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Updated 2018-10-21 10:18
How to “Follow the Money” When It Comes to Political Campaigns
by Cynthia Gordy Giwa Why do we care about money in politics?There’s a phrase that pops up a lot when investigative journalists talk about politics: Follow the money. It won’t lead you to uncover large-scale corruption (but if you do, please holler at us). It will get you better acquainted with which industries are donating to the races you care about, and how your candidates are spending the money they raise. Get more information like this by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.Money in politics gets a rap for being shady. But campaign finance isn’t just about the bad stuff.For the times when it is, we have campaign finance laws. A quick history lesson: After the Watergate scandal (which, in addition to a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, involved campaign funds used toward the scheme), Congress passed a law requiring federal campaigns to report their political contributions and spending to the Federal Election Commission. This was designed as a check against corruption but also to empower voters and keep you reasonably informed about money in politics.Let’s take a look at what money does in a campaign. Seeing where a candidate’s money comes from, as well as which groups are spending on behalf of (or against) their campaign, helps you understand their beliefs, the advice they’re getting and the kinds of policies they’re likely to support.What does a donation get you?If you’re a candidate… Receiving donations can help you win an election. It’s not the only factor, but by and large, donations get spent on the day-to-day expenses of running a campaign. Take a look at how your candidates are spending their funds this season here, using ProPublica’s FEC Itemizer.It’s probably garden-variety stuff: lunch, plane tickets, campaign ads, hotel rooms and venue rentals for campaign events. The choices candidates make tell you something about their priorities: where they’re spending their time, which voters they’re trying hardest to win over (older voters with TV ads or younger folks online) and how much they pay their staff.Of course, sometimes candidates try to get creative in describing their campaign expenses, like California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who, along with his wife, is under indictment for spending donations on family trips to Hawaii and Italy and private school for their children.If you see something suspicious in your candidates’ spending, or have questions, let us know at itemizer@propublica.org!If you’re a donor to a candidate… My colleague Justin Elliott recently reported on a major donor to Donald Trump, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who contributed $20 million to Trump’s campaign and an additional $5 million for inauguration festivities. Since then, the Trump administration has helped advance some of his financial interests. For example, Trump reportedly raised Adelson’s bid to build a casino in Japan during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Mar-a-Lago, and his tax plan included new benefits to companies like Adelson’s.But this is not the norm.Most of the time, campaign donors don’t see a “return” on their investment. If you donate to a candidate, chances are you’re getting one of two things:
St. Luke’s in Houston Replaces Heart Transplant Surgical Director After Program Loses Medicare Funding
by Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle, and Charles Ornstein, ProPublica Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center announced Friday that it has hired two new cardiac surgeons to lead its embattled heart transplant program as it works to regain Medicare certification.The surgeons, Dr. Kenneth Liao and Dr. Alexis Shafii, will together take over leadership posts previously held by Dr. Jeffrey Morgan, the heart program’s surgical director since 2016. A St. Luke’s spokeswoman said Morgan is still a member of the medical staff at St. Luke’s, but she did not directly answer whether he will continue performing transplants.Morgan declined to comment through a representative, and the hospital did not make Liao or Shafii available for interviews.The staffing announcement comes two months after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cut off funding for heart transplants at St. Luke’s, long regarded as one of the nation’s top hospitals for cardiac care. The federal agency concluded that the Houston hospital had not done enough to correct problems that led to a high rate of patient deaths following transplants in recent years. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. Liao comes to St. Luke’s after several years as the top heart transplant surgeon at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis. When he arrives in January, he will be St. Luke’s senior cardiac transplant surgeon, serving as the hospital’s new chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support.Shafii joined St. Luke’s in September after a stint as the surgical director of the lung transplant program at the University of Kentucky Transplant Center. At St. Luke’s, Shafii has already taken over as the surgical director of heart transplants.Additionally, St. Luke’s announced it has hired Deborah Maurer, a longtime transplant program administrator in Chicago and Arizona, to serve as vice president of transplantation, a newly created position overseeing clinical and administrative operations for all organ transplant programs.“The addition of two expert surgeons and an experienced executive who specializes in transplant program administration demonstrates Baylor St. Luke’s continued and growing commitment to heart and lung transplants,” said Gay Nord, St. Luke’s president, in a statement announcing the new hires.These changes follow a series of investigative reports by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle into troubles at St. Luke’s. In recent years, the articles revealed, the hospital’s heart program performed an outsized number of transplants resulting in deaths or unusual complications while continuing to promote itself based on its storied past.In 2015, seven out of 21 heart transplant recipients at St. Luke’s died within a year of their surgeries, significantly higher than the national average. Hospital leaders said that the program slowed down that year and identified subtle ways to improve care. At the start of 2016, the hospital brought in Morgan to replace the program’s longtime leader, Dr. O.H. “Bud” Frazier.St. Luke’s officials have said the heart transplant program’s one-year survival rate improved in 2016 and 2017 under Morgan’s leadership. But some heart transplant recipients suffered unusual complications since then, the ProPublica and Chronicle investigation found, including two who had major veins stitched closed during surgery, according to numerous sources. In one of those instances, Morgan has said the man’s previous cancer treatments complicated his surgery. He has declined to comment on the other, citing patient privacy.Several physicians left the program in recent years, including a couple of top cardiologists who said they expressed concerns to administrators about the care provided to heart failure patients and started sending some to other hospitals for transplants.In an earlier interview and responses to written questions, Morgan defended his leadership of the heart program, which he said has improved under his watch.“We only have had one year with below-expected outcomes in the recent past, 2015, and that’s been corrected,” Morgan said earlier this year.In June, following the ProPublica and Chronicle reports, St. Luke’s temporarily suspended the heart transplant program in order to review deaths of two additional patients in May following heart transplants. Hospital officials reactivated the program after two weeks, saying they had found no “systemic issues related to the quality of the program.”Two months later, Medicare cut off funding after concluding that St. Luke’s leaders had not done enough to fix the problems that led to poor surgical outcomes. The termination prohibits the hospital from billing federal health plans for heart transplants and, according to experts, could threaten the program’s overall viability. St. Luke’s is appealing the decision.In announcing its new staff members on Friday, hospital officials characterized the moves as part of “ongoing efforts to strengthen the program which started in January.” When reporters met with Nord and other St. Luke’s leaders that month, they did not mention any ongoing efforts to make improvements. Instead, they said the heart program had already completed changes necessary to improve outcomes and was operating at a high level.In the statement Friday, Nord said the hospital would continue striving to make improvements: “Advancing our hospital programs is a never-ending process, and these latest appointments are part of our ongoing commitment to our patients, our physicians and staff, and our community.”Asked about Morgan’s future role, spokeswoman Vicki Amalfitano said, “Dr. Morgan’s status has not changed,” emphasizing his continued position on the St. Luke’s medical staff and on the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine, where he holds the academic title of chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and circulatory support.When pressed on whether Morgan had been replaced as the hospital’s surgical director, Amalfitano said, “The announcement is about the new staff, so I’d love to focus on them.”In a follow-up email, she clarified: “I can confirm that Dr. Morgan no longer holds the title of ‘Surgical Director, Heart Transplant & Mechanical Circulatory Support’ at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center.”Alexander Aussi, a San Antonio-based transplant consultant, has been critical of St. Luke’s handling of problems within its heart program. But he said the changes in surgical leadership announced Friday seem to indicate that the hospital is now taking meaningful steps to improve.Aussi also applauded the decision by St. Luke’s to add a high-level executive to ensure that all of the hospital’s transplant programs meet regulatory requirements.“These changes are a good indication that the senior administration is committed to rebuilding the program,” Aussi said, noting that the hires amount to a multimillion-dollar commitment to a transplant program that still must regain Medicare approval.“Given that they recruited really a star surgeon and made these other changes, that’s obviously a commitment from senior administration to move the program forward.”
Amid Protest in Liberia, Its Vice President Gets List of Demands About More Than Me
by Finlay Young for ProPublica A large group of protesters marched on Thursday through Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, delivering a list of demands to top government officials, international organizations and the country’s vice president, including that the government revoke the accreditation of More Than Me and strip the American charity of its ability to run 19 schools in the country.The Liberian Feminist Forum, in conjunction with other groups, organized the “We Are Unprotected” protest in response to a ProPublica investigation published last week in collaboration with Time magazine. The report revealed how the charity missed opportunities to prevent the rapes of girls by key employee Macintosh Johnson and did not test all of his potential victims for HIV when word got out that he had AIDS.Protesters dressed in black and carried signs that invoked findings of the investigation, including that when the rapes came to light, the charity deflected blame onto Liberian culture. “Rape is not our culture,” signs read. “Duty of care,” “Down with poverty porn,” “#MoreThanRape.”A representative of the Liberian Feminist Forum, Caroline Bowah Brown, read a list of demands to Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, including that the government should request footage shot by independent filmmaker Holden Warren, who told ProPublica that three years before the rapes came to light, he filmed charity founder Katie Meyler confronting Johnson about a rumor that he was “into small girls.” Warren declined to share the footage with ProPublica, saying it was part of an ongoing project and that he asked Meyler, but that she “doesn’t see how it would be in her interest.”The group also called for documentation to see how involved the charity’s Liberian advisory board was in its operations, as well as what the response of government officials and others was at the time of Johnson’s arrest.“The same documents you are requesting, we are trying to put it together,” Taylor said. “We’ll do a thorough investigation, and those who are culpable will be punished.”The group also asked for the resignation of John Gabriel, director of the sex crimes prosecution unit that failed to secure Johnson’s conviction. Jurors told ProPublica they were offered bribes to find Johnson guilty. The charity and prosecution unit have denied any involvement in alleged bribery. It was in the prosecution unit’s office that charity officials cross-examined rape victims and their mothers about what they told a reporter, and asked whether they wanted to take back their statements. The charity also published a letter Gabriel wrote, where he praised the charity and called ProPublica’s investigation “propagandistic.”After the story and documentary were published, the charity announced it would provide private, schoolwide HIV testing for the students in its academy. The Liberian government announced multiple measures by seven separate agencies. Liberian President George Weah was quoted in local press as expressing deep concern about a “sad and tragic story.” He said the matter was “under investigation by the relevant authority and we must await the findings before drawing any conclusion.”In response to questions about the protest, board member Amanda Kelso told ProPublica: “No child should ever have to endure such horrific abuse, and it was our responsibility to prevent it from happening. We are so very sorry. When we learned of this in 2014 we immediately reported it to Liberian law enforcement and government ministries and took action to prevent it from happening again. Protests in Monrovia on Oct. 18. (Ahmed Jallanzo/European Pressphoto Agency for ProPublica) “We are now taking additional steps: we are having a firm with expertise in education and student safety undertake an external audit of our organization, we are cooperating with investigations being conducted by our Liberian Advisory Board and the Liberian government, our Board Chair has resigned, and our CEO has taken a leave of absence. We are committed to ensuring that these matters are investigated thoroughly, communicating transparently throughout the process, and taking prompt, appropriate actions to be sure this never happens again.” Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. Liberian newspapers have covered developments in the More Than Me story daily, and they have published editorials calling for the charity to be held to account.“We hope that the Ministry of Justice will do all to bring to conclusion a logical closure for those girls who became victims of Johnson’s alleged act of rape.Let this not be just another investigation that many a time, is never looked into thoroughly by state actors, who have oversight,” said an editorial in Front Page Africa.It added, “Inasmuch as we are a poor and a small nation, we still have dignity to keep.”
Explore Racial Disparities in Hundreds of Illinois Schools and Districts
by David Eads This week, ProPublica launched “Miseducation,” an interactive database where you can search, examine and compare racial disparities in thousands of schools and school districts across the United States. The tool — based on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection program — measures these disparities in four ways: enrollment in advanced classes, student discipline, gaps in academic achievement and level of segregation at the district and state level. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Dive deeper into our reporting. Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois journalist every week. Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Since I helped build the tool and live here in Illinois, I’m going to break out some important takeaways from our state’s data and explain how you can use it to find information important to you. And, please, let us know what you discover about the data from your school district. Does it match your experience? Do you know more about factors that could explain what you see? Send us an email or tweet at us.1. Nationally, black students are more likely to be disciplined than children of other races. Illinois follows this pattern.In most of the country, black students are overrepresented in discipline (defined as an out-of-school suspension). That goes for Illinois, too, as you can see on this page. In 312 of the 326 Illinois school districts where disparities could be calculated, black students were at least twice as likely to be disciplined as white students. In 59 districts, black students were more than 10 times as likely to be disciplined. In only five districts that together represented fewer than 1,200 students, discipline rates for black students were equivalent to or less than white students.Discipline is particularly worth your attention because it’s a clear-cut metric. Researchers found that when Chicago cut back on discipline, attendance rose and test performance improved among black students. Disparities in discipline often have a significant effect on educational attainment and outcomes.2. Hispanic students in Illinois are underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes, except in Chicago.In Chicago Public Schools, 46 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, which can give students college credit. That’s the same percentage for Hispanic students in the entire school district. Outside Chicago, it’s a different story. Many districts with Hispanic students see a much smaller proportion of those pupils enrolled in advanced classes.Take suburban Barrington Community School District, which serves one of the wealthiest areas in the country. In Barrington, Hispanic students make up 18 percent of the population but represent 5 percent of all students taking at least one AP class. Hispanic students are, on average, at least three grade levels behind their white counterparts and 2.3 times as likely to be suspended. Barrington Chicago 3. Performance and discipline disparities inside individual schools are low in Chicago, but high across the district. Why? Segregation.If you explore individual Chicago schools in the app, you’ll see that most schools are made up largely of one race. Take Phillips Academy High School, in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Our app shows Phillips is 97 percent black. Unsurprisingly, all students who take Advanced Placement classes at Phillips are black. In this way, Phillips isn’t so different from Juarez Community Academy. Juarez is 94 percent Hispanic, and Hispanic students make up 93 percent of AP class enrollment.In Chicago, the disparities are between schools. That’s in part because Chicago has one of the most segregated school systems in the country. Juarez Community Academy suspends 9 percent of all students, while Phillips suspends 39 percent. Juarez Community Academy (left) and Phillips Academy High School To understand those disparities, you have to look at it on a larger scale: the district. At the district level, the systemwide disparities come into focus. We want you ... to use our app!Our “Miseducation” tool includes nearly 100,000 schools and more than 17,000 districts nationally, and 4,081 schools and 935 districts in Illinois. There’s a lot more to learn about racial disparities in Illinois education aside from the three takeaways I mentioned. That’s why we hope you’ll use the app to explore the schools in your community and tell us what you find. In the coming weeks, we’ll be adding even more Illinois-specific school data to provide deeper insight into the schools here. So keep checking back.Again, tell us: Does the data collected by the Department of Education ring true to your experience? What else should we know about factors that could explain what you see? Do you know about Illinois education data and have ideas about what we could show that would be meaningful and impactful? Let us know!
Trump’s Tangled Relationship With Saudi Arabia — “Trump, Inc.” Podcast Extra
by Charles Herman, WNYC The disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate has brought renewed attention to what’s been true for years: The United States — and its president — has an important, and extremely complicated, relationship with Saudi Arabia.Trump has been doing business with Saudis for years, even bragging during his presidential campaign about the large amount of money Saudi buyers paid for his apartments. Listen to the Episode “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” he said at a rally in Mobile, Alabama, in August 2015. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”In this “Trump, Inc.” podcast extra, WNYC’s Charlie Herman talks with The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold and Joe Nocera from Bloomberg Opinion about all the ways Saudi Arabia is intertwined with U.S. business interests, including those of the president himself.Listen the episode.You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.You can always email us at tips@trumpincpodcast.org.And finally, you can use the postal service:Trump Inc at ProPublica
In Illinois Governor’s Race, Rauner and Pritzker See a Clear Need to Promise Transparency
by Mick Dumke Since he first entered politics as a candidate five years ago, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has pledged his commitment to open government.As he put it during a debate last week with challenger J.B. Pritzker before the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board: “Transparency is great.”As he fights for re-election, making the declaration is a great move on Rauner’s part — and an easy one. Voters are demanding more and more information about what their governments are doing with their tax money, and every candidate at every level is wise to speak in favor of sharing it with them.But what Rauner means when he vows to be transparent isn’t so clear, given his administration’s habit of fighting against the release of information. The governor’s office won’t even disclose how often it blocks the release of records sought by the public. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Dive deeper into our reporting. Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois journalist every week. Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. From January 2017 through this June, the governor’s office received more than 500 requests for records under the state Freedom of Information Act, according to a log released to me in response to a FOIA request. The log shows the office received requests from journalists, unions, businesses and independent citizens who wanted copies of the everything from Rauner’s schedule to emails from first lady Diana Rauner.Yet the governor’s office wouldn’t provide me records showing whether it granted or denied the requests, arguing it wasn’t obligated to under the law.“Please also be advised that the Governor’s Office is not required to answer questions or generate new records in response to a FOIA request,” one of the governor’s attorneys wrote in a letter.In other words, Rauner’s lawyer was arguing that his office didn’t have to reveal how it responded to FOIA requests because it doesn’t have those records on hand. That means the governor’s office kept a detailed log of every FOIA request it received, who made it, what it was for and when a response was due — but claimed it didn’t track whether the office ever provided the information or complied with the law.Either the office isn’t being transparent or it’s not keeping good records.Even so, the response to my request was more forthcoming than what another Chicagoan, Sarah Jackson, got last year when she asked the governor’s office for a FOIA log: nothing at all. The office never responded to her, according to a summary of the case by the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s public access counselor, which handles FOIA disputes.When Rauner’s office didn’t acknowledge her request within two weeks, Jackson notified the PAC, which tried to find out what had happened. But Rauner’s office didn’t respond to those inquiries either. In December, the PAC issued a binding opinion ordering Rauner’s office to produce the log.Jackson’s FOIA request was one of more than 40 appealed to the PAC from January 2017 through this June after Rauner’s office denied them, records from the attorney general show. In addition to Jackson’s case, the PAC ruled three other times that the governor’s office had violated FOIA. On at least 16 other occasions, the governor’s office responded or reached an agreement with the requester after the PAC got involved. Most of the other cases were closed for administrative reasons. The PAC determined Rauner’s office had acted properly in just one of the disputes.As I found in a recent investigation, the PAC’s office is backlogged with FOIA appeals that often take months or even years to resolve. One of the reasons it gets so many cases is that public bodies around the state resist such requests.Ann Spillane, the attorney general’s chief of staff, said the obfuscation starts with Rauner.“We have a governor of Illinois who actively tries to undermine the FOIA,” she said.But Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Rauner, said his administration remains committed to transparency and devotes considerable resources to complying with the law.“Our teams spend hundreds of hours each week reviewing documents to respond to FOIA requests as completely as possible and in a timely manner,” she wrote in an email. “We’ve produced hundreds of thousands of pages of responsive documents. In addition, the volume produced by individual state agencies under the Administration could number in the millions.”Schuh described an office barraged with FOIA requests, including many that take long hours to process. She said the governor would be willing to work on “improvements” to the law, which was first passed in the 1980s.“The law doesn’t adequately account for the current reality that some government bodies, including our office, add hundreds of thousands of emails each year to their records, if not millions,” Schuh said.But Rauner wasn’t very sympathetic to the burden the law placed on his predecessor, Pat Quinn, portraying him four years ago as a product of the secretive Democratic machine. He promised to bring a new level of openness to state government if elected.After taking office in 2015, though, Rauner’s administration began arguing that it was exempt from many FOIA requests, including for basic records such as his daily meeting schedules. In September of that year, the PAC ruled against the governor, concluding his calendars were indeed public records.His office then stopped naming the people he met with, instead using only their initials on the calendars. Susie Cagle, special to ProPublica Illinois Rauner also repeatedly fought to keep state officials’ emails secret. Last week, the PAC issued another binding opinion that said the emails are public records and releasing them doesn’t place an undue burden on the office.Much as Rauner once went after Quinn, Pritzker has spent the last year hammering Rauner for concealing key decisions and scandals within his administration.During the Sun-Times debate, for example, Pritzker accused Rauner of flouting FOIA by redacting emails that reporters sought while investigating a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy.“They were blacked out because he didn’t want to let people know what was going on, which was an effort to cover their butts, to make sure that they weren’t held accountable,” Pritzker charged.Rauner denied any wrongdoing. Instead, he attacked Pritzker for not revealing details of his tax plan, and for getting his own tax breaks after removing toilets at his Gold Coast mansion.The governor had a point: Neither move was a model of transparency.Jason Rubin, a spokesman for Pritzker, told me the Democrat will “ensure his administration works in good faith to improve public access to information across all executive agencies,” such as making more data and records available, presumably without the need for FOIA requests. In contrast, Rubin said, “Bruce Rauner has routinely shirked ethics and transparency as governor.”Yet this week the rivals revealed similar notions about openness, and especially its limits. Each released tax records showing more than $50 million in income last year. Each declined to let the public see schedules or attachments showing deductions and other financial details, though news reports have found they each have networks of investments that extend to offshore tax shelters.Some claims of transparency are easy to see through.
