical swing state that Trump needs to carry.“There’s a lot of old folks, and there are a lot of his supporters in the three counties that make up The Villages,” Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties. “That’s why he’s going there.”More importantly, Smith said, these supporters show up at the polls. In 2016, he said, at least 8 out of 10 Republicans voted in Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, with turnout in Sumter at 87.5%.“That’s insane,” he said. “There aren’t any Republicans who are anti-Trump in Sumter County.” Top: Campaign buttons at a meeting of The Villages Republican Club. Bottom: Members of the club wait for the meeting to start. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) The county has one of the highest population growth rates in the state, which demographers and political science experts say is largely thanks to retirees from the Midwest and Northeast flocking to The Villages, with its 50 golf courses and 100 pickleball courts.“They find that people there think a lot like they do on social and political issues, particularly a preponderance of people who favor limited government in all its forms,” said the late David Colburn, history professor and provost emeritus at the University of Florida. (ProPublica interviewed Colburn a week before his death.)But, he said, political loyalty could wane should a candidate proposed an initiative that undermined or reduced Medicare benefits.“These folks down there are not wealthy,” he said. “They’ve done pretty well in life, but they are not like people who live in really plush retirement communities in Florida. So they would be significantly disadvantaged if Medicare should be modified in a way that provides less coverage.”Like traditional Medicare, Medicare Advantage is part of the current federal health insurance program for most adults over 65 and young people who meet federal disability requirements. The idea of allowing private insurers to offer Medicare benefits has been around since the 1970s but wasn’t christened with the name until 2003. Many Advantage plans bring together the various parts of Medicare — hospital care and doctor visits, prescription drug coverage — into a single package that usually offers additional benefits such as dental and vision coverage. They differ in how the government pays for those benefits, paying by the service in traditional Medicare versus giving insurance companies a lump sum per person annually with Medicare Advantage. Another difference is that beneficiaries are restricted to a defined network of providers like an HMO or preferred provider organization.Today, more than one third of all Medicare beneficiaries, or about 22 million people, opt for privately managed health care plans, a dramatic increase from 5.3 million at the advent of the program in 2003.The growth is fueled, in part, by sophisticated lobbying campaigns organized by the insurance industry. For example, major insurance companies quietly funded a coalition of more than a quarter-million seniors who support the program, according to The Associated Press.“Medicare Advantage has been able to grow because insurers see this as a profitable marketplace,” said Tricia Neuman, senior vice president and director of Medicare policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “They are making money.”Medicare paid private insurers about $210 billion in 2017. Insurance companies, Neuman said, need to sell their products to a large community to make money.Like The Villages.“There’s an abundance of Medicare-qualified people for a particular area,” Shanna Kurpe, director of marketing and sales at The Villages Health, said about The Villages. “It’s denser than in most populations.” Top: Houses in one of The Villages’ original neighborhoods. Bottom: A map of The Villages. Demographers and political scientists say Sumter County’s population growth is largely thanks to retirees from the Midwest and Northeast flocking to the community. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) The Villages Health Medicare Advantage plan was created about six and a half years ago when the retirement community decided to expand.In a customer satisfaction survey, residents were asked where they went for health care, and the response was someplace besides The Villages, she said. The Villages planned to build a second hospital in response to the survey until, Kurpe said, a friend asked the late CEO of The Villages Gary Morse, “If your mission is to make The Villages America’s healthiest town, why would you build another building dedicated to sick people?”His solution was to create The Villages Health, a neighborhood, primary-care-based health system, and two Medicare Advantage Plans, an HMO and PPO run by UnitedHealthcare. The goal was to ensure residents could access convenient health care facilities at a lower cost.The Villages Health had 75 employees when it began. Today, there are more than 500, including more than 60 board-certified physicians, working in 15 specialities at eight health centers caring for 46,000 patients, mostly residents or employees and their families. Doctors see half as many patients, about 1,250, as those who serve traditional Medicare, and each visit save for the first lasts 30 minutes, The Villages Health officials said. That first visit? It’s 60 minutes.As of last month, federal data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services showed 33,889 people were enrolled in UnitedHealthcare’s The Villages MedicareComplete plans, up from 7,561 in 2014 when the program began.The 2020 estimated annual costs for The Villages Medicare Advantage plans are $3,786 to $4,638. Meanwhile, the estimated annual costs for traditional Medicare with added drug coverage and a supplemental plan are $2,690 to $6,503. Part of the reason costs are so high for Medicare with a supplemental plan is that some supplemental plans cover most — if not all — out of pocket costs.“Our care model is set up to be primary care driven,” Kurpe said, adding that it is “designed to serve Medicare Advantage enrollees. We’re incentivized to keep you healthy. We’re not compensated enough if you go into the hospital.”And The Villages Health is growing.Construction is underway on the Advanced Center for Healthcare at Brownwood, a 285,000-square-foot outpatient facility that will be connected by a covered walkway to the Brownwood Hotel & Spa (also under construction), described as a “rustic chic” 150-room hotel. It will keep some guest rooms in reserve for patients having procedures next door.The Villages Health, according to its website, only accepts three Medicare Advantage plans — its own, one through AARP and, as of January 2020, Florida Blue — and private insurance. (Specialists at The Villages Health accept traditional Medicare.) A western-themed square in The Villages. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) Ahead of this year’s open enrollment period, which begins Oct. 15, Villages Health has began offering free one-hour classes that quickly fill to capacity called “Medicare Simplified: How to Choose Worry-Free Health care in The Villages.”“Our goal with The Villages Health is to keep you healthy and heal you quickly so you can enjoy this lifestyle here,” Debra Siwinski, a patient service representative — and patient — at The Villages Health, told a recent group taking her class. Siwinski, a retired widow from Illinois, applied for the job as a way to stave off boredom — and loves it.“Anybody in the room aging in?” she asked the class of 14. “You get a lot of clutter right now. There’s a lot that you’re getting hit with between the mail, the radio, TV advertisements. Hopefully, [this] will help get through a lot of that clutter.” She spent the first half of class going over the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of the differences between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage. And the next half was dedicated to explaining the course’s second goal — choosing worry-free health care — by steering the conversation toward this conclusion: Medicare Advantage, though she did emphasize that a third-party, licensed insurance agent was nearby to answer specific questions about Medicare’s various options.With traditional Medicare, Siwinski said, doctors have “waiting lists of patients” that undergo more tests and more procedures “because that’s how they get paid. They do better if the patients are sick. Some people have told me that they’ve waited an hour or longer to get into their doctor to only be seen on average seven to 12 minutes.”And, she continued, “because one doctor doesn’t know what the other doctor is doing, a lot of times the patients get the runaround.”Not everyone in The Villages has embraced the advent of Villages Health. Limiting care to those with Medicare Advantage plans caused some backlash because it meant people like Jerry Prince and his wife would have to switch doctors. And that was a sacrifice he said they were unwilling to make.“My wife had three heart attacks, and her cardiologist is outside of that plan,” said Prince, 72 and president of The Villages Republican Club. “He’s done great things for her, and I’m not changing.” Albert, a fake alligator named after the University of Florida’s mascot, on Hahn's patio, which is next to a golf course. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) Blurred LinesThe Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, which labeled Medicare Advantage as such, was one of the most significant overhauls of Medicare since the program was created in 1965. Some Democrats criticized it even then as a Republican scheme to privatize — and eventually eliminate — Medicare.It was the stamp of approval from the “liberal lion from Massachusetts,” the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, that opened the door to compromise and helped pushed the 2003 law beyond years of political gridlock. He endorsed the proposal that added prescription drug coverage to Medicare. The coverage, though, is only available through private insurers.This, health care experts and advocates say, has opened the door for a growing private industry fueled by taxpayer dollars that has delivered mixed results.There’s been little comprehensive research comparing the performance and value of Medicare Advantage with traditional Medicare by taking into account such things as utilization, access, cost of care, quality and outcomes.The studies that have been done are limited in scope. For example, a recent report by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found that people in traditional Medicare are no more likely to report problems getting into see a doctor than those with private insurance.“No one has taken all of these different studies and put them into one single narrative,” said Lori Gonzalez, a faculty member at Florida State University’s Claude Pepper Center. She added that the lack of a systematic review comparing Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare means “it’s very hard to say to you that one, according to research, is better” than another.She’s currently working on an issue brief to rectify that, saying what she’s discovered so far is that Medicare Advantage beneficiaries tend to be healthier. The reason, she said, is twofold: “They seemed to be kind of cherry-picked or Medicare Advantage plans take the money they get to advertise in areas where they know there are these healthier older folks.” Hahn’s golf cart, decorated with a Trump sticker. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) Since taking office, Trump has largely left untouched Medicare and other programs heavily used by seniors, but that changed this year. Trump’s 2020 budget proposal requested $845 billion in Medicare cuts over the next 10 years, proposing to achieve this largely by changing payments to hospitals and doctors and renewing efforts to lessen fraud and abuse.But Medicare advocates say the Trump administration has made some changes favoring private insurers that administer Medicare Advantage plans. They say recent rule changes have blurred the lines between program education and marketing of specific plans.“They are treating traditional Medicare as a plan option rather than saying, This is what Medicare is supposed to be, and we have this secondary” choice, said Matt Shepard of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “It entices people to sign up for something that then doesn’t work with them. Do you think for-profit, private companies are going to be worried about profit or help?” But People Love It — and TrumpFor Will Statom, the answer is simple.“Health care is a business,” said the 67-year-old, who has a framed personal photo of Vice President Mike Pence in his living room. (“We’ve known each other so long, we’ve known each other since our hair was jet black,” he said of Pence.) Will Statom shows a framed personal photo with Vice President Mike Pence. (Zack Wittman, special to ProPublica) Statom has been a member of The Villages’ Medicare Advantage plan since moving to Florida from Indiana in January 2017. He loves it because there are no monthly payments, and he likes his doctor. What he doesn’t understand is the notion that health care coverage is a human right.“I read the Constitution and I’m not a scholar,” he said, “but it doesn’t say in there that everyone should get it.”Can the nation’s health care system stand some improvements? Sure. The problem, he said, is that “there are people who would complain if you gave them a $1 million worth of pennies [but] told them they had to roll ‘em up.” Hannah Fresques and Moiz Syed contributed to this report.
The Bailout Was 11 Years Ago. We’re Still Tracking Every Penny.
by Paul Kiel ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Eleven years ago, with the stock market in free fall, Congress passed a $700 billion bailout of the financial system.ProPublica was still in its infancy, our website only a few months old. Like everyone else, we were just trying to get a handle on what was happening.It wasn’t easy. After starting out as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a plan to buy up troubled mortgages, the TARP soon morphed into a bailout of the giant insurer AIG, the nation’s banks, and then the auto industry. It was hard to keep up. So we decided to try. Our bailout database laid it all out as clearly as we could understand it. But it got harder. The Obama administration transformed the TARP into a mind-numbing array of acronyms, and we did our best to tell a PPIP from a AIFP (you don’t want to know). As the years went on and billions continued to flow back and forth, we remained vigilant. And, well, it turns out that bailouts are forever. We’re still updating the damn thing. So, recently, we decided to give it a makeover.Yes, the TARP lives. So does its close cousin, the bailout of mammoth mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Like old friends from high school you haven’t thought about in ages, they’re still around, though to be frank their best years are behind them. You could think of our bailout database as their Facebook pages.And what do you find when you go there? You can start with the 100,000-foot view, which we provide here, where we tally all the billions.But you can also zoom in.For instance, let’s take a look at the bank bailout stragglers. The biggest part of the TARP was the bank rescue, which invested $236 billion in over 700 banks. Almost all of those investments have been resolved, most resulting in a profit for the government, though over 100 did result in losses.But there are six stragglers: banks that still, after a decade, have neither gone under nor paid the money back. The largest of those is OneUnited Bank, which received $12 million way back in 2008. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. It’s not the first time that OneUnited has stood out. For a small bank, OneUnited has had remarkable pull in Washington: In 2008, Barney Frank, then the most powerful Democrat in the House on banking issues, said that he wrote a provision into the bailout bill to ensure the bank was rescued. (The bank is based in Massachusetts, Frank’s home state.) Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., later faced ethics charges alleging that she had interceded on the bank’s behalf with Treasury Department officials — a potential violation because her husband held stock in the bank and had formerly been a board member. Waters was subsequently cleared of those charges.In one respect, the rescue clearly worked. OneUnited, which claims to be the country’s largest black-owned bank, is still around. But the status of its TARP investment gives reason for worry. The bank was supposed to be making dividend payments, but it hasn’t made one since 2009. It owes $8.7 million in unpaid dividends on top of the $12 million in principal.We asked the bank if it had a plan to repay the TARP money. The bank responded with a statement: “OneUnited Bank is in full compliance with its obligations to the U.S. Department of Treasury and continues to be committed to repaying TARP.”OneUnited certainly isn’t the only example of a bank that benefitted from help on Capitol Hill. As we reported in 2009, Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, (who has since passed away) put in a word for a struggling Hawaii bank. The bank did get TARP money but eventually went under anyway, leading to a taxpayer loss of $60 million.The most active part of the TARP these days is its foreclosure prevention programs. We spent a lot of time reporting on the Obama administration’s all-carrot-and-no-stick approach to getting banks to help homeowners. Foreclosures peaked in 2009 and 2010, but the government spent almost all its money long after that. Like a firefighter who’s late to the fire but wants to try out the hose anyway, the Treasury has been spraying billions for years on the smoldering ruins of the crisis.The Treasury extended the program into 2016, and because it will pay subsidies to banks, mortgage investors and borrowers for five more years, payments will continue into 2021.Even with all that added time, the totals won’t come close to the sorts of numbers Obama officials announced when the program was launched. In 2009, they said $50 billion was available. Ten years later, the program has finally spent its 20 billionth dollar. Overall, the TARP remains in the black, though just barely. The Treasury realized large profits on its investments in the country’s largest banks and AIG, and those have balanced out the losses and subsidies. As of today, we show a narrow profit of about $1 billion for the TARP (though it should be noted these figures haven’t been adjusted for inflation).The bailout of Fannie and Freddie, however, is a different story. After the government essentially took over the companies to stabilize the housing market in 2008, the Treasury pumped in nearly $200 billion over the following years. While the companies haven’t yet repaid any of the principal, they have been making sizeable dividend payments every quarter. Those now total $306 billion.For years, Washington has tied itself in knots over the question of how to resolve the takeover of Fannie and Freddie. For now, the companies continue sending a few billion to the Treasury every quarter, which at least has the happy result of reducing the country’s now $1 trillion annual budget deficit a little bit.So, go ahead, take a look at what your old friends have been up to. The financial crisis is long over, but the response might never be.