Even in Philadelphia, One of the Most Determined Sanctuary Cities, Refuge Is Elusive
by David Gambacorta, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Kavitha Surana, ProPublica A small, impish grin spread across Jeff Sessions’ face. It was a sun-drenched June afternoon in Scranton, a northeastern Pennsylvania town a few generations removed from its coal-mining heyday, and the U.S. attorney general was ensconced in a window-lined university hall, preaching to cops, prosecutors and police cadets about the importance of President Donald Trump’s war on illegal immigration. Outside, protesters jeered.Sanctuary cities, Sessions said, reject the law, reward criminals and put U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in peril. Then he smiled and began attacking Jim Kenney, Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor.Philadelphia had emerged as one of the largest thorns in the Trump administration’s side. It wore its sanctuary reputation like a badge of honor, and its leaders, including Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner, continued to find creative ways to outmaneuver ICE’s enforcement efforts. Just a week earlier, Philadelphia won a federal lawsuit that Kenney filed against the Department of Justice. At risk had been a $1.6 million law enforcement grant, and the critical question of whether Philadelphia — and, by implication, cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco — could limit cooperation with ICE without being penalized by the federal government. As mayor, Kenney has doubled down on limiting the city's cooperation with federal immigration authorities. "All of us have ancestors who were once immigrants," he has said. (Heather Khalifa/Philadelphia Inquirer) The attorney general told his audience that he’d seen a video of Kenney dancing giddily in the wake of the court victory. “He is celebrating keeping criminals in Philadelphia that by law should be deported,” Sessions said. But it was worse than that; cities like Philadelphia, he said, “send a message to criminals: ‘Stay here, and we will protect you.’ That directly attracts more criminals.”Kenney saw his administration’s role in a more noble light. By wielding policy to fight back against Trump and ICE, the city’s leaders believed they were sending an important message: Immigrants could trust the city and feel comfortable reporting crimes.Philadelphia’s violent crime rate has fallen by more than 17 percent, to levels not seen in decades, since it became a sanctuary city in 2014.To Kenney, Sessions’ criticism of so-called sanctuary cities and counties, which had shot up to more than 700 since Trump took office, were less about public safety and more about pandering to anti-immigrant voters. “Trump and Sessions and those folks rule by division and fear, by putting out intentionally wrong views of who people are and what they are, and what they aspire to be,” Kenney said in an interview. Trump “wants to use Philadelphia to play to the heartland of people who are scared of anyone that’s a different color than them.”This is the immigration debate most people are familiar with, writ large: each side seeing itself as good, the other as bad, and neither willing to move beyond the lines drawn without worrying that it will appear, to their supporters, like a surrender.But the reality of life in a sanctuary city like Philadelphia is far more complex. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. The city’s police union, like many across the country, heartily endorsed Trump in the 2016 election, but many commanders and rank-and-file officers are committed to winning the trust of immigrant communities by not asking about people’s immigration status or contacting ICE to share data. And Krasner, elected on a reformer’s platform, has prosecutors regularly adjusting plea deals to help immigrant defendants avoid deportation.But ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer found that the city’s resistance to ICE’s agenda comes with some surprising caveats: On two dozen occasions, police, probation officers and even one of Kenney’s top deputies have quietly provided tips to ICE about undocumented immigrants who were charged with crimes. Other forms of information-sharing still continue, which shows that even the most extreme of sanctuary cities eventually bend to comply with a federal law that says local governments cannot restrict sharing immigration status with ICE.For the undocumented immigrants who dream that cities like Philadelphia can shelter them in a protective bubble, these contradictions are a reminder that true sanctuary doesn’t exist anywhere in America.“I’ve Beaten Myself Up About It”Not long into the first year of the Trump administration, Brian Abernathy, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director and one of Kenney’s closest aides, had a difficult decision to make. On separate occasions, city prison officials alerted him to five undocumented inmates who were being released on bond before they faced trial on felony charges that included attempted murder and the rape of a child.An executive order signed in 2014 by Michael Nutter, the mayor at the time, and later reinforced by Kenney, barred officials from giving ICE advance notice about the pending release of undocumented inmates, or from detaining those individuals for ICE unless its agents obtained a judicial arrest warrant. But Abernathy found these crimes particularly disturbing.His dilemma called to mind a notorious case that ICE officials have repeatedly tried to use to undercut Philadelphia’s sanctuary policies: Juan Ramon Vasquez, a Honduras native arrested in the city in 2014 in a domestic assault case. ICE supplied the city with a detainer request for Vasquez, who had been deported in 2009, but the city wouldn’t honor it. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, and Vasquez was released. He was arrested again in 2016 — this time, for raping a young relative. He is now in prison.The episode highlighted the potential risk — critics argued Vasquez’s crime was the city’s responsibility.Abernathy made up his mind. He told an ICE official about the five suspects. Agents apprehended the men late at night, outside of city jails. “At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. Looking back on it, I don’t think it was,” Abernathy said recently. “It’s a hard issue, and I’ve beaten myself up about it.”He wasn’t the only public employee reaching out to ICE. Even after the city adopted its sanctuary policy, Philadelphia police notified the agency about undocumented suspects they arrested on about 10 occasions, according to federal court records.The Kenney administration chalked those instances up to a simple misunderstanding about the policy and has since clarified “no notifications are to occur going forward for any reason.” But there were others, outside of the mayor’s control.Officers from the Philadelphia Adult Probation and Parole Department have also turned in clients who they believed were undocumented to ICE. In the last three fiscal years, information from probation and parole officers led to 84 ICE arrests in Philadelphia; the most common crimes involved driving under the influence, assault and drugs, according to ICE data compiled by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.Richard McSorley, the deputy court administrator who oversees the probation department, declined to be interviewed by ProPublica and the Inquirer.But this practice got on the radar of the Kenney administration. During a September meeting with city and court leaders, the probation department agreed to restrict its officers from asking clients about immigration status or contacting ICE if they learn someone is undocumented — even though probation officers work for the First Judicial District, which isn’t obligated to follow the mayor’s executive order.ICE officials said they were unaware of the probation department’s new stance.Immigration advocates have been pushing for cities to rein in their cooperation with ICE ever since deportation rates climbed to an all-time high of more than 200,000 a year in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency; most of this was due to new databases that made it easier for ICE agents to sweep up undocumented immigrants in jails and prisons.With national immigration reform at an apparent impasse in Congress, local resistance seemed like the best hope for protecting immigrants who were here illegally, but had set down roots, raised families and contributed to their communities, to avoid getting caught up in a deportation dragnet. Facing increased pressure from immigration advocates and activists, the Kenney administration earlier this year took steps to further restrict the information it shared with ICE. (Maggie Loesch/Philadelphia Inquirer) Under Trump, ICE’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of immigrant communities in states like Pennsylvania has only succeeded in pushing leaders of sanctuary cities further apart from their federal counterparts. Every inflammatory comment from Sessions or Trump, who referred to immigrants as “animals” during a meeting with California sheriffs this year, makes it difficult for sanctuary city officials to contemplate a dialogue with ICE about compromises.“The rhetoric that’s happening on a national scale — illegal immigrants are causing crime, taking your jobs, all that posturing — drives a political base and has made it impossible” to have a conversation, Abernathy said. “I can’t cooperate with ICE on immigration enforcement because what they’re doing is wrong.”ICE officials met with Kenney’s office this summer in an attempt to discuss the impasse between the city and ICE, and they left frustrated.“Their stance was basically they treat every single individual in the city of Philadelphia as all U.S. citizens,” said an ICE official, adding: “Unfortunately, there’s hundreds of thousands of people waiting to legally immigrate into the U.S. … How fair is it to those people, trying to legally come in, if we allow people to stay here illegally that committed crimes?”This summer, Philadelphia inflamed the Justice Department anew. Krasner and the mayor, amid pressure from protesters who camped outside City Hall, announced that the city would not renew its contract with ICE that gave immigration agents access to a citywide database of real-time arrest information, known by the acronym PARS, that included a person’s Social Security number, country of birth, address and police report.Kenney presented the move as a moral decision to stop ICE from targeting innocent immigrants. “All of us have ancestors who were once immigrants,” he said at a City Hall news conference. “All of us.” Community organizer Xelba Gutierrez, (left) hugs Mara Henao, of Philly Socialists, after Xelba and two members of the Occupy ICE protest group met with Kenney in July, when he announced the termination of a contract that allowed ICE to access a database of local arrest information. (Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer) ICE officials complained about the loss of the useful intelligence tool. In a letter to the city solicitor, the agency wrote “ICE has neither violated the PARS contract nor abused its use of information derived from PARS. ICE does not use PARS to target victims and witnesses and does not engage in ’racial profiling.’”Months before cutting ICE off from PARS, the city began sending — at the urging of the federal judge presiding over their lawsuit — information to the agency culled from the Philadelphia prison system’s Lock and Track database. With Lock and Track, agents could see some inmates’ name, race and self-reported country of origin, but Kenney’s administration believed the information wouldn’t be of much use to ICE and would remove a point of contention in the case.“It Takes Into Consideration His Ability to Stay Here”For Krasner, who was swept into office with a promise to reinvent Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, there was no conflict: The DA’s Office would find ways for immigrant defendants who were guilty of crimes to be punished without falling into ICE’s hands, and to avoid probation officers altogether.One of Krasner’s first decisions was to hire Caleb Arnold, a bespectacled former public defender who had been working at a local immigration law firm, to a newly created immigration counsel position.Arnold’s job was to craft plea deals to help prevent immigrants from being deported or losing other legal rights if they were convicted of low-level offenses.“He is taking into account and recognizing the immense consequence of deportation,” Arnold said of Krasner. “He feels it should be considered in the criminal justice system.” ​District Attorney Larry Krasner, elected on a reform platform, wants his office to help immigrants who are convicted of certain crimes to avoid being deported. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer) The stakes are high: An immigrant convicted of a crime could lose legal status, while a conviction for an undocumented immigrant would erase almost any shot at being spared deportation through a humanitarian visa.In late May, Arnold arrived at an eighth-floor courtroom in Philadelphia’s Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, where a nervous-looking young man in a short-sleeved button-down and saggy blue jeans stood in the hallway.Jose Ramirez-Disla was a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic who had lived in the U.S. legally on a green card for almost two years.In the spring of 2017, he got into a fight inside the Chihuahua, a bar in Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood. He chucked a beer bottle at another man, fracturing his orbital bone, and was charged with a felony count of aggravated assault and related offenses. If convicted of an aggravated assault, he would face deportation.That’s where Arnold came in. For 20 minutes, Ramirez-Disla’s lawyer and a young city prosecutor huddled in the hallway with Arnold, who sketched out the terms of a favorable deal: If Ramirez-Disla pleaded to a misdemeanor and took 11 months in jail with no probation and no right to appeal, the DA’s Office would drop the more serious charge. He would do more time than if he had been convicted of aggravated assault, but he’d get another chance to remain in the country on good terms.“That’s fair. He has to pay his time,” Arnold explained. “It takes into consideration his ability to stay here.”This sort of negotiation had become routine. Arnold’s office has assessed more than 200 cases since February, though they don’t intervene in all of them and some of the adjustments are minimal. Krasner said he won’t consider deals for sex offenders and murderers, but he’s still faced backlash from veteran prosecutors and some judges to this newfound approach.Krasner isn’t fazed by internal resistance. “You’re dealing with multigenerational, self-selected prosecutors in this office, whose politics are not necessarily identical to my politics, or the politics of the movement that elected me, or the politics of Caleb Arnold,” he said. Caleb Arnold, a former public defender, was hired by Krasner to craft deals for immigrant defendants that ensure they are punished appropriately, if convicted of a crime, but without facing immigration consequences. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer) When asked for case information about all of the agreements Arnold has overseen, the DA’s Office refused. It provided anonymized summaries of nine, to show a range of outcomes. In one instance, a defendant was charged with robbery and theft after stealing someone’s backpack. The defendant agreed to a downgrade to simple assault and theft, with a recommended sentence of 5 1/2 to 11 months.Presented with the case of a green card resident who’d been charged with possession of child pornography, Arnold didn’t intervene.Back in the eighth-floor courtroom, Ramirez-Disla discussed Arnold’s offer with his lawyer and grew teary-eyed. But agreeing to spend nearly a year in jail was his only chance to stay in the country. He decided to accept.“We Are Not in the Immigration Business”Despite the warnings from Sessions in Scranton about the terrible impact sanctuary policies have on public safety, violent crime in Philadelphia has plummeted in recent years.The homicide rate has risen 9 percent this year, but Kenney insists “the people who are going out and shooting those people are Philadelphians,” not immigrants. Philadelphia police say this is anecdotally correct, but don’t have data to bear it out, since officers don’t ask people about their citizenship status.As proof that community policing and sanctuary policies work, immigration advocates and police point to South Philadelphia’s Third District, which is home to large Mexican and Asian communities.Capt. Frank Milillo, the district’s commander, deploys a handful of bilingual officers to engage immigrant residents and explain they can contact police in an emergency without having to worry about attracting ICE’s attention. Sometimes his officers visit the Mexican Consulate, where they try to bond over coffee and doughnuts with immigrants who initially cringe at the sight of someone in a badge and uniform.“I assure the community that you can come and report a crime, and we’re not asking about your immigration background,” Milillo said. Officers Jasmine Fraticelli, foreground, Franklin LeTorre, and Sgt. Timmy Sin, background, speak multiple languages, and are tasked with winning over the trust of immigrant residents in South Philly's 3rd District. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer) His boss, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, has identified the Police Department’s primary concerns as combating the city’s gun violence epidemic and building stronger relationships in minority communities. “We are not in the immigration business,” Ross has said.During the federal lawsuit, David O’Neill, an assistant director from ICE’s Philadelphia field office, said he was not aware of any data that showed deporting more immigrants from Philadelphia reduces the city’s crime rate.Though ICE officials prefer to talk about the agency’s work pursuing criminals, its actions show an increased focus on deporting anyone who is in the country illegally, clean record or not. ICE didn’t appear to be pursuing many criminal targets in Philadelphia through the criminal justice system. In 2016 and 2017, ICE filed 164 detainer requests with the city for undocumented immigrants — court records show — one to two a week, on average.Of the 164, only 27 were people with prior felony convictions; of those, most were for nonviolent offenses such as criminal trespass and shoplifting. ICE obtained judicial warrants for just six of the 164 inmates it wanted turned over.ICE has long said the insistence by sanctuary city officials for judicial arrest warrants before holding someone in jail was an unreasonable burden. In many cases, it doesn’t have standing to request one. ICE also said 61 percent of immigrants without criminal convictions arrested this year came to the agency’s attention because of criminal charges, even if they were not convicted.U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson, who presided over the federal trial, all but scoffed at ICE’s explanation for why it couldn’t comply with the city’s requirement for judicial warrants. Baylson, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote in a 93-page decision that there was no reason why ICE officials couldn’t craft a solution with the local U.S. Attorney’s Office to more easily meet Philadelphia’s demands for an arrest warrant.The federal government is appealing Baylson’s decision.“Is Pablo Here? We Want to Talk to Him”Immigrants are still drawn to Philadelphia, hoping to find refuge and a small piece of the American dream in the shadows of gleaming new skyscrapers and old rowhouse neighborhoods. But even in the most determined sanctuary city, they won’t find unbreachable protection.For Enid Melissa Bartolomei and Pablo Castillo Trujillo, Philadelphia seemed as if it might hold the key to unlocking the life they wanted to build together.Trujillo, 41, hired someone to help him cross the Mexico border and into the U.S. in the summer of 2017. He ended up in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, a Burlington County suburb a dozen miles east of Philadelphia, where Hispanics make up less than 5 percent of its 41,000 residents. There he met Bartolomei, a 36-year-old Puerto Rico native who worked at a local law firm, and settled into what seemed like a welcoming environment for immigrants: Gov. Phil Murphy had vowed to make New Jersey a sanctuary state, and his administration, like Kenney’s, sued the Justice Department.Trujillo and Bartolomei got engaged, and Trujillo worked landscaping jobs to help support her parents. The couple made multiple trips to the Mexican Consulate in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district, believing officials there could devise a path to citizenship for Trujillo. South Jersey resident Enid Melissa Bartolomei gets a rare moment of levity as she speaks by phone with her fiance, Pablo Castillo Trujillo, who was was apprehended by ICE in April and deported to Mexico. The couple had been on their way to Philadelphia, to seek help from officials at the Mexican Consulate, when they were stopped by ICE. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer) In early April, Bartolomei heard a knock at her front door.She found two men standing there in vests that identified them as ICE agents. One had gone into her mailbox and was looking through the bills, including one addressed to Trujillo. A third lurked in her backyard.“Is Pablo here?” one agent asked. “We want to talk to him.”“He’s not,” she said. “What’s this about?”Her mind raced. As far as she knew, Trujillo hadn’t gotten into any legal trouble in the time they were together. Then Bartolomei remembered that police talked to her a few weeks earlier at her apartment, with Trujillo in the background, after a neighbor complained her car was blocking a shared driveway. Maybe that’s how ICE ended up at her door, she thought.The ICE agents left, and Bartolomei called the consulate in a panic. An employee told her to leave her apartment and not return. She and Trujillo spent the night at her parents’ home. “We’ll go to the consulate in the morning and figure this out,” he told her.The next day, they began driving to Philadelphia. They could reach the consulate in 20 minutes if they hurried. Bartolomei wondered: Could the consulate keep her fiance safe? Would he be better off trying for sanctuary in a church?Her thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a cruiser filled with ICE agents, who pulled her over, ordered Trujillo out of the car and took him away from her.According to U.S. Department of Homeland Security records, he had been deported once before, in 2015, when he entered the U.S. illegally. In May, he was sent back to Mexico.Bartolomei plans to fly there soon to marry Trujillo, but their reunion will be short-lived. Her family needs her in New Jersey, and Trujillo can’t apply to return to the U.S. legally for 20 years.She recently sat in a local Starbucks, dabbing at tears with a napkin as she mulled the question of what a sanctuary city really means.“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “ICE just finds a way around it.”
Here Are the Trump Projects Where Ivanka and Her Dad Misled Buyers
by Katherine Sullivan and Heather Vogell A pattern of deception ran through the Trumps’ real estate deals since the mid-2000s. Not only were the Trumps more than the mere licensors they claimed to be, extracting millions in fees from nearly every facet of these projects, but they often misled buyers and investors on key information — such as the level of sales and the Trumps’ role and investment in the deals. (Read our full investigation.) The Trump Organization did not respond to our questions, and the White House didn’t have a comment. Projects Where a Trump Family Member Overstated Sales NumbersDOMINICAN REPUBLICClaim: Donald Trump claimed $365 million in sales in a 2007 letter to The Wall Street Journal.Reality: Trump reported $290 million in a 2009 project audit.Result: Never built.FORT LAUDERDALEClaim: Trump announced the hotel/condo was “pretty much sold out” in April 2006, according to a broker who attended the presentation.Reality: 62 percent of units were sold as of July 2006, according to bank records that emerged in a court case.Result: Entered foreclosure. Trump’s name removed before construction completed.LAS VEGASClaim: Condos “sold out,” Trump told The Associated Press in 2005Reality: About 25 percent of units were sold by 2011, according to press accounts.Result: Built.PANAMAClaim: “It’s a 1,000-unit building, we’ve sold over 90 percent of it,” Ivanka told Portfolio in 2008.Reality: As of three months later, 79 percent of the units were pre-sold, according to Moody’s.Result: Built, but went bankrupt; Trump name removed.SOHOClaim: In 2008, Ivanka told reporters that 60 percent of units had sold.Reality: A Trump partner’s affidavit revealed that 15 percent had been sold at the time.Result: Built, but went bankrupt; Trump name removed.TAMPAClaim: The building “sold out,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal in 2007.Reality: The developers failed to sell a minimum of 70 percent of units, according to a Trump company letter that year, which deemed that a violation of its contract.Result: Never built.TORONTOClaim: In a 2009 interview, Ivanka referred to the property as “virtually sold out.”Reality: 24.8 percent of units had sold, according to a 2016 bankruptcy filing by the developers.Result: Built, but went bankrupt; Trump name removed.Projects Where the Trumps Suggested They Were Developers, Partners or Equity Owners (They Weren’t)BAJAMore than 50 buyers claimed Ivanka said the Trump Organization was a developer on the project at a 2007 sales event, according to a lawsuit quoted by Univision.DOMINICAN REPUBLIC“I am excited to be building Trump at Cap Cana,” Trump was quoted saying in a 2007 press release, according to Univision.FORT LAUDERDALETrump called the hotel and tower “my latest development” in a letter announcing the project.REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA“TRUMP INVESTS IN GEORGIA” read banners for the project, according to The New Yorker. Asked by a Fox anchor what he was “investing in,” Trump responded, “I’m doing a big development” in Georgia.PANAMA“I am honored to develop this extraordinary high rise with my partner Roger Khafif of the K Group,” Trump said in a 2009 marketing statement.TAMPATrump claimed an ownership stake in a news article at the time, stating it was less than 50 percent, then adding: “But it’s a substantial stake. I recently said I’d like to increase my stake but when they’re selling that well they don’t let you do that.”WAIKIKIIn the final episode of season five of “The Apprentice,” Trump announced the project on national TV, saying “that’s why I’m building the magnificent Trump Hotel and Tower Waikiki.” In 2007, he told The Wall Street Journal: “This building is largely owned by me and being developed by me.”
¿Has experimentado algún problema al votar? Queremos escuchar tu historia
par ProPublica Read in English.Las elecciones están a la vuelta de la esquina. Si estás planeando votar, ya sea el 6 de noviembre o durante el período de votación anticipada en tu estado, queremos que nos ayudes a encontrar problemas en el proceso de votación.Estamos interesados en oír sobre cualquier impedimento que obstaculice el derecho al voto: colas largas, problemas en el registro en las listas de votantes, máquinas rotas, incidentes de intimidación, barreras lingüísticas, etc. Si eres un votante interesado en el proyecto, puedes apuntarte y contarnos tu experiencia al votar:
GOP Senator Pushed VA to Use Unproven “Brainwave Frequency” Treatment
by Isaac Arnsdorf Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, pushed doctors at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Reno to adopt an experimental mental health treatment marketed by a company with ties to his office.On a Friday night last December in his Reno office, Heller, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced VA officials to representatives from a health care startup called CereCare. The company markets an “off-label” method of treating addiction and post-traumatic stress, using electromagnetic brain stimulation.The meeting came about because two of CereCare’s partners had a business connection to Heller’s senior aide in Reno. “We’ve known her for years,” one of the partners, Nino Pedrini, said of the aide, Glenna Smith. Pedrini and his partner have a separate joint venture with Smith’s former employer. “This was Glenna reaching out to us, knowing what we were doing, saying we think there’s a fit here where you folks can help our veterans,” Pedrini said. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email Smith declined to answer questions about her role in arranging the meeting; she said she has never had a financial interest in Pedrini’s companies.The Trump administration is encouraging the VA to use more alternative treatments, even though doctors and mental health experts caution against steering patients to procedures that haven’t been scientifically demonstrated to be safe and effective. The administration’s enthusiasm for such experimental treatments has opened the door to a flood of hopeful vendors like CereCare.Heller declined to answer specific questions about the meeting. In a statement, he said he “will never apologize for supporting policies that could lead to additional treatment options for Nevada veterans because no one who has served this country should be waiting for care once they return from combat.”Heller co-sponsored a bill directing the VA to start a pilot program on CereCare’s procedure. Another of CereCare’s partners, Judi Kosterman, participated in drafting the legislation, she said in an interview. Kosterman described herself as CereCare’s expert on the procedure, and her business card identified her as “Dr.” She is not a physician and her doctorate is in education, according to official records.The bill says it provides no additional funding, so the pilot program would come at the expense of other treatments that are already proven to be effective. For that reason, it drew opposition from Veterans of Foreign Wars, which represents 1.6 million members. “The VFW believes that VA must spend its already scarce health care resources on therapies that have shown promise or have a proven track record,” the organization told Congress. Other veterans groups, such as Amvets and Vietnam Veterans of America, supported the bill because they said the treatment is worth trying. The Senate veterans committee hasn’t voted on the bill.The procedure that CereCare was pitching to the VA uses electrical scans of the brain and heart to detect a patient’s “intrinsic brainwave frequency” and find “the area of the brain in need of restoration,” according to materials brought to the meeting. CereCare then uses that data to apply electromagnetic pulses from a machine called a transcranial magnetic stimulator.This procedure is off-label, meaning it uses equipment approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but in a way that is not approved by the agency. Off-label procedures are not uncommon or illegal, but the FDA has not signed off on their safety or effectiveness.Pedrini brushed off concerns about FDA approval. “The thing we all have to get over is FDA approval on some things,” he said. “You’ve got to try things. We can’t get hung up on 20 years of the FDA trying to approve something because of the bureaucracy and red tape.”Many mental health professionals oppose pushing patients into experimental procedures. They urge treatments that are scientifically validated or, under certain circumstances, that are part of a well-run clinical trial. “Physicians in the VA, and any other health care setting, should not be forced to disclose treatment options for which there is no scientific basis for safety and efficacy,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness told Congress in 2016.But these experimental treatments have found favor with political appointees in the Trump administration. Two of Trump’s policy priorities for the VA — letting more veterans go to private doctors, and reducing suicide among veterans — have combined to lead officials to embrace private companies pitching unconventional treatments.The president appointed Jake Leinenkugel, a Wisconsin beer baron turned senior adviser at the VA, to chair a commission studying nontraditional treatments like the one CereCare sells. The commission’s congressional charter says its members should have a background in treating mental health and experience working with veterans; Leinenkugel has neither. (He didn’t respond to requests for comment.)At the commission’s first meeting, in July, Leinenkugel encouraged deploying hyperbaric chambers — not because of any scientific evidence, but because of companies’ lobbying. Two large organizations had contacted him over the previous 12 or 13 months, he said. “They’re becoming much more proactive. They’re gaining resonance on the Hill and also in states,” he said. “So, whether or not we think that treatment works or has any evidence based to it at this point in time, it is not relevant to me.”At the Reno meeting, Heller’s staff and CereCare talked about four veterans with mental health issues who could receive the treatment, according to meeting notes provided to ProPublica. A local veterans nonprofit group was offering to cover the cost of the four veterans’ treatment so the VA wouldn’t have to pay, according to Pedrini.CereCare could have used that money to treat those patients without the VA’s involvement. But Heller wanted the VA to bless CereCare’s procedure as a pilot program to put it on a path to widespread adoption, according to the meeting notes. “Dean Heller wanted their endorsement,” said Walter A. “Del” Marting, another of CereCare’s partners. (Marting donated $500 to Heller’s re-election campaign in 2015, according to Federal Election Commission records.)At the meeting, a VA representative suggested that if CereCare or Heller’s office know of four veterans needing mental health care, they should be sent to the VA for evaluation and treatment. Kosterman, who was present, said the VA officials appeared skeptical of CereCare’s procedure. She described the VA’s position as, “Veterans are a protected class, and we are responsible to protect them from being experimented with or being involved in something we haven’t validated.”It’s not clear what happened to the four veterans. But the pilot program never moved forward, much to CereCare’s frustration. “The whole thing got bogged down in clearances and approvals and reviews,” Marting said.Heller put a positive spin on the meeting, posing for a photo and tweeting, “Thank you to the Reno VA, Reno Vet Center, Renown Health, CereCare, the Nevada Military Support Alliance, & Northern #NV community members for joining me for a productive discussion about ways to reduce suicide among veterans and improve mental health care for them.”
Pump and Trump
by Heather Vogell, ProPublica, with Andrea Bernstein and Meg Cramer, WNYC, and Peter Elkind, ProPublica Since Donald Trump’s fortunes came surging back with the success of “The Apprentice” 14 years ago, his deals have often been scrutinized for the large number of his partners who have ventured to the very edges of the law, and sometimes beyond. Those associates have included accused money launderers, alleged funders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a felon who slashed someone in the face with a broken margarita glass.Trump and his company have typically countered by saying they were merely licensing his name on these real estate projects in exchange for a fee. They weren’t the developers or in any way responsible.But an eight-month investigation by ProPublica and WNYC reveals that the post-millennium Trump business model is different from what has been previously reported. The Trumps were typically way more than mere licensors or bystanders in their often-troubled deals. They were deeply involved in these projects. They helped mislead investors and buyers — and they profited handsomely from it.Patterns of deceptive practices occurred in a dozen deals across the globe, as the business expanded into international projects, and the Trumps often participated. One common pattern, visible in more than half of those transactions, was a tendency to misstate key sales numbers.In interviews and press conferences, Ivanka Trump gave false sales figures for projects in Mexico’s Baja California; Panama City, Panama; Toronto and New York’s SoHo neighborhood. These statements weren’t just the legendary Trump hype; they misled potential buyers about the viability of the developments.Another pattern: Donald Trump repeatedly misled buyers about the amount (or existence) of his ownership in projects in Tampa, Florida; Panama; Baja and elsewhere. For a tower planned in Tampa, for example, Trump told a local paper in 2005 that his ownership would be less than 50 percent: “But it’s a substantial stake. I recently said I’d like to increase my stake but when they’re selling that well they don’t let you do that.” In reality, Trump had no ownership stake in the project.The Trumps often made money even when projects failed. And when they tanked, the Trumps simply ignored their prior claims of close involvement, denied any responsibility and walked away.The cycle is exemplified in Panama City, where the Trumps were involved in a project to build a massive tower and complex known as the Trump Ocean Club. The project’s unfortunate turns included bankruptcy, then, years later, the forcible ejection of the Trump Organization from managing the hotel.There, as elsewhere, the Trump Organization disclaimed responsibility. It emphasized that it had merely licensed the Trump name to developers who handled everything from construction to marketing. “The Trump Organization was not the owner, developer or seller of the Trump Ocean Club Panama project,” it said in a statement last year. “Because of its limited role, the company was not responsible for the financing of the project and had no involvement in the sale of units.”That was false. For starters, Trump arranged financing — his promised commission: $2.2 million or more — by bringing in investment bank Bear Stearns, which issued the bonds that paid for the Panama project’s construction.Trump touted himself as a “partner” of the developer. His daughter Ivanka briefly boasted that she had personally sold 40 units. (A broker on the project said he couldn’t remember her selling even one.) Meanwhile, Ivanka told a journalist at the time that “over 90 percent” of the Panama units had sold — and at prices five times as high as comparable buildings. Both statements were untrue.Not only were the Panama sales figures inflated, but many “purchases” turned out to be an illusion. That was no coincidence. The building’s financing depended on obtaining advance commitments from buyers, often before concrete had started pouring. But in between the sale of the bonds in 2007 and 2013, the year the building went bankrupt, buyers of 458 units in the 1,000-unit building abandoned their purchase contracts. Those buyers forfeited more than $50 million in deposits, and they never took possession of finished units. Given that the “buyers” were often shadowy shell companies or other paper entities, it was nearly impossible to discern who the actual purchasers were, let alone why they backed out.Trump licensed his name for an initial fee of $1 million. But that was just the beginning of the revenue streams, a lengthy and varied assortment that granted him a piece of everything from sales of apartment units to a cut of minibar sales, and was notable for the myriad ways in which both success and failure triggered payments to him.Consider the final accounting: In the wake of the project’s bankruptcy, a 50 percent default rate and his company’s expulsion from managing the hotel, Donald Trump walked away with between $30 million and $55 million.The Trump Organization did not respond to a long list of questions about its transactions. The White House didn’t have a comment.Trump’s licensing strategy originated with his early-2000s comeback, as “The Apprentice” propelled him to international TV stardom and restored luster to a reputation tarnished by multiple bankruptcies. As Trump put it in one promotional video during that period, “When the first season of ‘The Apprentice’ finally finished shooting, I was able to get back to my core business, real estate, and I’ve made some really incredible deals.” That strategy is still playing out today. The Trump Organization, which pledged not to launch new projects during the Trump presidency, is aggressively pursuing existing ones, including in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and India.Some long-assumed beliefs about Trump are being re-investigated, with surprising results. This month, The New York Times published a 13,000-word examination of how Donald’s father, the late Fred Trump, and his estate, funneled millions of dollars to his children, in possible violation of tax rules and criminal laws. With copious documentation showing that Fred directed $413 million in today’s dollars to Donald — not the single loan for $1 million, with interest, that Donald has always claimed — it exploded Trump’s long-propagated claim that he is a self-made man.This article examines another Trump claim: that his post-millennium comeback and global expansion rested on the brilliant purity of a licensing strategy that paid him millions simply for the use of his name. That, it turns out, is no truer than the notion that Donald Trump is self-made.“Development Wasn’t Our Big Forte”A Lebanese importer-exporter with expertise in the apparel industry seemed an unlikely choice as a partner for one of Donald Trump’s first international forays. Yet that’s precisely who Trump would team with to embark on a wildly ambitious construction project in a distant Central American location.Roger Khafif divided his time between Panama, where he had become a citizen, and South Florida. He was a slick dresser who made big promises and exuded an intensity that could be viewed either as determination or stubbornness, according to people who did business with him. He had worked in the Panama Canal free-trade zone as an importer-exporter of clothing and had recently begun dabbling in real estate, documents show, via ownership interests in two Panamanian beach resorts. “Development wasn’t our big forte,” Khafif acknowledged in an interview with ProPublica.If Khafif seemed an implausible partner, Panama seemed an odd location for a project that would become a template of sorts for Trump’s international licensing deals. The country was better known as a cog in the Latin American drug trade than as a tourist destination. It was a place to turn illegal profits into useable cash. Money laundering helped fuel the proliferation of high-rises that gave Panama City its sleek, ultramodern skyline.The deal came together fast, according to Khafif. To get to Trump, he said, an associate put him in touch with a business partner of Marvin Traub, the Trump friend and former Bloomingdale’s CEO who had also brokered Trump Vodka. Traub’s consultancy got Khafif on Trump’s schedule. (Traub’s firm later sought almost $1.3 million for matchmaking, court documents show.)“We had a quick meeting,” Khafif recalled of his first encounter with Trump in New York in 2005. “Then I left. I went down to Miami, got a call the next day from Donald Trump saying they were interested in the project.” Khafif was so surprised he didn’t at first believe he was talking to Trump.Trump signed on to Khafif’s plan and decided to bestow the leading role in the project, at least as far as the Trump Organization went, on his daughter Ivanka, Khafif told Reuters. Just entering her mid-20s, she was leading a major deal for the first time. Ivanka traveled to Panama shortly after, and the agreement coalesced quickly.Khafif’s dream was audacious and grandiose. The planned complex, Ivanka claimed in a promotional video, would amass the largest square footage of any construction in all of the Americas. Fully Trumpian in its luxury and excess, the plan would call for a 69-story sail-shaped building with 1,000 condos and hotel-condo units, offices, a casino, spa, private beach, pool deck and yacht club. (When viewed from Panama Bay, the resulting edifice would look less like a sail and more like a giant lemon wedge perched on a square base.)One Monday in April 2006 in the marble atrium at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Khafif stood in a well-cut dark suit and pale pink tie beside Trump, Ivanka and Donald Jr. to announce plans for the Trump Ocean Club’s birth. “I really think the time for Panama has come,” Trump proclaimed.Trump left multiple observers with the impression that he had an equity stake in the deal. “He said the Trump organization does have a financial interest in the project but he would not disclose the amount,” reported a newsletter circulated to clients and associates, alerting them to news and investment opportunities, by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which would later become publicly known for sheltering wealth in offshore accounts.Marketing materials for the Panama project also implied that Trump was functioning as a developer. “I am honored to develop this extraordinary high rise with my partner Roger Khafif of the K Group,” Trump was quoted as saying in one promotional statement. Buyers believed the Trumps and their company were functioning as the project’s developers, in partnership with Khafif, according to a lawsuit later filed by dozens of buyers.But Trump did not have a penny of equity in the development, according to records of the bond sale and bankruptcy. Nor was he the actual developer, as the Trump Organization’s own statement confirmed.In Panama and elsewhere, Trump’s projects depended on outsiders’ willingness to invest. Trump claimed at the time that banks were “fighting to put up money” for the building. But there’s no evidence that was the case. His five casino and hotel bankruptcies meant financial institutions tended to shy away, and Khafif’s lack of building experience made him a risky financing prospect. (Khafif ultimately brought on the principals of a Colombian construction and design firm to deliver the necessary know-how.)Still, Trump had a card to play without which the tower would likely never have been built: his two-decade relationship with Bear Stearns. The investment bank agreed to underwrite a $220 million bond issue. Bear Stearns and Trump had worked together on a variety of endeavors. For example, two years earlier he and a Bear Stearns executive, Trump’s investment banking adviser, had launched Trump University, a non-accredited business education program that purported to teach his real estate strategies. (It later collapsed among accusations of fraud. Trump paid $25 million to settle a suit but denied wrongdoing.) And as far back as 1988, Trump paid a $750,000 civil judgment to the U.S. Department of Justice for having Bear Stearns make purchases of casino stocks in the bank’s name rather than in his. (Trump was looking to buy casinos at the time, and the Justice Department asserted that the concealed purchases violated antitrust laws.)As the bond underwriter in the Panama project, Bear Stearns played a dual role: It raised money for construction and also vouched for the soundness of the bonds it would sell. The bank was supposed to be checking that information disclosed to investors was accurate and provided a complete picture of the investment’s strengths and weaknesses.In reality, however, “the bank had significant lapses in exercising due diligence over their bond offerings” during that period, according to Gary Aguirre, an attorney and former SEC senior counsel who advocated for more accountability of Bear Stearns and other Wall Street banks involved in the financial crisis and said he researched Bear Stearns as part of that process. The bank, including a member of its Latin America group (which was involved in the Panama deal), faced multiple investigations by regulators into whether its employees in Miami and New York had improperly valued financial instruments, though they did not lead to charges, SEC records and media reports show.The bond sale barely squeaked through in November 2007. Tremors of what would become a global financial earthquake were already destabilizing markets. At the last minute, Bear Stearns postponed the offering only to reverse course a few days later. “I remember walking up Fifth Avenue and I put my arm around Roger [Khafif],” said Jack Studnicky, a lead real estate agent for the project, “and I said, ‘You are the luckiest SOB I ever met.’” This project, branded with the name of a longtime Bear Stearns client, was the only bond issue among eight at Bear Stearns at that moment that moved forward.Many investors turned up their noses at the bonds, even though Bear Stearns representatives had traveled to New York City, Miami and London to talk up the deal. Part of what drove some blue-chip corporate investors away was obvious: The bonds for the Panama project were rated “speculative” — “junk” in Wall Street parlance — reflecting what rating agencies viewed as an elevated chance of default. More risk-tolerant, and more anonymous, hedge funds and money managers proliferated among the bond buyers, making up 80 percent of initial investors.Within months of the offering, it became clear that the Trump Ocean Club would outlive its financial backer. Bear Stearns crumpled suddenly in March 2008 as creditors pounced on the heavily indebted institution. Less than six months after it delivered the money to construct the tower, Bear Stearns disappeared into the belly of J.P. Morgan Chase.“We Needed Those Extra Sales”Trump’s connections landed financing for the Panama project, but they could take the deal only so far. The $220 million in bond proceeds wouldn’t have started flowing if Khafif’s team hadn’t satisfied a key prerequisite: Racking up “presales,” the term for purchase contracts signed while the building was under construction (and in many cases, before construction had even begun).Buyers promised to make a down payment of 30 percent, spread over four installments, and to eventually pay in full. These binding pledges served as collateral for the bond, a crucial source of value that bondholders could seize if the developers failed to pay back what they owed.Khafif and a cadre of brokers set out to move units, with what appeared to be dramatic success at first. The year Trump joined the project, 2006, the developers reported signing a whopping 585 presales contracts with prospective buyers (nearly 60 percent of the units in the building). The Moody’s credit-rating service cited the project’s rapid sales as a “positive credit characteristic.”But the project scrambled to nail enough contracts to fulfill the bank’s requirements, according to Studnicky, who worked for the project’s master brokers, International Sales Group (ISG). Over a meal in a Spanish restaurant in New York City, Khafif told Studnicky he needed “another 100 sales to make it valid” — scribbling numbers on the paper tablecloth, according to Studnicky. “It wasn’t fully collateralized, and we needed those extra sales,” he said.ISG leaned on its agents. “We knew there was a presale requirement in order to trigger the bond issue,” said Jeff Barton, another broker who worked at ISG at the time. “So there was definitely pressure.”In dealing with potential buyers, the ISG brokers communicated urgency of a much different sort: They acted as if the building were running out of units. The prices were in constant flux, keeping potential buyers off-balance. “You could never really get a straight answer in terms of what was actually available, what had actually sold and what the real price was,” said Kent Davis, who began looking to sell Ocean Club inventory soon after opening his own real estate company in Panama City in 2007. (One buyer echoed Davis’ comments. “When I invested it was ‘Oh wow, it’s almost sold out!’” said Al Monstavicius, a retired doctor who bought into the Panama tower. “I was told the units were selling real well. Well, they weren’t selling real well.”) ISG did not return messages seeking comment.Davis said he sold a few units, splitting the commission with ISG. “I think some of their projections were exaggerated. I think the way they described how the project would ultimately be built did not come to fruition,” he said. “I think they were overpromising and, to be honest, at times I was complacent.”Just as Trump took millions upfront, financial incentives in the project were stacked to reward brokers for quick presales — rather than slow and steady contracts perhaps more likely to close once construction finished.Commissions were front-loaded to an unusual degree, Davis said. Agents making the earliest sales would receive 90 percent of their expected commissions by the time construction started, according to Barton. Only the final 10 percent was held back until closing, when the buyer had paid in full and the unit was ready to be occupied. (Davis said that brokers typically get commissions in increments in line with the percentage their clients have put in.)Even as brokers were taking cash out quickly, buyers were given time to put their money in. They anted up just 10 percent upon signing a purchase contract, according to the bond prospectus. They paid the remaining 20 percent in increments over the year after that.Khafif complained of soaring construction costs and raised prices even as brokers hustled for contracts, Studnicky said. “I kept saying I understand the problem, but if you keep pushing the prices up, people are never going to be able to close on these things,” he said.The higher prices climbed, the more the Trumps stood to pocket. Their licensing agreement gave them a base fee of 4 percent of gross sales when units closed. (This was on top of the $1 million Trump was given in advance for the use of his name.) They also received an “incentive fee”: the higher the price rose above benchmarks, the greater a proportion the Trumps earned, records show. A hotel-condominium unit that sold for $385,000, for example, would produce a payment of $20,650 — just over 5 percent — to Trump’s company.That was just the beginning. Along with the cut of sales, Trump’s 2006 licensing agreement provided the family other cash streams from the Panama project. The Trumps could take a 20 percent commission on construction costs if money was saved through Trump dealmaking, for instance. Once the hotel opened, they would pocket 17.5 percent of what hotel guests paid for their rooms, including what they spent on minibar items, internet service and even bathrobes; 4 percent for parking unit sales; and 12 percent of commercial space rentals. The Trump Organization would also receive 4 percent of the hotel’s gross revenue for managing it, plus an incentive fee equal to a fifth of the hotel’s net operating income.If everything went smoothly, according to the bond prospectus, Trump’s take would be $74 million by 2010. That sum was equivalent to about a third of the entire financing for the project.Of course, things would go less than perfectly. But Trump was protected if that happened, too. His contract created a safety net for him if prices rose so high that buyers failed to close. One provision required that two years after the first closing, developers would pay the Trumps fees for unsold units — basing the amount on the average sales prices of the units that had closed. In theory, avoiding such payments provided an incentive to sell more units; in reality, it meant that Trump would get paid whether or not units actually sold.The contract required that monthly sales and marketing reports be provided to the Trumps. It was a stipulation the Trump Organization appeared to value: In an email related to another project, Trump’s son Eric chastised business partners in the Dominican Republic for delays in making such reports. “I am getting weekly emails from my team who requests this info on all projects for basic monitoring purposes,” Eric wrote.His sister, meanwhile, asserted her engagement with the company’s endeavors. “I’m involved in every aspect of our new construction projects,” Ivanka said in a 2008 interview. “[A] lot of what I do is get involved in the acquisition process, from sourcing the potential opportunities and then the initial due-diligence process, but then, of course, I follow the deals through to predevelopment planning, design, interior design, architectural design, sales and marketing, and, ultimately, through operations.”“Our Biggest Problem Is Not Having Enough Inventory”Construction on the Trump Ocean Club had begun in May 2007, with customer deposits, investor money and a bridge loan tiding the developers over until the sale of bonds in November 2007. To hear the Trumps tell it, the project was a raging and immediate success, even in the face of a historic global financial and real estate crisis that erupted in 2008 and continued into 2009 and beyond.At times, the hyperbole crossed over into misrepresentation. In a November 2008 interview, Ivanka Trump bragged that she had “sold 40 units in Panama last month.” She added that “it’s a 1,000-unit building, we’ve sold over 90 percent of it.” The units, she said, had been going at a “500 percent premium to anything the luxury market has ever experienced prior to our entry.”All of that was exaggerated or outright false. When pressed by her interviewer about what she meant by “I sold 40 units,” Ivanka backed off, saying, “We did, our project,” a transcript of the interview shows. Studnicky, who was deeply involved with Ocean Club sales at the time and generally praised the Trumps, said Ivanka didn’t sell any units that he knew of.Three months after Ivanka’s comments were published, Moody’s reported that 79 percent of the building’s units were under purchase contracts. The Trump name did carry a premium, according to data filed with Panamanian securities officials. But even at its high point, it amounted to about 130 percent of what similar luxury properties fetched, not the 500 percent Ivanka claimed.Meanwhile, the Trumps used some of their glamour to encourage sales. Donald Trump himself hosted a gala for the Panama project at Mar-a-Lago where celebrity Regis Philbin dropped in.But difficulties were mounting and cash was tight. By 2009, some buyers were offered hefty discounts if they agreed to pay the full purchase price up front. (Monstavicius says he accepted such an offer, shaving $100,000 off his nearly half-million-dollar penthouse suite.)Ratings for the Ocean Club’s bonds were lowered in February 2009, but you wouldn’t have known that by listening to the Trumps. A few weeks after the downgrade, Ivanka gushed about Panama in an interview with a publication called the Latin Business Chronicle. “Given the global downturn, the fact that sales remain so robust is a testament to the product, the brand and Panama,” she said. “Our biggest problem is not having enough inventory. We only have a small percent of the building left.”The following year brought more trouble. There was another bond downgrade. One of the services that reduced its rating, Fitch, expressed concerns about the market and buyers’ “willingness and ability to close on units upon delivery.”The developers faced a $27 million construction shortfall and delays by subcontractors performing services such as millwork. Khafif and his team trimmed back some of their plans, which only irked buyers who had already committed their money. For example, buyers said square footage for some units was reduced. The location for a planned beach club was moved to a more distant spot with less cachet. And plans to have Trump manage the casino were abandoned.The issuing of the bonds hadn’t relieved pressure on the Ocean Club to move units. The developers needed to keep sales commitments and cash high or they risked defaulting on the bonds. By 2010, 25 contracts appeared in jeopardy as buyers missed payments toward their deposits.Facing pressure from multiple sides, the developers sought bondholders’ permission to make key changes to their agreement. They proposed relaxing the requirements for collateral and reducing the amount of cash they had to keep in a deposit account. In a company statement quoted in the press at the time, Newland International Properties (the entity formed by Khafif and the outside developers he partnered with) was blunt about its need: “The company believes that the proposed amendments are necessary to allow the company to continue construction.”“Nobody Ever Asked Where These Sales Were Coming From”From the beginning, the plan at the Trump Ocean Club was to draw a luxury-seeking international clientele with disposable income. With some 1,000 units to sell, brokers tapped networks of upper-crust buyers across the globe. In doing so, they netted purchasers with problematic pasts, including some with ties to organized crime and money laundering operations.ISG representatives and independent brokers fanned out to Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Dubai, China and South Africa, as well as other Latin American countries. As of mid-2007, roughly 60 percent of buyers came from outside the United States, bond documents show. (Much has been made of Trump’s buyers of Russian nationality or extraction, but the Panama sales were not tracked by nationality. Still, some were found in Moscow and, Khafif said, in developments in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida — an area known as “Little Moscow.”)Several aspects of the Panama sales raised red flags, according to experts. For example, some buyers bought blocks of units. Purchases were typically made anonymously through shell corporations registered in Panama. That allowed some buyers to change the ownership of the unit in secret, simply by changing the ownership of the company. They often used so-called bearer shares, allowing a stake in a company to be transferred simply by passing a piece of paper.“Nobody ever asked where these sales were coming from, where the money was coming from,” said Studnicky, adding that this wasn’t unusual for such a building at the time.The purchase of multiple units and the use of bearer shares or shell companies are not illegal in themselves. But they can be hallmarks of money laundering, according to experts. “We have no idea of the people behind those companies,” said Eryn Schornick, a policy adviser for Global Witness, an international anti-corruption organization. The Panama deal, she said, bore signs of “classic money laundering.”Meanwhile, multiple buyers claimed they were promised quick profits through flips arranged by the developers, promises they say were not fulfilled. Some of those allegations began emerging in litigation even before the Trump Ocean Club opened.In late 2010, a group of buyers accused Trump, the Trump Organization, Khafif and Newland, Khafif’s development operation, of misleading them, according to a previously unreported lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida. There were 37 plaintiffs, led by an independent broker, Greg Landau. The group — including South Florida residents, a family in Brooklyn, a Massachusetts psychiatrist, a New York fashion mogul and several Russians — had bought 42 Ocean Club condominiums between 2006 and 2009.The group alleged that Khafif had offered them a sweet enticement: If they put 30 percent down, either the developer or the Trump Organization would finance the rest. Khafif, plaintiffs claimed, said Newland or the Trump Organization would manage the investment — finding new buyers so they could flip it for a big profit before construction was finished and they had to close on the property.The deal soured after some of the Ocean Club plans were trimmed (including, as noted, reducing the size of units). Buyers discovered there was no developer financing, and no buyers lined up to flip to. They went to court.Trump had “stood by silently as Khafif made the misrepresentations” in a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in 2007 aimed at attracting investors and encouraging current investors to increase their deposits, the lawsuit claimed. It also cited the marketing materials in which Trump called Khafif his “partner.” “The Trump Organization knew these representations were being made by Khafif to Landau and of the fact that Landau was expected to repeat them to other potential investors,” it alleged. “Defendants Khafif, Donald Trump, and the Trump Organization were culpable participants in the fraudulent scheme.”In an interview with ProPublica, one of those buyers described what he had expected to happen. “There was an agreement that when the hotel is built, when the building is ready, we’ll sell our apartments, our shares, and quit the project,” said Victor Masaltsev, an internet entrepreneur who lives in Moscow and invested in the Ocean Club through a Panamanian shell company that became a plaintiff in the Landau suit against Trump. Masaltsev said he was invited to visit Mar-a-Lago for an event with Trump celebrating the project, but he couldn’t make the trip.“I’ve been doing business for a long time and, you know, there’s never a 100 percent guarantee,” he said through a translator. “But I was expecting to make no less than 50 percent profit on my money.” Instead, he said, he lost his deposit.In their legal papers, the Trump Organization and Newland asserted that the complaint was “completely devoid of facts sufficient to show that Donald Trump and The Trump Organization were conducting the affairs of a ‘fraudulent scheme.’”Khafif called the lawsuit a case of “buyers’ remorse, of course.” There were “a million” such lawsuits when the financial crisis came, he added. “They tried to invent anything in order to get their money back. It wasn’t our fault.”A U.S. judge ordered the case be moved to Panamanian courts, but the parties reached a confidential settlement before that happened. Other plaintiffs, reached by ProPublica, have a surprising take on the dispute today. Three of them echoed Khafif and said the project was simply a bad investment. “It’s nothing to do with Trump,” said David Feldman, speaking outside his Brooklyn duplex. He said he did not receive any money in the settlement and added that he thought Trump was hurt by the deal, too, before declining to talk further. Landau did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Roderick Coleman, the attorney named on the lawsuit pleadings.Landau’s group wasn’t the only one to claim it was sold on an unfulfilled promise of easy flipping. One buyer from Dubai made similar claims, according to emails in the Panama Papers, a collection of documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “The concept was pay the deposit and they would get it resold before completion,” a representative for the buyer wrote to a lawyer in Panama. “[T]he apartment was going to be resold for them by the agents that came from Panama to Dubai for Marketing the project.” Khafif called it another case of buyer’s remorse.“Our Project Was the Cleanest One of Them All”Unfulfilled promises weren’t the only questionable behavior alleged at the Trump Ocean Club. For example, one high-selling broker, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, was linked to money laundering by Global Witness and a joint Reuters-NBC investigation. Nogueira confirmed in that article that some of his partners and investors on the Trump Panama project had connections to the Russian mafia. (He asserted that he had discovered those connections only after the fact.) Among the buyers Nogueira landed was a Colombian businessman who was subsequently convicted in the United States of conspiring to launder drug money.Khafif told ProPublica that he hired Nogueira because he was one of the highest-profile brokers in Panama City at the time. “That guy was very famous,” Khafif said. “We ended up suing him because he swindled the clients.” Nogueira, who was also accused of selling the same units to more than one buyer at the same time, fled Panama and described himself in the Reuters article as a “fugitive.” (He denied in that story, but could not be reached for comment for this article.)The Trump Organization denied the family knew Nogueira. But photos were published of Ivanka and her father smiling with an arm around Nogueira at events at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.Project developers also seem to have made dubious presales themselves — and profitable ones at that — according to emails between bondholders and Newland obtained by ProPublica.Newland shareholders purchased some of the building’s units at below-market prices with down payments of just 5 percent. “I have never seen 8-10 percent of a 996 unit project reserved by the developers at prices as much as 70 percent less than list price (with just a 5% deposit),” asserted one email from Gary Lundgren, who now owns a sizable part of the building, to others in the project. The purchases were “not disclosed in the Bear Stearns’s bond offering circular, not disclosed in the quarterly financial disclosure, not disclosed in the annual audited financial statements,” he complained.Newland acquired some of the units by taking over ones that were in danger of default, Lundgren stated in the email, with the developers kicking in the 5 percent needed for the units to continue being counted as collateral under the bond terms. The developers resold some of the properties at higher prices, Lundgren’s email asserted, and they pocketed the difference. These resales effectively cut out bondholders from their share of the proceeds. His emails to Newland did not mention the Trumps. (In 2016, Lundgren was barred by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority from acting as a broker after he failed to respond to an information request. His filings asserted that the complaint against him, filed by someone who was not his customer, was without merit, and that Panamanian law prevented him from disclosing the records.)The insider purchases potentially violated the terms of the project’s financing. The bond prospectus required down payments of at least 30 percent, which would “protect the economics of our project.” Since sweetheart deals generated less cash — which meant less collateral for the bonds — a provision of the bond agreement restricted sales made to affiliates of the developers. And if buyers stopped making payments, they were supposed to go through a default process rather than have Newland take over their purchase.“The developers made bad judgment calls, and they justified it by their support for the project,” said Alfredo “Dino” de Angelis, of Gapstone, which advised Newland in the bankruptcy. Ultimately, he said, the developers added money to stabilize the project, enough to equal or exceed what they appear to have made by re-selling units.Khafif said that bondholders looked into the questions and “found everything was 100 percent by the book.” He said developers didn’t need to buy units and followed the rules in the bond indenture. Khafif insisted that he conducted business the right way. “Our project was the cleanest one of them all,” he said. “We had to watch out for Trump, we had to watch out for bondholders. We had to work within the indenture, or else we’d be screwed.”“Replete With Misrepresentations”Ivanka Trump’s exaggerations about the Ocean Club reflected a tactic she and her father employed repeatedly in other cases, ProPublica and WNYC found. Their statements, typically made in the midst of sales drives, tended to overstate the number of units under contract or the Trump Organization’s equity stake in projects scattered around the globe.The Trumps’ propensity to overstate sales led them, as ProPublica, WNYC and the New Yorker reported last year, to be investigated on potential felony fraud charges in one case. Ivanka had announced in June 2008 that 60 percent of the units at the SoHo tower had been bought when in fact 15 percent had, according to an affidavit filed by a Trump partner. The Manhattan district attorney’s office considered charging the Trumps but backed off after a visit from a donor — Trump’s attorney Marc Kasowitz. (The DA, Cyrus Vance, denied he was influenced by the donation but later changed his policy and now refuses donations from lawyers with cases before him.)Similar deceptions occurred elsewhere. In a marketing video for a project in Baja, Mexico, Ivanka referred to Trump International Hotel in Toronto as one of several “sold out” properties. The Toronto tower never did sell out. It was still three-quarters empty late last year, a few months after Trump’s name was removed from the building.Trump himself also made misrepresentations. In 2006, he said the Trump Organization would be a significant equity investor in the $200 million Baja project and repeatedly portrayed himself as the project’s developer. Yet in 2008, the company admitted it was neither a developer nor an investor.In Tampa, as noted, Trump told the press he had a significant ownership stake when he had none. Moreover, his licensing agreement contained a confidentiality provision barring “under any circumstances” that anyone reveal the agreement existed, and hence that Trump was only licensing his name. The deal never got financing and ultimately fell apart.Panama also wasn’t the only project where questions emerged about insider deals. In Tampa, Donald Trump Jr. and three executives associated with the Trump Organization arranged to buy a unit under unusually attractive terms, according to emails between the executives and the developer. As early sales on the project surged, the Trump group — which formed a company called Busy Boys Investments to handle the purchase — bargained both for a discount price and a smaller deposit than other buyers paid.“Can you confirm the deal?” asked Russell Flicker, a former Trump Organization executive vice president, in a late-2004 email to one of the Tampa developers. “(We had discussed 5% down payment, discounted price and flip rights prior to closing — are all of these on the table?) You’re the man.” The developer replied, “The deal is as you state!”The Trump group also discussed backdating documents to reduce their tax liability, according to the emails. They excitedly anticipated a quick flip that would yield a $200,000 profit — $50,000 apiece, a handsome return on the $8,604 deposit each paid. (The emails were revealed in a court case filed by unhappy buyers; their suit ultimately settled, with the buyers receiving limited refunds of their deposits.) In January 2005, Flicker forwarded an email conveying the prospect of such a windfall to his partners in the side deal: Donald Jr. and Trump Organization executive vice presidents Bernie Diamond and Jason Greenblatt, with the message: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”In a July 2005 email, Diamond, an attorney, explained to the others that the developer told him he would prepare a unit purchase contract “for Busy Boys to sign dated in 2004,” as well as an assignment of their contract to the proposed buyer, also “dated one year earlier.” Diamond noted,“This is good, as it will give us the best shot at capital gains treatment.” (The Tampa tower was never constructed, so the Busy Boys entity did not ultimately cash in. On behalf of Greenblatt, who is now a special representative for international negotiations in the Trump administration, a White House official said “Mr. Greenblatt complied with all applicable laws in connection with condominium purchase agreements.”)In Baja, Ivanka tried to leverage her own unit purchase to pull in other buyers. “I personally am very excited about it, I actually chose to purchase a unit in the first tower,” she said in a promotional video as she flashed a smile. She did not mention that the deposit she paid was less than half of the 30 percent other investors put in for their units, according to Univision. Univision also reported that the developers overstated the percentage of units sold and had assigned 34 units to their own executives and other related parties.Written materials became a matter of contention, as well; multiple buyers contended they were misleading. Trump had some say over such materials: Projects including Baja, Tampa, the Dominican Republic, Israel and Panama all required developers and other partners to obtain prior approval from Trump’s company before posting press releases. In some cases, the company had veto power over promotional materials in general, as well.There were other deceptions. In marketing materials featuring a grinning image of the New York developer, potential buyers in a Trump-branded project in Toronto were shown investment projections that proved wildly optimistic, according to interviews and records from the extensive litigation that ensued. A Canadian appeals court, ruling after the Toronto deal went sour, unanimously found that estimates of profitability provided to purchasers “bore no relation to financial reality.” The panel quoted a trial judge’s findings that the projections were “deceptive” and “replete with misrepresentations of commission, of omission, and of half-truth.” (The case is still pending.)In Chicago, Trump promised discounts — some with down payments of as little as 5 percent — to friends and colleagues, only to rescind those arrangements when sales in the building picked up. Trump justified the broken promises, saying “we’re entitled” to the higher prices.Buyers who sued Trump have had mixed success. Most suits settled before trial, but Trump prevailed in cases in Las Vegas and Florida in which buyers accused his company of deception.The “Stormy Jack Daniels”The Trump Ocean Club in Panama was officially inaugurated on July 6, 2011. It was nearly a year behind schedule after cost overruns and construction delays. The Trumps had been more visible again during the final stages. Ivanka picked out design finishes, including helping deck out the “sky lobby” on the 15th floor with wood paneling, pillars and marble that echoed the ground floor entrance hall. The lobby’s “tropical color palette” was “reminiscent of indigenous flowers,” Ivanka said in one promotional video.July falls during Panama’s rainy season and a downpour swamped the city’s already-overwhelmed infrastructure on the day of the opening, turning the cramped roads near the tower into waterways. Trump had angered many Panamanians by declaring that the U.S. had “stupidly” turned over the Panama Canal “in exchange for nothing.” But the country’s then-president, Ricardo Martinelli, turned up for the ceremony nonetheless. He joined Trump, his two adult sons, Khafif, and other dignitaries to cut a ribbon to mark the opening. Ivanka, days away from giving birth to her first child, did not attend. (In June 2018, Martinelli was extradited on corruption charges, unrelated to the Trump project, from the U.S., where he had fled in search of sanctuary. He has denied wrongdoing.)Trump was upbeat. “I think this hotel is truly magnificent,” he said, according to press reports. “You look at Panama’s skyline and you see how this one truly stands out.”The time had come for the hundreds of sales contracts that brokers had amassed over the previous five years — eventually covering about 85 percent of the building — to convert to actual sales. In the months that followed, however, it became increasingly clear that buyers were walking away in droves.Ultimately, only about half the sales contracts closed, leaving the building largely empty and developers struggling to make bond-related payments. One-bedroom units that once sold for $350,000 could be scooped up for $180,000. In November 2011, developers defaulted on a critical bond payment.The volume of people who abandoned their deposits far exceeded the ratings agencies’ worst-case predictions. Those predictions rested on the forbidding combination of tight post-crisis financing standards and the high prices that many buyers had agreed to pay. That strongly suggests that many of the remaining people who paid deposits and then vanished may not have intended to do anything more than put down enough cash to trigger the $220 million bond issuance.Newland declared bankruptcy in April 2013 in federal court in New York City, where it kept much of its cash. The Trumps agreed to reduce their fees, making concessions that bankruptcy records said would amount to $20 million over a period of years.Even after those concessions, Khafif’s company continued to run in the red in 2014 and 2015, with net losses nearing $28 million in 2014 alone, financial reports show. It missed another payment in 2015.So Trump didn’t make the $74 million he had hoped for. He appears to have walked away with between $30 million and $55 million, based on fragmentary information in his government disclosure forms, financial statements filed in Panama and estimates by observers.Khafif seems philosophical about it. At 63, he’s semiretired and travels to the U.S. and Europe often. These days, he said, his main business is laundering linens. The company, Perfect Cleaners, which Khafif called the largest industrial laundry plant in Central America, has served the Trump Ocean Club. (He did not respond to a question about his own financial outcome on the Trump project.)Khafif said his relationship with the family remains good. “I was in New York a couple months ago. I went to visit Eric Trump,” he said. “We’re fine.” The Ocean Club proved a disappointment in many respects, he said, “but life goes on. … It’s the best building in town.”As much as $120 million of the original bond was never paid back, according to one investor. Asked about that, Khafif pointed out that many investors sold their bonds — albeit at a discount — after receiving interest payments for years, allowing some to recoup much of their investment at a time when lots of people were hemorrhaging money. “It depends on how you look at it,” Khafif said. “You’re grateful at getting your money back, or you’re greedy and you want to make money when everybody lost their shirt.”Ocean Club buyers filed a host of lawsuits in Panama, complaining of the delays and changes in the building plans. The beach club was never built. A non-Trump company took over the casino. Some rooms were smaller than planned.By 2015, a new revolt was brewing, this time by Ocean Club unit owners fed up with the way the Trumps were managing the property — or more particularly, with how they were spending the building association’s money. Led by Lundgren, the owners alleged that Trump employees overspent budgets, taking excessive bonuses for themselves, and mishandled building finances, leading them to propose a steep increase in fees to owners. Trump responded by suing the condo owners, demanding up to $75 million for wrongful termination. (The litigation was settled confidentially in 2016.)In 2017, Ithaca Capital Partners, led by Orestes Fintiklis, bought 202 of the hotel’s 369 hotel-condo units. In October of last year, his group sought to remove the Trump Organization as hotel managers — alleging in a legal action that it had mismanaged the hotel, leading to drastic drop-offs in occupancy and profits. The Trump Organization countersued, accusing Fintiklis of a “fraudulent scheme” that breached its 20-year management contract.The dispute reached a head early this year, when Fintiklis’ representatives, with a court order behind them, sought to take physical control of the building. Trump Organization employees and a group of security personnel tried to block the effort, leading to confrontations and shoving matches.Fintiklis’ group ultimately gained entry but discovered walls had been hastily erected in inconvenient places — in the middle of a hallway, in front of an elevator bank — to impede access to the building’s inner offices. Reports circulated of Trump employees shredding documents.In March of this year, the Trumps suffered the ignominy of seeing their name crowbarred off the stone wall in front of the tower. It was rebranded the Bahia Grand Panama. In late spring, the hotel, once touted as boasting stratospheric levels of luxury, was quiet, with rooms renting for the decidedly terrestrial rate of $169 a night. At the hotel bar, you could order drinks with a sardonic twist that reflected Fintiklis’ sense of humor, including the “Fire and Fury” and the “Stormy Jack Daniels.”In June, Fintiklis announced the hotel would have a new manager. “We are thrilled that our hotel will operate as a JW Marriott,” he said in a statement, “and we believe this partnership, together with a talented team and spectacular hotel amenities, will be a success.”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.