Trump’s USDA Is Letting Factories With Troubling Safety Records Slaughter Chickens Even Faster
by Isaac Arnsdorf ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This story is co-published with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sixty miles northeast of Atlanta, a chicken statue atop a 25-foot monument proclaims the small city of Gainesville, Georgia, the “Poultry Capital of the World.” In the rolling hills outside of town, white feathers trail the trucks turning into a slaughterhouse operated by a local company called Fieldale Farms.The Fieldale factory employs about 1,900 people. A lawn sign advertises jobs for $11-plus an hour and a big banner shouts “Think Safe, Work Safe.” But in recent years, according to federal safety records obtained by ProPublica, the factory has been the site of several grisly accidents, resulting in hospitalizations, amputations and death.Those accidents didn’t prevent Fieldale from getting special permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to speed up its processing lines. Chicken companies have long wanted to operate their plants faster so that they can boost profits, either by producing more chickens or using less labor. But speeding up increases the risks to employees already working in dangerous conditions, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.It’s been only a few months since the speed increase took effect, not long enough to make meaningful before-and-after comparisons. And there is no available data to compare injury rates at the factories with higher speeds to the industry average because the Trump administration scrapped a requirement for employers to submit their injury logs. What is clear, from safety records obtained by ProPublica, is that most of the 11 plants that received permission to run faster did so despite having a history of serious accidents, including deaths.The chicken industry has higher injury rates than coal mines or construction sites, and it’s the biggest source of finger amputations. Workers are under constant pressure to keep production going at a grueling speed. They typically perform one motion over and over, handling knives just a few inches from the next worker, surrounded by harsh chemicals and spinning blades.“Increasing line speeds will increase poultry workers’ exposure to all of these hazards,” David Michaels, the head of OSHA from 2009 to 2017, said in a 2012 memo opposing a USDA proposal at the time to increase line speeds. Scientific studies, including both government-funded and industry-sponsored, have established that going faster worsens the risk of repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. There is also evidence that feeling rushed or struggling to keep up with the work pace are factors in traumatic injuries.“My conclusion from conducting this detailed research is there is no doubt that increasing line speed will increase laceration injuries to workers,” Melissa Perry, chair of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said in a submission to the USDA opposing a similar plan to raise line speeds in pork slaughterhouses. The USDA is moving forward with that policy despite an internal investigation into whether the agency relied on flawed data to justify it.For chicken factories, the USDA isn’t going through the time-consuming and contentious process of making a new regulation with a higher speed limit. Instead, it agreed to waive the existing cap for companies that ask. “This deregulatory action would advance the president’s objective to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens,” the National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, said in its formal request for the waivers. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. When the USDA started issuing line speed waivers to poultry plants last year, the agency said it wouldn’t consider the impact on worker safety. “The agency has neither the authority nor the expertise to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety,” the USDA said in its official announcement of the speed waivers. “OSHA is the federal agency with statutory and regulatory authority to promote workplace safety and health.”But OSHA has no control over line speeds. A spokeswoman with the agency said the USDA “has sole jurisdiction over line speeds at these plants.”This gap in the regulatory framework puts workers at risk, said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff. She now directs the National Employment Law Project’s Worker Health and Safety Program.“The USDA doesn’t care about worker safety, they just care about increasing profits for huge meatpacking companies,” Berkowitz said. “If production increases and everybody has to work harder and faster in an already dangerous environment, that increases injuries.”The National Chicken Council’s request for waivers acknowledged that “worker safety is a factor plants must consider when deciding the most appropriate line speed for their operations.” But the trade group argued that this shouldn’t prevent the USDA from issuing waivers because companies could take actions to address the risks.The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator, Carmen Rottenberg, has said in a December interview with trade press that the agency plans to use the line speed waivers to revisit the case for lifting the limit everywhere. The USDA declined to provide an interview with Rottenberg, and her spokesman declined to comment on the timeline for that proposal.“A Deadly Trap”Before it received a waiver, the Fieldale plant repeatedly broke safety rules, and managers clashed with OSHA over its enforcement efforts, according to hundreds of pages of records obtained by ProPublica.Inside the plant, there’s an insulated room for storing ice. Ice cubes fall from the ceiling into a huge mound; they then slide through turning screw-shaped blades that break up the ice and feed the cubes into the factory. The blades are covered by a grate in the floor.One morning in 2014, a worker went inside to fetch some ice. Some of the bars in the floor grate were loose or missing, but the worker couldn’t see the gaps buried under the ice. His foot fell through the faulty grate and onto the screw-shaped blades, severing his leg below the knee. He crawled out of the ice house and cried for help.“He’s bleeding bad and he’s in shock,” an employee told the 911 dispatcher. “Please tell them to hurry up before the man dies.”The worker survived, but his leg was so damaged that all but five inches had to be amputated. A picture from an Occupational Safety and Health Administration report about Fieldale Farms shows the floor grate surrounded by ice where a worker fell. The plant manager, David Rackley, told the OSHA inspector that the worker got hurt because he was “thin” so his foot must have fit through the regular spaces in the grate. The inspector measured the width of the thick rubber boots that the worker was wearing (5 inches) against the spaces in the grate (2 inches). Then Rackley abandoned his claim, according to the OSHA report. The inspector called Rackley’s shifting explanations “deceptive” and “not true.”The inspector learned from interviewing employees that Fieldale hadn’t bothered to fix the grates despite repeated complaints about the missing bars. Then, right after the accident, the company immediately fixed the grates and “covered up” records of the sudden repair. The inspector called it “a deadly trap.”Rackley, who is still the plant manager, referred questions to Fieldale’s president, Tom Hensley. In an interview, Hensley repeated the false claim that the worker was injured because he was “small” and “somehow his small little foot got through the guard.” When presented with the inspector’s measurements and discovery that Fieldale “covered up” its repair of the faulty bars, Hensley said he wasn’t aware. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard that,” he said. The blade under the faulty grate in the Fieldale ice house, left, and comments by an OSHA inspector. The OSHA inspector had previously warned Fieldale about maintaining protective barriers around dangerous equipment, after an unguarded conveyor had sliced open an employee’s arm. It wouldn’t be the last time, either.The Fieldale plant had a longtime handyman named Ricardo Aburto. Aburto’s job was to patch things up to keep the line running until a full repair could occur during downtime on the weekend, according to his wife, Alicia De La Paz.On a Tuesday in July 2015, Aburto climbed up on a ladder to fix a high-power light, according to OSHA records. To remove the cover, he touched his screwdriver to a bolt. Instantly, he dropped to the floor.“He stopped breathing,” a nurse told the 911 dispatcher.The wires that powered the light were supposed to be surrounded by insulation. But over time the coating wore down and Fieldale hadn’t replaced it, the OSHA inspector found. The exposed conductors electrified the light’s casing, shocking Aburto as soon as his screwdriver touched it. He was killed.OSHA cited Fieldale for failing to insulate the wiring and for leaving the light on while Aburto was working on it. Fieldale paid a fine of $4,900. Ricardo Aburto was fixing a light, left, when he was electrocuted. At right are comments by an OSHA inspector. Despite the coroner’s finding that Aburto was electrocuted, which was reported in the local newspaper, Hensley maintained to ProPublica that Aburto died of a heart attack. He also said his engineers found nothing wrong with the light, even though the OSHA inspector took a photo of the exposed wiring. Hensley acknowledged that the light should not have been on while Aburto was working on it.De La Paz said she was furious when she learned that Aburto’s death was so easily preventable. She said she wanted to sue but she couldn’t get a lawyer who would take the case because none of the witnesses would agree to testify against Fieldale.“I miss him every single day,” De La Paz said. “That’s a pain nothing can ever take away.” Four years later, she still describes him in the present tense: “Ricardo is,” instead of “Ricardo was.”De La Paz said that since Fieldale failed to take simple and required safety precautions, it should not have received special permission to speed up operations, possibly exposing employees to additional risks.In response, Hensley disputed that the line speed increase has any effect on worker safety. “It wouldn’t matter how many birds a minute were processed through the plant for that accident,” he said. “So we had a couple of bad ones, and we regret them, for sure.”A few days after the USDA announced that it would start granting line speed waivers, Hensley introduced Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, at an industry conference in Atlanta. Georgia is the country’s No. 1 chicken producer, and agriculture is its top industry. “President Trump could not have selected a better person for secretary of agriculture than Georgia’s own Sonny Perdue,” Hensley said at the event. Hensley and Perdue have known each other for years. Fieldale has bought corn from Perdue’s farm, Hensley said. (The secretary is not related to the chicken brand.) Hensley sends Perdue Christmas cards.Fieldale became one of the first companies to receive a line speed waiver, in October 2018. In May, the USDA granted a second waiver to another Fieldale facility nearby, where a worker clearing an air pipe had lost several fingers in the blade of a rotary valve.Hensley told ProPublica he hasn’t been in touch with Perdue outside of the conference and he doesn’t think their relationship had any effect on the waiver. A USDA spokesman said the waiver decisions were made by career staff, not political appointees.After the speed increase took effect, an employee’s fingers were cut off while he was trying to remove a piece of chicken stuck in a machine that removes neck skin, according to OSHA records. Hensley said this machine’s speed hasn’t changed.“Our backs hurt when we go faster,” said Luis Miguel Santiago Torres, a 30-year-old worker who said he injured his knee at the Fieldale factory and recently left. “We are humans.”“An Odd Coincidence”In October 2018, the USDA gave a line speed waiver to Gerber Poultry in Kidron, Ohio, 60 miles south of Cleveland. The company had requested the waiver with a one-page cover letter that made no mention of worker safety.In anticipation of cranking up the speed, the company decided to order a spare set of motors so it wouldn’t lose any time if one of them broke. So the staff needed to look up the part numbers. A maintenance man named Bill Derwacter climbed up on a stepladder to read the number off one of the motors, suspended 10 feet above the factory floor.Derwacter said he knew that federal regulations require factories to turn off equipment whenever it’s being serviced, but he didn’t think it was a big deal to climb up and read the part number, something he’d done many times before.As Derwacter stood up there, the motor’s spinning sprocket snatched his sleeve, pulling his arm into the machine. The motor sliced his arm open and snapped a bone. It yanked him off the stepladder and threw him to the floor. Other workers wrapped and iced his bleeding arm and called 911.Gerber’s vice president for compliance, Glenn Mott, said he saw the ambulance outside just as he was stepping out of a meeting with USDA officials about implementing the speed increase. “I thought, that’s such bizarre timing,” Mott, who signed the letter requesting a speed waiver, said in an interview. “It was an odd coincidence.”Derwacter said he’s grateful to Gerber for covering all his medical expenses, including multiple surgeries, and holding his job for him. “They took amazing care of me; I can’t even say nothing bad,” Derwacter said. “It was truly 100% an accident.”OSHA, however, faulted Gerber for failing to turn off the motor and for not making sure employees followed the rule to do so. The inspector proposed a fine of $14,782, which was later reduced to $11,086. The motor that caught Bill Derwacter’s arm, documented in an OSHA report about the Gerber Poultry factory in Kidron, Ohio. Mott acknowledged that the line should not have been running while Derwacter was near it. But he said the accident did not cause him to rethink his plans because it could have happened at any speed. Starting the next day, the company gradually increased its speed over several weeks until reaching the new maximum.“I Can’t Do a Lot of Things Anymore”The injuries from working in chicken factories are often not from traumatic accidents, but from the steady strain of doing one thing over and over, at a fast pace. These injuries, which can be painful and debilitating, were already common, and researchers say speeding up the lines will make them worse.“Despite repeated studies in this industry in the past 20 years that found high prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome, poultry processing jobs continue to be hazardous,” researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said in 2014. “We found that the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome increased with increasing exposure to the occupational risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders,” such as repetition.Ethan Doney said that, on his first day at Peco Foods in Pocahontas, Arkansas, in 2016, he and other new hires were told by the company that they should report any injuries to the on-site nurse, and anyone who went to an outside doctor would be fired.Peco officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. (Peco’s facilities in neighboring Mississippi were among the sites raided by immigration authorities in August, part of the largest sweep in decades.)Doney was tasked with cutting meat off the bone. By the second month working shifts as long as 12 hours, Doney’s fingers started locking up and he felt a burning sensation all the way up to his shoulder. He said he went to the nurse every day for three months, but she refused to send him to a doctor because she said he was faking. Doney said the nurse put some balm on his hands, wrapped them up and sent him back to work.After six months, Doney got so fed up that he quit and went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands and nerve damage in both elbows. Both arms needed surgery. Doney asked Peco to pay for the procedures, but the company said no, because he was no longer an employee. The company also refused to rehire him, Doney said, because the same nurse who previously accused him of faking now said he couldn’t work until he had the surgeries.Doney had the operation on his left arm, but he didn’t have surgery on the right one because it was scheduled for the day his twins were born. He still hasn’t had the procedure and continues to feel the effect of his injuries. “I couldn’t hold them for long periods of time,” Doney, 25, said of his children. “I can’t do a lot of things anymore.”One of Doney’s co-workers at Peco, Lazaro Villegas, took pride in how fast he could pull chicken breasts off the bone. Villegas said he knew the workers were supposed to rotate through different positions to avoid repetitive strain injuries, but the supervisors often shifted them right back or didn’t move them at all. “They put a lot of stress on the supervisors to make sure the line keeps moving,” he said. “It’s all about the money.”Villegas, 48, started waking up in the middle of the night with intense pain in his hands. “It would hurt like needles poking at you,” he said. “I’d be dead asleep and boom, the pain would just be way too much.” Peco moved him to a different department that was supposed to be less strenuous, but the pain didn’t go away. After a year, the company finally sent him to a doctor, who said he had carpal tunnel in both hands. Peco paid for surgery on the right hand but fired Villegas two days before the operation, he said, because he’d missed too many days of work. The doctor said Villegas’ left hand wasn’t bad enough to justify surgery, but it still bothers him.“Peco needs to learn how to treat their employees better,” Villegas said. “Even if they gave me more money right now, I still wouldn’t go back.” Do you have access to information about food safety and worker conditions that should be public? Email Isaac Arnsdorf at isaac@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on deregulation in the meat industry.Samantha Diaz Roberts contributed to this story.
Bailout Tracker: See Where More Than $600 Billion Went
by Paul Kiel and Dan Nguyen View the app.
Did Rudy Giuliani Nullify His Attorney-Client Protections?
by Ian MacDougall ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Rudy Giuliani received a subpoena this week from House Democrats as part of their impeachment inquiry. He wasn’t happy about it. In a tweet on Monday, Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, accused the Democratic committee chairs of having “prejudged this case.” He asserted that the subpoena, which seeks “all documents and communications” about Giuliani’s repeated forays into the world of Ukrainian law enforcement and politics, raises “constitutional and legal issues” including “attorney client and other privileges.”At first blush, it’s a reasonable position. The attorney-client privilege shields confidential communications between a lawyer and his client so long as they pertain to seeking or providing legal advice. Giuliani is an attorney; the president is his client. With a number of exceptions, lawyers do not have to reveal anything about conversations with their clients.Yet legal experts say Giuliani’s apparent hopes of invoking the privilege to avoid providing documents or testifying may be undercut by his own words — specifically, his habit of announcing in public that he is operating in a nonlegal capacity in his international trips. Those trips are of significant interest to congressional investigators. Communications between President Donald Trump and his lawyer aren’t privileged if their substance falls outside the attorney-client relationship.Take a recent conversation Giuliani had with a reporter for The Atlantic about his attempts to enlist officials in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, to investigate matters that could benefit the president politically. “I’m not acting as a lawyer,” he told the reporter. “I’m acting as someone who has devoted most of his life to straightening out government.” Giuliani also took pains to say he wasn’t acting as the president’s lawyer when he attended a Kremlin-backed conference in Armenia last October. As ProPublica and WNYC reported, he spoke about cybersecurity and was slated to appear on a panel alongside two advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of whom was on a U.S. sanctions list. When local reporters caught up with Giuliani, he told them: “I’m not here in my capacity as a private lawyer for President Trump. I’m here as a private citizen.”At other moments, Giuliani has described himself as Trump’s attorney. For example, he told The New York Times earlier this year that his work in Ukraine was for the benefit of his client, Trump. In that article, Giuliani said he hoped an investigation in Ukraine would turn up information that “will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.” (That interview also included a memorable Giuliani comment: “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do.”)An assertion of attorney-client privilege generally requires evidence that the lawyer in question was representing the client on the relevant matter. “That is a threshold and essential criterion to even be able to invoke the privilege,” said Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert at New York University School of Law. “Is Giuliani acting as a lawyer for the president, giving legal advice and counsel? If that’s not true, then nothing is privileged.”Neither Giuliani nor his newly retained lawyer, Jon Sale, immediately returned a request for comment.Over the past year, Giuliani has gone to great lengths to persuade Ukrainian officials to examine two matters on which the president has fixated. The first is a perplexing conspiracy theory that blames Ukraine, rather than Russia, for the hacking of Democratic Party campaign emails during the 2016 election. The other involves questions — but little in the way of facts — about whether Trump’s potential rival in next year’s election, Joe Biden, used his office as vice president to stymie an investigation into a Ukrainian energy company on whose board of directors his son Hunter served. Neither the conspiracy theory nor the Biden-related postulating has been supported by any independent, credible investigations.A whistleblower complaint filed in August with the inspector general for the intelligence community has raised concerns that Trump abused his office by pushing Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on a July 25 call, to speak with Giuliani and to pursue the investigations he’s been hawking. White House officials, the whistleblower alleges, then took steps to limit access to records of the call, which Democrats say is evidence of a cover-up. The complaint sparked the ongoing House impeachment inquiry.Trump and his allies have insisted there was nothing improper about the July 25 call, and Zelensky recently told reporters he did not feel he was being pressured.Should Giuliani invoke attorney-client privilege and refuse to comply with the subpoena he tweeted about Monday — or to testify before House committees, if subpoenaed to do so — he will almost certainly put his fate in the hands of the courts. The next move for House Democrats, assuming they disagree with Giuliani’s position, would likely be to vote to hold Giuliani in contempt of Congress and then file a lawsuit asking a federal judge to order him to comply with the subpoena. Penalties for failing to comply with a court order include fines and even, in extreme cases, jail time.Giuliani’s assertion that he wasn’t acting as a lawyer when he lobbied Ukraine will make it harder for him and his client to invoke the attorney-client privilege successfully. It would serve as evidence that conversations or written communications about the lobbying campaign fall outside the attorney-client relationship. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. “It doesn’t make things easier” for Giuliani and Trump, said Ronald Minkoff, a partner at the law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz and an expert on attorney ethics. “The client has to establish that the privilege applies. It’s not assumed that the privilege applies.”A different threat to an attempt to invoke attorney-client privilege could also arise. Congress has taken the position that the separation of powers does not require it to honor the privilege, which is a doctrine created by the judiciary. That stance is as yet untested in court, and in practice, Congress has tended to honor lawyer-client protections.The attorney-client privilege, moreover, is likely to pertain to only a small number of communications congressional investigators are interested in. Conversations or written communications with people other than Trump or that were disclosed to other people — even discussions with the president that were held in the presence of other U.S. officials — will likely not be privileged. Trump may, however, try to resort to other privileges to keep information from House Democrats, like the executive privilege. In response to recent congressional investigations, White House lawyers have taken an uncommonly broad — and legally uncertain — view of that privilege.But Giuliani has more on the line than many Trump administration officials who have flouted congressional subpoenas in recent months.“Giuliani, as a lawyer, may find it hard to ignore a subpoena, on the grounds that he’s a lawyer,” Gillers, the NYU law professor, said. As a member of the New York bar, he is subject to its rules, and “he wouldn’t want to get into trouble with the disciplinary committee.”
IRS: Sorry, but It’s Just Easier and Cheaper to Audit the Poor
by Paul Kiel ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. The IRS audits the working poor at about the same rate as the wealthiest 1%. Now, in response to questions from a U.S. senator, the IRS has acknowledged that’s true but professes it can’t change anything unless it is given more money.ProPublica reported the disproportionate audit focus on lower-income families in April. Lawmakers confronted IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig about the emphasis, citing our stories, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Rettig for a plan to fix the imbalance. Rettig readily agreed.Last month, Rettig replied with a report, but it said the IRS has no plan and won’t have one until Congress agrees to restore the funding it slashed from the agency over the past nine years — something lawmakers have shown little inclination to do.On the one hand, the IRS said, auditing poor taxpayers is a lot easier: The agency uses relatively low-level employees to audit returns for low-income taxpayers who claim the earned income tax credit. The audits — of which there were about 380,000 last year, accounting for 39% of the total the IRS conducted — are done by mail and don’t take too much staff time, either. They are “the most efficient use of available IRS examination resources,” Rettig’s report says. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. On the other hand, auditing the rich is hard. It takes senior auditors hours upon hours to complete an exam. What’s more, the letter says, “the rate of attrition is significantly higher among these more experienced examiners.” As a result, the budget cuts have hit this part of the IRS particularly hard.For now, the IRS says, while it agrees auditing more wealthy taxpayers would be a good idea, without adequate funding there’s nothing it can do. “Congress must fund and the IRS must hire and train appropriate numbers of [auditors] to have appropriately balanced coverage across all income levels,” the report said.Since 2011, Republicans in Congress have driven cuts to the IRS enforcement budget; it’s more than a quarter lower than its 2010 level, adjusting for inflation.Recently, bipartisan support has emerged in both the House and Senate for increasing enforcement spending, but the proposals on the table are relatively modest and would not restore the budget to pre-cut levels. However, even a proposed small increase might not come to pass, because it’s unclear whether Congress will actually pass any appropriations bills this year.In response to Rettig’s letter, Wyden agreed in a statement that the IRS needs more money, “but that does not eliminate the need for the agency to begin reversing the alarming trend of plummeting audit rates of the wealthy within its current budget.” Do you have access to information about the IRS that should be public? Email paul.kiel@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.
A Brief Guide to Giuliani’s Questionable Friends in Ukraine — “Trump, Inc.” Podcast
by Katie Zavadski and Jake Pearson, ProPublica, and Ilya Marritz, WNYC Stay up to date with email updates about WNYC and ProPublica’s investigations into the president’s business practices. In the past two weeks, we’ve heard a lot about efforts by President Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to push officials in Ukraine to investigate Trump’s opponents. As the news has unfolded, it has introduced us to a litany of unfamiliar characters in both Ukraine and the U.S., many of whom were working with Giuliani or, in some fashion, on behalf of the president.Our “Trump, Inc.” colleague Ilya Marritz was in Kyiv, Ukraine, last week following the trail of Giuliani in an effort to understand more about these obscure figures who have suddenly become so important. (Yes, Ilya went there. Listen to our episode.) Listen to the Episode One thing that became clear during his travels: Giuliani’s “anti-corruption” efforts involved working with men who have their own questionable histories.We reached out to Giuliani as well as the White House. We have not heard back.Here is a rundown of key players in Giuliani’s efforts.The Former Prosecutor Fired for Not Going After Corruption…Viktor Shokin was Ukraine’s general prosecutor in 2015, a position akin to attorney general. He was responsible for investigating corruption. But according to U.S. officials, NGOs and the International Monetary Fund, he was not actually doing this.Giuliani has claimed that then-Vice President Joe Biden improperly pushed for Shokin’s removal to avoid an investigation into Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. There is no evidence that is true. Viktor Shokin speaks during a news conference in Kyiv on Nov. 2, 2015. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters) According to the now-famous whistleblower’s report, Shokin spoke with Giuliani over Skype late last year in a call arranged by two Giuliani associates. (More on them in a moment.)In response to our questions, Shokin declined comment, explaining that he’s out of the country.The Former Prosecutor Who Was Not a Lawyer… Yuriy Lutsenko took over the job of prosecutor general from Shokin in 2016. He got the job after allies in Parliament changed the law to allow the position to be filled by someone without a law degree. Lutsenko has no legal training.Lutsenko once told a reporter that the U.S. ambassador had given him “a list of people whom we should not prosecute.” He later acknowledged that he was the one who asked for such a list. Yuriy Lutsenko addresses lawmakers during a parliamentary session on law enforcement in Kyiv on Feb. 6, 2019. (Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Lutsenko has said he’s spoken with Giuliani “maybe 10 times.” In the middle of one meeting in New York last January in which Giuliani and Lutsenko talked about investigating the Bidens, Giuliani reportedly called Trump to loop him in.In the spring, Lutsenko told a reporter he “would be happy to have a conversation” about Hunter Biden with Attorney General William Barr. Then, last week, he told the Los Angeles Times that he hadn’t found any evidence against the Bidens and said he had told Giuliani that any investigation should be conducted “through prosecutors, not through presidents.”In response to our questions, Lutsenko denied any wrongdoing. He was fired earlier this year. Get More Trump, Inc. Stay up to date with email updates from WNYC and ProPublica about their ongoing investigations. The Current Prosecutor Caught on Tape…Nazar Kholodnytsky is now Ukraine’s top anti-corruption prosecutor. Audio tapes captured Kholodnytsky in unrelated cases coaching a witness to give false testimony and tipping off suspects to police raids. Kholodnytsky acknowledged the tapes were authentic, but said they were taken out of context.Earlier this year, the U.S.’s then-ambassador to Ukraine called for Kholodnytsky’s firing. She explained, “Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases.” (The ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, was removed from her position shortly after.) Nazar Kholodnytsky during a press conference in Kyiv on May 22, 2018. (Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Kholodnytsky and Giuliani met in Paris in May 2019. Kholodnytsky told The Washington Post the discussion was private, “prosecutor to a former prosecutor.” Kholodnytsky told the Post that he had questions about the Bidens as well as the prosecution of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.When the Post asked Giuliani about the meeting, he said, “I’m not going to tell you about that.”Kholodnytsky told us he was too busy to answer our questions. Giuliani’s Special Envoys…Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman are two Ukrainian-American businessmen who have worked with Giuliani and introduced him to the Ukrainian prosecutors. Giuliani has described them as his clients. They went to Ukraine after Giuliani canceled a trip in the wake of a New York Times article that revealed his travel plans.In a detailed story about their work with Giuliani, Parnas told Buzzfeed they did nothing wrong. “All we were doing was passing along information,” Parnas said. He added, “We’re American citizens, we love our country, we love our president.”Parnas was sued for allegedly defrauding investors in a movie he was involved with, “Anatomy of an Assassin.”“He conned us from day one,” one of the investors told the Miami Herald, adding, “He financially ruined us.” Parnas lost the case but has denied wrongdoing. “The truth is going to come out about that judgment,” he has said. Rudy Giuliani, left, and Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20, 2019. (Aram Roston/Reuters) Fruman is well-connected in Ukraine, where he owns a number of businesses, including Mafia Rave, a beach club in Odessa. Fruman and Parnas have been political contributors in the U.S. Last year, they set up a Delaware LLC that weeks later contributed $325,000 to a Trump-allied political group.Giuliani was subpoenaed by Congress this week regarding his communications with Parnas and Fruman.Parnas and Fruman did not respond to our requests for comment. 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 ProPublica155 Ave of the Americas, 13th FloorNew York, NY 10013 Additional reporting by Katherine Sullivan, Alice Wilder and Andrea Bernstein.“Trump, Inc.” is a production of WNYC Studios and ProPublica. Support our work by visiting donate.propublica.org or by becoming a supporting member of WNYC. Subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.
The Trump Administration Issues Dozens of Corrections to Its Error-Riddled Immigration Rule
by Yeganeh Torbati and Dara Lind ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Two weeks before a sweeping new immigration policy is set to take effect, the Department of Homeland Security has issued a 25-page set of corrections to the final version of the “public charge” rule, including fixes to substantive errors that ProPublica wrote about in August.Immigrant advocates said the extent of the corrections to the rule, which will make it harder for low-income migrants to enter the U.S., underscores their contention that the Trump administration aggressively pushed major policy changes without taking sufficient time to ensure clarity and precision.In all, the agency fixed 65 items in the regulation, correcting 36 distinct errors, ProPublica found. Most changes are typographical but some are important modifications to the complex policy, which consumed 217 pages of three-column text in the Federal Register when the final version appeared in August. (A draft version was published in October 2018.) The final rule garnered over 266,000 public comments, the vast majority opposed to the changes.After the final rule was published, ProPublica found substantive, sloppy mistakes that suggested immigrants married to U.S. citizens would be treated more harshly than immigrants married to noncitizens. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. That specific provision pertained to how the new rule applies to military families. The final rule stated that active-duty service members who are immigrant noncitizens would be allowed to use benefits without having it weigh against them as a “public charge” in the future, as would their family members. But immigrants who are the spouses or children of active-duty service members who are U.S. citizens were not included in the exception, meaning their use of benefits while their spouses were on active duty could jeopardize their future in the U.S.Throughout the regulation and its supporting documents, there were contradictions on this issue. Now, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has clarified that it correctly described the regulation elsewhere, but that it “inadvertently” left the spouses and children of U.S.-citizen service members out of the regulatory text.The corrections released Tuesday also fix a substantive error that would have made some temporary visa holders ineligible for waivers to the public charge test.Corrections to final regulations are common. In addition to the “public charge” corrections, the government issued corrections Tuesday to other publicly released documents from both the Commerce Department and the Treasury. But regulatory experts said the extent of the corrections made to the public charge rule are unusual, even for a complicated policy change.“This is more than what would seem typical,” said Bridget C.E. Dooling, a professor at George Washington University who previously worked at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the federal office that manages the regulatory process. She noted that Medicare payment rules can run to thousands of pages in the Federal Register, yet they usually garner just a few pages of corrections.Sean Moulton, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said the list of corrections was “surprisingly long” and raises questions of whether “they messed up and skipped some editorial or revision review before publishing.”In a statement to ProPublica, USCIS spokesman Matthew Bourke said that the final rule “underwent several layers of review and coordination,” and that “a significant majority of corrections were simple typographical errors.”The public charge rule, which immigration and public health experts believe has already had a chilling effect on the use of public benefits by immigrant families, even those not directly affected by the rule, has been a major Trump administration priority as it seeks to limit legal immigration to the U.S. White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller pushed USCIS last year to finish the rule quickly, emails revealed by Politico show.“It’s pretty rare to see just such an overwhelming volume of errors made in a final rule, and that tells you something about the integrity and assiduousness of the rule-making process,” said Doug Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration, a company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.The nature of the errors reinforces that idea.In addition to the error affecting military families, the other substantive error fixed by USCIS on Tuesday would have created a double standard for temporary (“nonimmigrant”) visa holders.In the rule published in August, individuals who were applying to extend their current visa, and people trying to change from one temporary visa to another, would both have to demonstrate they hadn’t used benefits above a certain threshold. The regulation on extensions of existing visas said that the benefits test wouldn’t apply to people for whom the public-charge requirement had been waived. The regulation on changes between different types, however, didn’t include that phrase — meaning that some temporary migrants would be eligible for waivers and others would not.“DHS never intended to treat extensions of stay and changes of status differently in this regard,” the corrections document says. The rule has now been corrected so that waivers will be available for both types of visa holders.A few of the minor errors — typos — in the rule could have caused problems or confusion. At one point, because of a typo, the rule published in August prevented immigrants from getting bonds back if they’d used too many public benefits in a “364month period” — as opposed to a 36-month period. Others simply suggest carelessness. At one point, the text of the published final rule still refers to the “proposed rule” — indicating that text was copied from the draft published in 2018 and never updated. On several occasions, forms are referred to without the word “form” in front of them; on one occasion, a form is called an “I-Form 539” instead of a “Form I-539.” And many of the tables in the rule had to be renumbered, once officials realized that Table 7 had been mislabeled as “Table 2” — throwing off the numbering of subsequent tables as well.Bourke, the USCIS spokesman, attributed the typos and need for clarifications to the length of the document and the hundreds of thousands of public comments the regulation garnered.American states, cities, counties and nonprofit organizations quickly filed federal lawsuits challenging the final public charge rule after it was released. An Aug. 26 motion for a preliminary injunction in one of the suits, filed by the states of California, Maine, Pennsylvania and Oregon, and the District of Columbia, noted the contradictions on the military families issue, calling it an “unwarranted discrepancy.”On Wednesday, a federal judge is set to hear arguments on the motion.“The corrections will not affect the scheduled implementation or how USCIS will apply the final rule,” Bourke said. “The agency is on track to begin implementing the public charge inadmissibility rule later this month.”Rand, who worked on immigration issues as a White House official in the Obama administration, noted that USCIS has yet to issue the final version of the lengthy new form for immigrants to document their financial situation and benefits history. The form will be required for applications submitted on, or after, Oct. 15.Traditionally, the agency provides approximately two months’ notice for even minor changes to USCIS forms. In this case, however, they will have at most two weeks.“All relevant forms will be posted on USCIS website by implementation date,” Bourke said.
The Word Nobody Wanted to Say at the UN Climate Action Summit
by Lisa Song ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. The leaders of more than 70 countries have made a promise that sounds nothing short of revolutionary. By 2050, they say they will reach “net zero,” putting no more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than can be somehow canceled out.While the net zero buzzword was as ubiquitous at last week’s United Nations Climate Action Summit as the presence of teenage activist Greta Thunberg, the details of how the countries would reach their ambitious goals were elusive. There was little talk of eliminating the use of fossil fuels, a drastic but economically tricky and politically painful step that would guarantee those emissions reductions.Instead, some experts fear, the answer involves an overreliance on offsets, a word that has become so unfashionable, it has been replaced by euphemisms like “nature-based solutions.” In general, offsets allow polluters to get credit for cutting their own emissions by paying someone in another city, state or country to reduce theirs.ProPublica reported on the historic failure of many setups like these, which have not actually canceled out the amount of carbon they’ve promised. After the story, the UN, which had long supported such projects, published a warning that “carbon offsets are not our get-out-of-jail free card.”And yet, the excitement about buying and selling carbon credits was palpable at the summit, especially among those who stand to benefit from them. They gathered at a Climate Week forum hosted by the International Emissions Trading Association, an alliance including oil companies, banks and environmental consultants that get paid to run offset projects. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said that, because “heavy industry will not have technological solutions to just go without carbon-based energy,” alternatives for reducing CO2, including offsets, were “unavoidable.”Since 2018, major oil companies including Shell have invested $50 billion in fossil fuel projects.Van Beurden called on policy experts to create trustworthy standards so companies and countries could buy and sell carbon credits on a global scale. “In a way, I don’t care where the standard comes from … as long as it works,” he said. “We want to actually be able to make money out of this.”Getting to net zero will likely require offsets because certain industries like aviation and shipping still lack the technology to ditch fossil fuels altogether.The countries that have declared net zero targets only make up a small slice of global emissions, and they don’t include major polluters like China, the United States or India. While the U.S. hasn’t made the pledge as a nation, New York state has set its own benchmark. Its net zero plan, among the most ambitious in the world, calls for reducing emissions 85% by 2050 and using offsets from restoring forests and wetlands to soak up the remaining 15%.Projects like those, which fall under the umbrella of what are called nature-based solutions, can undoubtedly help the environment, with benefits that go beyond climate change. The question is whether global funding for these programs — many of which are located in less industrialized countries with limited funding — will come as international aid or in exchange for offsets that benefit the funder.There are no global regulations on the type and quantity of offsets that governments could use to reach net zero. Right now, most credits are sold on what’s called the voluntary market, and they don’t count toward a country’s regulatory climate goals like the ones under the Paris climate agreement, the landmark pact almost every nation made to reduce greenhouse gasses. The momentum is headed toward approving offsets for those goals, with the heavy backing of IETA and the oil industry.In December, politicians at the next major climate talks in Santiago, Chile, will continue to debate the rules that could enable large-scale use of offsets and carbon trading. Offsets could also get a boost under separate negotiations on airline emissions.And this month, California regulators approved the Tropical Forest Standard, guidelines that open the door for the state and other governments to meet some of their emissions reductions by paying to preserve tropical forests.Tzeporah Berman, a Canadian activist who spoke at a Climate Week event, said policymakers have been distracted from the bottom line: that solving the climate crisis requires keeping fossil fuels in the ground.Last March, more than 90 researchers and academics signed a letter urging policymakers not to rely on carbon markets or offsets to solve climate change, citing a history of environmental and social problems.Others argue that the solution to those problems isn’t to restrict offsets, but to strengthen the rules and monitoring of programs to make sure they can deliver on their carbon benefits. “We ought to focus on making sure that emissions reductions are real and verified,” Nathaniel Keohane, an environmental economist at Environmental Defense Fund, told ProPublica. “If this is a tool that can help drive down emissions, then we ought to use it.”Keohane said that even if the world maximizes its use of offsets, major polluters like the United States won’t be able to reach net zero without also slashing their own fossil fuel use. There just aren’t enough carbon credits to do it for them.Until countries start filling in the details of how they plan to get to net zero, Frédéric Hache, a former investment banker who scrutinizes environmental markets, worries the benefit could wind up existing only on paper. “Everybody talks about the level of ambition and nobody questions the how,” he said. “The how is at least as important, because that’s where all the greenwashing takes place.”
World’s Most Famous Track Coach Is Banned for 4 Years for Doping Violations
by David Epstein, special to ProPublica ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation of Alberto Salazar, the most prominent track coach in the world, backed by Nike, the most powerful company in track, took so long that many wondered publicly if it had died out with a closed-door whimper.But Monday night, more than four years after the agency launched its investigation of medical misconduct and rules violations within Salazar’s prestigious Nike Oregon Project, an arbitration panel delivered perhaps the most resounding blow in track: It ruled that the renowned coach had violated anti-doping rules and will be banned from the sport for four years.The news came as Salazar’s athletes are dominating running’s premier events. Two have set world records this year; others have already won gold at this week’s World Championships or are set to race Tuesday night or later in the week; still others will vie for the win in the Chicago Marathon in two weeks. Effective immediately, Salazar can no longer coach those athletes — or any pro runners — and cannot serve on their support teams at events.Salazar can, though, appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. In a brief press release Monday night, he indicated his intention to do so, and pointed out that the arbitration panel said that he had not had bad intentions.“I have always ensured the WADA code is strictly followed,” he wrote, referring to the World Anti-Doping Agency. “The Oregon Project has never and will never permit doping.”USADA had actually notified Salazar of rule violations more that two years ago, but he appealed, which led to a lengthy arbitration process.The sanction will reverberate throughout the running world, but particularly in the U.S. — Salazar himself won the New York City Marathon three straight times from 1980-82, and he started the Oregon Project with Nike’s backing in 2001 to return American distance running to prominence, which he indeed helped accomplish. Salazar also coached British runner Mo Farah as he became the first man to win both the 5K and 10K at successive Olympics (2012 and 2016) and later received a knighthood. (No allegations have been leveled against Farah.)Salazar has long been one of the public faces of Nike, which in 2014 signed a 23-year sponsorship deal with U.S.A. Track and Field. There is a building on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon, named after Salazar, and Nike funded his legal defense before the arbitration panel.Salazar is arguably the most famous nonathlete ever to receive a doping sanction. The fact that the sanction comes in the absence of any positive drug tests marks it as a rarity, but one that places it alongside two of the most prominent anti-doping cases in history — BALCO, which supplied hard-to-detect performance-enhancing drugs to pro athletes, and the investigation of cyclist Lance Armstrong, both of which involved sanctions without positive tests.The arbitration panel decided that Salazar had committed three anti-doping rule violations: He participated in the administration of a prohibited method; he attempted to tamper with the doping control process; and he “trafficked” in testosterone, a banned substance.The prohibited method in question was an intravenous infusion of the legal supplement L-carnitine — a naturally occurring amino acid that helps convert fat into energy — but in an amount far in excess of the allowed limit of 50 milliliters per six hours. The tampering charge involved Salazar’s instruction to athletes not to disclose to doping control officers that they had received infusions. The testosterone trafficking charge was the result of an experiment Salazar helped conduct in a lab on the Nike campus in which he applied testosterone gel to his sons to see how much would trigger a positive test.Since shortly after ProPublica and the BBC first reported on the testosterone experiment in 2015, Salazar has contended that the purpose was to understand whether competitors might sabotage his athletes by rubbing testosterone gel on them. USADA began investigating the NOP following the ProPublica-BBC report, which also detailed allegations that the track coach had given his star athletes medications — sleeping pills, painkillers, and asthma and thyroid medications — that weren’t prescribed, or urged them to get prescriptions they did not need, to gain a competitive advantage.In a 32-page open letter published shortly after the report, Salazar admitted to some of the allegations, like the testosterone experiment, and to hiding prescription drugs in a hollowed-out book and magazine so that they would not be scrutinized by customs officials when he sent them internationally to an athlete. But he strongly denied ill intentions and told the newspaper The Oregonian that before authorities would find he had committed an anti-doping violation, “They will find Jimmy Hoffa’s body first.”The prescription drug allegations provoked intense discussion in the running community about the ethics of using such medications for performance enhancement, but those drugs are not covered by the WADA code and thus were irrelevant for the arbitration panel.Regarding the testosterone experiment, the arbitration panel noted that it “was conducted at a well known training facility … with no actual justification and involving the administration of a controlled substance in potential violation of federal laws.” The panel also noted that Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, was kept abreast of the experiment. “It will be interesting to determine the minimal amount of topical male hormone required to create a positive test,” Parker wrote in an email in response to one of the experiment updates. On Monday, a Nike spokesperson said that the company supports Salazar in his decision to appeal the ruling.On Monday night, USADA CEO Travis Tygart told ProPublica that “all those who are in sport companies, or otherwise, need to double down on clean sport and not getting in the way of athletes’ health and safety.” Tygart said the Salazar case “should open the eyes of people in those positions. Are they going to double down on doing the right thing going forward, or keep their heads in the sand?”Dr. Jeffrey Brown, a Houston endocrinologist who treated numerous athletes — at times while also being paid by Nike — was also banned for four years in a decision made by a separate arbitration panel. (Brown can also appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, whose rulings are final.) Arbitrators concluded that he administered a banned supplement infusion, tampered with medical records related to infusions and was complicit in Salazar’s trafficking of testosterone when he prescribed the testosterone used in the experiment at the Nike lab. Brown did not immediately respond to a call for comment.Both Salazar and Brown were first notified by USADA that they had violated anti-doping statutes and would be sanctioned in June 2017. Both men contested the charges and the case went to the American Arbitration Association. Two independent three-person panels then held closed-door hearings in 2018, eventually leading to the decisions rendered Monday. None of the athletes named in the investigation are facing charges.Some of the whistleblowers who first spoke to ProPublica and the BBC testified at those hearings, including former NOP assistant coach Steve Magness and former NOP runner Kara Goucher. Salazar and Brown also testified.Before the hearings, a report leaked by hackers provided a look at some of what USADA had uncovered. The USADA interim investigation report to the Texas Medical Board noted that six NOP athletes were “highly likely” to have received intravenous infusions of the supplement L-carnitine far in excess of what anti-doping rules allow, as part of what Salazar inaccurately described as a “clinical trial.”As a supplement, L-carnitine is legal and commonly consumed in pill form. But anti-doping rules prohibit infusions greater than 50 milliliters in six hours. USADA argued that Salazar and Brown coordinated the banned infusions in an effort to load the supplement into athletes’ muscles much more rapidly than could be achieved with pills or a new experimental drink.Magness first went public with allegations of rule-breaking at NOP in 2015 as part of the ProPublica-BBC report. A number of elite runners also shared their experiences of questionable medical practices; a few were willing to put their names to the accounts. Goucher, who under Salazar won a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships, recalled Salazar giving her a medication she had not been prescribed and encouraging her to use it for weight loss before a race; distance runner Lauren Fleshman recounted Salazar telling her to use asthma medication for performance enhancement in a manner contrary to that indicated by her doctor.In an interview this year, Magness, currently a University of Houston track coach, told ProPublica and the BBC that he was the test subject for the first L-carnitine infusion in 2011, when he was a 27-year-old NOP assistant coach. He also shared this account with arbitrators. Following the infusion, Magness recalled a marked improvement on a test of his V02 max — a measure of the amount of oxygen an individual can consume during an intense effort. Salazar, he said, was excited by the results and decided to use the procedure on NOP athletes.Salazar’s enthusiasm was captured in an email he sent to Lance Armstrong shortly after viewing Magness’ test results: “Lance, call me asap! We have tested it and it’s amazing. You are the only athlete I’m going to tell the actual numbers to other than [two-time Olympic medalist] Galen Rupp.”At the time, Magness said, he believed that the infusion was allowed. He said that he began to have doubts after Salazar sent emails instructing athletes not to disclose that they had received an infusion. Eventually, Magness came to accept that he had participated in a banned procedure. “At the time, I had no idea,” he told ProPublica and the BBC. “It doesn’t excuse it. I take responsibility for what I did, but unlike the vast majority of people in this sport I did something about it.” Magness said he hopes that his example will lead more athletes and coaches to speak out about doping violations and unethical medical practices. Some of the athletes who underwent infusions expressed reservations or asked questions at first. According to an interview with USADA given under oath, Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein asked Salazar: “Are you sure this is legal? This doesn’t sound legal.” Salazar later emailed Ritzenhein informing him that “everything is above board and cleared thru USADA,” a claim that USADA called “both ironic and inaccurate” in its interim report.USADA’s interim report also noted that Brown seemed to have altered medical records provided as part of the investigation. Ritzenhein provided USADA with medical records directly, and also gave the agency permission to obtain his records from Brown. The records provided by Brown have added notation indicating that Ritzenhein’s infusion was just below the allowable limit.When Magness saw that, he said he compared his own infusion records from Brown to those the doctor submitted to USADA, and he noticed discrepancies that he shared with ProPublica and the BBC. The arbitration panel ultimately agreed with USADA’s contention that Brown altered medical records “after being informed of the anti-doping investigation” and in an effort to manipulate evidence provided to the panel.Brown is well known in elite running circles in the U.S. for his liberal prescribing of thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone is not banned by anti-doping rules. But as evidence emerged that it was being prescribed for performance enhancement rather than medical necessity, some athletes deemed its use unethical, and officials from UK Anti-Doping and USADA — citing performance enhancement and health concerns — called for WADA to restrict thyroid hormone.Some former NOP athletes and staff recounted to ProPublica and the BBC an inside joke within the elite running group: In addition to being fast, a runner had to get prescriptions for asthma or thyroid medication to be part of the team. (Salazar strongly disputed this characterization, and he said that most NOP athletes did not have prescriptions for asthma or thyroid drugs.) Brown, for his part, had long said openly that his treatment was medically sensible, even though mainstream medical literature would suggest that athletes he treated already had normal thyroid function.In 2013, The Wall Street Journal published a profile of Brown titled, “U.S. Track’s Unconventional Physician,” in which Brown identified himself as a consultant to U.S.A. Track and Field and the U.S. Olympic Committee, and a doctor whose patients had won 15 gold medals. The story said that both organizations had referred athletes to Brown, but both denied that he was a consultant. According to emails viewed by ProPublica, later that year during the World Championships, Brown was corresponding regularly with USOC staff members to coordinate athletes’ medical regimen.On Tuesday, the weight of Salazar’s ban was felt immediately. The International Association of Athletics Federations deactivated his World Championships accreditation, barring him from athletes’ and coaches’ areas of the stadium in Doha, Qatar, or from having any access to his athletes. Two are in the men’s 800-meters final Tuesday night. Update, Oct. 2, 2019: Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, sent this email to all Nike employees on Wednesday regarding his role and defending Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar.