Voter Registration Around Austin Smashed Records. That May Be a Problem.
by Jessica Huseman Travis County, Texas — the home of Austin — has experienced a massive spike in voter registrations this cycle, which officials there attribute to the heightened interest in the state’s competitive Senate race. The county received around 35,000 registrations on the final day to submit them — that’s 10,000 more than on the same day in 2016.While the increase in voter participation is good news, the recent surge is complicated by the fact that the registrations were submitted on paper. Texas is one of only 13 states not to have online voter registration. About a dozen county employees are now sifting through thousands of applications, verifying them and entering them into the state’s voter rolls by hand.Of the 35,000 registrations received on Oct. 9, 25,000 have yet to be processed. Early voting starts Monday. County officials recognize that the haste required to process that many applications is likely to lead at least some voters to experience problems at the polls.“We’re humans entering information that was filled out by humans,” said Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor and voter registrant, the official responsible for overseeing the county's voter registration systems. County employees are now working overtime to process the registrations before early voting starts. It’s a herculean task — these employees must correctly read names off of often inscrutable, handwritten cards, performing necessary checks for eligibility along the way.“We’ve got to get it done by Sunday. If for some reason we don’t, everyone who is not in yet can cast a provisional ballot and that will give us some time,” he said.Elfant said some voters are likely to experience problems, many of which will be mitigated if voters bring with them the “receipt” that they received if they registered in person with a deputy registrar. If voters arrive at their polling location and are not on the rolls, this receipt can be used to assist in verifying eligibility. If a person registered by mail, they would not have such a receipt and would be asked to cast a provisional ballot. County officials would then have six days to “cure” the ballot and prove that the person had registered and was eligible.Elfant lays the blame for the chaos squarely at the feet of the Texas Legislature, which has refused to consider legislation that would authorize online voter registration. Travis County has been advocating online registration for more than a decade, even putting out an explainer video last year to explain its benefits.“We’re kind of in the 18th century when it comes to registration here,” he said. “It’s an expensive, inefficient process.”Arizona was the first state to begin online voter registration in 2002. A 2010 report from Pew showed that the cost of voter registration dropped from 83 cents per registrant to just 3 cents in the state. Online voter registration, said Elfant, eliminates handwriting issues and also ensures that registrants fill out the form completely — something often not done when registering by hand.“It’s like buying a movie ticket; you can’t go to the next page unless you’ve filled out everything correctly,” he said, referring to multistep online purchases. Now, county employees must contact voters or spend an extensive amount of time sorting through poorly filled out applications, verifying if a person is who they say they are.A lawsuit filed this year might force through online voter registration. The Texas Civil Rights Project sued the state, claiming it had violated federal law by not registering residents to vote when they updated their driver’s license information online or renewed their driver’s licenses upon expiration (the National Voter Registration Act, or the “Motor Voter Law,” requires that DMV employees ask patrons if they want to register to vote when they interact with the office). Texans are currently directed to a form on the secretary of state’s website that they must print and send to their local election office.U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia agreed with the plaintiffs and gave the state 45 days to create a system for online voter registration, saying it was “not enough” to ask site users to print and mail a form. In its response to the ruling, the state objected to complying, citing the lack of a physical signature when registering online, something Texas law requires.Gov. Greg Abbott’s position on online voter registration is unclear, and his office did not respond to a request for comment.The secretary of state’s office told ProPublica that it cannot implement online voter registration until the Legislature changes the Texas Election Code to authorize it.Keith Ingraham, the elections director within the secretary of state’s office, told the Legislature in 2014 that the office was confident it could implement online voter registration securely, and that it had consulted with an independent security consultant to shore up systems.Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the office, said it remains prepared if the Legislature decides to allow it. “Should those legislative changes occur, our office stands ready take the necessary steps to implement and educate voters on changes to state law,” he said. “Officials who are advocates for online voter registration are advised to go through the legislative process in order to advance the implementation of such measures.”Elfant says Travis County has been struggling with the inefficiencies of paper registration for years, as it is the county with the highest percentage of registered voters in the state. Right now, 93 percent of eligible voters in Travis County are registered to vote. “The question is if we’re getting to 94 percent after this surge,” he said.He attributes this year’s surge to increased interest in the unexpectedly competitive Senate race between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, which the Cook Political Report labels a toss-up. On the last day of registration, deputy registrars were present at movie theaters, restaurants and schools across the county.
Voter Purges: What Georgians Heading to the Polls Need to Know
by Blake Paterson Charges of voter suppression have been levied in the governor’s race in Georgia in recent weeks, pitting the secretary of state and GOP candidate Brian Kemp against critics, including his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams, who say that he’s using his perch as the chief election official to benefit his own candidacy.The race, which the Cook Political Report currently lists as a toss-up, has received national attention. The controversy has raised questions about whether some Georgians will be turned away at the polls.Here’s what’s happened so far, and what voters need to know.In 2017, Georgia passed a new “exact match” law, supported by Kemp, which requires that voter registration applications precisely match information on file with the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration.In part because of the new law, 53,000 voter registration applications are now on hold. Some of the holds were caused by a misplaced hyphen or other minor entry error. The Associated Press reported last week that voter registrations by black people represent a disproportionate number of the on-hold applications, and a subsequent federal lawsuit filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law claimed that about 80 percent of the pending applications were submitted by members of minority groups.The Lawyers’ Committee provides raw call center data about voting problems to ProPublica, but plays no role in our editorial process.Georgians whose applications have been placed on hold can still cast a ballot in November’s election if they bring one of six acceptable government photo IDs that substantially match the registration application.In an interview with the Valdosta Daily Times, Kemp called the allegations of voter suppression a “politically motivated, manufactured story,” and said he expects to “prevail in court.”Criticism of Kemp’s office over the “exact match” policy comes in addition to denunciations over the high number of voters taken off the rolls through a list-maintenance process meant to remove inactive voters. Since 2012, Kemp’s office purged more than 1.4 million voters from the state’s registration rolls, nearly 670,000 in 2017 alone. Individuals who were removed who did not subsequently re-register to vote will not be able to cast a ballot in November’s election.While election experts agree that cleaning registration lists of people who have moved or died is an essential task, the high number of purged voters under Kemp has raised concerns that thousands may show up to the polls only to find that their registrations have been incorrectly invalidated.“People from all political stripes should want our election rolls to be clean,” said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program. “The reason we’re concerned in Georgia is because the numbers are so very high.”The federal government had oversight over voter-roll purge policies in Georgia until the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. According to a report from the Brennan Center, jurisdictions like Georgia, which are no longer required under the Voting Rights Act to submit election laws and policies to the Justice Department for preclearance, purged voters at significantly higher rates than jurisdictions that were not under preclearance in 2013.Reporting by Greg Palast, an independent investigative journalist, alleges that Georgia removed voters based on information from the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, a controversial initiative created by the Kansas secretary of state’s office that faced scrutiny over its crude matching criteria and security weaknesses.A spokeswoman from Kemp’s office categorically denied using data from Crosscheck to conduct the voter-roll purge.“To be crystal clear, Georgia has never used data from the Crosscheck Program to conduct list maintenance in any capacity,” said Candice Broce, the spokeswoman for Kemp. “Zero voters have been removed from the rolls based on Crosscheck data in this state.”In any event, Georgia voters whose names were removed from the rolls because of the state’s list-purging efforts will not be able to cast a ballot. Voters whose registrations are on hold can still vote if they bring one of the six accepted government-issued photo IDs.If you’re a Georgia voter concerned about your registration, you should check the Georgia secretary of state’s website to see if it is still valid.
Charlottesville’s Other Jim Crow Legacy: Separate and Unequal Education
by Annie Waldman, ProPublica, and Erica Green, The New York Times CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — High school seniors Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes have been friends since they were 6 years old, raised by blue-collar families in this affluent college town. They played on the same T-ball and softball teams and were in the same church group.But like many African-American children in Charlottesville, Trinity lived on the south side of town and went to a predominantly black neighborhood elementary school. Zyahna lived across the train tracks on the north side and was zoned to a mostly white school, near the University of Virginia campus, that boasts the city’s highest reading scores.In elementary school, Zyahna was chosen for the district’s program for gifted students. Since then, she has completed more than a dozen Advanced Placement and college-level courses, maintained a nearly 4.0 average, and has been a student leader and a community activist. She has her eyes set on a prestigious university like UVA.“I want to go somewhere where it shows how much hard work I've put in,” said Zyahna.Trinity wasn’t selected for the gifted program. She tried to enroll in higher-level courses and was denied. She expects to graduate later this school year, but with a transcript that she says won’t make her competitive for selective four-year colleges.“I know what I’m capable of and what I can do,” Trinity said, “but the counselors and teachers, they don’t really care about that.”For every student like Zyahna in Charlottesville’s schools, there are scores like Trinity, caught in one of the widest educational disparities in the United States. Charlottesville’s racial inequities mirror college towns across the country, from Berkeley, California, to Evanston, Illinois. But they also match the wider world of education, which is grappling with racial gaps — in areas from gifted programs to school discipline — that can undercut the effort to equitably prepare students for college in a competitive economy. Railroad tracks cut through Charlottesville, Virginia, a city of 40,000, separating predominantly black and predominantly white elementary schools. (Jared Soares for ProPublica) The debate over the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee and the white supremacist march last year set Charlottesville apart and spurred it to confront its Confederate past. But the city hasn’t fully come to terms with another aspect of its Jim Crow legacy: a school system that segregates students from the time they start and steers them into separate and unequal tracks.Charlottesville is “beautiful physically and aesthetically pleasing, but a very ugly-in-the-soul place,” said Nikuyah Walker, who became its first black female mayor during the self-recrimination that swept the city after last year’s white nationalist rallies. “No one has ever attempted to undo that and that affects whether our children can learn here.”Today, white students make up 40 percent of Charlottesville’s enrollment, and African Americans about a third. But white children are about four times as likely to be in Charlottesville’s gifted program, while black students are more than four times as likely to be held back a grade and almost five times as likely to be suspended out of school, according to a ProPublica/New York Times examination of newly available district and federal data. (Look up your school, district, or state in ProPublica’s interactive database.)Since 2005, the academic gulf between white and black students in Charlottesville has widened in nearly all subjects, including reading, writing, history and science. As of last year, half of all black students in Charlottesville could not read at grade level, compared with only a tenth of white students, according to state data. Black students in Charlottesville lag on average about three and a half grades behind their white peers in reading and math, compared with a national gap of about two grades.Over the decades, school board members have often brushed aside findings of racial inequality in Charlottesville schools, including a 2004 audit — commissioned by the district’s first African-American superintendent — that blamed inadequate leadership and a history of racism for the persistent underachievement of its black students. Half of Charlottesville’s Black Students Cannot Read at Grade Level From 2005 until last year (the most recent data available), the gap in percentages between white and black students who passed state reading proficiency exams widened. As of last year, half of all black students in Charlottesville could not read at grade level, compared with only a tenth of white students, according to state data. BlackWhite2005–20062006–20072007–20082008–20092009–20102010–20112011–20122012–20132013–20142014–20152015–20162016–20172017–20180102030405060708090100%Source: Virginia Department of Education Officials in the 4,500-student district — which spends about $16,000 per pupil, one of the highest rates in the state — instead point to socioeconomic differences; the vast majority of Charlottesville’s black children qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school because of low family income. District leaders say they are tackling the achievement gap, with initiatives such as eliminating prerequisites for advanced classes. Besides, they say, test scores are only one measure of success.“I’m not trying to make excuses” for the test scores of black students, said Rosa Atkins, the district’s superintendent for almost 13 years, “but that’s only one measure of where they are, and who they are, and their capabilities for success.”About a third of the 25 districts with the widest achievement disparities between white and black students are in or near college towns, according to a review of data compiled by researchers at Stanford University. That may be because affluent families in university towns invest a large proportion of their resources in their children’s education, said Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford. In such communities, “disparities in resources — between white and black students, for example — may be more consequential,” Reardon said.Atkins said that it’s unfair to compare black students with white classmates who attended the best preschools and have traveled abroad. “The experiences that they bring into our school system are very different,” she said. “When we start saying that until you start performing like white children, you have a deficit, I think that in itself is discrimination.” The city’s statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. (Jared Soares for ProPublica) Still, socioeconomics don’t fully explain the gap. State exam data shows that, among Charlottesville children from low-income families, white students outperformed black students in all subjects over the last three years. The same pattern holds true for wealthier students.And in the last year, even the city’s immigrant students who are learning English have outperformed black students on state exams in every subject.Atkins said that what doesn’t show up in test scores is how far behind black children start and how they sometimes have to acquire two years’ worth of skills in just one year.“I dare say that our black children are performing better than our white children” when their progress is considered, she said. “That tells me that our children have resilience, tenacity and ability far superior than what we’re giving them credit for.”Among white parents, last year’s rallies have fostered franker discussions of racial inequality, said one of them, Guian McKee, a UVA associate professor. “There’s been a lot more openness to some of those challenging conversations,” he said.At their predominantly black elementary school, McKee’s two children participated in the gifted program, which is about three-quarters white. Such disparities, at odds with Charlottesville’s reputation as a bastion of Southern progressivism, have long been a taboo topic, he said.“For a lot of people, it’s really uncomfortable to see that even if you haven’t personally done anything wrong, you’re part of larger structures that contribute to producing poverty and inequality, including in educational outcomes,” McKee said.Much like its Confederate past, Charlottesville’s history of school segregation weighs heavily on the present day. “I don’t think the hate groups selected our community by chance,” Atkins said.Charlottesville greeted the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision with a firm no. In 1958, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond ordered the city to shut down two white-serving public schools rather than integrate.Many white families opted for private schools, which were able to secure public funding through voucher-like tuition grants. Under pressure from the Supreme Court of Virginia, Charlottesville reopened its schools in 1959, allowing a dozen black students to attend its historically white schools.But the city’s resistance to integration persisted. Instead of outright segregation, the white-led district established testing requirements solely for black students who tried to enroll in historically white schools. It also allowed white students who lived in attendance zones of historically black schools to transfer back to predominantly white schools. Black students who lived near mostly white schools were assigned to black schools. Top left: A sign commemorating the Charlottesville Twelve, who became the first black students to attend historically white city public schools in 1959. Top right: Venable Elementary School, a historically white school where the parent-teacher organization in 2003 opposed enrolling black students who lived nearby. Bottom: The Jefferson School, now a historic site and community center, served only black students in Charlottesville for decades. (Jared Soares for ProPublica) After a federal appeals court invalidated the district’s attendance policies, the city relied more closely on residential zones to sort students.In 1984, Charlottesville High School ignited after the student newspaper published derogatory remarks about black students. The high school was shut down for a day. “Seniors for White Supremacy” was painted in its parking lot.Two years later, the board considered redrawing school zones to bolster racial and economic equity, but it worried about white flight. In the end, elementary school boundaries were largely left alone. The district pooled the city’s middle school students into two schools, one serving all fifth- and sixth-graders, and the other serving all seventh- and eighth-graders. The number of white students declined about 20 percent within a decade.Other efforts to reshape attendance zones faced resistance. In 2003, a predominantly black group of families asked to send their children to Venable, one of the historically white schools that had closed rather than integrate. Venable, which Zyahna would later attend, has the highest reading proficiency of all elementary schools in the city.The black families lived several blocks from Venable and had grown frustrated by their children’s long commutes to their zoned school. But when the board proposed reassigning the 20 children, white parents from Venable “freaked,” said Dede Smith, then a school board member.“We will NOT accept redistricting when it is done, as in this situation, sloppily and hurriedly and in a way which negatively impacts the quality of education for all students involved,” read a letter from the Venable parent-teacher organization. It took a year for the board to rezone the children to Venable, according to Smith. Today, some black families are able to send their children there, but residents of a mostly black public housing complex nearby are not among them.“We only put our toe in the water,” Smith said. Dede Smith, a former Charlottesville school board member. (Jared Soares for ProPublica) The following year, in 2004, the school board hired Scottie Griffin as superintendent. She tapped a respected education association to review inequities across the district. The report by five academics revealed a deeply fractured school system.“While some members of the community might wish for an elongated period of time to ponder and debate changes, the children are in school only once and then they are gone,” the audit concluded. “No city can survive by only serving one half its constituents well. The future of such a legacy is dire.”The auditors pushed for increasing black students’ access to high-level academic programs, including gifted and Advanced Placement courses.Kathy Galvin, a parent who is now a City Council member, responded to the audit in an internal memo to the school board, urging the board to reject the racial bias findings, which she called “unnecessary and in fact harmful,” and implored members to focus on improving “our educational system for the benefit of all children.”​​Today, Galvin largely stands by that position. “A ‘too narrow and racially biased’ focus on the schools does a disservice to the dedicated educators who have made a difference and risks misdiagnosing a complex problem, leading to ineffective solutions,” she said.In 2005, within a year of her hiring, Griffin was pushed out. She did not respond to questions from the Times and ProPublica.Atkins said she has incorporated some of the audit’s recommendations, such as data-driven decision-making and a reorganization of central office staff, into the district’s strategic plan.One of the audit’s central focuses was the city’s gifted program, known as Quest. As white enrollment in the city’s schools contracted over the years, the program tripled in size, according to an analysis by a UVA researcher, largely benefitting the white families who remained.To black families, segregation had returned by another name.“Everyone wants the best for their kid, but this has been the thing that has helped drive the segregation engine,” said Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor at UVA and member of Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, whose children attend Charlottesville schools. “I have always been of the opinion that this type of internal segregation is the way to keep white people in the public schools. This is a way that white supremacy undergirds the public school system.” Lisa Woolfork on the campus of UVA, where she is an associate professor. (Jared Soares for ProPublica) In 1984, only 11 percent of Charlottesville’s white students qualified as gifted, according to federal data from the UVA analysis. By 2003, according to the audit, about a third of white students qualified, the same proportion as today. White students make up more than 70 percent of the district’s gifted students.When students are selected for Quest, they are pulled out of their regular classrooms for enrichment sessions in academics and arts with a specialized teacher in a designated classroom.“When people bring up Quest, we get angry,” Trinity said. “We all wish we had the opportunity to have that separate creative time. It drives a gap between students from elementary school on.”For children who read below grade level, the city offers a supplemental program called Extending the Bridges of Literacy. But the literacy program takes place after school, and it is taught by any instructors who volunteer to extend their workday for extra pay, regardless of whether they have specialized intervention training.Racial inequities persist into the high school’s Advanced Placement courses, which provide students with college credits. White students in Charlottesville are nearly six times as likely to be in AP courses as their black peers, according to recently released federal data. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. “There is an incentive to segregate these kids,” Smith said. “I don’t think the schools see anything positive in an academic mixing pot because the white parents will leave.”In the last two years, Charlottesville High administrators have introduced staff training on racial inequalities. Teachers have participated in professional development that included studying “equity-based teaching,” lessons in Charlottesville’s local black history and Civil War history, and workshops on implicit bias. The school’s principal also set up focus groups and surveyed high-performing black students about underrepresentation in advanced courses.Atkins has introduced other initiatives aimed at reducing the achievement gap. Besides abolishing prerequisites for advanced courses, she created a “matrix” that families could follow to map out a sequence of coursework. She also has tried to remedy the underrepresentation of minorities and girls in science electives by giving every middle schooler an opportunity to take an engineering course.The school district has also expanded what it calls “Honors-Option” courses, in which students can opt to meet requirements for regular or honors credit.Jennifer Horne, an English teacher at Charlottesville High School, called her honors-option course “the most beautiful place in the building. You’ve got struggling readers and kids who are way smarter than me in the same room.” She said she is able to pose the “big questions,” which are usually reserved for advanced courses, and identify students with untapped potential.Zyahna has been an outspoken advocate for racial equity in the city’s schools. (Matt Eich, special to ProPublica) With the help of a scholarship, Zyahna attended preschool to first grade at an elite private school. Her preparation helped her to pass an admission test for the gifted program after she entered Venable. As she got older, church members who worked in the schools advised her on the programs and classes she needed to stay on pace with her white peers.Zyahna felt isolated in the sea of white faces. She became an activist, founding the Black Student Union, petitioning the City Council to remove the Lee statue and speaking out at school board meetings about the achievement gap. “It has caused me to become even more of an advocate for people of color, just for my blackness, because you enter into this whole sunken place when you get into honors and AP courses,” she said.Zyahna likened her high school experience to shopping because students have to scout out the best deals. “You literally have to go ask for everything yourself, and not everyone has those skills or confidence.”Trinity said she lost that confidence as teachers repeatedly rejected her requests to enroll in higher level courses. She tried to take Algebra II her junior year, an essential course for many colleges. Trinity had struggled early in a geometry course but had stayed after school, sought tutoring and earned a B. She figured that she could work just as hard in Algebra II.Her geometry teacher wouldn’t allow it, Trinity said. The teacher declined to comment on individual students. School officials said that a student’s performance in geometry isn’t the only factor in a teacher’s recommendation for Algebra II.Trinity’s mother, Valarie Walker, fought for Trinity to take higher level courses, but school personnel didn’t “want to listen to what the black kids have to say,” she said.“I don’t think our voices were as strong as they needed to be,” she said. “They kept saying, ‘This would be better.’ I think we gave up fighting.”Charlottesville High School, where white students are nearly six times as likely to be in Advanced Placement courses as their black peers. (Jared Soares for ProPublica) In Charlottesville’s schools, the mantra is graduate by any means necessary. Bring up anything else — test scores, suspension rates — and Atkins counters, “We prefer to focus on the long-term goals, and the long-term goal is graduation.”About 88 percent of black students graduate, just under the state average for African Americans, and up from 66 percent a decade ago. They trail their white peers by about 8 percentage points. The district's graduation rate, 92.6 percent, is at its highest since the segregation era, said Atkins.But all diplomas are not equal. About three decades ago, Virginia established a two-tier diploma track, in which districts award “standard” or “advanced” diplomas based on a student’s coursework. It’s one of at least 14 states with this kind of approach. Three years ago, the state superintendent of public instruction proposed moving to a single-diploma system but backed off when parents complained.The advanced diploma requires students to complete an additional credit in mathematics, science and history and mandates students to take at least three years of a foreign language; for the standard diploma, learning a language is not compulsory. Starting as early as middle school, honors and accelerated courses put some students on a path to advanced high school credits. In Charlottesville, about three-quarters of white students graduate with an advanced diploma, compared with a quarter of their black peers.The type of diploma that students receive overwhelmingly dictates whether they enroll in two- or four-year colleges, or move on to higher education at all. In Virginia, only a tenth of students with standard diplomas enroll in a four-year college, a recent study found. Trinity tried unsuccessfully to enroll in higher level courses. (Matt Eich, special to ProPublica) Atkins acknowledged that some minority students may be discouraged from taking higher-level courses that could qualify them for better colleges and said the district will remind parents to bring these rebuffs to her attention. Mayor Walker, whose son is a sophomore at Charlottesville High, said some attitudes haven’t changed: “There have been a lot of people who just don’t believe in the potential of our kids.”Since middle school, Trinity’s goal has been to attend James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She has gained enough credits for an advanced diploma. But last month she learned that she would need a math class higher than Algebra II to gain admission.A university representative recommended she go to community college, and possibly transfer to James Madison. Michael Walsh, dean of admissions at James Madison, said 99 percent of students it accepts have gone beyond Algebra II.She was crushed: “It made me realize I really haven’t been prepared like the rest of the students to be ‘college ready.’”Zyahna’s achievements make her a prime candidate for an elite university. So she was taken aback when, as she was beginning her search, her principal encouraged her to explore community college. The principal says the context was a broad discussion with black student leaders about community college as an affordable option.That’s not how Zyahna heard it.“No matter how high your scores are or how many hours you put into your work, you are still black,” she said. “There’s a whole system you’re up against. Every small victory just cuts a hole into that system reminding you how fragile it is. But it’s still there.”
by Lena V. Groeger, Annie Waldman and David Eads
Nearly 1 in 10 Mail Ballots Thrown Out in Georgia County
Election officials in Gwinnett County, Georgia, have thrown out almost one in 10 of the vote-by-mail ballots cast. Officials cannot explain why, though they deny it was done out of malice. Citizens whose votes have been rejected can resubmit their ballots or vote in person, but advocates say that this puts an undue burden on voters.Read more at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution →
More Than Me CEO Katie Meyler Temporarily Steps Down
by Finlay Young for ProPublica Katie Meyler, the founder of More Than Me, temporarily stepped down from her position as the American charity’s chief executive officer pending the results of a Liberian panel’s review of an investigation published by ProPublica and Time magazine last Thursday. The focus of the article was the rapes of girls by a senior employee of the charity Meyler created to protect them from sexual exploitation.“In reviewing the allegations as published by ProPublica and TIME, we uncovered several statements that were either inconsistent with the information provided to us by More Than Me leadership or that were new information,” the charity’s Liberian advisory board said in a statement.The charity board’s chairman, Skip Borghese, resigned, calling this an “inflection point” for the organization. And a three-person committee of the organization’s board of directors said in a statement that it will select a law firm with educational and investigatory expertise to conduct its own “in-depth, independent audit of our organization, including our governing structure.” Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. In response to the story, the charity says it will now provide private, schoolwide HIV testing at its academy. Macintosh Johnson, the former key staffer accused of rape, had AIDS when he died. While 10 girls testified against him, as many as 30 girls were named as potential victims. The 10 who testified were tested for HIV at the time.In a statement released Monday, a committee of seven Liberian government agencies said it was “greatly concerned” by ProPublica’s findings and had convened two “emergency meetings” since the story published “with the view to taking the appropriate legal actions to protect the children and ensure they are safe.”The statement noted actions being taken by each of the agencies:The Ministry of Justice will reopen the rape case against Johnson “to determine any new evidence and further culpability. The Ministry of Education will strengthen the monitoring and evaluation, and ensure that the regulation and compliance surrounding all schools are intensified. The Ministry of Health will work to address all health issues relating to the matter. The Ministry of Labor will investigate to determine whether there was strict adherence to the National HIV/AIDS workplace policy at More Than Me Academy, and whether any labor laws were violated. The Ministry of Youth and Sports will lead the anti-stigmatization efforts to ensure the protection of the (survivors) and other unrelated persons, who may have otherwise been affected. The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning will work on strengthening the implementation on monitoring, compliance and enforcement to ensure proper processes leading to accreditation of Non-Governmental Organization. The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection will ascertain if there were any lapses in the adherence to the provisions of the Child Law of Liberia.”The government of Liberia wrote, in the statement, that “this will be a full-scale investigation,” and it asked the public for information that would be helpful.These announcements came within four days of the publication of a story and documentary that brought to light how the charity missed opportunities to prevent the rape of its students by a key employee. In the years that followed, Meyler and the board deflected responsibility, placing blame entirely on Johnson and the systemic problems of operating in Liberia.Ninety minutes before the article went online, Meyler — who had been informed by ProPublica of what the story would contain — appeared on a radio show in Liberia with host Henry Costa. “They paid to appear,” Costa wrote in response to critics on Facebook, asking why he had given the organization a platform. “What’s the crime in hosting a paying customer to appear and discuss their work?”In the interview, Meyler and three charity staff members emphasized the good work the organization was doing. Tenneh Johnson, a staffer at the Liberian Ministry of Justice’s sex crimes unit, called in “to confirm what More Than Me is saying. … They are doing a very good work.” The unit failed to successfully prosecute the case against Johnson and was suspected by jurors of bribery, which the unit denied.Costa then asked Meyler about “this unfortunate incident … where one of your staff was involved ... there was some unfortunate sexual encounter with one of the girls. And you took charge of the situation, got ahead of it, had the authorities informed.” Costa went on. “It seems that some people don’t want to let it go. Now there is this report out there; some guy has apparently made a documentary, clearly meant to profit from it, and he’s trying to exploit it, and he’s twisting the facts.”“Yep,” Meyler said.“What do you make of it?” Costa asked. “Why don’t they want to let this go?”“Costa, if you could maybe bring him on the show and ask him. That would be very helpful. I have no idea,” Meyler said. “It was June 12, 2014, that I was alerted about the abuse. The perpetrator was in jail by June 16, and he never walked the streets again. And this will not go away.”In her closing comments on the show, Meyler repeated the only mistake she had acknowledged to ProPublica, which was that she was sorry for hiring Johnson.“Come on, Katie,” asked Costa. “How could you have known?”The interview contrasted with the charity’s official statement, which appeared on its web site the next day:“We are deeply, profoundly sorry. To all the girls who were raped by Macintosh Johnson in 2014 and before: we failed you. We gave Johnson power that he exploited to abuse children. Those power dynamics broke staff ability to report the abuse to our leadership immediately. Our leadership should have recognized the signs earlier and we have and will continue to employ training and awareness programs so we do not miss this again. …“We acknowledge the enormous complexity of being responsible for the care of children and that previously we were naive to believe that providing education alone is enough to protect these girls from the abuses they may face — strong institutions, safeguarding policies and vigilance are needed to do that.”Charity representatives were expected to attend a town hall meeting in the West Point neighborhood of the capital, Monrovia, announced by a Liberian public relations expert. Liberia’s Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor was named as convenor of the discussion involving charity officials, government actors, families of survivors, and “all concerned citizens.” But the event was called off. In a Facebook statement, the vice president called ProPublica’s reporting “a horrific reminder of what continues to happen to the most vulnerable in our society.” Emphasizing the need to care for the victims, she said: “I vehemently denounce this act of exploiting our young girls and putting an organization’s interest before the lives of our children. I will never condone these acts from anyone, be it foreign or domestic.”Amid a deluge of criticism of the organization and its founder, ProPublica’s story has inspired a wider conversation among some Liberians about the prevalence of violence against women in Liberia, and about the lack of accountability of foreign aid groups operating in the country.The independent Liberian panel conducting one of the reviews will include representatives of prominent NGOs and the government of Liberia, and will be overseen by Liberian lawyer T. Negbalee Warner. The panel was convened by the charity’s Liberian advisory board, which was formed in 2015.In its statement on Sunday, the Liberian advisory board members said they met with three different government agencies — overseeing justice, child welfare and education — the day after the story published and “are willing to fully cooperate with the government in whatever it envisions to do.” Girls supported by the charity reached out to the advisory board, fearful that the charity’s programs and school could be closed.“They are concerned because they believe that the closure of the program is the end of their hope for a better future,” the advisory board statement said.Meyler wrote in her own statement: “I support the Advisory Board’s decision and will cooperate fully with the investigative firm, and I believe stepping aside while the investigation is underway will further the goal of a thorough and impartial review. I’m confident that the results from this investigation will outline the best way forward for More Than Me.”The board of directors, in announcing its own full audit, said the three-member committee conducting it will be made up only of members who joined since 2015.“We fell short, and we are determined to learn all that we can from this painful chapter and to continue to support the girls who were victimized,” the board said in a statement. It said it would direct auditors and investigators to be sensitive in dealing with the girls at risk of being re-traumatized, and said a mechanism would be established for anyone to anonymously submit information to the investigations.“We will be transparent in communicating the findings and recommendations we receive,” it said.