An Inmate Needed Emergency Medical Help. The Jail’s Response: See if She Has Insurance.
by Connor Sheets, AL.com This article was produced in partnership with AL.com, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. When the administrator of the Washington County Jail in southwest Alabama answered the phone on the evening of June 20, 2016, he learned of a health emergency playing out in the jail he oversaw.A 43-year-old inmate named Tracie Weaver had been vomiting for hours and her blood pressure was dangerously high, a dispatcher told then-jail administrator Arthur Ray Busby.“We are going to have to do something with Tracie because she is throwing up everywhere. … Her blood pressure is at 183 over 113. I don’t have a county unit available to carry her to the hospital,” the dispatcher said. [**Listen to the Call:** A dispatcher tells then-jail administrator Arthur Ray Busby that Tracie Weaver is experiencing a medical crisis. Busby directs the dispatcher to figure out who will pay for Weaver’s medical care before sending her to a hospital.] Weaver had been booked into the Washington County Jail a week prior and was awaiting trial on a charge of illegal possession of a credit or debit card.The nearest hospital is only 1 ½ miles away, but Weaver remained in the jail as Busby directed staff to first figure out who would pay for her medical care.“See if she had insurance, if she had Medicaid,” he told the dispatcher, who was referred to only as Kelly on the call. A recording of the conversation was provided to AL.com and ProPublica by Henry Brewster, a lawyer for Weaver’s family in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in Mobile in February 2018.If Weaver was covered by Medicaid or private health insurance, then her medical bills would not be the county’s responsibility if the sheriff’s office released her from its custody. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. “Like I told, uh, Kelly, find out what her Medicaid card is,” Busby told Tina Sullivan, a sheriff’s deputy on duty in the jail that night who was looped into the call. “And, uh, if she’s got full Medicaid.”Twice, in the short conversation, Busby said that Weaver should be released on “furlough” before being handed over to a family member.Typically, medical furloughs are granted to inmates who have terminal illnesses or require outpatient procedures or care for chronic conditions. But in this instance, Busby used the term to refer to a process much like that of the “medical bond,” a tool that AL.com and ProPublica have found sheriffs throughout Alabama pursue to release inmates and avoid being on the hook for their medical bills.“Tell her to call her family, or call her family, and tell them to come get her and take her out to the hospital on furlough. … Call the family and tell them to come up and get her on a furlough, and take her on to the doctor,” Busby said. Weaver (Courtesy of the Weaver family) At one point, Busby told the dispatcher to otherwise “wait on a county unit” to take Weaver to the hospital. Weaver was driven to the hospital later that evening in a sheriff’s office vehicle. By the following evening, she was dead. A state autopsy report said that she had suffered from a “massive cerebral hemorrhage” and that her cause of death was a “cerebrovascular accident,” the medical term for a stroke.“You’re Gonna Have Deaths”In most instances in which inmates in medical crisis are released via medical bonds and similar methods like recognizance bonds, the inmates survive. That was the case with Michael Tidwell, who was released from the same Washington County Jail in 2013 hours before he entered a diabetic coma.Washington County Sheriff Richard Stringer said in an interview in his office in Chatom, a small town about an hour’s drive north of Mobile, that his jail has no medical professionals on staff, and that no doctors or nurses pay periodic visits to the facility.As it stands today, Sandy Cooley, the jail’s current administrator, makes medical decisions for inmates “most of the time,” Stringer said.Cooley, who has no formal medical training, said she believes Weaver’s death was unavoidable.“We wound up taking her to the emergency room. But it would not have mattered; if she had been on the operating table, she’d have still died,” Cooley said during the interview in Stringer’s office.Brewster, the attorney for Weaver’s family, also has represented other inmates, including Tidwell, and their families in similar cases. After reviewing the jail’s medical policies and other relevant documents in Weaver’s case, Brewster decried the lack of health care inmates receive.“There is absolutely no internal medical care there and they are severely understaffed,” the Mobile-based lawyer said. “There’s no nurse, no doctor, no medical care, nothing at all. So if there’s a medical emergency, they are just taken to the county hospital.” The sheriff deferred to Cooley when asked about Weaver’s death. But he said that “like any jail, you’re gonna have deaths.”“Every time someone is booked into this jail, we go over their medical history. … We go through the whole scenario and you know, you do the best you can,” Stringer said.He later provided a copy of the “health questionnaire” that the sheriff’s office requires inmates to fill out when they are booked into the jail. There are 28 terms listed on the one-page document, ranging from “Mental Problems” and “Asthma,” to “Diabetes” and “Poor Hygiene.” Each inmate is asked to respond with a yes or no answer to each and is given space to provide an explanation for their answer.At the top of the list is a two-word question: “Has Insurance?”Unanswered QuestionsOther inmates said Weaver was already in bad shape when she arrived at the Washington County Jail shortly after she completed a 33-day substance abuse treatment program, according to the lawsuit Weaver’s estate filed against Stringer, Busby, Sullivan and two other sheriff’s office employees.“From the point she began her stay in the Jail, fellow inmates who were familiar with her described her as physically and mentally weak and in distress,” the suit states. “She appeared underweight, ill, and unstable.”Weaver’s health deteriorated further over the ensuing week as jail staff failed to provide her the medications she required, according to the lawsuit. Stringer, who denied wrongdoing in connection with her death, said that inmates in his jail have never been denied prescribed drugs. “She suffered seizures and could barely talk. She suffered debilitating headaches and she cried constantly,” the lawsuit states. “One inmate described that she ‘wasn’t in reality.’ She could hardly eat on her own. She was drooling constantly.”Weaver was eventually placed in solitary confinement, and a week after her booking, an inmate told jail staff that it appeared that Weaver was having a stroke, the lawsuit states. A guard went to her cell shortly afterward and told her that he was going to “knock the fuck out of her if she didn’t shut up,” threatened to pepper-spray her, then closed the door and walked away, the lawsuit said.Within hours, “Tracie was drawn up, and could only verbalize ‘uh, uh.’ Tracie appeared to be dying and she was strapped in the chair [by jail staff.] Tracie had vomit all over her clothes,” the lawsuit said.An inmate urged Sullivan, the deputy on duty, to get an ambulance for Weaver, according to the lawsuit, but was told that the jail’s policies and Busby’s rules required that guards get Busby’s permission before calling for an ambulance. Twenty more minutes went by with Weaver in a state of medical crisis, the suit said.When she was finally taken downstairs, another sheriff’s deputy “told Tracie, who was clearly incompetent, to sign a paper so she could be released to the hospital. Tracie could only reply, ‘uh, uh.’ [The deputy] replied to Tracie, sarcastically, ‘You can say, “uh, uh” all you want, but if you don’t sign this paper, you are not being released,’” according to the lawsuit.A sheriff’s office employee eventually drove Weaver to the Washington County Hospital. Doctors there told her loved ones she had suffered a brain hemorrhage or stroke, and Weaver slipped into a coma and had to be flown by helicopter to the University of South Alabama Medical Center.The next day, doctors at the Mobile hospital reported that she had no brain function. She was taken off life support and died on June 21, 2016.It’s unclear who paid for Weaver’s stay in the hospital. Stringer said in a telephone interview last week that his office did not pay for it.“She was not in our custody,” he said. “She was released from here on a medical bond and once she was released we did not pay a medical bill.” Read More These Sheriffs Release Sick Inmates to Avoid Paying Their Hospital Bills Inmates suffering heart attacks, on the verge of diabetic comas and brutalized in jail beatings have been released so sheriffs wouldn’t have to pay for their medical care. Some were rearrested once they had recovered. Weaver’s family members declined through Brewster to comment, but the lawyer said her estate was never sent any hospital bills.In May, the federal lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount. A month before the settlement was finalized, Brewster said in an interview that the sheriff’s office cannot abdicate its duty to take care of its inmates’ medical needs.“They have an obligation, despite what their finances are, when there are conditions that could lead to an inmate having a serious health condition, to provide adequate medical care,” Brewster said.Settlements have been reached in at least three lawsuits filed against the Washington County Sheriff’s Office over the past decade that claimed it failed to provide adequate health care in the jail, including ones in which inmates were bonded out just prior to hospitalizations.The jail still employs no medical staff. Help us investigate. ProPublica and AL.com will be investigating the extraordinary power of Alabama sheriffs all year. Are you from Alabama? Do you have reason to believe we should be looking into your sheriff or sheriff’s office? Get in touch.
These Sheriffs Release Sick Inmates to Avoid Paying Their Hospital Bills
by Connor Sheets, AL.com This article was produced in partnership with AL.com, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Michael Tidwell’s blood sugar reading was at least 15 times his normal level when sheriff’s deputies took him to the hospital. But before they loaded the inmate into the back of a car, deputies propped up his slumping body and handed him a pen so he could sign a release from the Washington County Jail.“I could barely stand up or keep my eyes open,” he recalled.Tidwell said that he didn’t know what he was signing at the time, and that he lost consciousness a short time later. The consequences of his signature only became clear in the weeks that followed the 2013 medical emergency.By signing the document, which freed him on bond from the small jail in south Alabama, Tidwell had in essence agreed that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office would not be responsible for his medical costs, which included the two days he spent in a diabetic coma in intensive care at Springhill Medical Center in Mobile.It’s unclear whether Tidwell, who was uninsured at the time and in poor health afterward, was billed for his care or if the medical providers wrote it off. Neither Tidwell’s attorneys nor the hospital was able to say, and Tidwell was unable to get answers when he and a reporter called the hospital’s billing department. Michael Tidwell at Springhill Medical Center in Mobile, Alabama. (Courtesy of Michelle Alford) What is clear is that the sheriff’s office avoided paying Tidwell’s hospital bills.Tidwell had been on the receiving end of a practice referred to by many in law enforcement as a “medical bond.” Sheriffs across Alabama are increasingly deploying the tactic to avoid having to pay when inmates face medical emergencies or require expensive procedures — even ones that are necessary only because an inmate received inadequate care while incarcerated.What’s more, once they recover, some inmates are quickly rearrested and booked back into the jail from which they were released.Local jails across the country have long been faulted for providing substandard medical care. In Alabama, for instance, a mentally ill man died from flesh-eating bacteria 15 days after being booked into the Mobile County Metro Jail in 2000. And in 2013, a 19-year-old man died of gangrene less than a month after he was booked into the Madison County Jail. In both cases, officials denied wrongdoing and surviving relatives settled lawsuits alleging that poor jail health care contributed to their loved ones’ deaths.But the use of medical bonds isn’t about inferior care. It’s about who pays for care.While medical bonds have been a last resort in many states for more than 20 years, experts say they are employed in Alabama more often than elsewhere. Their use in some counties but not in others illustrates the vast power and latitude that sheriffs have in Alabama, which is the subject of a yearlong examination by AL.com and ProPublica.Several Alabama sheriffs, including Washington County Sheriff Richard Stringer, said in interviews that they often find ways to release inmates with sudden health problems to avoid responsibility for their medical costs. Stringer denied any wrongdoing in his office’s handling of Tidwell’s emergency. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. “We had a guy a couple of weeks ago with congestive heart failure. … The judge let him make bond so the county didn’t get stuck with that bill,” Lamar County Sheriff Hal Allred said in a March telephone interview. “We don’t have any medical staff in the jail. I wish we did, that would be great, but the way the county finances are, I won’t live long enough to see it.”Typically the process works like this: When an inmate awaiting trial is in a medical crisis, a sheriff or jail staffer requests that a judge allow him or her to be released on bond just before, or shortly after, the inmate is taken to a hospital. If the request is granted, the inmate typically signs the document granting the release.Michael Jackson, district attorney for Alabama’s 4th Judicial Circuit, said he is aware of multiple recent cases in which sheriffs released inmates on bond without first obtaining a judge’s approval. Jackson said he also worries about the risk of inmates reoffending after they receive medical treatment. “I’m not saying there should be no situation where an inmate can get released early, but it shouldn’t be about money,” Jackson said in a phone interview this month. “No one’s watching them when they get out, and people might get robbed or their houses might get broken into.”While judges usually sign off on bonds, lawyers who represent inmates and other experts say sheriffs are often the key decision-makers and can be held legally responsible for what happens after they release inmates via such methods.If an inmate is already sick or injured when he or she is released, sheriffs are “not going to be able to avoid the liability just by opening the trap door and letting them go,” said Henry Brewster, one of Tidwell’s attorneys.“They Have to Do Something”Shortly after Tidwell was locked up for a probation violation in 2013, his sister Michelle Alford, a nurse at a Mobile hospital, said she brought his diabetes medications to the Washington County Jail and gave them to the guard on duty.She says she explained to the staff that her brother is a “brittle” diabetic, meaning he needs frequent monitoring. She provided the jail with a two-page document that explained how often his blood sugar needed to be checked, what symptoms to watch for and the purpose of each medication.The jail’s employees, none of whom had any formal medical training, did not follow those instructions, according to Tidwell’s jailhouse medical records, a copy of which Alford provided to AL.com and ProPublica.On his fourth day in the aging jailhouse, Tidwell became ill and vomited off and on for the ensuing 48 hours. He was unconscious for most of his final two days there, according to court and medical records. Tidwell ended up going to Springhill after his release on a medical bond. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica) Before he was taken to Washington County Hospital, Tidwell’s blood sugar reading was 1,500 mg/dl; a normal reading for him is 80 to 100 mg/dl. Over the less than seven full days he was incarcerated, he had lost at least 17 pounds, records show.Tidwell’s release form bears his signature scrawled incomprehensibly outside the signature box, overlapping the typed prompt for “Signature of Defendant.” It does not match other examples of his signature on court documents reviewed by AL.com and ProPublica.“If you’re in there and you get sick, they have to do something and get some medical attention,” he said. “But if you’re in so bad of shape that they’re trying to hold you up and get you to sign something, that’s wrong.”Tidwell, who was 42 at the time, was assessed at the local hospital and taken to Springhill, a larger and better-equipped hospital, where he lay in a coma in the intensive care unit. He was suffering from renal failure and other complications related to his diabetes, according to the records.During a conversation in his office in downtown Chatom, Stringer, the Washington County sheriff, said that he and his jail staffers are not medically trained. Instead, they “listen to what [inmates are] complaining about and examine them to determine if they need medical bond, because people will do anything to get out of jail.”If they decide an inmate has a serious and potentially costly medical issue — and doesn’t pose a threat to the public — Stringer said he or the jail’s administrator will call a judge and request that the inmate be released.Asked last week whether he believes Tidwell was legally able to provide consent to being bonded out, Stringer said: “They’ve got to be physically able to sign the bond. I’m sure he was [conscious] or he wouldn’t have been able to be bonded out. … It’s been so long ago it’s hard to remember all these things. I’m sure we did what needed to be done.”But in an earlier interview, the sheriff provided an alternate explanation for Tidwell’s hospitalization.“When someone comes in and says he’s a diabetic, we try to prepare a meal that will accommodate his diabetes,” Stringer said. “But now on commissary, they’re on their own there. I mean, you know you’re diabetic. Don’t order — he actually ordered 12 honey buns.” Tidwell in an undated picture. (Courtesy of Michelle Alford) Tidwell, who denies eating a dozen honey buns in the jail, recovered and was sent home from the hospital.He filed a lawsuit against Stringer and several sheriff’s office employees in 2014; it was settled the following year. Stringer said he believes he and his employees would have been exonerated had the suit gone to trial, but because he said the settlement was for “something like $20,000 ... it’s not worth fighting it.”But Tidwell’s problems didn’t end there. Exactly three months after Tidwell was released on bond, a judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest on another probation violation.“They’ll Lower the Bond”AL.com and ProPublica have reviewed the cases or media reports of inmates in 15 of Alabama’s 67 counties who were issued last-minute bonds or released on their own recognizance just before they were hospitalized for emergencies.In September 2018, for instance, a 38-year-old inmate at the Lauderdale County Jail was taken to a nearby hospital after he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to communicate verbally, stand or perform daily tasks, state court records show. The inmate, Scottie Davis, was released from sheriff’s office custody on bond the following day, though he couldn’t sign the release document. Someone instead wrote the words “Unable to sign due to medical cond.” in the space for the inmate’s signature. Davis was responsible for the medical costs after he was bonded out.Lauderdale County Sheriff Rick Singleton said when inmates are too ill to sign their names, sheriff’s officials notify a judge who decides whether to allow them to be released on bond.And earlier last year, in Randolph County, an inmate was released on a medical bond before going to the hospital for surgery, according to The Randolph Leader, a local newspaper. When he wasn’t able to immediately get the procedure, he was rearrested on a new misdemeanor charge and booked back into the Randolph County Jail.The county ended up on the hook for the over $10,000 the procedure was expected to cost. Some county officials view the turn of events as an unfortunate financial setback.Randolph County Commissioner Lathonia Wright said in a phone interview this month that paying inmates’ hospital bills is “really rough” on the county’s budget, but it sometimes can’t be avoided.“I hate that we have to pay for it out of taxpayer money, but the law demands that we take care of people that are incarcerated in the jail,” he said. “If we get a bill, we pay for our medical bills. They come straight from the hospital.”In urban counties with larger populations, the majority of inmates’ medical problems are dealt with in the jails, usually by private companies that provide infirmaries, round-the-clock nurses and doctors who make regular visits.But in some rural counties, sheriffs do not have any staff members with medical training or the budget to absorb significant hospital costs.Jim Underwood, who was sheriff of Walker County from 2015 until January, said the county budgeted about $350,000 per year for jail health care while he was in office. The sheriff’s office did everything it could to keep costs down, Underwood said, adding that before he was sheriff, one inmate’s medical care cost about $300,000.“I think that a lot of it does depend on what they’re charged with … but there are people released because of medical bills,” he said. “You have to go through the judge; they’ll lower the bond.” Underwood said he believes the practice “happens everywhere” in Alabama, though it takes different forms in different counties. One sheriff’s office has paid for inmates to wear ankle monitors while out on bond for unexpected medical care; another waited for an inmate’s relatives to secure a private bond before allowing him to be taken to a hospital, records show.Sheriff’s officials in Washington County, where Tidwell was in custody, have faced other lawsuits alleging improper use of medical bonds, including in the case of a woman who died of a stroke one day after being released from the county’s jail in 2016. In that case, which was settled this year, an audio recording captured a top sheriff’s office official asking jail staff to ensure the woman was released on a medical furlough, a method of release similar to a medical bond, before taking her to the hospital.Nora Demleitner, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who specializes in criminal sentencing, said medical bonds may violate inmates’ rights and the way some sheriffs use them is “totally flawed.”“It’s a stunning problem,” she said. “When [inmates] file lawsuits, and rightly so, they should get civil compensation.”Demleitner added via email that the phenomenon is prevalent in a number of counties and entirely absent in others. AL.com and ProPublica have reviewed media reports of sheriffs pursuing medical bonds for inmates with medical crises in 25 states.Alan Lasseter, a Birmingham-based attorney who has filed lawsuits over alleged police misconduct and jail health care issues, said sheriffs’ reliance on medical bonds appears to be on the rise.“It’s only something I’ve been hearing about for about two years, maybe longer, but it’s becoming more common and it’s really starting to resonate with me that it’s been happening more and more in Alabama,” Lasseter said.“They Are Responsible”Marcus Echols said his daughter was 9 years old when he first learned that she was his child. Until then, the girl’s mother had been collecting child support from another man who was eventually determined not to be her father, according to court records and Echols.In 1998, a judge in Morgan County ordered Echols to pay more than $9,000 worth of back child support and interest in monthly payments of $500.Over the ensuing years, Echols, who pays support on other children and has had trouble keeping a job, repeatedly failed to make the required payments. By November 2015, when he was arrested for contempt of court for failure to make child support payments, his debt totaled more than $50,000. He was booked into the Morgan County Jail in Decatur, a city in north Alabama.Two months later, on Jan. 16, 2016, Echols suffered a heart attack inside his painted cinder-block cell.For over half an hour, guards argued over whether he needed to be taken to the hospital, Echols, now 49, said.They eventually took him to Huntsville Hospital. Several hours later, Echols said, he awoke from a procedure and was told by a doctor that he had needed three stents inserted because his heart had suffered extensive damage over the extended period of time between when he went into cardiac arrest and his arrival at the hospital. Medical records reviewed by AL.com and ProPublica confirm Echols’ account of his condition and treatment.The doctor also informed him that he had been officially released from Morgan County Sheriff’s Office custody, Echols said. Marcus Echols outside the Morgan County Jail in Decatur, Alabama. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica) Echols said he was glad to find out that he would be allowed to go home instead of back to jail, but when he received a bill less than two weeks later from Huntsville Hospital for the costs of his medical care, he learned that he was personally responsible for more than $80,000.“I didn’t get the bill until about a week after I got out of the hospital,” Echols said. “It just showed up in the mail.”Echols said he never learned what mechanism the sheriff’s office had used to release him from its custody, and none of the court records associated with his lawsuit provide any clarity.“I didn’t sign nothing. … When I woke up,” he said, “the doctor told me that the sheriff’s office had told him to tell me that I had been released from jail.”A local charitable foundation ultimately paid Echols’ bills. But he still feels that he was taken advantage of.“It seems like a scam that they’re running. They’re running the jail at the lowest possible cost at the expense of everyone else.”Ana Franklin, who was sheriff at the time of Echols’ incarceration and hospitalization, declined to comment on Echols’ experience. But she said her “first consideration in whether or not to release someone on a medical release was never the budget.” She said the primary factors that drove such determinations when she was sheriff included criminal history, risk of reoffense and whether the jail was equipped to provide adequate medical care.“It’s great to just say the sheriffs cut them loose because it saves them money on their medical,” said Franklin, who pleaded guilty last year to a federal charge of failing to file an income tax return. “But it’s just as big a liability issue that an inmate is going to say that we didn’t provide adequate treatment for them in the jail as it is that he’s going to sue us and say we cut him loose and they had to pay their medical bills.”In March 2016, just a few weeks after Echols’ heart attack, the sheriff’s office attempted to obtain a new warrant to arrest him for contempt of court for his continued failure to pay the thousands of dollars worth of back child support he still owed.Morgan County District Judge Charles B. Langham issued an order stating that Echols “is still under medical care” — he was attending cardiac rehab sessions at the time — and denied the sheriff’s office’s request. A year later, Langham issued an order for a new warrant for Echols’ arrest. At the time, Echols was unable to work, had applied for federal disability and was living with relatives.Echols’ sister, Lashundra Craig, said she takes issue with the sheriff’s office’s persistent attempts to arrest her brother despite his continuing health issues.“They are responsible for whatever happens to the inmates. … If they don’t want to be responsible for the medical costs but they want to put you back in jail to face your responsibility, to me it’s showing they just still want their money,” she said.“They Said They Would Release Me”It has historically been difficult for inmates to prevail in lawsuits alleging that sheriffs violated their rights by releasing them while they required medical attention.On July 3, 1996, four inmates beat Leroy Owens with a metal pipe; stabbed him with a screwdriver; kicked, stomped and punched him; and left him in a pool of blood in a common room on the second floor of the Butler County Jail in Alabama’s Black Belt. Owens described the events of that evening in a recent interview, and they are laid out in detail in the records of the federal court case he and a fellow inmate who was also beaten would later file against then-sheriff Diane Harris, the county and the county commission in Alabama’s Middle District in Montgomery.For nearly an hour, no one answered Owens’ cries for help or those of other inmates who banged on the jail’s walls, one of whom yelled, “They’re killing him up here,” according to the court records.Finally, Harris’ chief deputy, Phillip Hartley, was called to the jail. Twenty minutes after the attack ended, Owens was taken downstairs and then driven to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for his injuries.The hospital released Owens into the custody of two sheriff’s deputies, who were given a discharge document detailing “specific procedures to care for Owens’s head wounds and other injuries. It instructed them to monitor his level of consciousness, pupils, vision, and coordination, and to call the hospital immediately if any change occurred,” according to a summary of Owens’ allegations included in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit’s ruling on the appeal of his federal case.Instead, after they arrived at the jail, Hartley insisted that the bloodied inmate sign a bond granting his release, according to Owens and the court records.“I signed out of the jail. All I know is it was a piece of paper I signed. I was bleeding and I was coming in and out of consciousness,” Owens, who is now 56, said last month. “They said they would release me if I signed it.”After Owens signed the bond, Hartley drove him almost to the county line and dropped him off at about 3:30 a.m. on July 4, 1996, on the side of a desolate stretch of highway, without shoes, according to Owens and the court records.“When he released me from the jail, he took me to the edge of the county and he said, ‘Your best bet is to leave town,’” Owens recalled. Leroy Owens at a friend’s home in Mobile. The Butler County Sheriff’s Office took Owens to a hospital after he was attacked inside the county jail, but then bonded him out and left him shoeless on the side of the road. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for ProPublica) After spending the night in a hotel, Owens awoke “in terrible pain” and was taken by ambulance back to the emergency room, according to the court records. He returned to the hospital again on July 8 for further treatment, the court records show.Medicaid ultimately paid the hospital bills Owens incurred after he was bonded out from the jail.Danny Bond, the current sheriff of Butler County, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.In 2001, the 11th Circuit reinstated Owens’ case against the county, the sheriff and others after a lower court had dismissed it. The court ruled that though Owens and the other inmate did not prove that Harris or the county were deliberately indifferent to their medical needs, they “sufficiently stated a claim against the County and the Sheriff for the conditions at the Butler County Jail.” The court, however, also found that Harris was “entitled to immunity for her policy of releasing sick and injured inmates.”Judge Rosemary Barkett, writing for a four-judge minority, disagreed, saying that the allegations of deliberate indifference against Harris should not be dismissed. Barkett wrote that Harris and her staff should have known that releasing Owens and leaving him on the side of the road after 3 a.m. could be a constitutional violation.Harris and the county denied wrongdoing; Owens and the other inmate plaintiff ultimately settled the suit.Meanwhile, legal experts who reviewed relevant portions of Alabama’s state code said they were able to find only two vague references to the issue: a statement that certain fees shall not be assessed “if a person is released on judicial public bail or on personal recognizance for a documented medical reason” and a stipulation that “the sheriff or jailer, at the expense of the county,” must provide “necessary medicines and medical attention to those who are sick and injured, when they are unable to provide them for themselves.”Despite that, some lawyers and experts say inmates often have a hard time winning cases against sheriffs on those grounds.“If a county sheriff threw someone out of the jail who’s unconscious and said ‘good luck,’ you could possibly make a civil rights violation or negligence claim,” said Paul Saputo, a Dallas-based criminal defense attorney who has represented multiple clients who have been bonded out of jail for medical reasons.“If you have a heart attack and are taken to a hospital, and the question at the end of the day is who’s gonna pay for it, that’s a little bit closer of a call.”“They’re Technically Still in Custody”Lauderdale County, in Alabama’s northwest corner, has taken official action to expand the use of medical bonds.During its April 25, 2017, meeting, the Lauderdale County Commission agreed to enter into a contract with a Tennessee company to provide ankle monitors and monitoring services for inmates who are permitted to leave the county’s jail to obtain expensive medical treatments.Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly explained the concept during a discussion of the ankle monitor plan earlier that month, as Florence’s Times Daily newspaper reported at the time.“Putting them on an ankle monitor and then releasing them on medical furlough or a recognizance bond would still allow us to have control of them, but also it would make them responsible for any medical treatment or expense,” Connolly said.The new approach to reducing the jail’s medical costs has been used 12 to 15 times since the contract was signed, Singleton, the Lauderdale County sheriff, said in a telephone interview last month. “I guess you’d consider it like house arrest,” he said. “They’re technically still in custody” and must immediately return to the jail once they are deemed healthy enough to do so. But instead of adding to the $500,000 of medical care the jail averaged annually as of 2017, the inmates must pay the bill. That means the program has been a success, according to Singleton.“It’s accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” he said. “It’s saved us some money.”Singleton also emphasized that the program does not affect public safety because ankle monitors are only used in cases involving nonviolent inmates who are not considered threats to the community.Lauderdale County District Judge Carole Medley, who rules on small-time criminal cases nearly every day in her courtroom, said she often grants bonds so inmates can obtain medical care, which they must then pay for themselves. She said that she is “very pro-ankle monitor,” and that she considers the program “a win-win” for inmates and for the jail and the county’s finances.“I release people on [own recognizance] bonds every other week for medical issues. Do I take into consideration the charge? Of course. And there are times where we release them on an ankle monitor to get their medical needs addressed, and then some of them do return to jail.”Critics of the practice say it raises important questions about the very purpose of incarceration. For instance, if sheriffs and other officials claim that these inmates must be jailed to prevent them from harming others, punish them for wrongdoing and deter would-be criminals, why are those officials so quick to abandon those goals in order to avoid paying their medical bills?Jasmine Heiss, a campaign director at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, said if such inmates can in fact be safely released when doing so saves tax dollars, perhaps they shouldn’t have been incarcerated in the first place.“Broadly, what we would like to see is people who can be safely released on their own recognizance being released earlier in the process rather than waiting until people have these severe medical crises,” Heiss said. Help us investigate. ProPublica and AL.com will be investigating the extraordinary power of Alabama sheriffs all year. Are you from Alabama? Do you have reason to believe we should be looking into your sheriff or sheriff’s office? Get in touch.