ProPublica Illinois Wins 3rd Place in 2018 Ruderman Foundation Awards for Excellence in Reporting on Disability
by ProPublica The National Center on Disability and Journalism announced that the ProPublica Illinois project “Stuck Kids” won third place in the 2018 Ruderman Foundation Awards for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.Led by reporter Duaa Eldeib, “Stuck Kids” revealed that hundreds of children in state care are held each year in psychiatric hospitals for weeks or months at a time, even after they have been cleared to leave, because the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) cannot find them a more appropriate home. Between 2015 and 2017, 21 percent of the total time DCFS children and teens spent in psychiatric hospitals was not medically necessary. ProPublica Illinois data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati, web producer Vignesh Ramachandran and news applications developer David Eads also contributed to the project, which was published in partnership with The Atlantic.In response to the story, state lawmakers called for a public hearing. And, in an extremely rare move, a federal judge is considering the appointment of an independent monitor to gather data and require DCFS to put into place a plan to address the problem.The third-place honor comes with a $1,000 prize, to be presented at a fall ceremony in Washington. The full list of winners is available here.
Sloan Kettering Cancer Researchers Correct the Record by Revealing Company Ties
by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Katie Thomas, The New York Times Top researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have filed at least seven corrections with medical journals recently, divulging financial relationships with health care companies that they did not previously disclose.The hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Craig B. Thompson, disclosed his relationship with companies including the drugmaker Merck, and Dr. Jedd Wolchok, a noted pioneer in cancer immunotherapy, listed his affiliations with 31 companies.The corrections followed the resignation in September of Dr. José Baselga, the cancer center’s chief medical officer, who had failed to disclose his company ties in dozens of articles in medical journals, including prominent publications like the New England Journal of Medicine. Baselga’s omissions, including payments totaling millions of dollars, were first reported last month by ProPublica and The New York Times. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. Since then, medical centers around the country, including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and NYU Langone Health, have urged their researchers to review whether they properly reported relationships to outside companies.According to a correction posted Sept. 17 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Thompson’s conflict-of-interest statement had not been included in an article published in January. The updated disclosure noted his role as a founder of Agios Pharmaceuticals, a cancer startup, and his position on the boards of two publicly traded companies, Merck and Charles River Laboratories, which assists research in early drug discovery.Thompson received $300,000 from Merck in 2017 and was paid $70,000 in cash by Charles River, plus $215,050 in stock, according to the companies’ financial filings. His compensation package as Memorial Sloan Kettering’s chief executive is $6.7 million.Thompson resigned from both company boards on Oct. 2, after weeks of internal turmoil at the nonprofit hospital and public scrutiny of its leaders’ financial relationships with for-profit companies.In a statement, Mike Morey, a spokesman for Memorial Sloan Kettering, said the hospital had instructed its researchers to review their conflict-of-interest disclosures and submit corrections where necessary.Morey also said that a “patchwork” of disclosure requirements by different publications has complicated matters. “In many cases, researchers are now disclosing above and beyond what is asked for and required, even when their disclosures have no connection to the research they conducted,” he said, adding that Memorial Sloan Kettering has created a task force to establish its own standards. “This is a massive, industrywide problem.”In a statement, Thompson said his correction arose from the broader review. “I was no different,” he said. Of the more than 70 articles he published since arriving at the hospital in 2010, he said, “I identified one study in my review, of which I was a secondary author, that I thought should be updated.”Some of the omissions were extensive. In an updated disclosure, Wolchok, director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the hospital, outlined his ties to many companies, including receiving consulting fees, owning stock options or being a co-founder. The list of companies that pay him range from major manufacturers like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck, for whom he works as a paid for consultant, to startups like BeiGene, Apricity and Adaptive Biotech, in which he reports owning stock options.He corrected two articles in the journal Cancer Cell and a third in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Wolchok is a widely regarded expert in immunotherapy, having treated some of the first patients with a drug based on the work of Dr. James P. Allison, who along with Tasuku Honjo won this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine.Other Memorial Sloan Kettering researchers on Wolchok’s papers also updated their interactions with industry, including Dr. Matthew D. Hellmann, Taha Merghoub and Dr. Michael A. Postow.“Although the below additional disclosures are not directly relevant to the published work, the authors put them forward in the spirit of full transparency,” one correction said. “The authors apologize for any inconvenience.”Wolchok did not disclose most of his 31 relationships in articles recently published in other journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and Lancet Oncology. Wolchok has been paid more than $90,000 from major drug companies since 2014, according to a federal database that only includes payments from companies whose products received approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Most of his relationships are with early-stage startups.Wolchok said he conducted a review of more than 300 articles and decided to submit updated disclosures on some of them “out of an abundance of caution.” Some journals, including Cancer Discovery, “have rejected these updates because they have determined they are not relevant to the subject matter,” Wolchok said in a statement.Morey said that existing disclosures in the other articles, including those published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were appropriate, based on Wolchok’s interpretation of the journals’ guidelines.Although medical journals vary in their requirements, many urge researchers to err on the side of revealing a company relationship. One set of guidelines published by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors advises authors: “You should disclose interactions with ANY entity that could be considered broadly relevant to the work.” As an example, it says for a researcher studying a particular aspect of lung cancer, “you should report all associations with entities pursuing diagnostic or therapeutic strategies in cancer in general.”Other corrections involved Dr. Michelle Bradbury, who is the head of a research laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering and a director in the radiology department. In two corrections published Monday in the journal Chemistry of Materials, Bradbury and other study authors said that they should have disclosed that two of them, as well as their institutions — Memorial Sloan Kettering and Cornell University — have a financial interest in Elucida Oncology. The original articles were published in 2017.A third correction involving Bradbury was posted Thursday. That article, for which Bradbury was one of several authors, was published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces in 2017.Bradbury is a co-founder and serves on the scientific advisory board of Elucida, which is exploring the use of nanoparticles in cancer detection and treatment, a focus of the articles. Another author, Dr. Ulrich Wiesner of Cornell University, is also a company co-founder and a member of its scientific advisory board. (Wolchok is also on the Elucida scientific advisory board, which he noted in one of his corrections.)The corrections also said that “one or more” patent applications had been filed by the authors on topics related to the articles. The corrections to Bradbury’s studies were first reported by the website Retraction Watch.“In a handful of cases, even though the research in these publications was very early stage and rooted in basic science, my co-author from Cornell and I decided we would update them,” Bradbury said in an email. A spokesman for Cornell referred comment to Memorial Sloan Kettering.Baselga has also corrected his conflict-of-interest disclosures in several journals, including two in the New England Journal of Medicine, three in Clinical Cancer Research and two in Cancer Discovery, where he is still one of two editors in chief. The American Association for Cancer Research, which publishes Cancer Discovery, said it had formed a panel of experts to evaluate whether he should remain in a leadership role.He has also revised disclosures with the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which said that if Baselga participates in future meetings, “his slides will be subject to review in advance of his presentation and the session will be audited by ASCO staff and volunteers for any evidence of bias.” ASCO also said that if Baselga again does not disclose his interactions properly, he would be “prohibited from presenting in any capacity (author, session chair, discussant, etc.) at an ASCO-sponsored meeting for the following two years.”Beyond revisiting disclosures, Memorial Sloan Kettering is undertaking a broader review of its staff’s interactions with the health care and pharmaceutical industries, including whether senior leaders should sit on the boards of publicly traded companies. It also said it would hire an outside law firm to investigate specific allegations made following Baselga’s departure.
Chasing Leads and Herding Cats: Shaping a New Role in the Newsroom
by Rachel Glickhouse In this ever-changing industry, new roles are emerging that redefine how we do journalism: audience engagement director, social newsgathering reporter, Snapchat video producer. At ProPublica, I’ve been part of developing a new role for our newsroom. My title is partner manager, and I lead a large-scale collaboration: Documenting Hate, an investigative project to track and report on hate crimes and bias incidents.ProPublica regularly collects large amounts of information that we can’t process by ourselves, including documents gathered in our reporting, tips solicited by our engagement journalists, and data published in our news applications. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email Since the beginning, we’ve seen collaboration as a key way to make sure that all of this reporting material can be used to fulfill our mission: to make an impact in the real world. Collaboration has been a fundamental part of ProPublica’s journalism model. We make our stories available to republish for free through Creative Commons and usually co-publish or co-report stories with other news outlets. When it comes to large data sets, we often offer up our findings to journalists or the public to enable new reporting. It’s a way of spreading the wealth, so to speak. Collaborations are typically a core responsibility of each editor in the newsroom, but some of our projects have large-scale collaborations at their center, and they require dedicated and sustained attention.My role emerged after Electionland 2016, one of the largest-ever journalism collaborations, which many ProPublica staff members pitched in to organize. While the project was a journalistic success, its editors learned a key lesson about the need for somebody to own the relationship with partner newsrooms. In short, we came to think that the collaboration itself was something that needed editing, including recruiting partners, making sure they saw the reporting tips they needed to see, and tracking what partners were publishing. It also reinforced the need for a more strategic tip-sharing approach after the success of large engagement projects, like Lost Mothers and Agent Orange, which garnered thousands of leads — and more stories than we had time to tell.That’s how my role was born. Soon after the 2016 election, ProPublica launched Documenting Hate. Hiring a partner manager was the first priority. We also hired a partner manager to work on Electionland 2018, which will cover this year’s midterm elections.Our newsroom isn’t alone in dedicating resources to this type of role. Other investigative organizations, such as Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, staffed up to support their collaborations. Heather Bryant — who founded Project Facet, which helps newsrooms work together — told me there are at least 10 others who manage long-term collaborations at newsrooms across the country, from Alaska, to Texas, to Pennsylvania.What I DoMy job is a hybrid of roles: reporter, editor, researcher, social media producer, recruiter, trainer and project manager.I recruited our coalition of newsrooms, and I vet and onboard partners. To date, we have more than 150 national and local newsrooms signed on to the project, plus nearly 20 college newspapers. I speak to a contact at each newsroom before they join, and then I provide them with the materials they need to work on the project. I’ve written training materials and conduct online training sessions so new partners can get started more quickly.The core of this project is a shared database of tips about hate incidents that we source from the public. For large collaborations like Documenting Hate and Electionland, our developer Ken Schwencke builds these private central repositories, which are connected directly to our tip submission form. We use Screendoor, a form-building service, to host the tip form.In large-scale collaborations, we invite media organizations to be part of the newsgathering process. For Documenting Hate, we ask partners to embed this tip submission form to help us gather story leads. That way, we can harness the power of different audiences around the country, from Los Angeles Times readers, to Minnesota Public Radio listeners, to Univision viewers. At ProPublica, we try to talk about the project as much as we can in the media and at conferences to spread the word to both potential tipsters and partners.The tips we gather are available to participating journalists — helping them to do their job and produce stories they might otherwise not have found. ProPublica and our partners have reported more than 160 stories, including pieces about hate in schools, on public transportation and on the road, in the workplace, and at places of worship, and incidents involving the president’s name and policies, to name just a few. Plus, each authenticated tip acts as a stepping stone for other partners to build on their reporting.At ProPublica, we’ve been gathering lots of public records from police on hate crimes to do our own reporting and sharing those records with partners, too. Any time we produce an investigation in-house, I share the information we have available so reporters can republish or localize the story.As partner manager, I’m a human resource to share knowledge. I’ve built expertise in the hate beat and serve as a kind of research desk for our network, pointing reporters to sources and experts. I host a webinar or training once a month to help reporters understand the project or to build this beat, and I send out a weekly internal newsletter.Another part of my job is being an air-traffic controller, sending out incoming tips to reporters who might be interested and making sure that multiple people aren’t working on the same tip at the same time. This is especially important in a project like ours; given the sensitivity of the subject, we don’t want to scare off tipsters by having multiple reporters reach out at once. I pitch story ideas based on patterns I’ve identified to journalists who might want to dig further. I’m constantly researching leads to share with our network and with specific journalists working on relevant stories.And I’m also a signal booster: When partners publish reporting on hate, we share their work on our social channels to make sure these stories get as big an audience as possible. We keep track of all of the stories that were reported with sourcing from the project to make them available in one place.The ChallengesWhile the Documenting Hate project has produced some incredible work, this is not an easy job.Many journalists are eager to work with ProPublica, but not always with each other; it can be a process to get buy-in from editors to collaborate with a network of newsrooms, especially at large ones where there are layers of hierarchy. Some reporters agree to join but don’t make it all the way through onboarding, which involves several steps that may require help from others in their newsrooms. Some explore the database and don’t see anything they want to follow up on right away, and then lose interest. And occasionally journalists are so overwhelmed with their day-to-day work that I rarely hear back from them after they’ve joined.Turnover and layoffs, which are depressingly common in our industry, mean having to find and onboard new contacts in partner newsrooms, or relying on bounce-back emails to figure out who’s left. It also means that sometimes engaged reporters move into positions at new companies where they don’t cover hate, leaving a gap in their old newsrooms. A relentless news cycle doesn’t help, either. For example, after the 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, caused a renewed surge in interest in the hate beat, a series of deadly hurricanes hit, drawing a number of reporters onto the natural disaster beat for a time.And because of the sensitivity of the incidents, tipsters sometimes refuse to talk after they’ve written in, which can be discouraging for reporters. Getting a story may mean following up on a dozen tips rather than just one or two. Luckily, since we’ve received thousands of tips and hundreds of records, active participants in our coalition have found plenty of material to work on.The Future of PartnershipsWhile collaborations aren’t always easy, I believe projects like Documenting Hate are likely to be an important part of the future of journalism. Pooling resources and dividing and conquering on reporting can help save time and money, which are in increasingly short supply.Some partnerships are the fruit of necessity, linking small newsrooms in the same region or state, like Coast Alaska, or creating stronger ties between affiliates within a large network, like NPR. I think there’s huge potential for more local collaborations, especially with shrinking budgets and personnel. Other partnerships emerge out of opportunity, like the Panama Papers investigation, which was made possible by a massive document leak. If more newsrooms resisted the urge for exclusivity — a concept that matters far more to journalists than to the public — more partnerships could be built around data troves and leaks.Another area of potential is to band together to request and share public records or to pool funding for more expensive requests; these costs can prevent smaller newsrooms from doing larger investigations. I also think there’s a ton of opportunity to collaborate on specific topics and beats to share knowledge, best practices and reporting.With new partnerships comes the need for someone at the helm, navigating the ship. While many newsrooms’ finances are shrinking, any collaborative project can have a coordinator role baked into the budget. An ideal collaborations manager is a journalist who understands the day-to-day challenges of newsrooms, is fanatical about project management, is capable of sourcing and shaping stories, and can track the reach and impact of work that’s produced.We all benefit when we work together — helping us reach wider audiences, do deeper reporting and better serve the public with our journalism.
It’s Our Birthday
by Louise Kiernan This week, ProPublica Illinois marked its first birthday. There was cake, of course. And our newly invented signature cocktail, the Prairie ProPublican.But mostly there was pride in what we’ve been able to accomplish in a year and a great sense of purpose and excitement for what comes next.In 12 months, with five reporters on our 12-member editorial staff, we have published almost 150 articles on our website, including more than a dozen major investigations examining crucial issues ranging from gun trafficking to property taxes to immigration.You may have read this work in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Hoy and the Chronicle of Higher Education, or on the websites of The Atlantic and Mother Jones. You may have heard our stories on WBEZ public radio or seen them on Univision. They’ve been published in almost 200 outlets big and small, across Illinois and the country, as well as in Mexico and Spain. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Our Politic-IL Insider column analyzes the state’s infamous politics. We built an online widget that tracks campaign dollars flowing into the Illinois governor’s race, the most expensive in the state’s history. Through ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, we have supported and co-published journalism about public housing issues in southern Illinois.We’ve filed thousands of requests under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed millions of lines of data. With our ongoing “Ask ProPublica Illinois” feature, we conduct a transparent conversation with readers about how we do what we do, whether it’s explaining our guidelines for using anonymous sources, talking about how we keep bias out of our reporting or offering tips for identifying fake news. Every week, for 52 weeks and counting, newsletters like this one have taken readers behind the scenes of our work.We’ve road-tripped with Chicago’s Free Street Theater, hosting workshops around the state to hear what people have to say about their communities and the issues they care about most, helping surface ideas to create more relevant, powerful journalism. And we’ve launched a mentorship program to work with aspiring reporters on the city’s South and West sides.Whew. The best part, though? Our journalism has already begun to spark meaningful change. The investigative series with the Tribune that exposed Cook County’s deeply broken, inequitable property tax system spurred an independent investigation and several lawsuits and helped lead to Assessor Joseph Berrios getting voted out of office. When we documented the errors and gaps in the Chicago police department’s gang database, the department promised reforms and our reporting was cited in a federal lawsuit. Attorneys volunteered to represent teenage offenders after we revealed they were being sentenced to lengthy adult prison terms for minor infractions in a southern Illinois juvenile corrections facility. Following our reporting on children being trapped in psychiatric hospitals beyond their release dates, state lawmakers conducted a hearing and attorneys went to court to request a federal judge appoint an independent monitor.Our multi-part examination into punitive ticketing practices that have driven poor, minority residents into spiraling debt and bankruptcy prompted a third-party study calling for reforms and has become an issue in Chicago’s mayoral race. After our most recent series of investigations into the inner workings of the secretive network of Chicago shelters housing immigrant children, lawmakers demanded access to the facilities.As we enter our second year, we’re determined to produce even more journalism that makes a difference and to expand our reach into communities around the state. We’re just getting started. But, as a nonprofit newsroom, we depend upon the support of our readers to fund our journalism. We hope you’ll help us continue to do this critical work. (If you’d like to know even more about what we’ve accomplished since our launch, check out our stakeholders’ report.)Oh, and if you’d like to join us in raising a glass, the Prairie ProPublican is two parts rye, one part ginger liqueur and three parts ginger ale, with a twist of moral force.
Arrest Throws Texas Voter Registration Dispute Into Further Confusion
A campaign staffer for a Texas Democratic congressional candidate was briefly arrested at the Waller County Courthouse after delivering a letter demanding that the county address problems with the voter registration status of students at Prairie View A&M, a local, historically black university.Read more at the Houston Chronicle →
“They’ve Got to Execute You”: St. Luke’s Doctor Faces Discipline After Raising Patient Care Concerns
by Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle, and Charles Ornstein, ProPublica Dr. Tomas Rios was upset. He believed that some of his patients at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center had received unnecessary medical treatments in intensive care units at the Houston hospital, and one day in September 2015, he fired off three emails to colleagues expressing his frustration.A month later, Rios was summoned to a meeting with his boss, but the purpose was not to discuss his concerns about patient care. Instead, he got a warning.Dr. Victor Narcisse, a private-practice physician and member of the hospital’s medical executive committee, said that senior hospital officials had been in touch with him about Rios’ conduct, and they had made clear that they intended to “develop the evidence” to take punitive action against him. Narcisse compared the hospital’s plans for him to “an assassination,” according to a recording of the conversation. A transcript of the discussion was filed with Harris County District Court this week as part of a lawsuit by Rios against St. Luke’s.“It’s like, forgive me, forgive the analogy, but when you have a conspiracy for an assassination, the No. 1 rule is you’ve got to get the guy that you were going after. And then none of the people who were involved get implicated,” Narcisse said.“They’ve got to execute you,” he said a moment later. “Because if you stick around, they know that you’re going to, all these concerns that you have, you’re going to bring them to some regulatory person.” Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. Narcisse, the leader of Rios’ physician group at the time, suggested in the recording that Rios could avoid potentially career-ending discipline from St. Luke’s by resigning from the hospital staff.But Rios did not resign, and within weeks, just as Narcisse said, Rios was told that a hospital committee had found him in serious violation of patient care standards, the first step toward disciplinary action. Two months later, Rios sued St. Luke’s for retaliation. In an amended complaint filed this week, Rios alleged that hospital personnel made false allegations about the way he practices medicine and sought to punish him after he expressed legitimate concerns.St. Luke’s has denied in court filings that it retaliated against Rios, noting in one that he “has never been suspended or had his privileges revoked in any fashion.”In a statement to reporters, Dr. David Berger, the hospital’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, said that the intensive care policies Rios began complaining about in 2015 have led to better outcomes across the hospital since their implementation four years ago.“Dr. Tomas Rios is not a board-certified intensivist and not an expert in critical care medicine, and has actively opposed the intensivist process,” Berger said in the statement.Regardless of whether Rios’ complaints about patient care were valid, the recording of a doctor describing the hospital’s plans to punish him raises new questions about the way St. Luke’s responds when its physicians and staff members voice concerns.ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle reported in May that some St. Luke’s doctors complained internally in 2015 and 2016 about problems that led to poor outcomes in the hospital’s heart transplant program. Hospital leaders said they took steps to improve the program, but some physicians felt that their concerns were ignored.And in a separate lawsuit filed in Harris County in July, the former administrative director of cardiovascular services at St. Luke’s said he was fired in 2017 “in retaliation for reporting violations of health and safety laws.” St. Luke’s, which has denied wrongdoing in court filings, declined to comment on the case. A hospital spokeswoman said by email, “We value the contributions that each staff member brings to improve patient care.”Rios’ case also opens a window into St. Luke’s use of peer review, a confidential process intended to assess and discipline doctors accused of negligence or wrongdoing, but one that legal and health care experts say is sometimes manipulated by hospitals in order to punish outspoken physicians.In a statement this week, a St. Luke’s spokeswoman said the hospital stands by the integrity of its peer-review process. Hospital officials said they couldn’t address the recorded conversation between Rios and Narcisse because they were not a party to it. Narcisse and Rios are not St. Luke’s employees, but rather independent physicians with privileges to practice at the hospital.Narcisse, however, remains a member of the St. Luke’s medical executive committee, the primary body governing the hospital’s independent medical staff, and has performed other administrative duties. A hospital spokeswoman said Narcisse does not speak on behalf of the executive committee, and Narcisse did not respond to requests for comment.Katharine Van Tassel, dean of San Francisco Law School and a co-author of law review articles on the subject of physician peer review and due process, said hospitals have broad discretion to discipline doctors for lapses in care. But in some circumstances, Van Tassel said, peer review has become “a tool to silence individuals from speaking out.”“There appear to be little to no safeguards in place to avoid the improper use of hospital peer review to retaliate against physicians who are bringing up quality-of-care concerns,” she said.In one such case in 2017, a Houston heart surgeon was awarded $6.4 million in damages after a Harris County jury found that Memorial Hermann Health System abused the peer review process in an effort to defame the surgeon and protect its business interests. The hospital is appealing the verdict.“Believe it or not, hospital administrators do not always like to hear about problems with poor care,” said Dr. Lawrence Huntoon, the president of the American Health Legal Foundation. “And so, through the process of a sham peer review, they sometimes seek to kill the messenger rather than address the underlying problem.”There is no doubt that Rios, 37, has been an outspoken physician, and his willingness to lodge complaints has earned him a reputation as a troublemaker in the Texas Medical Center. In 2014, a year before Rios started at St. Luke’s, UTHealth McGovern School of Medicine terminated his fellowship, saying he lacked the “clinical competencies” necessary to function in the program. Rios filed suit in that case as well, alleging that UT doctors acted based on false accusations after he filed a complaint about unsafe physician staffing levels on the night shift at Memorial Hermann hospital.UTHealth denied his retaliation allegation, and the case was dismissed in 2017 on procedural grounds after going all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. As a result of the canceled fellowship, Rios had to complete a remedial plan with the Texas Medical Board in order to receive his permanent medical license in December 2014.A month later, he started practicing full time at St. Luke’s, and he soon grew troubled by his experiences there. His concerns centered on a hospital program that deployed a “rapid response” team of critical care nurses to the bedsides of patients whose conditions appeared to be deteriorating. Similar programs have been implemented at hospitals around the country, with the goal of quickly assessing and treating patients before life-threatening events occur.Rios, whose primary job is serving as the attending physician for hospitalized patients, started voicing concerns about the rapid response nursing team at St. Luke’s, which he said was routinely calling for intensive care doctors rather than consulting him first. As a result, Rios said he believes several of his patients were unnecessarily sent to the ICU, where some received what he considered needlessly aggressive medical treatment.In his statement to reporters, Berger said the rapid response system has led to improved patient outcomes: “Baylor St. Luke’s experienced a 24 percent hospital-wide reduction in cardiac arrests since the Mobile ICU team was introduced in 2014, as well as a 10 percent improvement in ICU patient survival.”Rios said in an interview that he doesn’t have a problem with the rapid response concept, but he believes a patient’s primary physician should be involved in the process, since they know the patient best. In one email to colleagues in September 2015, Rios questioned whether there was a financial motive behind the hospital’s policies, which he said made it easier to transfer patients to more expensive hospital beds and led to more costly treatments.A month after sending that message, Rios was called to the meeting with Narcisse. Richard Law, an attorney for their physician group, Inpatient Consultants of Texas, also attended and said he was there to give Rios legal advice, according to an audio recording made by Rios without the knowledge of Law or Narcisse.Rios provided ProPublica and the Chronicle with a copy of the the recording. In it, Narcisse is heard telling Rios that he’d had a series of phone calls “with a whole bunch of people who are going to deny that they ever had them with me,” including Dr. Mike Wilson, St. Luke’s chief of staff at the time, and Berger, then the hospital’s chief clinical officer.Narcisse told Rios that hospital leaders had started compiling records of patient complaints that had been leveled against him — mostly related to his refusal to prescribe intravenous painkillers or other potentially addictive drugs — and that they planned to refer them to what was supposed to be an impartial panel of physicians, the process known as peer review.Narcisse suggested that it instead would be a “kangaroo court” with a predetermined outcome and that hospital leaders were working “to develop the evidence to prove up the point.” He said the peer review committee would give Rios “a level-four adjudication,” the most severe finding the committee can bring against a doctor.Both Narcisse and Law advised Rios to consider quitting to avoid punishment, and by the end of the conversation, Rios had agreed to do so. But he changed his mind the next day, he said, after learning that hospitals must report to the National Practitioner Data Bank — a repository of disciplinary actions against physicians — anytime a doctor resigns under the threat of investigation.Law did not respond to a message seeking comment.A few weeks later, Rios said he received a call from Wilson, who notified him that a peer review committee had met and reached the very conclusion Narcisse had warned about. The level-four finding indicated that the committee believed that Rios had provided seriously substandard care, putting patients in danger.Rios did not record the conversation with Wilson, but a lawyer representing Rios at the time, Jim Edwards, confirmed his recollection of the call. Edwards said it was clear to him, since the peer review committee had reached its conclusion without giving Rios an opportunity to respond, that the hospital was not playing by the rules.Wilson is no longer the chief of staff at St. Luke’s. Attempts to reach him by phone for comment were unsuccessful.Rios filed his lawsuit two months after the call from Wilson. To date, the hospital has not taken formal disciplinary action against him, such as terminating his privileges, despite having found him in serious violation of patient care standards. He says he has been retaliated against in other ways.In March, the physician group that employed Rios, Inpatient Consultants of Texas, also known as TeamHealth, suspended him and took him off the schedule at St. Luke’s after saying it had received complaints about him from hospital staff members.Rios sued the group in April in Harris County District Court, alleging a breach of contract. The group has denied Rios’ allegations and is now countersuing, alleging it was Rios who violated the contract when he started his own practice in order to keep working at St. Luke’s following the suspension.Meanwhile, Rios says he has continued to face disciplinary threats after expressing concerns about ICU care.In one recent incident, a St. Luke’s peer review committee delivered another level-four finding against Rios, “a significant deviation from the standard of care,” because he interfered with a patient’s transfer to the ICU in May, according to a letter notifying Rios of the citation. Rios said he opposed the rapid response team’s decision in that instance because the patient and her family had said they did not want her to be reconnected to a ventilator, and because Rios did not believe her condition warranted it.Rios did not share the patient’s name, but her relatives reached out to a reporter on his behalf. They confirmed that they opposed the decision to move her to ICU and felt their wishes were ignored by other physicians at the hospital. A St. Luke’s spokeswoman said federal patient privacy rules prevent the hospital from commenting on the case.About a month after that incident, Rios was called into a meeting with Berger, St. Luke’s chief operating officer, and Gay Nord, the hospital’s president since October 2016, as well as Dr. William Granberry, now the chief of staff.According to a recording of the meeting provided by Rios, Berger told Rios that “the peer review committee was extremely concerned about (his) interference with the process of the rapid response team.” Both Berger and Nord said they were unaware of Rios’ pending lawsuit related to the matter. Granberry told Rios that the rapid response program had led to improved outcomes for patients since 2014, and Berger warned that if Rios continued to get in the way of their work, he would be summarily suspended from the hospital.Rios pushed back, according to the audio recording, saying that his primary focus has been the best interest of his patients. He cited two additional cases from that month in which the rapid response team called in intensivists, who then moved his patients to critical care units without consulting him. Those patients, Rios told the executives, “suffered untoward events.”“What I can tell is that I will continue to advocate for my patients,” Rios said, according to the recording. “I don’t play politics. My No. 1 priority has always been my patients and will continue to always be my patients, above politics, above money, above anything else. If I feel that rapid response or critical care or whomever is jeopardizing my patient care, then I will act accordingly.”Berger responded: “And the hospital will act accordingly.”Rios’ lawsuit is scheduled for trial in December.