The Hedge Fund Billionaire’s Guide to Buying Your Kids a Better Shot at Not Just One Elite College, but Lots of Them
by Ava Kofman and Daniel Golden ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This story is a collaboration between ProPublica and New York magazine. The unhappy heroine of “The Mistakes Madeline Made,” which premiered Off Broadway in 2006, hates working as one of 15 personal assistants to a financier and his family. The patriarch, she observes, “runs his home the way he runs his hedge fund — using a model to protect his family against the possibility of loss or waste or even just the unexpected.” His “Household System” demands perfection: Even the hunt for a duplicate pair of New Balance sneakers is to be executed with the logistical finesse of a Navy SEAL strike.The play was written by Elizabeth Meriwether, who would go on to create the sitcom “New Girl” for Fox. Her fictionalized account of her brief stint working for the Wall Street billionaire David E. Shaw never reached a wide audience, but the script became samizdat among the harried members of Shaw staff — as the family’s highly compensated, Ivy-educated, hierarchical cadre is known. Her disgruntled protagonist’s job making sure “nothing bad can ever happen to this family” has felt familiar to some of Meriwether’s successors.The 68-year-old Shaw made his estimated $7.3 billion fortune by bringing the computing revolution to finance. D.E. Shaw & Co., the legendary hedge fund that bears his name, pairs proprietary trading algorithms with obsessive risk management. Less well publicized, however, are the various ways in which Shaw has applied his fund’s risk-averse, quantitative approach to nearly every aspect of his life. Employees tell stories about Shaw wanting Chinese food or a comfortable mattress, and Shaw staff exhaustively researching and testing the options in advance. It was company lore that before Shaw traveled, an assistant would take the exact same trip — same car service, same airport, same seat on the plane — to eliminate any inefficiencies. Shaw has been said to purchase tickets for several different flights on the same day in case his plans change.He has even devised a model to protect his family from the possibility of loss or disappointment (what some might call the stuff of life itself) in that most uncertain of contemporary futures markets — namely, the college-admissions process. Like other couples of ample means, Shaw and his wife, financial journalist Beth Kobliner, have sent their three children to an elite prep school, supported them with hyperqualified nannies and tutors, and encouraged their extracurricular interests. But while the typical snowplow parent quietly eliminates potential obstacles by clearing the road ahead, Shaw and Kobliner have seemingly bulldozed an entire mountain. Even though their children were by all accounts excellent students, the Shaws pursued a remarkably elaborate and expensive pattern of philanthropy to seven of the most renowned universities in the country.Starting in 2011, when the oldest of their three children was about two years away from applying to college, the Shaw Family Endowment Fund donated $1 million annually to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford and at least $500,000 each to Columbia and Brown. The pattern persisted through 2017, the most recent year for which public filings are available, with a bump in giving to Columbia to $1 million a year in 2016 and 2017. The foundation, which lists Kobliner as president and Shaw as treasurer and secretary, has also contributed $200,000 annually to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2013.The total donations for “general” purposes across seven years and seven elite schools are $37.3 million, which represents 62% of the foundation’s giving over that period. At minimum, experts in higher-education fundraising say, Shaw and Kobliner’s strategy improved their children’s chances of getting into at least one of the country’s top universities. At best, it would allow them to choose whichever blue-chip school they preferred, making selecting a college as easy as ordering from a takeout menu. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Most American tycoons who sweeten their children’s admissions prospects rely on a major donation to a single college, often their alma mater. And yet, from a hedge funder’s perspective, investing in multiple colleges is a classic asymmetric bet — one with minimal risk and massive potential upside. “For someone of his mentality, making a portfolio bet would make a lot of sense,” said one former Ivy League development officer. “I can tell you that within the hedge-fund community and private-equity community, this wouldn’t be unusual. It’s common for people to be giving to two or three or four schools.” (Just how many of these donations are made is hard to know because, while those from foundations like the Shaws’ are typically publicly reported, gifts from individuals are not.)As Parke Muth, an independent counselor and former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, explained, the very wealthy “are accustomed to diversifying their investments, and they apply that same philosophy to their kids’ choices.”For his own college education, David Shaw, who grew up in Los Angeles, went to the University of California, San Diego, where he studied math, physics and information science. In 1973, he entered Stanford’s Ph.D. program in computer science. After earning his doctorate, he got a job teaching at Columbia. One former colleague remembers that Shaw arrived in New York driving a Ferrari and had his own public-relations representative, which was unusual for a faculty member. Profiles of Shaw over the years have reported that he left Columbia because Morgan Stanley & Co. made him an offer that was too good to refuse, but that may have been only part of the equation. He was also in his up-or-out year at Columbia, and his promising research project on an experimental supercomputer was perceived to have run into difficulties. “I don’t believe he was going to get tenure,” said Stephen Unger, emeritus professor of computer science. “His clock was running out.” (Through a spokesperson, the Shaw family declined to be interviewed for this story.)At Morgan Stanley, Shaw realized that computers could do far more than simply help humans gain a financial edge; if programmed correctly, they could replace our faulty intuitions entirely. In 1988, he left Morgan Stanley to found D.E. Shaw & Co., which he conceived of as a research firm that happened to study the intersection of computing and finance. The company’s proprietary algorithms scoured markets across the world for tiny price anomalies. Shaw “pursued numerical precision with a zealous intensity,” Sebastian Mallaby writes in his 2010 book on hedge-fund giants, “More Money Than God.” “It was no good telling him that a programming task might take three to eight weeks; you had to say that it would take 5.25 but with an error of two weeks.” The conventional wisdom in the hedge-fund world is to bet big. DESCO, as Shaw’s firm is known internally, did things differently. Its philosophy, explained one former trader at the firm, is to “bet small and bet many, many times.” Traders are advised never to make a bet that could cripple the firm. “They definitely practice what I would call extreme diversification,” the trader added. “It permeates the culture.”To fill its storied ranks, D.E. Shaw & Co. depended on the same criteria elite colleges use in their own admissions processes. No matter one’s age or status, every applicant — from secretarial workers to traders lured from top mathematics and physics departments — had to submit their SAT scores. “It was incredibly insulting to recruit professors from MIT and ask them for their SAT scores and high school GPA,” a recruiter recalls. “They would be like, ‘I’m a tenured professor, why are you asking?’” When former Treasury secretary and Harvard president Lawrence Summers applied for a job at the firm in 2006, he was required to solve brainteasers.Housed in a glass skyscraper near Times Square, D.E. Shaw & Co. ranks as one of the five highest-grossing hedge funds of all time. The company employs around 1,200 people, including 87 Ph.D.s and 25 International Math Olympiad medalists. At one point in the aughts, of the five employees in the D.E. Shaw mailroom, three had degrees from Columbia and one was a concert pianist from Carnegie Mellon, according to a former worker. Among its alums are John Overdeck and David Siegel, who left to form their own legendary quant firm, Two Sigma, as well as Jeff Bezos and his ex-wife, MacKenzie Tuttle. Eric Schmidt, the former Google chairman, owns a 20% stake in the firm, which he has said “feels like Silicon Valley in Manhattan.” Shaw owns almost all of the rest.Although Shaw left the day-to-day management of the hedge fund nearly two decades ago, he’s still the chairman, and it remains molded in his image: decidedly elitist, tight-lipped and risk-averse. The firm has always operated in stealth mode, keen to protect its secret formulas. “Shaw mostly prohibited us from talking to colleagues in other groups — or sometimes even our own office mates — about what we were doing,” Cathy O’Neil, who worked at DESCO as a quant from 2007 to 2009, wrote in her 2016 book, “Weapons of Math Destruction.” (As soon as most applicants arrived at their first interview, they signed nondisclosure agreements. If hired, they signed more, which may be why former employees spoke with us anonymously.)This secrecy and vigilance extended to the company’s extreme caution on legal and compliance issues. One of Shaw’s common sayings, repeated at an annual training session by a compliance officer, was that it was important to avoid risks and legal trouble because Shaw wanted to make sure that his kids could go to college. “He used to say that semifacetiously, as a way of saying, ‘I’m depending on this firm for my future income,’” one former employee recalled. The management of the Shaw family’s foundation reflects this prudence. At the end of 2017, more than 90% of its investments were in short-term Treasury bills. Shaw left the hedge fund in 2001 to found D.E. Shaw Research, which applied computer simulations to the arduous process of drug development. At both places, former employees said Shaw cared about saving time almost as much as he cared about minimizing risk. “The one thing you can’t get back is his time,” a former employee who worked at the hedge fund recalled. “So you spend as much of your time to get him back his time. My bosses would tell me that if my spending eight hours on something would save David five minutes, it would absolutely be a good use of my time.”Shaw, who often dressed in cargo shorts, a T-shirt and New Balance sneakers, wanted to make sure that wherever he went, he could stroll in and begin working. Desks and computers were set up to his liking. His guidelines for visitors to his office were equally specific. In the early 1990s, he became frustrated that people who came by when he was busy would walk away before he could see who they were and what they wanted. In a two-and-a-half-page interoffice memo titled “Stopping by David’s Office,” he detailed his solution: hand signals. To indicate that Shaw should return a visit, he wrote, “the visitor points back over his or her shoulder.” To indicate the opposite, “the visitor makes the ‘don’t bother’ or ‘no thanks’ sign, moving his or her hand back and forth, with palm showing, as if cleaning a window, while possibly shaking his or her head and/or wrinkling his or her nose.”Shaw’s hand signals were parodied in an advice column in the company’s internal newsletter. Columnist “MarySue” explained to “Frustrated in Finop” how to interpret Shaw’s gestures. “You saw a basic left-right combination, which means ‘I’m on the phone with Bill Clinton (left shoulder point) and the Dalai Lama (right ear pull) right now.’”Shaw and Kobliner, then a staff writer for Money magazine, were married in New York in 1993. Two years later, they had their first child, Rebecca, now 23, followed by Adam, 21, and Jacob, a high school sophomore. In orchestrating his family life, Shaw borrowed the methods of his hedge fund, much as “The Mistakes Madeline Made” describes. Many of the personal assistants on Shaw staff had impressive credentials. “It felt like getting into college all over again to get a job there,” a former staffer recalled. “It felt like a huge accomplishment.”Hiring for Shaw staff was done separately from that of the firm but was comparably rigorous. Recruiters would sometimes swap out mathematical brainteasers for hypothetical problems that might arise for the family: If David is concerned about ticks, how would you prevent them from invading his property? David doesn’t like fluoride: How would you figure out the bottled-water brands that have the least? If money were not an issue, how would you design a safety helmet for a child? Once hired, Shaw staff soon learned that many of these questions were far from hypothetical. One staffer remembered being told to find a rug for a child’s bedroom that was both cost-effective and “the best.” “Everything was like that,” the staffer said. Shaw also instructed his staff to protect the family’s 38,000-square-foot Hastings-on-Hudson estate from Lyme disease. One proposal supposedly involved building a moat — dry and lined with sheer glass — that would prevent tick-carrying squirrels and deer from entering the property.As in the corporate world, responsibilities for different tasks and specialties, such as medical research, travel and child care, were divvied up among various Shaw staff; some assisted other assistants. “Devoted professional couple with three wonderful, school-aged children,” read one ad the family posted in 2011, “seeks highly intelligent, amiable, responsible individual to serve as part-time personal assistant helping with child care, educational enrichment, and certain other activities at various times during afternoons, evenings, and weekends.” The ad went on to explain that the assistant would have a private room on a different floor from the family’s apartment and that “an aptitude for math and science is a plus, though not required.”The existence of this fleet-footed band of assistants — armed with advanced degrees and six-figure salaries and fighting an ever-losing battle against contingency — appears to have been a well-kept secret. Even the children’s friends who visited the Shaws’ apartment on the Upper West Side were not aware that the family owned other apartments in the building brimming with personal staff.Shaw staffers confirmed that the standard was as Meriwether depicted it: perfection. Those who didn’t measure up suffered the consequences. Meriwether, who joined Shaw staff as a 22-year-old Yale graduate, was fired after forgetting to put snacks — bottled water and Asian pears sliced a quarter of an inch thick — into the car that picked the children up from school, according to two people familiar with the incident.While Shaw was shifting his focus to medical research, Kobliner was expanding her personal-finance franchise. In books like “Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not)” and “Get a Financial Life,” she fashioned herself as a self-help guru for the financially dazed and dispossessed. Kobliner has described her “mission” in life as encouraging people to have “open, honest conversations about money.” She advises parents who give charitably to include their children in those decisions and warns that “giving shouldn’t mean taking from others.”One of her areas of expertise is how to pay for college. In her writing, media interviews and YouTube videos, she cautions parents not to “follow the herd with your donating dollars” or pin their hopes for their children on getting into brand-name colleges. “Don’t believe the hype,” she tells them. “You might find yourself obsessing over those annual college rankings. Don’t take them too seriously.” The sensible solution, she argues, is for families to “pick a few financial safety schools” — public universities close to home. A degree from an elite college, she reminds readers, may not translate into higher earnings in later life. “The Ivy League isn’t necessarily the gravy train.” This is not quite the message imparted by Horace Mann, the exclusive prep school where the Shaws sent their children. At Horace Mann, the need to battle for slots at the nation’s most prestigious colleges is ingrained in students from an early age. Peers of the Shaw children remember classmates talking about where they wanted to go to college — and understanding that they might very well not go there — as early as the sixth grade. “It is difficult to dodge the school’s reputation as a ‘pressure cooker,’ college-obsessed school when, for example, a seventh-grade class has divided into teams named after the eight Ivy League institutions,” noted an editorial in the school’s newspaper, The Record, in a 2014 issue printed shortly before Rebecca Shaw’s graduation.Conversations around choosing classes and clubs were tied to which would be most useful for college applications. Among her extracurriculars, Rebecca founded the Anti-Bullying Leadership Network. The summer before applying to college, she organized a conference on bullying at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center auditorium, where she spoke alongside leading academics and experts. “The speakers seemed like something that came to be through Rebecca’s parents’ connections,” one former classmate said. Over the years, some of their institutions had been recipients of the Shaws’ giving. Speakers included Lisa S. Coico, president of City College (the Shaw foundation has donated $3 million to the school to endow a chair in Kobliner’s father’s name); Thomas Kelly, the head of Horace Mann (to which the family has donated at least $3.9 million); and Sarah Hurwitz, special assistant to then-President Barack Obama. Shaw is one of the country’s top donors to the Democratic Party. Both he and Kobliner served on presidential advisory committees, and Rebecca later authored a guest post about the Anti-Bullying Leadership Network on an Obama White House blog.Widener Library at Harvard University (Charles Krupa/AP) By the time Rebecca applied to college, the family foundation had been donating millions to premier universities for at least two years. Large giving to multiple colleges isn’t as redundant as it may sound. “People sometimes feel, A million dollars should give me a lot of clout,” said Ron Brown, former director of gift planning at Princeton. “In the scheme of things, not so much. … A million-dollar gift doesn’t have the impact it used to have 20 years ago.”At the same time, prestigious colleges have become even harder to get into. In 2015, for example, more than 8,000 students with perfect grade-point averages applied to Harvard, which admits about 2,000 candidates each year. “It’s quite a rarefied pool,” William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, later observed. Harvard admitted only 4.5% of applicants this year, half of its acceptance rate a decade ago. Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Brown all accepted fewer than 7% of applicants in 2019. Since certain groups, including alumni children and recruited athletes, are admitted at considerably higher rates, the odds against other applicants who don’t enjoy any such preference are even longer.It was these anxieties that the independent college counselor Rick Singer infamously exploited in his wealthy clientele. Singer told his clients they could no longer rely on a major gift to one university — what he called the “back door” to college admissions. Instead, he sold them on the “side door” of fraud, persuading dozens of rich families to pay him a total of more than $25 million to secure spots at schools like USC, Georgetown, Yale and Stanford through inflating test scores and bribing college coaches. At least 52 people, including 35 parents, have been charged in the scheme, nicknamed “Varsity Blues” by the FBI. Fifteen parents have pleaded guilty, including actress Felicity Huffman, who was sentenced in September to 14 days in prison for paying $15,000 to inflate her daughter’s SAT score.Shaw and Kobliner’s giving strategy was a lawful — if exceedingly more expensive — response to the same upper-class angst. In essence, they created multiple back doors. At a time of renewed debate about whether colleges are vehicles of social mobility or a means of reproducing class privilege, such a philanthropic adaptation suggests that the ultrarich won’t easily surrender their advantages. It “looks like a clever plan, but not illegal,” said William Zabel, a New York attorney who spent two decades as the head of Princeton’s planned-giving advisory committee. Others questioned whether Shaw’s donations were intended to gain an edge for his children. Mark Lipton, a professor of management at the New School who has worked with the hedge fund, said that while Shaw cares deeply about his family, “he’s a real meritocracy fan. My hunch is that he invests in his kids from Day One so they can get in at these schools on their own. What’s so self-evident, whether it’s for his own kids or not, is the extraordinary importance he puts on the best higher education.”Spokespeople for the universities enriched by the Shaws’ family foundation said they too are meritocracy fans and seek “applicants of exceptional ability and character,” as Harvard’s Rachael Dane put it. Yale, said spokesperson Karen Peart, “takes great care in its admissions process, and we stand behind the merit of all of our students.” Ernest Miranda of Stanford said “a donation does not purchase a place” there. “Stanford does not accept gifts if it knows a gift is being made with the intention of influencing the admissions process.”Nevertheless, the Shaws’ pattern of giving has several signs that experts associate with parental campaigns to boost their children’s chances. Neither Shaw nor Kobliner graduated from Harvard, Yale or Princeton, three of the four universities to which the foundation has made annual seven-figure gifts.Their favoring of institutions they didn’t attend runs counter to the traditional practice of wealthy Americans. When donors have no previous ties to a university, explained Brown, the former director of gift planning at Princeton, gifts are usually restricted to a specific academic purpose, such as funding a research program in their field of interest or a friend’s faculty chair. The Shaw family foundation has made dozens of smaller, targeted gifts to medical or computer-science research at schools over the years, yet its largest annual donations to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Brown, Columbia and MIT have been unrestricted.Such general-purpose gifts, which are especially prized by universities, tend to be relatively small. In 2018, only 3% of total giving to Stanford and 4% to Yale was unrestricted, according to Ann Kaplan, who oversees a fundraising survey at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. In other words, a major unrestricted donation to a school, especially from someone who had no connection with it, would stand out. “It would be a flag,” Brown said. “Someone would ask him: ‘We’re very grateful for these gifts, but tell me why. Why now? What do you hope to accomplish?’” Brown and Baker said development offices at elite universities generally won’t discuss a large gift with a prospective donor who has a child applying or about to apply, because admitting the student would look like a quid pro quo. When Shaw began giving, his daughter was just outside that window. More than likely, each university’s development office would have notified its admissions counterparts of applicants whose parents, like the Shaws, had become major donors.“It’s obvious he picked the four schools he’d rather get into with a million dollars a year and the lesser schools with half a million a year,” said Zabel, the former head of Princeton’s planned-giving advisory committee. “If it didn’t help at Yale, he wouldn’t mind if it helped at Princeton. It’s pretty clear he’s hedging his bets.” Zabel now specializes in setting up private foundations for wealthy clients, some of whom have donated to two or three colleges to help their children get in but never as many as six or seven. Muth, the former University of Virginia admissions dean, said he knew of several Asian billionaires who gave millions to multiple elite universities to which their children were applying in recent years. Dismayed by their efforts to buy acceptances, Muth declined to work with them.Well-heeled parents ply universities with donations even when their children, like Rebecca and Adam, are high achievers. “Friends of mine who wield a lot of influence, I tell them, ‘Just don’t do it,’ but they find it irresistible,” explained the former Ivy League development officer. “It’s a tragedy, actually. People will tell you that it’s a prisoner’s dilemma and that you just have to play by the rules of a perverted system.”Rebecca and Adam excelled academically at Horace Mann, no small feat given its notoriously challenging curriculum. They were National Merit finalists, scoring in the top 1% on the sophomore-year PSAT test. Both belonged to the Cum Laude Society, ranking in the top 20% of their class. Adam received honors in computing and communications, English, Japanese, mathematics and science; Rebecca received honors in English, mathematics and psychology. In her senior year, Rebecca won the school’s community-service award and co-wrote and co-directed “Upper West Side Story,” a high school-themed musical that parodied the school’s culture. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Jacob, the Shaws’ youngest child, goes to Horace Mann and attended Stanford’s summer jazz program for teens. Kobliner and Jacob co-authored a children’s book, “Jacob’s Eye Patch,” in 2013, the year he turned 9. Editorial guidance and illustrations were provided by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer. (“They live in a large, makes-you-want-to-kill apartment, it’s so spacious and gorgeous,” said the 90-year-old Feiffer. “They offered me real money, and I was in the market for real money.”)In the fall of her senior year, Rebecca was accepted early at Yale. In 2016, Adam — who classmates say was also accepted at Stanford and Harvard — joined her in New Haven. Adam has served as president of the Yale chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, an honor society for history students. Rebecca majored in psychology. At Yale’s graduation ceremony in 2018, she and her boyfriend performed a comedy skit titled “Moving On,” in which she pretended to break up with him. It went viral on YouTube with over 4 million views, and this year she was hired as a writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”Yale’s acceptance of Adam and Rebecca gratified Kobliner, who had applied there herself and been rejected. “I walk around Yale and tell all their friends that I didn’t get in,” Kobliner, who attended Brown instead, said in a 2018 radio interview. In her columns, she has advised readers on how to handle such rejections with equanimity. “Getting into your ninth-choice school might not feel as good as opening an envelope — or a DM — from the exclusive private college of your fantasies,” she wrote on her blog in March. “But no matter where your kid goes, she’ll have experiences, make friends, and learn things that will change her life. And that makes for an amazing picture, even if it’s not one you can post on the ’gram.” ProPublica research reporter Doris Burke contributed to this story.
Hundreds of Thousands of Chicago Motorists Could Receive Debt Relief From Vehicle Sticker Tickets as the City Expands Reform
by Melissa Sanchez, ProPublica Illinois, and Elliott Ramos, WBEZ Chicago ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for our newsletter to get weekly updates written by our journalists.This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago. The city of Chicago said Friday that it will wipe out some, if not all, debt due to unpaid vehicle sticker tickets for motorists who come into compliance by the end of October, a program that has the potential to benefit an estimated 500,000 motorists and lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in debt forgiveness.The announcement comes as the office of City Clerk Anna Valencia prepares to offer its own amnesty program next month allowing residents to buy prorated vehicle stickers without incurring late penalties.The two-pronged approach from two offices of City Hall amounts to what officials term a “fresh start” for struggling Chicagoans, as the city purges old debts and makes stickers more affordable.The use of city stickers is Chicago’s way of charging vehicle owners for using city roads. Stickers typically cost between between $88 and $139 per year, depending on vehicle weight. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Failure to buy a sticker can lead to some of the costliest citations in the city. Debt from those tickets, in turn, has contributed to tens of thousands of vehicle impoundments, license suspensions and Chapter 13 bankruptcies, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago have reported.At $200, city sticker tickets could rise to $488 with late penalties and collection fees, though last week the City Council voted to slash the late penalties. Aldermen also reinstated a 15-day grace period for lapsed stickers and banned consecutive and same-day ticketing.Unpaid city sticker tickets are the largest source of outstanding ticket debt and represent one in four parking tickets tied to Chapter 13 bankruptcies. Motorists owe the city more than $500 million in unpaid city sticker tickets issued since 1990.Chicago’s majority-black neighborhoods have been hit the hardest with sticker ticket debt, in part because they are ticketed at a higher rate, per household, than other parts of the city, according to the ProPublica Illinois-WBEZ Chicago analysis of sticker tickets from 2011 to 2015. Tickets issued by police drive the disparity.“City sticker amnesty and debt relief are just the first steps toward building a more equitable Chicago,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a video announcement Friday. “It’s a new day in Chicago and we’re going to make sure every single person gets a fair shot at economic opportunity.”The city launched a website with more information about the amnesty program. Here are some key points about how the programs are supposed to work.More affordable vehicle stickers: Starting next month, Valencia’s office will allow motorists to buy four-month city stickers at a prorated cost, a program designed to help low-income motorists comply with the municipal requirement and avoid tickets. What’s more, the clerk’s office in October won’t charge late penalties or backdate stickers for motorists who had allowed their vehicle stickers to lapse.“As government we should be removing barriers from people’s lives, not put barriers in their lives,” Valencia said. “We want to make sure that we are helping people get out of debt, and stay out of debt, and prevent it from ever happening again.”Debt relief for vehicle sticker debt: Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15, motorists who have valid city stickers can apply to have at least three city sticker tickets forgiven. Those who are in financial hardship can qualify to have all of their city stickers forgiven. As part of the reforms passed last week, the City Council also expanded the hardship qualifications so motorists whose households earn 300% of the poverty level or less qualify.Indebted motorists can sign up to be notified when the debt forgiveness program opens. The city is not offering refunds for motorists who have already paid their tickets.The city is offering the debt forgiveness to motorists who have valid city stickers as of Oct. 31.Motorists in bankruptcy or on city payment plans also qualify.Indebted motorists who no longer own their vehicles or have left Chicago entirely and no longer need a city sticker will also qualify for the debt relief, city officials said. This year, WBEZ Chicago reported that tens of thousands of drivers whose cars were booted, towed and sold were still responsible for their ticket debt.