Citizens Count on the Illinois Freedom of Information Act but Keep Getting Shut Out
by Mick Dumke When Larry Young started requesting records from police, he just wanted to find out what had happened to his daughter, Molly.More than six years after the 21-year-old was found shot to death in her ex-boyfriend’s Carbondale apartment, Young is still fighting law enforcement agencies for records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Since his daughter’s death six years ago, Larry Young has been fighting for the release of investigation records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. (Nick Schnelle for ProPublica Illinois) Young’s battle has become a long, often painful example of both the promise and weakness of government-transparency laws in Illinois, including an overwhelmed and inconsistent enforcement system overseen by outgoing Attorney General Lisa Madigan.Police and other government agencies have offered a series of reasons why Young can’t see certain records from the investigations into Molly’s death. At times they’ve claimed the information should remain under wraps to protect the privacy of his daughter, even though she’s dead and he’s the executor of her estate. On other occasions they’ve simply ignored his requests and disregarded four different rulings from the attorney general’s office.In 2009, Madigan and state legislators crafted a new law they promised would help citizens like Young by improving access to government records and proceedings. Under one of its key provisions, the attorney general’s office was given authority to interpret and enforce the state Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts. Since then, thousands of citizens, mostly individuals but also journalists and businesses, have appealed for help from the office’s public access counselor, known as the PAC. As she prepares to leave office after 16 years, Madigan has touted her work in promoting transparency as one of her signature achievements. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP) Often, though, the public still gets shut out. Government bodies around the state routinely ignore or misinterpret the FOIA and OMA, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis of the nearly 30,000 appeals the PAC has received.The PAC’s staff of more than a dozen attorneys struggles to wade through the cases, regularly taking months or even years to resolve them. When it does rule, it seldom uses its full authority to order government agencies to comply with the laws. And in the rare cases when it does, the office’s orders are sometimes blown off. Violators face few consequences.A number of people who turned to Madigan’s office for help say it is too slow, cautious and unpredictable. That sends the message that public agencies can get away with breaking the transparency laws.“Here’s what they need to do: Pull the plug on the PAC’s office,” said Bruce Rushton, a staff writer for the Illinois Times newspaper who has written about delays and inaction from the office. Rushton argued that the attorney general’s office is too politicized to oversee disputes involving other politicians and government bodies, including state agencies it’s charged with representing in court. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Dive deeper into our reporting. Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois journalist every week. Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. “Only a fool would put an elected official in Illinois in charge of riding herd on other elected officials,” Rushton said. “But that’s what we’ve done.”Madigan was not available for an interview, according to a spokeswoman. But other officials in her office said the PAC has helped thousands of people access government information while leading a shift in the culture of the state toward more transparency.“We started from scratch and created this, and I think we really do help people every day,” said Ann Spillane, the attorney general’s chief of staff.“We have areas where we need to improve,” she acknowledged. But in addition to its rulings, Spillane stressed that the office provides education to the public on open-government laws, including through a hotline. “We’re one of the rare places in government where you can pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer.” How FOIA Works in Illinois Susie Cagle, special to ProPublica Illinois Spillane added that the office could be more efficient if compliance with the open-government laws was a higher priority for officials around the state, starting with the governor.“Since I’ve been around, we’ve never had a governor who directed their staff at all levels to comply with FOIA,” she said.The Freedom of Information Act promises that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government.” Under FOIA, citizens are allowed to request and obtain copies of records generated by local and state government agencies. Journalists and watchdog groups make regular FOIA requests, but so do law firms, nonprofits and unaffiliated residents who want or need information.But the law has limits that are not always defined clearly. Personal or private information, such as Social Security and phone numbers, are exempt. So are records that would interfere with a pending law enforcement investigation, reveal terrorism prevention plans or disclose trade secrets.If a government body rejects a FOIA request — or doesn’t respond within five business days — the requester can ask the public access counselor to review the case. Eventually it may issue a ruling — either a “determination,” which is advisory, or a “binding opinion,” which orders a resolution, usually in favor of the requester.Similarly, citizens can ask the PAC to review whether government bodies have violated the Open Meetings Act, which mandates that public business be conducted in the open except in certain circumstances, such as disciplinary proceedings for employees.Open-government laws, and enforcement of them, vary widely by state. In some, citizens can only appeal FOIA denials to officials at the same public agencies that rejected their requests in the first place. In other states, separate offices or committees hear appeals and have the authority to order remedies. Ideally, such offices would be separate from other government agencies and free from interference from elected officials, advocates for transparency say.“I think it’s incredibly important for the body or entity deciding these administrative appeals to be independent in as many ways as possible,” said Adam Marshall, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Part of the reason we have a separate branch of government for the judiciary is the appeals process.”Such enforcement entities should also have adequate resources. “You can have a totally independent body, but if you starve them by limiting their budgets, they won’t be able to do their work,” he said. FOIA Case: A Long Wait Susie Cagle, special to ProPublica Illinois Critics of the system in Illinois say it suffers from both problems.Sarah Pratt, who has served as the public access counselor since 2013, said the office’s decisions are never based on politics but on the law.“Frankly, I’ve never, in more than 25 years in this office, and certainly not in the last eight years, done anything or been advised to do anything for political reasons,” she said. “As far as us choosing opinions to write based on politics, it just doesn’t happen.”From 2010 through mid-August 2018, the PAC received more than 28,000 requests to review potential violations of the two transparency laws. The vast majority — 93 percent — involved FOIA. More than 80 percent of the requests came from individual citizens, while the rest came from the media, businesses and other government bodies.As of August, the PAC had closed about 26,000 of the cases, and in more than half, it ruled against the requester or closed the case for technical reasons. In contrast, about a third of the cases ended in favor of the citizen or organization seeking information or transparency.
by Finlay Young for ProPublica
Confusion for Prairie View A&M Students on the Last Day for Voter Registration
Days before the voter registration deadline in Texas, Waller County realized half of registered students at Prairie View A&M, a local, historically black university, were being sent to the wrong polling place.Read more at the Houston Chronicle →
Another West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Declines to Step Aside in Another Natural Gas Case
by Ken Ward Jr., The Charleston Gazette-Mail In another recusal controversy involving the West Virginia Supreme Court and the natural gas industry, a newly appointed justice declined to step aside from hearing a case on Tuesday, despite the fact that he was personally represented by a lawyer now representing a company involved in the proceeding.Former U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins hired Huntington lawyer Ancil Ramey, a former court clerk who often appears before the justices, to appear on his behalf last month when two lawyers tried to block Jenkins’ appointment to the court by arguing that he didn’t meet state constitutional requirements for the post.Ramey won that case, and Jenkins was sworn in on Oct. 1.Tuesday was the first day Jenkins was scheduled to hear oral arguments, and the second case on the docket was a major lawsuit filed by a group of Harrison County residents against Antero, West Virginia’s largest natural gas producer, alleging that the company is making life in their community unbearable.Among the attorneys representing Antero: Ancil Ramey.On Tuesday, Jenkins turned down a motion filed by the residents asking him to disqualify himself from the Antero case because of Ramey’s involvement in ensuring Jenkins got his seat on the Supreme Court. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email In a one-page memo made public just before court was to begin for the day, Jenkins said he “had no prior relationship” with Ramey, “the representation was brief, and it has terminated.”“Therefore, I find no reasonable grounds requiring my recusal,” Jenkins wrote.The court has faced several recusal controversies in recent years.Just weeks after taking office in 2017, Justice Beth Walker voted to rehear and then to overturn a previous ruling over how lease payments from gas producers to gas owners are calculated. Walker denied a motion to disqualify herself based on her husband’s stock holdings in energy industry companies. She said her husband had sold the shares before the case was argued.Years earlier, then-Justice Brent Benjamin refused to recuse himself from hearing an appeal involving Massey Energy Co., even though its CEO at the time, Don Blankenship, had spent $3 million on a campaign against Benjamin’s opponent in the 2004 election. That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2009 that Benjamin should have stepped aside. Walker defeated Benjamin in the 2016 election.The Jenkins controversy also comes as West Virginia’s Supreme Court faces a continuing crisis over spending — including allegedly using state cars for private trips and lavish office renovations that included a $32,000 couch — that has touched all five justices.One justice, currently suspended, is on trial in federal court, contesting criminal charges that include fraud and obstruction; another justice resigned and then pleaded guilty to wire fraud; and a third retired after being impeached, but alleged the House GOP leadership was trying to take over another branch of government. A fourth was publicly reprimanded by the state Senate after an impeachment trial, but denied wrongdoing and avoided the more serious punishment of removal from office. The fifth faces an impeachment trial this fall, and has vowed to fight removal from office.Jenkins was appointed to fill the seat of Robin Davis, the justice who retired after being impeached.Attorneys for several Harrison County residents filed a motion last week urging Jenkins to not take part in the Antero matter.“Justice Jenkins presiding over a case wherein his attorney is representing the respondents Antero raises reasonable questions about impartiality and has an appearance of impropriety which requires Justice Jenkins disqualify himself from this matter,” said the motion from Anthony Majestro, lawyer for the residents.In a response filing on behalf of Antero, Ramey said that disqualification of Jenkins was not necessary, because Ramey’s representation of him had ended before Jenkins officially joined the court. The response also said that while Ramey helped write Antero’s briefs in the natural gas case, he was not the lead lawyer and would not be taking part in the oral arguments.In the case, residents in the Cherry Camp area of Harrison County are appealing a lower court decision that threw out their lawsuit against Antero. The residents sued over a variety of natural gas production activities they argue create a nuisance, including unbearable traffic, “constant dust” that hangs in the air and settles on homes and vehicles, disruptive heavy equipment noise, and bright lights that shine into their homes day and night.Antero attorneys say the company has only done what was reasonably necessary under its leases to extract gas, and that those operations don’t interfere with the residents’ use of their property. Antero lawyers said a panel of lower court judges was right when it threw out the case.Hundreds of similar cases are pending in West Virginia courts, and the eventual ruling in the matter before the Supreme Court will likely set a precedent.The issues raised in the cases are of growing concern in West Virginia, as the state’s natural gas industry continues to boom.While Jenkins didn’t recuse himself, another new justice, Tim Armstead, did. It was not clear why Armstead recused himself from the Antero case, although, previously, Armstead, a former state House of Delegates speaker, worked as an attorney for a different natural gas company. Armstead was appointed to the court by Gov. Jim Justice at the same time as the governor appointed Jenkins.No party filed a motion asking Armstead to disqualify himself, a court spokeswoman said. Armstead offered no explanation in a one-sentence memo to the court clerk.His disqualification came just moments before the case was to be argued, so there was no time to find a replacement judge, a process that is allowed in West Virginia on a case-by-case basis. The residents asked that the argument be rescheduled for a later date, and the court agreed.The seats held by Jenkins and Armstead are on the ballot in West Virginia’s general election next month. Both men are running.
Trump’s Patron-in-Chief: Casino Magnate Sheldon Adelson
by Justin Elliott LATE ON A THURSDAY evening in February 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for his first visit with President Donald Trump. A few hours earlier, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s Boeing 737, which is so large it can seat 149 people, touched down at Reagan National Airport after a flight from Las Vegas.Adelson dined that night at the White House with Trump, Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were among Trump’s biggest benefactors, writing checks for $20 million in the campaign and pitching in an additional $5 million for the inaugural festivities.Adelson was in town to see the Japanese prime minister about a much greater sum of money. Japan, after years of acrimonious public debate, has legalized casinos. For more than a decade, Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands, have sought to build a multibillion-dollar casino resort there. He has called expanding to the country, one of the world’s last major untapped markets, the “holy grail.” Nearly every major casino company in the world is competing to secure one of a limited number of licenses to enter a market worth up to $25 billion per year. “This opportunity won’t come along again, potentially ever,” said Kahlil Philander, an academic who studies the industry.The morning after his White House dinner, Adelson attended a breakfast in Washington with Abe and a small group of American CEOs, including two others from the casino industry. Adelson and the other executives raised the casino issue with Abe, according to an attendee.Adelson had a potent ally in his quest: the new president of the United States. Following the business breakfast, Abe had a meeting with Trump before boarding Air Force One for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. The two heads of state dined with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and golfed at Trump National Jupiter Golf Club with the South African golfer Ernie Els. During a meeting at Mar-a-Lago that weekend, Trump raised Adelson’s casino bid to Abe, according to two people briefed on the meeting. The Japanese side was surprised.“It was totally brought up out of the blue,” according to one of the people briefed on the exchange. “They were a little incredulous that he would be so brazen.” After Trump told Abe he should strongly consider Las Vegas Sands for a license, “Abe didn’t really respond, and said thank you for the information,” this person said.Trump also mentioned at least one other casino operator. Accounts differ on whether it was MGM or Wynn Resorts, then run by Trump donor and then-Republican National Committee finance chairman Steve Wynn. The Japanese newspaper Nikkei reported the president also mentioned MGM and Abe instructed an aide who was present to jot down the names of both companies. Questioned about the meeting, Abe said in remarks before the Japanese legislature in July that Trump had not passed on requests from casino companies but did not deny that the topic had come up.The president raising a top donor’s personal business interests directly with a foreign head of state would violate longstanding norms. “That should be nowhere near the agenda of senior officials,” said Brian Harding, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “U.S.-Japan relations is about the security of the Asia-Pacific, China and economic issues.”Adelson has told his shareholders to expect good news. On a recent earnings call, Adelson cited unnamed insiders as saying Sands’ efforts to win a place in the Japanese market will pay off. “The estimates by people who know, say they know, whom we believe they know, say that we’re in the No. 1 pole position,” he said.After decades as a major Republican donor, Adelson is known as an ideological figure, motivated by his desire to influence U.S. policy to help Israel. “I’m a one-issue person. That issue is Israel,” he said last year. On that issue — Israel — Trump has delivered. The administration has slashed funding for aid to Palestinian refugees and scrapped the Iran nuclear deal. Attending the recent opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Adelson seemed to almost weep with joy, according to an attendee.But his reputation as an Israel advocate has obscured a through-line in his career: He has used his political access to push his financial self-interest. Not only has Trump touted Sands’ interests in Japan, but his administration also installed an executive from the casino industry in a top position in the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. Adelson’s influence reverberates through this administration. Cabinet-level officials jump when he calls. One who displeased him was replaced. He has helped a friend’s company get a research deal with the Environmental Protection Agency. And Adelson has already received a windfall from Trump’s new tax law, which particularly favored companies like Las Vegas Sands. The company estimated the benefit of the law at $1.2 billion.Adelson’s influence is not absolute: His company’s casinos in Macau are vulnerable in Trump’s trade war with China, which controls the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. If the Chinese government chose to retaliate by targeting Macau, where Sands has several large properties, it could hurt Adelson’s bottom line. So far, there’s no evidence that has happened.The White House declined to comment on Adelson. The Japanese Embassy in Washington declined to comment. Sands spokesman Ron Reese declined to answer detailed questions but said in a statement: “The gaming industry has long sought the opportunity to enter the Japan market. Gaming companies have spent significant resources there on that effort and Las Vegas Sands is no exception.”Reese added: “If our company has any advantage it would be because of our significant Asian operating experience and our unique convention-based business model. Any suggestion we are favored for some other reason is not based on the reality of the process in Japan or the integrity of the officials involved in it.”With a fortune estimated at $35 billion, Adelson is the 21st-richest person in the world, according to Forbes. In August, when he celebrated his 85th birthday in Las Vegas, the party stretched over four days. Adelson covered guests’ expenses. A 92-year-old Tony Bennett and the Israeli winner of Eurovision performed for the festivities. He is slowing down physically; stricken by neuropathy, he uses a motorized scooter to get around and often stands up with the help of a bodyguard. He fell and broke three ribs while on a ferry from Macau to Hong Kong last November.Yet Adelson has spent the Trump era hustling to expand his gambling empire. With Trump occupying the White House, Adelson has found the greatest political ally he’s ever had.“I would put Adelson at the very top of the list of both access and influence in the Trump administration,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve been studying money in politics for 40 years.”ADELSON GREW UP POOR in Boston, the son of a cabdriver with a sixth-grade education. According to his wife, Adelson was beaten up as a kid for being Jewish. A serial entrepreneur who has started or acquired more than 50 different businesses, he had already made and lost his first fortune by the late 1960s, when he was in his mid-30s.It took him until the mid-1990s to become extraordinarily rich. In 1995, he sold the pioneering computer trade show Comdex to the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank for $800 million. He entered the gambling business in earnest when his Venetian casino resort opened in 1999 in Las Vegas. With its gondola rides on faux canals, it was inspired by his honeymoon to Venice with Miriam, who is 12 years younger than Adelson.It’s been said that Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person. Adelson could be thought of as Trump’s idea of a rich person. A family friend recalls Sheldon and Miriam’s two sons, who are now in college, getting picked up from school in stretch Hummer limousines and his home being so large it was stocked with Segway transporters to get around. A Las Vegas TV station found a few years ago that, amid a drought, Adelson’s palatial home a short drive from the Vegas Strip had used nearly 8 million gallons of water in a year, enough for 55 average homes. Adelson will rattle off his precise wealth based on the fluctuation of Las Vegas Sands’ share price, said his friend the New York investor Michael Steinhardt. “He’s very sensitive to his net worth,” Steinhardt said.Trump entered the casino business several years before Adelson. In the early 1990s, both eyed Eilat in southern Israel as a potential casino site. Neither built there. Adelson “didn’t have a whole lot of respect for Trump when Trump was operating casinos. He was dismissive of Trump,” recalled one former Las Vegas Sands official. In an interview in the late ’90s, Adelson lumped Trump with Wynn: “Both of these gentlemen have very big egos,” Adelson said. “Well, the world doesn’t really care about their egos.”Today, in his rare public appearances, Adelson has a grandfatherly affect. He likes to refer to himself as “Self” (“I said to myself, ‘Self …’”). He makes Borscht Belt jokes about his short stature: “A friend of mine says, ‘You’re the tallest guy in the world.’ I said, ‘How do you figure that?’ He says, ‘When you stand on your wallet.’”By the early 2000s, Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands had surpassed Trump’s casino operations. While Trump was getting bogged down in Atlantic City, Adelson’s properties thrived. When Macau opened up a local gambling monopoly, Adelson bested a crowded field that included Trump to win a license. Today, Macau accounts for more than half of Las Vegas Sands’ roughly $13 billion in annual revenue.Trump’s casinos went bankrupt, and now he is out of the industry entirely. By the mid-2000s, Trump was playing the role of business tycoon on his reality show, “The Apprentice.” Meanwhile, Adelson aggressively expanded his empire in Macau and later in Singapore. His company’s Moshe Safdie-designed Marina Bay Sands property there, with its rooftop infinity pool, featured prominently in the recent hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians.”While their business trajectories diverged, Adelson and Trump have long shared a willingness to sue critics, enemies and business associates. Multiple people said they were too afraid of lawsuits to speak on the record for this story. In 1989, after the Nevada Gaming Control Board conducted a background investigation of Adelson, it found he had already been personally involved in around 100 civil lawsuits, according to the book “License to Steal,” a history of the agency. That included matters as small as a $600 contractual dispute with a Boston hospital.The lawsuits have continued even as Adelson became so rich the amounts of money at stake hardly mattered. In one case, Adelson was unhappy with the quality of construction on one of his beachfront Malibu, California, properties and pursued a legal dispute with the contractor for more than seven years, going through a lengthy series of appeals and cases in different courts. Adelson sued a Wall Street Journal reporter for libel over a single phrase — a description of him as “foul-mouthed” — and fought the case for four years before it was settled, with the story unchanged. In a particularly bitter case in Massachusetts Superior Court in the 1990s, his sons from his first marriage accused him of cheating them out of money. Adelson prevailed.Adelson rarely speaks to the media any more, with occasional exceptions for friendly business journalists or on stage at conferences, usually interviewed by people to whom he has given a great deal of money. “He keeps a very tight inner circle,” said a casino industry executive who has known Adelson for decades. Adelson declined to comment for this story.ADELSON ONCE TOLD a reporter of entering the casino business late in life, “I loved being an outsider.” For nearly a decade he played that role in presidential politics, bankrolling the opposition to the Obama administration. As with some of his early entrepreneurial forays, he dumped money for little return, his political picks going bust. In 2008, he backed Rudy Giuliani. As America’s Mayor faded, he came on board late with the John McCain campaign. In 2012, he almost single-handedly funded Newt Gingrich’s candidacy. Gingrich spent a few weeks atop the polls before his candidacy collapsed. Adelson became a late adopter of Mitt Romney.In 2016, the Adelsons didn’t officially endorse a candidate for months. Trump used Adelson as a foil, an example of the well-heeled donors who wielded outsized influence in Washington. “Sheldon or whoever — you could say Koch. I could name them all. They’re all friends of mine, every one of them. I know all of them. They have pretty much total control over the candidate,” Trump said on Fox News in October 2015. “Nobody controls me but the American public.” In a pointed tweet that month, Trump said: “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to [Marco] Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”Despite Trump’s barbs, Adelson had grown curious about the candidate and called his friend Steinhardt, who founded the Birthright program that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel. Adelson is now the program’s largest funder.“I called Kushner and I said Sheldon would like to meet your father-in-law,” Steinhardt recalled. “Kushner was excited.” Trump got on a plane to Las Vegas. “Sheldon has strong views when it comes to the Jewish people; Trump recognized that, and a marriage was formed.”Trump and his son-in-law Kushner courted Adelson privately, meeting several times in New York and Las Vegas. “Having Orthodox Jews like Jared and Ivanka next to him and so many common people in interest gave a level of comfort to Sheldon,” said Ronn Torossian, a New York public relations executive who knows both men. “Someone who lets their kid marry an Orthodox Jew and then become Orthodox is probably going to stand pretty damn close to Israel.”Miriam Adelson, a physician born and raised in what became Israel, is said to be an equal partner in Sheldon Adelson’s political decisions. He has said the interests of the Jewish state are at the center of his worldview, and his views align with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-of-center approach to Iran and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.Adelson suggested in 2014 that Israel doesn’t need to be a democracy. “I think God didn’t say anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state.” On a trip to the country several years ago, on the eve of his young son’s bar mitzvah, Adelson said, “Hopefully he’ll come back; his hobby is shooting. He’ll come back and be a sniper for the IDF,” referring to the Israel Defense Forces.On domestic issues, Adelson is more Chamber of Commerce Republican than movement conservative or Trumpian populist. He is pro-choice and has called for work permits and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a position sharply at odds with Trump’s. While the Koch brothers, his fellow Republican megadonors, have evinced concern over trade policy and distaste for Trump, Adelson has proved flexible, putting aside any qualms about Trump’s business acumen or ideological misgivings. In May 2016, he declared in a Washington Post op-ed that he was endorsing Trump. He wrote that Trump represented “a CEO success story that exemplifies the American spirit of determination, commitment to cause and business stewardship.”The Adelsons came through with $20 million in donations to the pro-Trump super PAC, part of at least $83 million in donations to Republicans. By the time of the October 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump bragging about sexual assault, Adelson was among his staunchest supporters. “Sheldon Adelson had Donald Trump’s back,” said Steve Bannon in a speech last year, speaking of the time after the scandal broke. “He was there.”In December 2016, Adelson donated $5 million to the Trump inaugural festivities. The Adelsons had better seats at Trump’s inauguration than many Cabinet secretaries. The whole family, including their two college-age sons, came to Washington for the celebration. One of his sons posted a picture on Instagram of the event with the hashtag #HuckFillary.The investment paid off in access and in financial returns. Adelson has met with Trump or visited the White House at least six times since Trump’s election victory. The two speak regularly. Adelson has also had access to others in the White House. He met privately with Vice President Mike Pence before Pence gave a speech at Adelson’s Venetian resort in Las Vegas last year. “He just calls the president all the time. Donald Trump takes Sheldon Adelson’s calls,” said Alan Dershowitz, who has done legal work for Adelson and advised Trump.Adelson’s tens of millions in donations to Trump have already been paid back many times over by the new tax law. While all corporations benefited from the lower tax rate in the new law, many incurred an extra bill in the transition because profits overseas were hit with a one-time tax. But not Sands. Adelson’s company hired lobbyists to press Trump’s Treasury Department and Congress on provisions that would help companies like Sands that paid high taxes abroad, according to public filings and tax experts. The lobbying effort appears to have worked. After Trump signed the tax overhaul into law in December, Las Vegas Sands recorded a benefit from the new law the company estimated at $1.2 billion.The Adelson family owns 55 percent of Las Vegas Sands, which is publicly traded, according to filings. The Treasury Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.Now as Trump and the Republican Party face a reckoning in the midterm elections in November, they have once again turned to Adelson. He has given at least $55 million so far.IN 2014, ADELSON TOLD an interviewer he was not interested in building a dynasty. “I want my legacy to be that I helped out humankind,” he said, underscoring his family’s considerable donations to medical research. But he gives no indication of sticking to a quiet life of philanthropy. In the last four years, he has used the Sands’ fleet of private jets, assiduously meeting with world leaders and seeking to build new casinos in Japan, Korea and Brazil.He is closest in Japan. Japan has been considering lifting its ban on casinos for years, in spite of majority opposition in polls from a public that is wary of the social problems that might result. A huge de facto gambling industry of the pinball-like game pachinko has long existed in the country, historically associated with organized crime and seedy parlors filled with cigarette-smoking men. Opposition to allowing casinos is so heated that a brawl broke out in the Japanese legislature this summer. But lawmakers have moved forward on legalizing casinos and crafted regulations that hew to Adelson’s wishes.