Trump’s Ukraine Plotting Has Been Happening in Plain Sight. So Why Didn’t We See It?
by Eric Umansky ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Try for a moment to imagine the world as it was a week ago. Before we knew that President Donald Trump put the squeeze on another country to investigate his political opponent, before we knew he wanted to involve the attorney general, or that aid may have been held up in the plotting.Except, we did know each of those things. The president hasn’t been quiet about what he’s up to. And while we didn’t know many details, much of the hanky-panky has been happening right before our eyes.Let’s review a few facts.The president urged an investigation into Ukraine and Democrats back in 2017. He didn’t do it in a secret meeting. He tweeted.
Where Do Illinois Lawmakers Stand on Impeachment?
by Logan Jaffe ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for our newsletter to get weekly updates written by our journalists. Oh, there was just a little bit of national news this week. While the Trump-Ukraine and impeachment stories keep breaking, we thought we’d keep you informed on what’s happening in Illinois in the meantime. Here’s a slice:1. Each of the 13 House Democrats from Illinois support an impeachment inquiry. Two House Republicans, Mike Bost, of the 12th Congressional District, and Darin M. LaHood, of the 18th District, have stated they do not. Three House Republicans had not made a statement as of Thursday afternoon, according to this list via The New York Times. Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Greg Hinz followed up with some House members, including the Democract Dan Lipinski, of the 3rd District, “a relative conservative who has been reluctant to board the impeachment train” but who tweeted his support for an investigation.2. Remember when the former director of the Alexander County Housing Authority, James Wilson, was accused by the agency of fraud for “traveling extensively to conferences in destination cities, drinking on the authority’s dime, shelling out hundreds of dollars for steak, salmon, shrimp cocktails, sorbet and other multi-course meals”? Last November, he agreed to pay a $500,000 fine. But guess what? He hasn’t paid any of it yet, reports Molly Parker via The Southern Illinoisan. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. 3. Speaking of getting paid, Taiwanese importers have committed to buying $2.2 billion in Illinois corn and soybeans over the next two years, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday. If you’re wondering how common it is for foreign buyers to make these kinds of deals with individual states, well, it’s apparently not common, which is one point of skepticism for critics of the deal, according to Reuters.4. Add this to your list of ways your personal data is shared: your I-Pass. WBEZ’s Tony Arnold reported that the “Illinois Tollway regularly receives court-enforced requests for information — called subpoenas — relating to drivers’ movements on the roads. WBEZ obtained 117 subpoena requests from a 14-month timeframe made by local police departments, federal prosecutors and even private divorce attorneys looking to track what their clients’ exes are up to.”5. “The Illinois Republican Party is in shambles,” reads the first line of a piece published Monday in the Illinois Review, a conservative news platform. The piece highlights readers’ responses to a question posed by the Illinois Review about what the state’s Republican party should do “to turn itself around.” One response: “Work on new messaging. Blaming Madigan is old. No one cares. Blaming JB [Pritzker] is going to become just as old quickly.” Read more.What’s on your mind this week? Is there something you’d like to see us investigate in your community, or just something you think we should know about? Email us.P.S. As part of our Ask ProPublica Illinois series, reporting fellow Lakeidra Chavis answered a reader’s question this week about books and other resources we recommend to learn more about journalism. Here’s our list: The Books and Movies That Made Us Better Journalists. Have a question about journalism? Email us at Illinois@propublica.org.
Google Says Google Translate Can’t Replace Human Translators. Immigration Officials Have Used It to Vet Refugees.
by Yeganeh Torbati ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. It’s a common internet experience: throw a foreign phrase into Google Translate or any other online translation tool and out comes a farcical approximation of the real thing.That’s why many experts — even Google itself — caution against relying on the popular Google Translate for complex tasks. Google advises users that its machine translation service is not “intended to replace human translators.”Yet the U.S. government has decided that Google Translate and other machine translation tools are appropriate for one task: helping to decide whether refugees should be allowed into the United States.An internal manual produced by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency charged with admitting immigrants, instructs officers who sift through non-English social media posts of refugees that “the most efficient approach to translate foreign language contents is to utilize one of the many free online language translation services provided by Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines.” The manual includes step-by-step instructions for Google Translate. The manual was obtained by the International Refugee Assistance Project through a public records request and shared with ProPublica.Language experts said the government’s reliance on automatic translation to dig into refugee social media posts was troubling and likely to be error-filled since the services are not designed to parse nuance or recognize slang. The government may misconstrue harmless comments or miss an actually threatening one.“It’s naive on the part of government officials to do that,” said Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science and comparative literature at Indiana University at Bloomington, who has studied language and analogies. “I find it deeply disheartening and stupid and shortsighted, personally.”Asked about the agency’s use of machine translation tools, USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins said in an emailed statement that review of publicly available social media information “is a common sense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures.” Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. USCIS has stated that “information collected from social media, by itself, will not be a basis to deny refugee resettlement.”In 2017, Facebook apologized after its machine-translation service translated a post by a Palestinian man that said “good morning” as “hurt them” in English or “attack them” in Hebrew.As a test, ProPublica asked language professors to copy and paste tweets written in casual language into Google Translate and compare the results with how they would interpret the tweets.One recent Urdu-language post on Twitter included a sentence that Mustafa Menai, who teaches Urdu at the University of Pennsylvania, translated as “I have been spanked a lot and have also gathered a lot of love (from my parents).”Google translated the sentence as “The beating is too big and the love is too windy.”The Trump administration has vastly expanded the role of social media in deciding whether people can move or travel to the United States. Refugee advocates say the government’s reliance on machine-translation tools raises further concerns about how immigration officers make important decisions affecting applicants’ lives and U.S. national security.USCIS has itself found that automated translation falls short in understanding social media posts. An undated draft internal review of a USCIS pilot social media vetting program concluded that “automatic foreign language translation was not sufficient.”A separate pilot review conducted in June 2016 stated that “native Arabic language and subject matter expertise in regional culture, religion, and terrorism was needed to fully vet” two cases in which potentially derogatory social media information was found. The documents were published by the Daily Beast in January 2018.The manual, much of which is redacted, only addresses procedures for a narrow subset of refugees: people whose spouses or parents have already been granted refugee status in the U.S., or so-called follow-to-join cases. In 2017, 1,679 follow-to-join refugees were admitted to the U.S., about 3% of total refugee admissions, according to government data.“It defies logic that we would use unreliable tools to decide whether refugees can reunite with their families,” said Betsy Fisher, strategy director at IRAP. “We wouldn’t use Google Translate for our homework, but we are using it to keep refugee families separated.”In a federal lawsuit in Washington state that is now in the discovery phase, IRAP is challenging the Trump administration’s suspension of the follow-to-join refugee program.It is unclear how widely the manual’s procedures are used throughout USCIS, or if its procedures are identical to those used for vetting all refugees or other types of immigrants.The manual is undated, but it was released to IRAP in response to a request for records created on or after Oct. 23, 2017.USCIS did not respond to questions on whether the manual’s procedures are used to vet other refugees, when it was put into use or if it is still in use.“The mission of USCIS first and foremost is to safeguard our homeland and the people in it,” Collins said. “Our first line of defense in these efforts is thorough, systematic vetting.”In the 2018 fiscal year, USCIS conducted 11,740 social media screenings, according to an agency presentation.The USCIS manual acknowledges that “occasionally,” online translation services may not be adequate for understanding “foreign text written in a dialect or colloquial usage,” but it leaves it up to individual officers to decide whether to request expert translation services. Read More The Waiting Game The U.S. is supposed to be a safe haven for people fleeing persecution. But asylum-seekers face years of uncertainty when they arrive. Play this game to see how long you can last in their shoes. Without foreign language fluency, an officer is unlikely to know whether a post needs additional review, said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.Google and Verizon, which owns Yahoo, did not respond to questions about the use of their services when vetting refugees. Emily Chounlamany, a Microsoft spokeswoman, said “the company has nothing to share on the matter.”Language experts say satire is another problematic area. A recent satirical Persian-language tweet showed a picture of Iranian elites raising their hands, with text stating, “Whose child lives in America?” (The tweet is commentary on a recent controversy in Iran regarding high-ranking officials’ close relatives living in the West.) The text was translated by Google as “When will you taste America?” Microsoft’s result was: “Who is the American?”“The thing about Persian and the Iranian culture is that people love to make jokes about anything,” said Sheida Dayani, who teaches Persian at Harvard University and instructs her students to avoid using Google Translate or similar tools for their assignments. “How are you going to translate it via Google Translate?”Automated translation services are the “absolute wrong technology” for immigration officers making important decisions, Dayani said.The use of translation tools has come up in other contexts. After a highway patrol trooper in Kansas conducted a warrantless search of a Mexican man’s car in 2017 by asking the man for consent to do so in Spanish via Google Translate, a U.S. district judge threw out the search evidence, finding that the defendant did not fully understand the officer’s commands and questions.Google has touted improvements in its translation tool in recent years, most notably its use of “neural machine translation,” which it has gradually rolled out for more languages. Researchers in the Netherlands have found that while the neural machine translation method improves quality, it still struggles to accurately translate idioms.One major problem with machine translation is that such tools do not understand text in the same way that a person would, Hofstadter said. Rather, they are engaged in “decoding” or “text substitution,” he said.“When it involves anything that is subtle, you can never rely on it because you can never know if it’s going to make grotesque errors,” Hofstadter said.Machine-translation services are typically trained by using texts that have already been translated, which tend to use more formal speech, for instance official United Nations documents, said David Guy Brizan, a professor at the University of San Francisco who researches natural language processing and machine learning.Language iterates too quickly, especially among young people, for even sophisticated machine-translation services to keep up, Brizan said. He pointed to examples of English-language phrases currently popular on social media such as “low-key” or “being canceled” as ones that automated services could struggle to convey. He added that nontextual context like videos and pictures, the parties involved in a conversation and their relationship, and cultural references would be completely lost on machine translation.“It requires a cultural literacy across languages, across generations, that is sort of impossible to keep up with,” he said. “You can think of these translation programs acting as your parents or grandparents.”Rachel Thomas, director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco, said that while machine-translation capabilities are improving, anyone depending on algorithms or computers should think carefully about the recourse for people wronged by those systems’ mistakes.Refugees rejected for admission can request a decision review, but advocates say they are typically given little detail as to why they were rejected.Efforts to scrutinize social media posts of some people trying to enter the United States began under the Obama administration, and they were encouraged by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. USCIS launched a social media division within its Fraud Detection and National Security division in July 2016, building on pilot programs operating since 2015.The Trump administration has dramatically increased social media collection as part of a push for “extreme vetting” of people entering the country. In May, the State Department updated its visa forms to request social media identifiers from most U.S. visa applicants worldwide.In September, the Department of Homeland Security published a notice stating it intended to request social media information from a broad swath of applicants, including people seeking U.S. citizenship or permanent residence, refugees and asylees. Jeff Kao contributed to this story.
ProPublica’s Ginger Thompson Wins John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism
by ProPublica ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson is the recipient of the 2019 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism. Bestowed by Columbia Journalism School, the Chancellor Award recognizes one journalist each year for their cumulative accomplishments. Thompson’s work has largely covered the human consequences of federal policy on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, from the war on drugs to immigration.A reporter at ProPublica since 2014, Thompson has written extensively about the drug war, with a focus on the secret, and largely unsuccessful, roles Washington has played in stemming the flow of illegal drugs around the world. Her 2017 investigation “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico” told the story of a Mexican town that suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of a drug cartel whose leaders kidnapped and killed dozens — possibly hundreds — of men, women and children. In a remarkable feat of reporting, Thompson uncovered that the massacre was inadvertently set in motion by a botched DEA operation. Her 2015 story “The Narco-terror Trap” investigated the DEA’s claims that terrorists have gotten into the illegal drug trade to finance their activities, raising questions about whether links between drugs and terrorism exist at all.In 2018, Thompson obtained audio of sobbing immigrant children who had been separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. The audio, secretly recorded from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, and Thompson’s accompanying story exposed the reality of zero tolerance and what was happening in facilities closed to public view. Lawmakers cited the recording as they condemned the administration’s policy, and, within 48 hours of Thompson’s story, the president signed an executive order to end it and keep migrant families together. The story kicked off a ProPublica series that was honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Gold Medal for public service. The series also won the first-ever Peabody Catalyst Award and the George Polk Award for immigration reporting, among other honors.“Ginger Thompson is a fearless and versatile investigative reporter who has uncovered impactful stories about the world’s most secretive institutions,” said Dean Steve Coll, a member of the Chancellor jury. “Her work from the past three decades reflects the courage and integrity of the late John Chancellor.”Before ProPublica, Thompson spent 15 years at the New York Times, including time as a Washington correspondent and an investigative reporter. She served as the Mexico City bureau chief for both the Times and the Baltimore Sun. While at the Times, she covered Mexico’s transformation from a one-party state to a fledgling multiparty democracy and parachuted into breaking news events across the region, including Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela.“The secret to Ginger’s long, distinguished career is her unwavering focus on injustice,” ProPublica senior editor Tracy Weber said. “Undeterred by difficulty or risk, she follows a moral imperative to tell the stories the world needs to hear and prod the powerful to redress wrongs. Everyone at ProPublica is proud to have Ginger as a colleague.”
ProPublica and Frontline Win Emmy for “Documenting Hate” Documentaries
by ProPublica “Documenting Hate,” a two-part investigative series by ProPublica and PBS Frontline, won the News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Documentary. Produced by ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson, along with producer Karim Hajj and editor/producer Jacquie Soohen of Midnight Films, and directed by Midnight Films’ Rick Rowley, the documentaries revealed some of the most violent figures within America’s resurgent white supremacist movement, as well as the members’ presence in the U.S. military and governmental failures to curb the criminal activities of dangerous white power groups.Part one, “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville,” investigated the white supremacists and neo-Nazis involved in the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally, and it revealed how ill-prepared law enforcement was to handle the influx of hate groups from across the nation. The second film, “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis,” identified former and active-duty members of the military as members of Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi terrorist group linked to five murders.Much of the reporting featured in the films started with online stories written for the ProPublica and Frontline websites by Thompson and freelancers Ali Winston and Jake Hanrahan, as well as online videos produced by ProPublica’s Lucas Waldron.The journalistic investigation generated real-world impact, including a congressional inquiry into the military’s handling of white supremacists within its ranks and the prosecution of nine members of white supremacist groups.The Marine Corps court-martialed Lance Cpl. Vasillios Pistolis, who was identified by ProPublica and Frontline as a member of Atomwaffen and a participant in the violence at the Charlottesville rally. Pistolis was eventually convicted on charges of disobeying orders and making false statements and was ousted from the Marines.Michael Miselis, an aerospace engineer with defense contractor Northrop Grumman, lost his job after reporters identified him as a member of a white power gang called the Rise Above Movement. Federal authorities eventually arrested Miselis and seven other members or associates of RAM on rioting charges, citing the reporting of ProPublica and Frontline. Four of those men have pleaded guilty to federal charges for their roles in the violence at the Charlottesville rally, with three of the men receiving sentences of more than two years in prison.See the full list of winners from the News & Documentary Emmy Awards here.
This Lawyer Fought Housing Segregation. Now Wealthy Suburbanites Want to Fire His Firm.