“Japan is considered the next big market. Sheldon looks at it that way,” said a former Sands official. Adelson envisions building a $10 billion “integrated resort,” which in industry parlance refers to a large complex featuring a casino with hotels, entertainment venues, restaurants and shopping malls.The new Japanese law allows for just three licenses to build casinos in cities around the country, effectively granting valuable local monopolies. At least 13 companies, including giants like MGM and Genting, are vying for a license. Even though Sands is already a strong contender because of its size and its successful resort in Singapore, some observers in Japan believe Adelson’s relationship with Trump has helped move Las Vegas Sands closer to the multibillion-dollar prize.Just a week after the U.S. election, Prime Minister Abe arrived at Trump Tower, becoming the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were also there. Abe presented Trump with a gilded $3,800 golf driver. Few know the details of what the Trumps and Abe discussed at the meeting. In a break with protocol, Trump’s transition team sidelined the State Department, whose Japan experts were never briefed on what was said. “There was a great deal of frustration,” said one State Department official. “There was zero communication from anyone on Trump’s team.”In another sign of Adelson’s direct access to the incoming president and ties with Japan, he secured a coveted Trump Tower meeting a few weeks later for an old friend, the Japanese billionaire businessman Masayoshi Son. Son’s company, SoftBank, had bought Adelson’s computer trade show business in the 1990s. A few years ago, Adelson named Son as a potential partner in his casino resort plans in Japan. Son’s SoftBank, for its part, owns Sprint, which has long wanted to merge with T-Mobile but needs a green light from the Trump administration. A beaming Son emerged from the meeting in the lobby of Trump Tower with the president-elect and promised $50 billion in investments in the U.S.When Trump won the election in November 2016, the casino bill had been stalled in the Japanese Diet. One month after the Trump-Abe meeting, in an unexpected move in mid-December, Abe’s ruling coalition pushed through landmark legislation authorizing casinos, with specific regulations to be ironed out later. There was minimal debate on the controversial bill, and it passed at the very end of an extraordinary session of the legislature. “That was a surprise to a lot of stakeholders,” said one former Sands executive who still works in the industry. Some observers suspect the timing was not a coincidence. “After Trump won the election in 2016, the Abe government’s efforts to pass the casino bill shifted into high gear,” said Yoichi Torihata, a professor at Shizuoka University and opponent of the casino law.On a Las Vegas Sands earnings call a few days after Trump’s inauguration, Adelson touted that Abe had visited the company’s casino resort complex in Singapore. “He was very impressed with it,” Adelson said. Days later, Adelson attended the February breakfast with Abe in Washington, after which the prime minister went on to Mar-a-Lago, where the president raised Las Vegas Sands. A week after that, Adelson flew to Japan and met with the secretary general of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo.The casino business is one of the most regulated industries in the world, and Adelson has always sought political allies. To enter the business in 1989, he hired the former governor of Nevada to represent him before the state’s gaming commission. In 2001, according to court testimony reported in the New Yorker, Adelson intervened with then-House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, to whom he was a major donor, at the behest of a Chinese official over a proposed House resolution that was critical of the country’s human rights record. At the time, Las Vegas Sands was seeking entry into the Macau market. The resolution died, which Adelson attributed to factors other than his intervention, according to the magazine.In 2015, he purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, which then published a lengthy investigative series on one of Adelson’s longtime rivals, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which runs a convention center that competes with Adelson’s. (The paper said Adelson had no influence over its coverage.)In Japan, Las Vegas Sands’ efforts have accelerated in the last year. Adelson returned to the country in September 2017, visiting top officials in Osaka, a possible casino site. In a show of star power in October, Sands flew in David Beckham and the Eagles’ Joe Walsh for a press conference at the Palace Hotel Tokyo. Beckham waxed enthusiastic about his love of sea urchin and declared, “Las Vegas Sands is creating fabulous resorts all around the world, and their scale and vision are impressive.”Adelson appears emboldened. When he was in Osaka last fall, he publicly criticized a proposal under consideration to cap the total amount of floor space devoted to casinos in the resorts that have been legalized. In July, the Japanese Diet passed a bill with more details on what casinos will look like and laying out the bidding process. The absolute limit on casino floor area had been dropped from the legislation.Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made an unusual personnel move that could help advance pro-gambling interests. The new U.S. ambassador, an early Trump campaign supporter and Tennessee businessman named William Hagerty, hired as his senior adviser an American executive working on casino issues for the Japanese company SEGA Sammy. Joseph Schmelzeis left his role as senior adviser on global government and industry affairs for the company in February to join the U.S. Embassy. (He has not worked for Sands.)A State Department spokesperson said that embassy officials had communicated with Sands as part of “routine” meetings and advice provided to members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. The spokesperson said that “Schmelzeis is not participating in any matter related to integrated resorts or Las Vegas Sands.”Japanese opposition politicians have seized on the Adelson-Trump-Abe nexus. One, Tetsuya Shiokawa, said this year that he believes Trump has been the unseen force behind why Abe’s party has “tailor-made the [casino] bill to suit foreign investors like Adelson.” In the next stage of the process, casino companies will complete their bids with Japanese localities.ADELSON’S INFLUENCE has spread across the Trump administration. In August 2017, the Zionist Organization of America, to which the Adelsons are major donors, launched a campaign against National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. ZOA chief Mort Klein charged McMaster “clearly has animus toward Israel.”Adelson said he was convinced to support the attack on McMaster after Adelson spoke with Safra Catz, the Israeli-born CEO of Oracle, who “enlightened me quite a bit” about McMaster, according to an email Klein later released to the media. Adelson pressed Trump to appoint the hawkish John Bolton to a high position, The New York Times reported. In March, Trump fired McMaster and replaced him with Bolton. The president and other cabinet officials also clashed with McMaster on policy and style issues.For Scott Pruitt, the former EPA administrator known as an ally of industry, courting Adelson meant developing a keen interest in an unlikely topic: technology that generates clean water from air. An obscure Israeli startup called Watergen makes machines that resemble air conditioners and, with enough electricity, can pull potable water from the air.Adelson doesn’t have a stake in the company, but he is old friends with the Israeli-Georgian billionaire who owns the firm, Mikhael Mirilashvili, according to the head of Watergen’s U.S. operation, Yehuda Kaploun. Adelson first encountered the technology on a trip to Israel, Kaploun said. Dershowitz is also on the company’s board.Just weeks after being confirmed, Pruitt met with Watergen executives at Adelson’s request. Pruitt promptly mobilized dozens of EPA officials to ink a research deal under which the agency would study Watergen’s technology. EPA officials immediately began voicing concerns about the request, according to hundreds of previously unreported emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They argued that the then-EPA chief was violating regular procedures.Pruitt, according to one email, asked that staffers explore “on an expedited time frame” whether a deal could be done “without the typical contracting requirements.” Other emails described the matter as “very time sensitive” and having “high Administrator interest.”A veteran scientist at the agency warned that the “technology has been around for decades,” adding that the agency should not be “focusing on a single vendor, in this case Watergen.” Officials said that Watergen’s technology was not unique, noting there were as many as 70 different suppliers on the market with products using the same concept. Notes from a meeting said the agency “does not currently have the expertise or staff to evaluate these technologies.” Agency lawyers “seemed scared” about the arrangement, according to an internal text exchange. The EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment.Watergen got its research deal. It’s not known how much money the agency has spent on the project. The technology was shipped to a lab in Cincinnati, and Watergen said the government will produce a report on its study. Pruitt planned to unveil the deal on a trip to Israel, which was also planned with the assistance of Adelson, The Washington Post reported. But amid multiple scandals, the trip never happened.Other parts of the Trump administration have also been friendly to Watergen. Over the summer, Mirilashvili attended the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s Fourth of July party, where he was photographed grinning and sipping water next to one of the company’s machines on display. Kaploun said U.S. Ambassador David Friedman’s staff assisted the company to help highlight its technology.A State Department spokesperson said Watergen was one of many private sponsors of the embassy party and was “subject to rigorous vetting.” The embassy is now considering leasing or buying a Watergen unit as part of a “routine procurement action,” the spokesperson said.A Mirilashvili spokesman said in a statement that Adelson and Mirilashvili “have no business ties with each other.” The spokesman added that Adelson had been briefed on the company’s technology by Watergen engineers and “Adelson has also expressed an interest in the ability of this Israeli technology to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who are affected by water pollution.”EVEN AS THE CASINO business looks promising in Japan, China has been a potential trouble spot for Adelson. Few businesses are as vulnerable to geopolitical winds as Adelson’s. The majority of Sands’ value derives from its properties in Macau. It is the world’s gambling capital, and China’s central government controls it.“Sheldon Adelson highly values direct engagement in Beijing,” a 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks says, “especially given the impact of Beijing’s visa policies on the company’s growing mass market operations in Macau.”At times, Sands’ aggressive efforts in China crossed legal lines. On Jan. 19, 2017, the day before Trump took office, the Justice Department announced Sands was paying a nearly $7 million fine to settle a longstanding investigation into whether it violated a U.S. anti-bribery statute in China. The case revealed that Sands paid roughly $60 million to a consultant who “advertised his political connections with [People’s Republic of China] government officials” and that some of the payments “had no discernible legitimate business purpose.” Part of the work involved an effort by Sands to acquire a professional basketball team in the country to promote its casinos. The DOJ said Sands fully cooperated in the investigation and fixed its compliance problems.A year and a half into the Trump administration, Adelson has a bigger problem than the Justice Department investigation: Trump’s trade war against Beijing has put Sands’ business in Macau at risk. Sands’ right to operate expires in a few years. Beijing could throttle the flow of money and people from the mainland to Macau. Sands and the other foreign operators in Macau “now sit on a geopolitical fault line. Their Macau concessions can therefore be on the line,” said a report from the Hong Kong business consultancy Steve Vickers & Associates.A former Sands board member, George Koo, wrote a column in the Asia Times newspaper in April warning that Beijing could undercut the Macau market by legalizing casinos in the southern island province of Hainan. “A major blow in the trade war would be for China to allow Hainan to become a gambling destination and divert visitors who would otherwise be visiting Macau,” Koo wrote. “As one of Trump’s principal supporters, it’s undoubtedly a good time for Mr. Adelson to have a private conversation with the president.”It’s not clear if Adelson has had that conversation. According to The Associated Press, Adelson was present for a discussion of China policy at the dinner he attended with Trump at the White House in February 2017. In September, Trump escalated his trade war with China. He raised tariffs on $200 billion Chinese imports. China retaliated with tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. products.Adelson has said privately that if he can be helpful in any way he would volunteer himself to do whatever is asked for either side of the equation — the U.S. or China, according to a person who has spoken to him.TOROSSIAN, the public relations executive, calls Adelson “this generation’s Rothschild” for his support of Israel. In early May, the Adelsons gave $30 million to the super PAC that is seeking to keep Republican control of the House for the remainder of Trump’s term. A few days later, Trump announced he was killing the Iran nuclear deal, a target of Adelson’s and the Netanyahu government’s for years. The following day, Adelson met with the president at the White House.Five days later, Adelson was in Israel for another landmark, the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem marked a major shift in U.S. foreign policy, long eschewed by presidents of both parties. Besides dealing a major blow to Palestinian claims on part of the city, which are recognized by most of the world, it was the culmination of a more than 20-year project of the Adelsons. Sheldon and Miriam personally lobbied for the move on Capitol Hill as far back as 1995.In an audience dotted with yarmulkes and MAGA-red hats, the Adelsons were in the front now, next to Netanyahu and his wife, the Kushners and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. A beaming Miriam, wearing a dress featuring an illustration of the Jerusalem skyline, filmed the event with her phone. She wrote a first-person account of the ceremony that was co-published on the front page of the two newspapers the Adelsons own, Israel Hayom and the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “The embassy opening is a crowning moment for U.S. foreign policy and for our president, Donald Trump. Just over a year into his first term, he has re-enshrined the United States as the standard-bearer of moral clarity and courage in a world that too often feels adrift.”Adelson paid for the official delegation of Guatemala, the only other country to move its embassy, to travel to Israel. “Sheldon told me that any country that wants to move its embassy to Jerusalem, he’ll fly them in — the president and everyone — for the opening,” said Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce CEO Duvi Honig, who was in attendance.Klein, the Zionist Organization of America president, was also there. The Adelsons, he said, “were glowing with a serene happiness like I’ve never seen them. Sheldon said to me, ‘President Trump promised he would do this and he did it.’ And he almost became emotional. ‘And look, Mort, he did it.’”Do you have information about Sheldon Adelson and the Trump administration? Reach Justin at justin@propublica.org or on Signal at (774) 826-6240.
Coming Thursday: How an Acclaimed American Charity Failed Some of the World’s Most Vulnerable Girls
by ProPublica Katie Meyler captivated Americans with the stories of girls she met in Monrovia, Liberia, who she said were so poor that they had to sell their bodies just to buy clean drinking water. Her social media followers gave her money to send them to school. She started a charity called More Than Me, and in 2012 she won $1 million live on NBC to build a school of her own. Her charity was created to save these vulnerable girls from sexual exploitation. But from the very beginning, girls were being raped by a man Meyler trusted. He was a former child soldier, the charity’s first staff member and, at one point, Meyler’s lover. After a yearlong ProPublica investigation, reporter Finlay Young delves into the question of who is responsible when those who help also cause enduring and irreversible harm.The story and an accompanying documentary will publish on Oct. 11, in partnership with Time magazine. Sign up below and we'll email it to you when it goes live. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news.
Let Us Know About Voting Problems During the Midterm Elections
by ProPublica The election is only 28 days away. If you’re planning to vote, either on Nov. 6 or during your state’s early voting period, we need you to be our eyes and ears as we look for voting problems across the country. We’re on the lookout for any problems that prevent people from voting — such as long lines, registration problems, purged voter rolls, broken machines, voter intimidation and changed voting locations. To let us know how your voting experience went or to tell us if you encountered anything that stopped you or others from casting a ballot, here’s how to sign up:
The Hidden Money Funding the Midterms
by Derek Willis, ProPublica, and Maggie Severns, Politico Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a blind spot in campaign finance laws to undercut a candidate from their own party this year — and their fingerprints remained hidden until the primary was already over.Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money in elections, are supposed to regularly disclose their funders. But in the case of Mountain Families PAC, Republicans managed to spend $1.3 million against Don Blankenship, a mustachioed former coal baron who was a wild-card candidate for a must-win West Virginia Senate seat, in May without revealing who was supplying the cash. The move worked like this: Start a new super PAC after a deadline for reporting donors and expenses, then raise and spend money before the next report is due. Timed right, a super PAC might get a month or more undercover before being required to reveal its donors. And if a super PAC launches right before the election, voters won’t know who’s funding it until after they go to the polls.The strategy — which is legal — is proving increasingly popular among Democrats and Republicans. The amount of super PAC spending during the 2016 congressional primaries in which the first donor disclosure occurred after the primary election totaled $9 million. That figure increased to $15.6 million during the 2018 congressional primaries and special elections.Backers of Mountain Families PAC didn’t respond to a request for comment. It is one of 63 super PACs this election cycle that have managed to spend money to influence races and postpone telling voters who funded them, according to an analysis by Politico and ProPublica of Federal Election Commission data.Voters bear much of the cost when they head to the polls without information on who funded a PAC that tried to sway their votes, said Meredith McGehee, executive director at the nonpartisan watchdog group Issue One.“The whole idea behind disclosure is that one of the factors that voters can, and understandably should, take into account in judging the message is who the messenger is,” McGehee said. In total, super PACs have spent at least $21.6 million this cycle in 78 congressional races before disclosing who donated that money — $15.7 million of it during primary races. In many cases, that disclosure came after voters had gone to the polls. Super PACs were created after the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision ruled that people and corporations had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures such as funding ads or mailers, but that they couldn’t hide that spending from the public.But while they can’t keep donors secret forever, super PACs are increasingly figuring out methods of temporarily masking donor identities that are either legal or fall into gray areas that rarely attract regulators’ attention. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. One tactic is the one Mountain Families PAC used, which is likely to be replicated for the general election. A new super PAC that starts between Oct. 18 and Nov. 6 could spend money right before Election Day without having to disclose its donors until after the midterm results are tallied. (There are 11 super PACs that together have spent at least $5.8 million since the primaries but should begin disclosing their donors on Oct. 15, when the next FEC filing is due.)Another involves going into debt to pay for advertising and other campaign-related activities, and fundraising later to pay off those debts. A super PAC that does this would not have to disclose donors until well after the money is spent.In the case of Mountain Families PAC, Blankenship was increasingly popular among the state’s anti-Washington set. So D.C. Republicans behind the PAC avoided disclosing they were behind ads attacking Blankenship — “Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” asked one of them — until after the primary.Then they revealed their identity and dissolved the super PAC entirely.Here are more examples of PACs that have delayed disclosing their donors this cycle — and how they did it: As Republican Martha McSally battled two opponents in the Arizona Senate primary, a super PAC called Red and Gold spent $1.7 million attacking McSally, airing television ads that said McSally had supported an “age tax” on older people’s health insurance. But shortly after filing its initial paperwork with the FEC, Red and Gold notified the commission it was going to file on a monthly basis, which meant its first disclosure wasn’t due until Sept. 20, three weeks after the primary election.When Red and Gold finally disclosed its funders, it was revealed that Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, was the main funder of Red and Gold and had meddled in the primary in an attempt to hurt McSally’s chances of victory and boost a weaker Republican. Chris Hayden, spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, said that “Senate Majority PAC and Red and Gold have followed the FEC reporting schedule and follow the law governing super PACs.” A super PAC called Ohio First PAC has been in operation since the start of April and has spent $774,822 helping Republican Jim Renacci in the Ohio Senate race. But it has only disclosed raising $79,200 from donors. Instead of disclosing donations, Ohio First’s filings with the FEC show the committee has hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to vendors for advertising and mailers, and almost no fundraising yet. The PAC did not respond to a request for comment.The FEC has sent the PAC two letters about possible late filings for some of its spending; the committee said in correspondence in August that it is working to resolve any issues. During the week leading up to a seven-way Democratic primary in Illinois in March, a super PAC called SunshinePAC blitzed the battleground 6th Congressional District with $130,000 in mailers and phone calls. Because it started spending money so late in the race, SunshinePAC didn’t have to reveal its donors before the primary.But nearly a month after the election, SunshinePAC revealed its lone funder: Tom Casten, the father of primary contender Sean Casten — raising questions about whether the super PAC was really independent from the campaign. By then, Sean Casten had eked out a victory in the primary by 2,177 votes.Tom Casten said in an interview that “there was no effort or conversation about reporting in the delayed form” when he gave to SunshinePAC, and that “I certainly didn’t ask for it.” Greg Bales, campaign manager for Casten for Congress, said in an email that “as with any outside group, there was no coordination between Sean or the campaign and that group on their spending or disclosure practices.” SunshinePAC did not respond to a request for comment.
Election Experts: We Need You
by Jessica Huseman Electionland is gearing up for the midterms, and we’re looking for experts in election administration and election law to be part of an expert database. We’d love to have you participate. Our goal is to ground real-time coverage of elections in fact and context — you could be a huge part of helping us achieve it. Electionland 2016 was the largest-ever collaborative journalism project around a single event, with more than 1,000 journalists and technologists participating. We covered the voting experience on Election Day — from long lines to equipment failures to voter intimidation. We sifted through thousands of call-center records, social media posts and text messages, referring real problems to local journalists who covered the issues in real time. You can read an entire case study about it here.We seek to do the same thing for the midterms. We’ll have election administration experts present in our newsroom all day, but they can’t do everything or speak to all local problems. So, we’re seeking to build a database of expert sources who are willing to take phone calls from local and national journalists during early voting and on Election Day. You can tell us what area your expertise is in and if you have any specific knowledge of states or counties. This will allow us to help journalists reach the right person to speak to about any problem voters may face.We want to hear from anybody interested in working with us, but we’re especially interested in finding more conservatives with election expertise to participate. Issues around voting can be politically charged, but we don’t take sides. As journalists, we believe the only way to get the facts right are to make sure we’re talking to people from across the spectrum.How much time will this take?Not much! For short stories, it will involve quick phone calls with journalists. For short stories, it will involve quick phone calls with journalists. You might get more calls if lots of tips are generated in your area of expertise, and fewer if not. If you ever feel overwhelmed or would prefer to get fewer calls, you can let us know.What information do you need from me?Fill out this short Google form.What do I get out of this?Our goal is to cover election issues quickly enough for them to be fixed while people are still voting. We saw this happen in 2016, and we’re confident we’ll see it again this time around. You’ll get to be part of helping journalists responsibly cover elections with an eye toward empowering voters.
New Partnership Will Help Us Hold Facebook and Campaigns Accountable
by Jeremy B. Merrill We launched a new collaboration on Monday that will make it even easier to be part of our Facebook Political Ad Collector project.In case you don’t know, the Political Ad Collector is a project to gather targeted political advertising on Facebook through a browser extension installed by thousands of users across the country. Those users, whose data is gathered completely anonymously, help us build a database of micro-targeted political ads that help us hold Facebook and campaigns accountable.On Monday, Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, is launching the Firefox Election Bundle, a special election-oriented version of the browser. It comes pre-installed with ProPublica’s Facebook Political Ad Collector and with an extension Mozilla created called Facebook Container. Updated: Facebook Political Ad Collector See how political advertisers target you. Use this database to search for political ads based on who was meant to see them. The Facebook Container, according to Mozilla, helps users control what data Facebook collects about their browsing habits when they visit sites other than Facebook.People who choose to download the Firefox Election Bundle will automatically begin participating in the Facebook Political Ad Collector project and will also benefit from the extra privacy controls that come with the Facebook Container project. The regular version of Firefox is, of course, still available.Think of it as turning the tables. Instead of Facebook watching you, you can maintain control over what Facebook can see while helping keep an eye on Facebook’s ads.You can download the Firefox Election Bundle here.If you use Firefox and already have the Facebook Political Ad Collector installed, you can install Mozilla’s Facebook Container add-on here.If you want to find out more about the Facebook Political Ad Collector project, you can read this story or browse the ads we’ve already collected.
Texas Panel Faults Lab Chemist in Bryan Case for “Overstated Findings” and Inadequate DNA Analysis
by Pamela Colloff An influential state commission issued a highly critical assessment on Friday of a second key player in the murder conviction of Joe Bryan, saying a Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab chemist had “overstated findings, exceeded her expertise and engaged in speculation” when she testified in 1989.In a report issued at its quarterly meeting, the Texas Forensic Science Commission also found that the now-retired chemist, Patricia Retzlaff, failed to do thorough analysis of key DNA evidence in 2012, after a judge allowed such testing.The report marks the second time in just three months that the commission, a national leader in forensic science reform, has highlighted serious flaws in the prosecution of Bryan, a former high school principal who has now spent more than 30 years in prison over the murder of his wife, Mickey, a fourth-grade grade teacher in Clifton, Texas. In July, the commission found that the blood-spatter analysis used to convict Bryan was erroneous. Among the items that were not fully analyzed was a cigarette butt that was discovered at the crime scene. The defense has long contended that the cigarette butt is proof that someone other than the Bryans, who did not smoke, entered their home on the night of the crime. (The case’s lead investigator claimed that he accidentally tracked it into the home on the heel of his boot.) The commission noted that were was “ample DNA extract remaining” which could be analyzed.Troubled by these discoveries, the commission urged Texas DPS, the state’s top law enforcement agency, to review a broader sample of Retzlaff’s work “to assess whether similar observations regarding testimony and thoroughness of analysis are present in other cases.”Brady Mills, who heads the state crime lab, declined to comment, but the lab routinely follows the commission’s recommendations.Retzlaff worked at the state’s regional crime lab in Waco for more than three decades, from 1981 to 2012. The lab analyzes forensic evidence for law enforcement agencies throughout the 18-county area that lies between Dallas and Austin. Texas DPS declined to comment on how many cases Retzlaff had worked on, or testified about, during that time.Retzlaff, who performed serology and trace evidence analysis in the Bryan case in the mid-1980s, as well as post-conviction DNA analysis in 2012, did not return calls for comment.Bryan was the subject of a two-part investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine in May that questioned the accuracy of the bloodstain-pattern analysis used to convict him, as well as the training of the experts who testify in such cases. In July, the commission found that the blood-spatter analysis used to convict Bryan was “not accurate or scientifically supported” and the expert who testified was “entirely wrong.”The bloodstain-pattern analyst in the case, Robert Thorman, conceded in an affidavit last month that some of his conclusions in the case were wrong.The commission’s report, which reiterated its findings about the flawed blood-spatter testimony, revealed that the deficiencies in the forensic case against Bryan are more extensive than were initially known.The commission found that Retzlaff — then known as Patricia Almanza — made numerous speculative or unscientific assertions at Bryan’s 1989 trial, some of which bolstered the prosecution’s case. Among them:
4 Questions to Ask When Comparing Midterm Candidates
by Cynthia Gordy Giwa This year’s midterms are getting more attention than usual, with high stakes for both parties. You’ve probably seen a fair amount of “horse race” coverage focusing on competition between rival candidates while downplaying policies and platforms. But if you know how to read these stories, it helps you understand what’s at stake for you and can even inform your own political participation. (Get more information like this by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.)Think about it this way: The campaigns themselves are constantly watching certain signals — polls, fundraising, public opinion — to understand what’s going on in their races. They want to know, “What should we do next if we want to win this election?” And they adjust their tactics accordingly.You have the power to adjust your actions, too.See below for the important questions you should be asking yourself as we get closer to the midterms.1. How competitive is your district?The Cook Political Report provides real-time analysis on whether your current representative will have an easy time hanging onto their seat or if a challenger has a shot at defeating them.The Cook Report is a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes federal elections and campaigns — watching polls, tracking fundraising and outside spending, and talking to the campaigns and candidates — in order to assign a daily rating on the competitiveness of each race:
The Cost of the Office? Trump’s Billion-Dollar Loss — “Trump, Inc.” Podcast Extra
by ProPublica Nearly 20 years ago, Donald Trump told Fortune magazine that he could run for president and make money doing it.“It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,” he said in an interview in 2000.But now that he’s president, the story is looking a bit different. A new report from Forbes concluded that the presidency has not enriched Trump overall: Measuring Trump’s net worth before he announced his run for the presidency in 2015 to the last two years, Trump’s fortune has dropped from $4.5 billion to $3.1 billion.In a statement to the magazine, Eric Trump, who is co-managing the Trump Organization, said: “My father made a tremendous sacrifice when he left a company that he spent his entire life building to go into politics. Everything he does is for the good” of the American people. Listen to the Episode In this “Trump, Inc.” extra, Charlie Herman talks with one of the Forbes reporters who looked into Trump’s finances, Dan Alexander, and how Trump could have saved millions (and prevented a lot of headaches as well).Listen the episode here.You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.You can always email us at tips@trumpincpodcast.org.And finally, you can use the postal service:Trump Inc at ProPublica
Illinoisans on Illinois: Tips and Tales From Around the State
by Logan Jaffe Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. I’m back from my most recent reporting trip to southern Illinois. Last week, I wrote about some things I’ve learned from getting out of Chicago and getting to know our state, and I asked you to write with suggestions for places to go and stories to look into.Thanks for writing back. I heard from people like state Sen. Jil Tracy, a Republican from Quincy, who wrote to say she appreciated the East St. Louis lunch tip, and Les Dart of Crawford County, who invited me to the Illinois Oil Field Museum’s “Old-Timer” Reunion in Oblong, east of Effingham.I plan to compile the information from your emails — keep them coming, by the way — into a resource our newsroom can use while reporting around the state. Here are a few more tips you sent our way, lightly edited:Lindsay Welbers, from DePue, relayed a story about a dilemma that almost grounded the American Power Boat Association races, held on Lake DePue, eight years ago:
How Much Money Is Being Spent in the Illinois Governor’s Race?
by ProPublica The 2018 race for Illinois governor could be the most expensive in U.S. history. With election day coming up Nov. 6, the two major candidates have already raised a combined quarter billion dollars since 2015.Recent campaign figures, as of Oct. 4, reveal Democrat JB Pritzker has raised nearly $149 million, while current Gov. Bruce Rauner, the Republican incumbent, has raised about $106 million.There are still millions left to spend. As of the end of June, Pritzker had spent $88.5 million, while Rauner had spent about $72 million of his campaign funds.To track this money circus, ProPublica Illinois is continuing to track the latest fundraising information to help understand this unprecedented money race: Loading...You can also embed this widget for free. Get Email Updates from ProPublica Illinois Dive deeper into our reporting. Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois journalist every week. Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday.