by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, Connecticut Mirror This article was produced in partnership with the Connecticut Mirror, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. WESTPORT, Conn. — For much of the past 13 years, attorney Timothy Hollister has battled local elected officials here on behalf of a developer who wants to build more affordable housing in one of America’s wealthiest towns.The fight, he has said, is a microcosm of a statewide debate in Connecticut, where exclusionary zoning requirements have resulted in some of the most segregated neighborhoods in the nation. Private developers have been allowed to open just 65 affordable housing units in this posh village over the last three decades. Attorney Tim Hollister at a zoning hearing in 2018. (Courtesy of The New Haven Independent) “Does anybody say we need to keep blacks and Hispanics out of Westport? No, but they talk about property values, safety and preserving open space — all the things that a town can do to prevent development that would bring up a more economically and racially diverse housing population,” Hollister told the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica in May, as part of an investigation into the state’s housing practices. “They don’t use the overt racial terms, but it’s absolutely clear to everybody in the room that’s what they’re talking about.”Last week, Westport’s leaders struck back.Citing the attorney’s “inflammatory and insulting” remarks, as well as other actions he had taken on behalf of his client, the town leaders voted to request that the local Board of Education sever its 30-plus-year relationship with Hollister’s firm, Shipman & Goodwin. That contract is worth more than $200,000 annually to the law firm.“S&G cannot have it both ways,” the town’s two Republican selectmen and their Democratic colleague wrote to the school board, referring to the firm’s work for Summit Development LLC, a developer that is seeking to build a 187-unit apartment complex a half-mile from the local train station. Fifty-seven of those units would be reserved for low-income residents. Town officials said the firm’s “dual representation” constitutes a conflict of interest.Attorneys at the firm declined to comment for this article.Westport is the second Connecticut town this year seeking to pressure Shipman & Goodwin to abandon its affordable housing work — or risk losing the local school system as a client. In January, after Newtown’s first selectman claimed the law practice had a conflict there, Hollister and another developer parted ways. Leaders from both towns say it’s a matter of economics: firms that reap public dollars should not harm those same local governments with costly lawsuits.But with Shipman & Goodwin representing two-thirds of the school districts in Connecticut — including those located in the state’s nine wealthiest municipalities, which also have limited affordable housing — civil rights and housing advocates worry the moves represent an emerging strategy to freeze affordable housing. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. “What does it say to people who are trying to build in communities like Westport who are very well resourced? I think this says that we will go so far as to deprive you of your lawyers, the best lawyers,” said Peter Haberlandt, senior legal counsel for the civil rights organization Open Communities Alliance and former legal affairs director for the state Education Department.“It looks like an effort to prevent affordable housing from coming into town,” Haberlandt added. “Let’s not be fooled: This action was not about one specific development. This looks like an effort to thwart affordable housing more generally.”In representing both the school board and the developer, Shipman & Goodwin appears to be on solid legal ground. The Connecticut Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics has determined that such arrangements are permissible because the town and the school board are separate legal entities.But, over the past few months, the law firm has sought to make amends with the town. Hollister apologized, and Shipman & Goodwin took the extraordinary step of giving Westport an effective veto over its future affordable housing clients. In a letter to local officials last month, attorney Thomas Mooney, who represents the town school board, said the firm, “out of respect for our relationship,” would never again take on a client challenging a land-use decision without written permission from town leaders. However, for ethical reasons, the firm could not drop its current client that has been trying to build affordable housing in town for the last 13 years, he wrote.The firm followed up the written apology with a personal visit to last week’s selectmen’s meeting by managing partner Alan E. Lieberman, who reiterated the firm’s remorse.“It was undoubtedly deeply hurting and obviously very inflammatory,” Lieberman said of Hollister’s remarks, “and we understand the reaction from the town.”The lawyer said the decision to no longer represent affordable housing developers was hard for his firm because it could set a precedent.For town officials, though, the deal wasn’t enough. A gated mansion in Westport, where 3.4% of housing is considered affordable. (Monica Jorge for ProPublica) “In my view, this is about a business relationship between an entire professional development firm and the taxpayers and residents of the town of Westport,” Jim Marpe, the town’s Republican first selectman, said during the special meeting last week. “The taxpayers and the residents in the end are the real clients of Shipman & Goodwin.”Local officials were also particularly angry over Hollister’s recent legal challenge to Westport’s zoning power.At issue is a state law that allows developers to circumvent local authorities by going to court when developments are denied if less than 10% of a town’s housing is dedicated for low- and moderate-income residents. Westport, where 3.4% of the housing is considered affordable, won a waiver from that law this year, arguing that it had made a good-faith effort to build affordable housing.The town’s Planning and Zoning Commission then denied Summit Development’s application, in part citing Westport’s exemption from the affordable housing law. The waiver, officials said, stands as proof that the town doesn’t need such a development.Hollister, in turn, appealed that exemption with the state Department of Housing and then filed a lawsuit last month after the state agency denied his request.“The bottom line is Westport’s inventory of affordable housing addresses a fraction of its needs,” said Summit owner Felix Charney, a developer who grew up in Westport and previously served on the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission. “It is proven that one of the remedies to break the cycle of poverty is to provide stable housing and access to education. We fundamentally believe that this type of housing is needed, and we are in a position to supply it.”Town leaders, however, disagree. They view the lawsuit as unnecessary and a threat to the affordable housing exemption they received from the state. They have also accused Hollister of acting outside his role in the case to pave the way for additional affordable housing clients. Shipman & Goodwin and the developer, however, backed the decision to sue the state Housing Department. Read More Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Invisible walls created by local zoning boards and the state government block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it. “I think we have reached a boiling point, to say the least,” said Melissa Kane, a Democrat selectperson. “It was the last straw for me.”Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has taken a mostly hands-off approach to the state’s affordable housing crisis, saying in the past that he believes local leaders should decide how much to allow in their communities. And on Monday, during a visit to Westport, he declined to weigh in on the town dispute.“Before I jump into that, let me just look into that a little bit,” Lamont told the Connecticut Mirror, as he celebrated the installation of environmentally friendly technology in a beachfront home that rents for $5,600 a week.Afterward, Lamont’s spokesman said in a statement: “In individual cases like Westport, the Governor would like to see a balance between the needs of the community and access to affordable units. The state has made strides to make sure more families can occupy these buildings, but individual communities have to show a willingness as well.”Meanwhile, the Westport Board of Education plans to discuss the matter during a meeting in October.Board chairman Mark Mathias said he’s hopeful the relationship with Shipman & Goodwin can be saved. “I am an eternal optimist,” said Mathias, who has praised the firm’s education work.Either way, though, “we will be fine,” he said.Even though the decision rests with the Board of Education, some housing advocates say that town leaders hold a significant cudgel in the debate because they control the school district’s purse strings.“It’s hard to see how the Board of Education in this climate sees this as a recommendation that they are free to ignore,” Haberlandt said.Rebecca Adams, senior staff attorney for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said forcing firms to pick between education and land-use clients could ultimately end up hurting all parties, including students. “It’s going to start to limit people’s choices all around,” she said. “The best resolution is for everybody to hire the best attorneys they need.” Help us investigate: Are you concerned about affordable housing in your community in Connecticut? ProPublica and the Connecticut Mirror are spending the year investigating. Here’s how to get in touch.
The Books and Movies That Made Us Better Journalists
by Lakeidra Chavis ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for our newsletter to get weekly updates written by our journalists. Early last year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this column, reporting fellow Lakeidra Chavis writes about the books, articles and movies that have inspired the journalists in our newsroom.Would you recommend any specific books and/or other sources to an interested person who is not in a position to attend journalism school? —David WeinkrantzI didn’t major in journalism, but the pieces that have influenced me the most are often stories with captivating sagas that take me to a place or time I know little about — New Yorker articles like “The Marriage Cure” or “The Assad Files,” or Esquire’s “The Falling Man.” These stories are deeply humanizing and thoroughly reported.I threw your question out to my colleagues, too. Here are some books and other resources they recommend:“Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide From the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University” Editor-in-Chief Louise Kiernan says this is the book she recommends more than any other to aspiring and practicing journalists.“It’s 12 years old now, so it’s dated in some respects. But for hearing renowned reporters and editors talk directly about their work, from conception to publication and beyond, it’s invaluable,” Kiernan said. “Generally, though, I think the best way to learn about good journalism is just to read good journalism.”“Why Should I Tell You?: A Guide to Less-Extractive Reporting” by Natalie YahrEngagement reporter Logan Jaffe recommends this online resource, saying it “should be required reading for every journalist.” The guide, written by Natalie Yahr, a fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics, includes 12 rules to help make journalism more mutually beneficial for both the reporter and the people they interview. The guidebook touches on everything from how reporters can properly communicate what sources can expect during and after an interview to creating boundaries and making the editorial process more inclusive. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. “With this guide, I aim to help journalists navigate the ethical dilemmas they encounter as they interview people who have experienced harm,” Yahr writes. “While there are numerous practical guides on such interviewing, especially on trauma journalism, I have yet to find a guide that explores the deeper ethical questions of what conditions, if any, make such journalism morally justifiable and not purely extractive or voyeuristic.”Jaffe also recommends the Pulitzer Prize-winning article “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in GQ, which she said was one of her “favorite examples of narrative, investigative reporting that embraces the writer’s point of view,” and “Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers” by David Paul Nord. She said the book is a “bit dated” but nevertheless a “very thorough history of newspaper/reader relationships.”“She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey Reporter Melissa Sanchez recommends this investigation of film producer Harvey Weinstein that became a pivotal moment of the #MeToo era. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, both of The New York Times, lit the fire with their expose in October 2017 detailing how Weinstein sexually harassed and allegedly sexually assaulted women in Hollywood for decades. The book, which came out this month, details how they did it and the impact their investigation has had on the country.Sanchez also recommends “Travels with Herodotus” by Ryszard Kapuściński. Sanchez, who dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent when she was younger, says she was “deeply influenced” by this memoir. The Polish journalist worked for decades reporting in places such as India, Iran and Congo. The book is intertwined with excerpts from the works of ancient Greek historian Herodotus.“Though I never became a full-fledged correspondent — there are fewer and fewer of these jobs each year as news organizations slash jobs, and my own goals changed — I did get to spend some time in Latin America reporting a handful of stories,” Sanchez said. “The excitement and wonder of doing this kind of work probably grows old for some people, but I still feel giddy when I think of the prospect, and re-read books like his” “Boss” by Mike Royko This book by the legendary columnist is a Chicago journalism staple, and it’s one that deputy editor Steve Mills received early in his career and continues to recommend to friends.“With ‘Boss,’” Mills said, “Royko gave me — then new to Chicago and still learning its political history — an unvarnished education in the first Mayor Daley and in how things really work in the city, the kind of education you get after spending decades observing people like the mayor. And it was fun to read. What more could you want?”Mills also suggests “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,” from former Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan. The book details her nearly two decades covering stories on the beat.“Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now” by Alan Rusbridger Newspapers around the country have been shrinking or, in some cases, closing. Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, explores what this means for democracy and the news industry. It’s a recommendation from reporter Jason Grotto.“Anyone interested in journalism should consider the newspaper industry’s recent trajectory as well as the core values undergirding it,” Grotto said. “Knowing how and why newspapering has changed will provide great insights to those wanting to learn more about journalism in the larger sense. Rusbridger’s story brings both of those things together, the history and the values.” And if movies are more of your thing …ProPublica Illinois story producer Vignesh Ramachandran recommends the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.” The movie is based on the true story of how The Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered widespread child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. “The part that was so powerful to me was seeing the reporters and editors work so hard to build a larger systemic story about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — the hours and hours spent combing through paper records (things we’re now sometimes lucky enough to do digitally today),” Ramachandran said. “They didn’t settle until they could pull multiple pieces together and tell a wider systemic story that was even more powerful than it would have been.”A nonjournalism source that a couple of folks recommended was Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” which documents his journey to becoming one of America’s most prolific writers.If you have a reading recommendation, please tweet us at @ProPublicaIL or email us at Illinois@propublica.org. And if you have questions about our journalism, you can ask us at the same address.
Employers Used Facebook to Keep Women and Older Workers From Seeing Job Ads. The Federal Government Thinks That’s Illegal.
by Ariana Tobin ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Two years ago, ProPublica and The New York Times revealed that companies were posting discriminatory job ads on Facebook, using the social network’s targeting tools to keep older workers from seeing employment opportunities. Then we reported companies were using Facebook to exclude women from seeing job ads.Experts told us that it was most likely illegal. And it turns out the federal government now agrees.A group of recent rulings by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found “reasonable cause” to conclude that seven employers violated civil rights protections by excluding women or older workers or both from seeing job ads they posted on Facebook. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. The agency’s rulings appear to be the first time it has taken on targeted advertising, the core of Facebook’s business. “It answers the question from the EEOC’s perspective,” former agency commissioner Jenny R. Yang said. “If you’re excluding older workers from seeing your ads for jobs it does violate” anti-discrimination laws. The EEOC declined to comment.The decisions stem from complaints filed by the Communications Workers of America, the American Civil Liberties Union and plaintiff’s attorneys after our reporting. The agency made the rulings in July, but they are becoming public now as part of a separate pending class-action suit in federal court accusing companies of age discrimination.The ads are all from 2018 or earlier. Since then, Facebook has agreed in a settlement to make sweeping changes to the way employers, landlords and creditors can target advertising. The changes are scheduled to take effect by the end of the year.A Facebook spokesperson pointed to the company’s recent changes and said, “Helping prevent discrimination in housing, employment or credit ads is an area we believe we lead the advertising industry.”In the latest rulings, the EEOC cited four companies for age discrimination: Capital One, Edwards Jones, Enterprise Holdings and DriveTime Automotive Group. Three companies were cited for discrimination by both age and gender: Nebraska Furniture Mart, Renewal by Andersen LLC and Sandhills Publishing Company. The companies can now work out a settlement with the EEOC or go to court. Most of the companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nebraska Furniture Mart declined to comment. A spokesperson for financial firm Edwards Jones said, “We strongly disagree with the claim that our firm engaged in discriminatory practices in advertising of job opportunities, recruiting or hiring.”Dozens of other complaints have been filed with the EEOC about discrimination in targeted advertising on Facebook. Most of the allegations are still pending.The EEOC’s batch of decisions are significant, attorney Peter Romer-Friedman of Outten & Golden says, because they are the first time companies besides Facebook have had to defend how they use Facebook’s tools to advertise jobs.His firm also filed a suit against seven real estate companies last week for allegedly discriminating by age in housing ads. We first reported on discriminatory housing ads on Facebook three years ago. The company changed its process for screening housing ads after we retested the system two years ago and showed it was possible to buy dozens of ads that excluded people by gender, race, religion, national origin, age and other categories protected by civil rights laws. Do you have access to information about digital discrimination that should be public? Email ariana.tobin@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.
We Reported on a Nonprofit Hospital System That Sues Poor Patients. It Just Freed Thousands From Debt.
by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50 ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.This article was produced in partnership with MLK50, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The city’s largest nonprofit hospital system has erased the debts owed by more than 6,500 patients it sued for unpaid hospital bills, less than two months after announcing an overhaul of its debt collection processes.The dramatic shift was prompted by an MLK50-ProPublica investigation that revealed that Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare filed more than 8,300 debt lawsuits from 2014 through 2018, including against its own employees. Methodist had doggedly pursued low-income defendants who had little ability to pay, often garnishing their meager paychecks.The single-page “case satisfied” notices filed by Methodist are coming into the Shelby County General Sessions Court faster than staff can process them. A court administrator estimated a backlog of about 4,500 Methodist notices waiting to be entered into the court’s system. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. From July 30 through Tuesday, the court had logged more than 2,300 notices submitted by the hospital system that wiped away patients’ debts. That’s more than nine times the number of notices filed by Methodist in the first six months of 2019.For now, it appears that Methodist is no longer using the courts as a collection agency, a practice that was roundly criticized by health care experts, some elected officials and members of the United Methodist Church, with which Methodist is affiliated. Since July 3, the hospital has not filed any new debt collection lawsuits or garnishment attempts.Methodist’s turnaround elated defendants and consumer advocates.Among the defendants who no longer owe is Carrie Barrett, a part-time Kroger employee featured in one of the MLK50-ProPublica articles. Barrett’s case began in July 2007, when a two-night stay at Methodist Bonheur Healthcare, where doctors performed a heart catherization, left her with a $12,019 bill. In 2010, Methodist sued her for more than $16,000, one-third of which was attorney’s fees.Over the years, thanks to interest and court costs, Barrett’s debt climbed to more than $33,000. If she paid $100 per month as ordered by the court, she would be 90 by the time she paid it off.Barrett said she received a call nearly two weeks ago from an administrator who said the hospital had reviewed her records. “He said, ’The balance is zero. ... I said, ’You don’t know how good that sounds to my ears.’”Jessica Curtis, a senior adviser at Community Catalyst, a national advocacy organization, has followed other nonprofit hospitals that have been the subject of similar media reports.“I was trying to remember when have I seen such a rapid switch,” Curtis said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen that before. The scale of what they are attempting to rectify is really commendable from what we’ve seen thus far.”Because the case satisfied notices do not include the amount owed, the total dollar amount of debt Methodist forgave could not immediately be quantified.Methodist did not answer questions about how much debt it had forgiven or how many additional cases it has yet to review."We are implementing the policies and practices we announced in July, and we have reached out individually to patients who currently have legal proceedings to provide information related to their specific situation," a hospital spokesperson said in a statement sent Tuesday evening.The hospital said formal letters to the patients were sent last week, and patients with questions should call the hospital's billing department at 901–842–1260. No date has been set to resume court collections.Nonprofit hospitals are generally exempt from local, state and federal taxes. In return, the federal government expects them to provide a significant community benefit, including charity care and financial assistance.Methodist, which operates five hospitals in Shelby County, does provide some charity care — but experts faulted it for its aggressive collections practices in a city where nearly 1 in 4 residents live below the poverty line.Its handling of poor patients began with a financial assistance policy that, unlike many of its peers around the country, all but ignored patients with any form of health insurance, no matter their out-of-pocket costs. If they were unable to afford their bills, patients then faced what experts said is rare: A licensed collection agency owned by the hospital.Lawsuits followed. Finally, after the hospital won a judgment, it would repeatedly try to garnish patients’ wages, which it did in a far higher share of cases than other nonprofit hospitals in Memphis. Stacks of notices erasing the balance on thousands of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare lawsuits await processing at Shelby County General Sessions Court. (Courtesy of the Shelby County General Sessions Court) Methodist repeatedly refused to make its executives available for interviews, but it sent statements defending itself, noting how it is the only health care system that has hospitals in all four quadrants of Shelby County and that it provided more than $226 million in community benefit. It did not address why its financial assistance policy was less generous than those of its peers or why it garnished wages in a higher percentage of cases than other hospitals.But on June 30, three days after the MLK50-ProPublica investigation was published, Methodist CEO Michael Ugwueke said in a column published in The Commercial Appeal that the hospital would spend the next 30 days reviewing its collections and financial assistance policies.Days later, Methodist announced it would suspend court collection activities over unpaid hospital bills. In the weeks that followed, the hospital’s attorney, R. Alan Pritchard, dropped dozens of suits that had been on the court docket.On July 30, the hospital announced wide-reaching reforms. “We were humbled to learn that while there’s so much good happening across our health system each day, we can and must do more,” Ugwueke said in a media conference call.Under the new policy, financial assistance will be provided to patients earning up to 250% of the federal poverty line, or $53,325 for a family of three. The previous policy applied to uninsured patients with incomes up to 125% of the federal poverty line. Methodist said more than half of the population of greater Memphis would be eligible for assistance under the new policy.The hospital also said it would no longer accept court-ordered interest on medical debt nor would it seek to collect attorney’s fees or court costs from patients.And it said it would raise its minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by mid-September and to $15 an hour by January 2021. The lowest-paid employees made $10 an hour and about 18% of workers earned less than $15 an hour, the hospital reported in response to MLK50’s 2018 Living Wage Survey.The pay increase signaled that Methodist took the issue seriously, Curtis said. “The inclusion of wages means someone has realized not just the symptom of the problem but the core root of the problem. This is a clearly promising start,” she said.It’s unclear whether Methodist will resume suing patients for unpaid bills. And the hospital has not said how many additional “case satisfied notices” it could file. Plaintiffs cannot refile lawsuits after the case has been marked satisfied.One of the defendants featured in the investigation was a Methodist housekeeper, who asked that her name not be used for fear that the hospital would fire her for talking to a reporter.In 2017, Methodist sued her for the cost of hospital stays to treat chronic abdominal pain she experienced before the hospital hired her. She owed about $23,000, including around $5,800 in attorney’s fees. In January, a General Sessions Court judge ordered her to pay $75 biweekly. The housekeeper paid reliably until this summer, when she missed several days of work because she was sick, eventually ending up in the hospital. That left her paycheck short.She received a small annual raise in August, and another to $13.50 less than two weeks agoLast week, a reporter showed the housekeeper a copy of her case satisfied notice.“God is a good God,” she said, laughing and smiling. “I’ve been calling them and they tell me nothing. … This is a blessing right here.”Barrett, the Kroger employee featured in the first MLK50-ProPublica story, likewise praised God. At church this month, Barrett had an update for the congregation, which had heard her speak about her financial troubles before.“I have a zero balance,” she said. “I just want to thank God for blessings that he has brought to me. … I thank him for the victory!” she shouted, as others joined her in praise.“Victory is ours, amen!” a minister said from the pulpit. “Don’t y’all know that Jesus will drop those charges? Glory to God!”To see if a case satisfied notice has been logged in your case, enter your seven-digit docket number in the CourtConnect online lookup system under “Display case information and activities.” If your case has been satisfied, the last docket entry will say “Case Satisfied.”You can also enter your docket number into the court’s civil online payment system, which will show the amount due. Wendi C. Thomas is the editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at wendicthomas@mlk50.com and follow her on Twitter at @wendi_c_thomas.We’re interested in hearing from people who know more about Methodist Le Bonheur or other hospitals or doctors’ offices in Memphis. Talk to us if:
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