ProPublica, New York Times Magazine and Harvard Law’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Present “How Bad Science Is Corrupting the Justice System”
by ProPublica On Oct. 25, ProPublica, Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and The New York Times Magazine will present “How Bad Science Is Corrupting the Justice System.” This in-depth discussion will look at faulty forensic testimony in the courtroom and its devastating consequences, as well as efforts around the country that show the potential for reform.ProPublica, in partnership with The New York Times Magazine, has traced how one forensic discipline — bloodstain-pattern analysis — has become entrenched in our legal system despite grave questions about its accuracy. Published in May, the series “Blood Will Tell” explored how a Texas man was convicted of murder using bloodstain pattern-analysis that has been called into question, and it showed that his case is but one of many troubling examples of faulty forensics subverting justice.In 2009, a National Academy of Sciences report sounded the alarm about a number of forensic disciplines, including the analysis of blood, hairs, bite marks, shoe and tire impressions, handwriting and even fingerprints. Despite calls for widespread reform, many of these disciplines remain fixtures of the American legal system. Faulty forensic science is the second-most common contributing factor to wrongful convictions, found in nearly half of DNA exoneration cases.At “How Bad Science Is Corrupting the Justice System,” Houston Institute legal fellow Katy Naples-Mitchell will moderate a conversation with Nicole Cásarez, board director of the Houston Forensic Science Center, one of the nation’s few crime labs that is overseen by civilians, not police; ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine writer at large Pamela Colloff, who wrote the series, “Blood Will Tell”; Harvard Law School senior lecturer and former judge Nancy Gertner, one of the few American judges who has spoken out about the urgent need for forensic science reform; and Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, who helped lead the charge to enact Massachusetts’ new forensic science commission.Details:Thursday, Oct. 25
Another Court Ruling Against a West Virginia Pipeline, Then Another Effort to Change the Rules
by Ken Ward Jr. and Kate Mishkin, The Charleston Gazette-Mail Time and again, opponents have tried to delay a natural gas pipeline that would stretch from Northern West Virginia to Southern Virginia, using lawsuits to stall permit approvals or construction.And time and again, state and federal regulators have stepped in to remove such hurdles, even if it has meant rewriting their own rules.Now, the process looks to be repeating itself.On Tuesday, a federal appeals court blocked a key permit for Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile natural gas project that’s known as MVP. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrongly approved a permit that allowed MVP to temporarily dam four of West Virginia’s rivers so the pipeline can be buried beneath the streambeds. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email But rather than pausing or rethinking the project, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has already been rewriting the state construction standards for pipeline river crossings that prompted the appeals court to block the plan.Once that happens, MVP will apply for a new Clean Water Act permit, which it expects to secure in early 2019, said Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the pipeline’s developers. Developers still expect the pipeline to be in service by the fourth quarter of 2019, she said.“MVP is committed to the safety of its communities, to the preservation and protection of the environment, and to the continued responsible construction of this important natural gas infrastructure project that will serve homes and business in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast United States,” Cox said in a statement. The ruling against the pipeline and the effort to change the rules mirrors a review by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in collaboration with ProPublica, which found that, over the past two years, federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws have moved repeatedly to clear roadblocks and expedite the pipeline, even changing the rules at times to ease the project’s approvals.The stakes are high for West Virginia’s natural gas industry, which is booming and needs pipelines to move its product to East Coast and Southern cities. The issues also loom large for state residents who worry that West Virginia’s drive to encourage natural gas growth poses threats to the environment and their communities.Last month, MVP developers said the cost of the project had risen from $3.7 billion to $4.6 billion, and they blamed about half of that increase on litigation-related delays.Projects like MVP require a variety of permits before they can be built. Developers and regulators are supposed to study alternatives, articulate a clear need for the project and outline steps to minimize damage to the environment. In numerous instances, though, officials have allowed the pipeline to go ahead despite serious unanswered questions, the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica found after examining government documents and court records.Tuesday’s ruling by the 4th Circuit focused on one such move by regulators, a change in guidelines for river crossings needed for four significant West Virginia rivers: Elk, Greenbrier, Meadow and Gauley.The river crossings involve each river being dammed and excavated — sometimes with blasting — so that the 42-inch-diameter pipeline can be buried beneath the streambed.This work requires a Clean Water Act “dredge-and-fill” permit from the Corps of Engineers. If the construction isn’t handled properly, sediment can increase in the water, oxygen can decrease and aquatic habitat can be harmed. Because of those concerns, state officials put in place a 72-hour limit for completing these kinds of stream crossings when they approved the use of a streamlined Corps review process that MVP used.MVP developers said each stream crossing would take four to six weeks to complete. Nonetheless, despite the 72-hour limit set by the state, the Corps approved the pipeline permit anyway, using the streamlined process that saved the developers time, money and scrutiny.The Sierra Club, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and other groups sued and, in June, the 4th Circuit issued a stay of the Corps-approved permit. The stay prompted a late-night news release from Gov. Jim Justice, who said his Department of Environmental Protection would “continue to monitor these proceedings closely to determine what role the state may play in expediting the construction of this pipeline.”Then, in July, the Corps rewrote its approval of the pipeline to essentially waive the 72-hour limit imposed by the DEP on the river crossing construction. Agency lawyers said the alternative of digging a trench for the pipeline, without diverting water flow, would cause more environmental damage. Citizen groups said the agencies could instead push for MVP to use a more conventional method to bore under the rivers, perhaps reducing the effects.Last Friday, a three-judge panel of the appeals court heard arguments in the case, and then, on Tuesday, issued a ruling. The unanimous panel said its reasons would be “more fully explained” in a forthcoming opinion, but in a three-page order offered some clues as to its thinking.The order said the Corps “lacked authority to substitute” one construction method for the 72-hour restriction issued by the DEP. But the DEP is pushing to exempt the stream-crossing method proposed by Mountain Valley Pipeline developers from its 72-hour limit, essentially changing the conditions it had earlier attached to the Clean Water Act permit. The agency is now reviewing public comments submitted by a mid-September deadline.Kelly Martin, director of the Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign at the Sierra Club, which opposes the pipeline, urged the DEP not to follow through on those changes.“This isn’t a goal-post-moving moment,” Martin said. “[The] DEP needs to end this game and do its job. Full stop.”MVP developers submitted a letter in support of the changes. The West Virginia Rivers Coalition opposed the changes, and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a nonprofit law firm that represents citizen groups, argued that the DEP’s move is illegal.DEP spokesman Jake Glance said that, although his agency is not a party to the lawsuit before the appeals court, it is “evaluating the ruling and will review the court’s opinion when it is released and respond accordingly.”Corps spokesman Brian Maka declined to comment until the full 4th Circuit opinion is released.As the court case has played out, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been acting to keep MVP construction moving.On July 27, a panel of judges on the 4th Circuit vacated two construction permits, from the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, saying Americans “deserve more than silent acquiescence to a pipeline company’s justification for upending large swaths of national forestlands.” Environmental groups considered the decision a victory, and the FERC ordered construction to stop.The next week, MVP developers asked for and received permission from the FERC to continue work on the first 77 miles in Northern West Virginia, with the exception of a 7-mile stretch near the Weston and Gauley Bridge Turnpike Trail.By the end of August, the FERC had granted MVP permission to work on the rest of the pipeline, except for near the Weston and Gauley Bridge Turnpike and Jefferson National Forest, over the objections of FERC Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick.“We have significant concerns with today’s decision to allow construction to resume while required right-of-way and temporary use permits remain outstanding,” Glick and LaFleur wrote in a joint statement Aug. 29.
You Don’t Earn Much and You’re Being Audited by the IRS. Now What?
by Paul Kiel The Internal Revenue Service audited nearly 1.1 million tax returns last year, but that represented just 0.5 percent of all returns. That means the chances of getting audited are fairly low.But if you are audited, there’s a good chance it’s because you claimed the earned income tax credit. That’s a credit the federal government offers to people who work, have kids to take care of and don’t earn much money. Most households who claim it earn between $10,000 and $40,000 a year. The average credit is for $2,400, but it can go above $6,000 for larger families.The IRS audits a lot of people who claim this credit. When that happens, the IRS blocks the refund. Some people may actually end up owing tax instead of getting a refund.Below is an actual audit notice sent to a taxpayer last year, which was provided to us by the taxpayer’s legal aid attorney. We’ve annotated it to provide important context and added links to helpful resources for those facing an IRS audit.
The Business of Silence — “Trump, Inc.” Podcast
by Eric Umansky President Donald Trump has had many roles in his life: Real estate scion, reality show star, Oval Office holder. But through it all, one thing has remained consistent. He works to keep people silent.In the latest episode of “Trump, Inc.,” our podcast with WNYC, we’re looking at the ways Trump has tried to buy and enforce silence — and how it matters more than ever now that he’s president. We talk to The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow about just one of the tactics used by those helping the president: the “catch and kill.” Listen to the Episode You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.You can always email us at tips@trumpincpodcast.org.And finally, you can use the postal service:Trump Inc at ProPublica
Four Men Arrested Over Unrest During 2017 “Unite the Right” Rally
by Rahima Nasa Federal prosecutors on Tuesday announced they had arrested four members or associates of the Rise Above Movement, a white supremacist group, over their alleged role in the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.The four men were charged with having traveled to Charlottesville with the aim of inciting a riot and conspiracy to incite a riot, and prosecutors submitted an array of photographs and videos capturing the men pummeling and choking protesters over two days.If convicted, the men — Benjamin Drake Daley, 25, of Redondo Beach, California; Thomas Walter Gillen, 34, of Redondo Beach; Michael Paul Miselis, 29, of Lawndale, California; and Cole Evan White, 24, of Clayton, California — could face five years in prison for each of two federal riot charges. White has been described as an associate of the group, not a member.Most of the men charged on Tuesday have been the subject of reporting by ProPublica and Frontline over the last year. RAM, based in Southern California, claimed more than 50 members in 2017 and an overriding purpose: physically attacking its ideological foes. Its members spend weekends training in boxing and other martial arts, and they have boasted publicly of their violence during rallies — not just in Charlottesville, but in the California cities of Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and Berkeley, as well. Many of the altercations have been captured on video. The charges announced Tuesday are among a number of prosecutions to stem from the notorious Charlottesville gathering that resulted in two days of mayhem and the death of a young anti-racism activist. The charges brought today are unrelated to the death.Local prosecutors have also brought charges against a handful of other participants in the Charlottesville rally, successfully convicting several men, including activists on both sides of the clashes. And federal authorities have indicted neo-Nazi James Alex Fields, the man accused of killing counterprotester Heather Heyer and injuring more than two dozen others, on some 30 charges, including 28 counts of hate crime.“This case should serve as another example of the Department of Justice’s commitment to protecting the life, liberty and civil rights of all our citizens,” U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen said Tuesday. “Any individual who has or plans to travel to this district with the intent to engage in acts of violence will be prosecuted and held accountable for those actions.”Cullen cited ProPublica and Frontline’s reporting during a news conference Tuesday.“The news organization ProPublica did in my view a fantastic job in piecing together some of the organized activities that occurred on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12, and the work that they did was certainly reviewed by our office as a starting point to understand a little bit about this particular group,” he said. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. One of those arrested, Miselis, was a doctoral student at UCLA with a U.S. government security clearance to work on sensitive research for a prominent defense contractor. He was let go by the contractor, Northrop Grumman, after ProPublica and Frontline identified him as a RAM member who had attacked people in Charlottesville. At the time, Miselis denied involvement in the violent weekend two summers ago.RAM was founded in early 2017 by Robert Rundo, a Queens, New York, native who served an 18-month prison sentence for stabbing a rival gang member six times during a 2009 street fight. The group’s core membership is small — 15 to 20 young men, according to interviews and a review of court records. Before joining RAM, several members spent time in jail or state prison on serious felony charges including assault, robbery, and gun and knife offenses. Daley served seven days in jail for carrying a concealed snub-nosed revolver. Another RAM member served a prison term for stabbing a Latino man five times in a 2009 gang assault. A RAM recruiting video posted to YouTube and Vimeo highlights the organization’s heavy emphasis on violence, cutting between choppy footage of RAM members brawling at public events and carefully shot scenes of them sharpening their boxing skills and doing push-ups during group workout sessions.RAM members are frequently praised as heroes on some white supremacist media outletsThe group portrays itself as a defense force for a white Western civilization under assault by Jews, Muslims and brown-skinned immigrants from south of the Rio Grande. At rallies, members have waved red-and-white crusader flags and carried signs saying “Rapefugees Not Welcome” and “Da Goyim Know,” an anti-Semitic slogan meant to highlight a supposed conspiracy by Jews to control the globe and subjugate non-Jews. One RAM banner, which depicts knights on horseback chasing after Muslims, reads “Islamists Out!”ProPublica interviewed one RAM leader last year on the condition of anonymity. He said the gang came together organically. It started when he encountered a few other guys with similar political beliefs, including two active-duty U.S. Marines, while exercising at different gyms in Southern California. They all liked President Donald Trump but didn’t think his agenda went far enough.On social media channels, RAM members regularly espouse blatantly anti-Semitic and racist views. They have repeatedly been booted from Instagram and Twitter for offensive postings. This year, four RAM members attended a massive neo-Nazi rally in Germany, which was held on Hitler’s birthday, uploading photos and videos from the trip to social media.A criminal complaint filed in federal court Tuesday cited the group’s racist and anti-Semitic postings online in support of the arrests.Prosecutors said the four men will be brought to Virginia next week to be arraigned on the charges.It was not clear on Tuesday whether the men had yet retained lawyers.“This wasn’t in our view the lawful exercise of First Amendment rights,” Cullen said. “These guys came to Charlottesville to commit violent acts, and this wasn’t the first time they’ve done it.”Cullen said that charging the men with inciting a riot and conspiracy to incite a riot was more appropriate and likely effective than arresting them on hate crime charges.Cullen said there are other ongoing investigations, but he would not say more about them.There’s a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who has done nothing else but look into these investigations since Aug. 12, according to Cullen.“We’re not finished,” Cullen said. “We’re going to continue these investigations until we reach a point where we’re satisfied that our federal interests have been vindicated.”
Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Chief Executive Resigns From Merck’s Board of Directors
by Katie Thomas, The New York Times, and Charles Ornstein, ProPublica Dr. Craig B. Thompson, the chief executive of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said Tuesday that he would resign his seats on the boards of drugmaker Merck and another public company, the latest fallout from a widening institutional reckoning over relationships between cancer center leaders and for-profit health care companies.Thompson has served on the board of Merck, the maker of the blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda, since 2008. He has been on the board of Charles River Laboratories, a publicly traded company that assists research in early drug development, since 2013. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email Thompson, who is 65, received $300,000 in compensation from Merck in 2017, according to company financial filings. He was paid $70,000 in cash by Charles River in 2017, plus $215,050 in stock.The compensation for the two corporate boards is in addition to what he is paid as chief executive at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the nonprofit institution that is one of the nation’s leading cancer center. In 2016, he received $6.7 million in total compensation from the hospital and related organizations, according to the most recent Internal Revenue Service filings.The resignations are effective immediately. A spokesman for the hospital said the compensation he received from both companies this year would be deferred until he is 72.“I believe this is the right decision for Memorial Sloan Kettering and will allow me to redouble my focus on MSK priorities: quality patient care, faculty, scientists and staff,” Thompson said in a memo sent to the hospital staff. He has been the chief executive of the hospital since 2010.The move followed two tense meetings at the hospital on Monday, spurred by articles by The New York Times and ProPublica, about insider deals among hospital officials and undisclosed industry relationships.At one meeting with hospital staff, Thompson apologized for his handling of staff reaction to the issues outlined in the articles, and acknowledged that he had not adequately reined in the industry relationships of the hospital’s former chief medical officer, Dr. José Baselga, who has since resigned.At another meeting, reserved for medical staff members, some doctors said they were interested in calling a no-confidence vote in the hospital’s top leaders, and asked what steps they needed to take to do that, according to several participants in the meeting.In an interview Tuesday, Dr. Nadeem R. Abu-Rustum, the president of the medical staff, said a small number of doctors had wanted a no-confidence vote in the hospital’s leadership, but were now satisfied by Thompson’s decision.“These same colleagues are not interested in moving forward with a vote of no confidence,” Abu-Rustum said. “The steps that have been made and taken since the meeting by our leadership have addressed the most important concerns to the medical staff and the associate medical staff and really represents a real progress.”In addition to resigning his board positions, Thompson also said Tuesday that the hospital would give physicians a greater voice in its operations and would conduct an analysis to understand what had gone wrong at the hospital in recent weeks “so that we ensure our path forward is expertly guided by what we learn.” Over the past month, articles in The Times and ProPublica have outlined leaders’ ties to for-profit companies, including an exclusive deal the hospital made with an artificial intelligence startup to license images of 25 million tissue slides. The company was founded by Memorial Sloan Kettering insiders, including a member of the executive board, the chair of the pathology department and the head of a research lab. After members of the pathology lab objected to the deal, the head of the department announced he would divest his stake. Another article detailed how a hospital vice president held a nearly $1.4 million stake in a newly public company as compensation for representing Memorial Sloan Kettering on its board. The hospital said last week that a new policy would prohibit compensation in such situations and that the vice president would turn over his stake to the hospital.Thompson’s decision to leave those boards does not affect the eight other Memorial Sloan Kettering officials who serve on the boards of outside companies. A task force that was created in the wake of the crisis over conflicts of interest is considering a policy that would prohibit executives from holding such roles, hospital leaders have said.Thompson also holds an equity stake in Agios Pharmaceuticals, a cancer startup he founded based on research he conducted at the University of Pennsylvania before joining Memorial Sloan Kettering. Thompson settled lawsuits several years ago that were filed by Penn and an affiliated research center, which contended that he hid research to start Agios and did not share the earnings with Penn or the research institute. Thompson disputed the allegations.Thompson’s seat on the Merck board was brought up at Monday’s staff meeting. Douglas A. Warner III, chairman of the hospital’s board of directors, said that when Thompson arrived at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the hospital board viewed his position at Merck as a “good thing.”On Monday, Warner said, “we need to step back from that now and ask ourselves whether that continues to be appropriate, whether it’s appropriate in the future.”Merck said in a statement that “Dr. Thompson’s expertise, perspective and dedication to patient care have contributed greatly to Merck’s mission. His contributions demonstrate why it is so important to have leaders from the medical community represented on the board.” A spokeswoman for Charles River referred questions to Memorial Sloan Kettering.
In Montana, a Tough Negotiator Proved Employers Don’t Have to Pay So Much for Health Care
by Marshall Allen Marilyn Bartlett took a deep breath, drew herself up to her full 5 feet and a smidge, and told the handful of Montana officials that she had a radical strategy to bail out the state’s foundering benefit plan for its 30,000 employees and their families.The officials were listening. Their health plan was going broke, with losses that could top $50 million in just a few years. It needed a savior, but none of the applicants to be its new administrator had wowed them.Now here was a self-described pushy 64-year-old grandmother interviewing for the job.Bartlett came with some unique qualifications. She’d just spent 13 years on the insurance industry side, first as a controller for a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, then as the chief financial officer for a company that administered benefits. She was a potent combination of irreverent and nerdy, a certified public accountant whose Smart car’s license plate reads “DR CR,” the Latin abbreviations for “debit” and “credit.”Most importantly, Bartlett understood something the state officials didn’t: the side deals, kickbacks and lucrative clauses that industry players secretly build into medical costs. Everyone, she’d observed, was profiting except the employers and workers paying the tab.Now, in the twilight of her career, Bartlett wanted to switch teams. In her view, employers should be pushing back against the industry and demanding that it justify its costs. They should ask for itemized bills to determine how prices are set. And they should read the fine print in their contracts to weed out secret deals that work against them.The way health care works in America, most employers cede control of health care costs to their health insurers, to the hospitals that treat their employees and to the companies they pay to manage their benefits. The costs are a dense thicket that few employers feel equipped to hack through. So, they don’t. Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email This failure helps explain why Americans pay the highest health care costs in the world — and why the tab continues to increase, year after year. Employers fund these costs through employee compensation packages, so the math is typically bad news for workers: Rising health costs mean fewer wage increases and less take-home pay. Montana was no different.And so Bartlett pitched a bold strategy. Step one: Tell the state’s hospitals what the plan would pay. Take it or leave it. Step two: Demand a full accounting from the company managing drug costs. If it wouldn’t reveal any side deals it had with drugmakers, replace it.Bartlett’s strategy would expose a culture in which participants fail to question escalating costs and the role each part of the health care industry plays in them. ProPublica and NPR are investigating these little-seen aspects of the health insurance industry and the way Americans pay for medical care. Previous stories have examined how health insurers profit from big medical bills and how the industry is teaming up with data brokers to rate how much patients cost based on their lifestyles.As Bartlett laid out her plan that day in July 2014 in a conference room in Helena, Sheila Hogan, then the director of the state’s Department of Administration, liked what she was hearing. They needed something radical. To her knowledge, no one had ever tried anything like this.Bartlett would be taking on some of the state’s power players: hospitals and health insurers — and their politically connected lobbyists. If her plan didn’t work, the state and its employees were in trouble. If it did, it could create a blueprint for employers everywhere.Bartlett knew employers have negotiating power that few of them use. The health care system depends on the revenue produced by the surgeries, mammograms, lab tests and other services it provides, and it can ill afford to lose it. Bartlett got the job. She would call the industry’s bluff.Ballooning Medical CostsEmployer-sponsored health benefits are almost as old as America itself. In 1798, John Adams, the second U.S. president, signed a law that took 20 cents per month from the paychecks of U.S. seamen to fund their medical care. After the Civil War, lumber, mining and railroad companies in the American West withheld money from employee paychecks to pay for doctors and hospitals.After World War II, such plans became mainstream. Today, about 150 million Americans get their health benefits through their employers. The industry is dominated by what some call the “BUCAH” plans ­— Blue Cross Blue Shield, UnitedHealth Group, Cigna, Aetna and Humana. Half a dozen health insurers currently sit near the top of the Fortune 500, with combined annual revenue of about half a trillion dollars. Despite the money at stake, many employers have, wittingly or not, deferred to the industry. Decisions about health benefit plans are usually made by midlevel human resources managers, who may not understand the forces in the medical industry operating against them. They’re often advised by insurance brokers, who are traditionally funded by the industry. And they’re trying to keep the peace for employees — who demand convenient access to the care they need. It’s a recipe for inertia.The conventional wisdom is that insurance companies want to reduce health care spending. In reality, insurers’ business plans hinge on keeping hospitals and other providers happy — and in their networks — often at the expense of employers and patients.Employers often feel caught between rising costs and concern that changes they make will be bad for their employees, says Michael Thompson, president of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, which represents groups of employers who provide benefits to more than 45 million Americans. And, he says, they rely on the advice of industry experts instead of digging into the details.“We have got to get control of this thing or it’s going to bring down the economy, our personal bankrolls and our wages,” he says. “It’ll cost jobs in the United States and it’ll bring down our public programs. This is not a small issue. It’s a huge issue.”But Bartlett soon discovered that it was easier to talk about pushing back than to do it.A Showdown With Montana’s HospitalsBartlett arrived in Helena, the state capital, in the fall of 2014 as an outsider navigating a minefield of established relationships. From the start, she knew she’d have to tackle the staggering bills from the state’s hospitals, which made up the largest chunk of the plan’s expenses. It wouldn’t be popular because they also made up a significant chunk of hospitals’ profitsMontana, like many large employers, self-funds its plan. That means it pays the bills and hires an insurance company or other firm to process the claims. More than half of American workers are covered by self-funded plans. As the boss in this arrangement, Bartlett assumed she’d have access to detailed information about how much the plan, which was managed by Cigna, paid for procedures at each hospital. But when she asked Cigna for its pricing terms with the hospitals, Cigna refused to provide them. Marilyn Bartlett in her office in Helena, Montana. Bartlett used her experience in the insurance industry to help Montana’s health plan cut better deals with the state’s hospitals. (Mike Albans for NPR) Its contracts with hospitals were secret, Cigna representatives told her. That didn’t sit well with Bartlett, she recalls. “The payer cannot see the contract,” she says, “but we agree to pay whatever the contract says we will pay.”A cumbersome querying process set up by Cigna allowed her to get individual claims and other limited information. But the company would only give her aggregate data, with things lumped together, to show what she paid each hospital. It was like telling a family trying to reduce its grocery spending that it could only see what it spent in a year, not a breakdown of what bread and fruit and other items cost at each market.When Bartlett continued to demand information, Cigna balked; it needed to balance what she wanted with keeping the hospitals happy. “I don’t see the need for a balance,” she recalls telling them. “I am representing the payer.”Cigna declined to answer questions about its relationship with Montana’s plan, but it said in a statement that it had prioritized the plan’s preferences and needs.Bartlett ultimately settled on a radical solution: The plan would set its own prices for the hospitals.In the illusory world of hospital billing, the hospitals typically charge a high price for a procedure, then give insurers in-network discounts. These charges and discounts might be different for each procedure at each hospital, depending on who has more leverage during negotiations.The discounts, however, are meaningless if the underlying charges aren’t capped. When Bartlett looked at a common knee replacement, with no complications and a one-night hospital stay, she saw that one hospital had charged the plan $25,000, then applied a 7 percent discount. So, the plan paid $23,250.A different hospital gave a better discount, 10 percent, but on a sticker price of $115,000. So, the plan got billed $103,500 — more than four times the amount it paid the other hospital for the same operation. Bartlett recalled wondering why anyone would think this was okay.Under Bartlett’s proposed new strategy, the plan would use the prices set by Medicare as a reference point. Medicare, the federal government’s insurance for the disabled and patients over 65, is a good benchmark because it makes its prices public and adjusts them for hospitals based on geography and other factors. Montana’s plan would pay hospitals a set percentage above the Medicare amount, a method known as “reference-based pricing,” making it impossible for the hospitals to arbitrarily raise their prices.Fed up, Bartlett ended the plan’s relationship with Cigna. Her battle to upend the status quo riled some employees of her own office, who complained that she was demanding too many changes. Some quit. Bartlett didn’t let up.That Christmas, the Cigna representative sent each employee in Bartlett’s office a small gift, a snow globe. Bartlett didn’t get one. But her ideas were exciting to Ron Dewsnup, the president of Allegiance Benefit Plan Management, a Montana-based subsidiary of, ironically, Cigna. Allegiance had been studying variation in hospital prices for years and had twice sent reports to Montana hospitals showing how their prices for the same procedures differed significantly. The company had also considered a reference-based pricing model, but it “didn’t have any employers that were serious about taking a stand,” Dewsnup says.Allegiance got the state contract and began by comparing what the plan paid the 11 biggest hospitals in the state to the Medicare rates. The cheaper ones averaged about twice the Medicare rates, the most expensive one about five times the Medicare rates.No one wanted to stiff the hospitals, but this was ridiculous, Bartlett recalls thinking. She determined the new rate for all hospitals would be a little more than twice the Medicare rate — still a lucrative deal, but a good starting point to get prices under control. The contracts would also prohibit a practice called “balance billing,” where hospitals bill patients for whatever charges a health plan refuses to pay.It would mean a boost for some lower-cost hospitals. Now, she had to persuade the more expensive hospitals to take less.“You’re In or You’re Out”Kirk Bodlovic, the chief financial officer of Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, remembers the day an entourage from the state health plan, including Bartlett and Hogan, arrived at his hospital.Bodlovic knew from Allegiance’s reports that St. Patrick’s prices were on the high side. But he wasn’t prepared for the ultimatum: If St. Patrick’s wanted to treat state employees, the hospital would have to accept lower rates. If it didn’t, the state would pay for its employees to travel to other hospitals.“You’re in or you’re out, basically,” Bodlovic says.The state’s demand set off a series of meetings within the Providence chain, which also operates in California, Alaska and the Northwest. It didn’t have a lot of leverage because Missoula is a two-hospital town. Its competitor, one of the lower-priced facilities, had already agreed to the deal.St. Patrick’s considered rejecting the deal. Bodlovic says that thought gives him heartburn to think about now, envisioning the wrath of doctors if some 3,000 state plan members had ended up at a rival hospital. And the hospital would have lost about $4 million in annual revenue. “That’s a good chunk of business,” he says.In their final analysis, he says, St. Patrick’s officials decided it was the “lesser pain” to accept the new contract than to be left out of the deal.While the state worked to get hospitals to sign new contracts, their CEOs and lobbyists plotted end runs, scheduling meetings with the governor’s office to propose alternative solutions. When they arrived for the meetings, they found that Bartlett had also been invited. She effectively blocked their ideas.Still, Bartlett had to get all the hospitals on board — or else. The new pricing was set to go live on July 1, 2016, and, with a month to go, six of the major hospitals were holding out. “I started to panic,” Bartlett recalls. During sleepless nights, Bartlett imagined thousands of state employees being forced to zigzag across the state for medical care or running up massive bills at non-contracted hospitals. She put together communication plans for members describing how they would need to travel to avoid certain hospitals. Bartlett thinks employers should be pushing back against the medical industry and demanding that it justify its costs. (Mike Albans for NPR) With her stomach in knots, she went on the offensive. She took a graph showing the variation in hospital prices to state legislators. Then she threatened to go public. She couldn’t name names because of contract restrictions, but she could tell the media that some hospitals’ prices were three times as high as others and let reporters figure out which ones were which.Five of the holdouts surrendered and signed the contract. “The hospitals didn’t want that out there,” she says.Only Benefis Health System in Great Falls, one of the higher-priced hospitals, refused. The hospital’s CEO told the local newspaper that “it was business for them and it was business for us.”The new plan went into place July 1, without Benefis as a contracted hospital. Bartlett ratcheted up the pressure one more time, calling in the Montana Federation of Public Employees. The union has hundreds of members in the Great Falls area, including Keith Leathers, who works as an investigator with the state’s child support enforcement division. Leathers has a young daughter with scoliosis, and he didn’t want to drive long distances to get her the care she needs. He readily engaged in the fight.“We have a regional medical facility here that’s supposed to be able to handle almost any medical problem, period,” he recalled thinking. “And I got to go out of town to get care because they want to charge more than anyone else?”Union leaders launched a campaign against the hospital. Leathers says he sent a postcard and made a phone call every day to the hospital CEO, the board members — anyone he could find in leadership. He urged them to accept the new rates. Hundreds of other employees from across the state did the same.Within a month, Benefis agreed to join the health plan. The hospital declined to comment for this story.Leathers says employers and workers should be protesting health care costs “over and over again” all over the country. “Are we going to wait until the health care system just crashes?” he says.When Bartlett took over the state health plan, it spent about $200 million a year. Bartlett’s team estimated that the new hospital pricing schedule saved the plan more than $17 million in the second half of 2016 and all of 2017 — almost $1 million a month. By 2017, a plan that state officials had predicted would go broke had turned itself around. And it’s projected to save an additional $15 million in 2018 without cutting benefits to employees or raising their rates.Exposing Hidden Drug DealsBut Bartlett had one more target in her sights: prescription drug costs.Health plans contract with separate companies, middlemen entities known as pharmacy benefit managers, to get members their medication. And everyone assured Bartlett the state’s pharmacy benefits deal was “state of the art.” But just like with Cigna, she insisted on examining it herself. That wasn’t easy because the pharmacy benefits were run through a cooperative arrangement with other health plans, including those of universities, school trusts and counties. The state plan anchored the co-op, and the other partners were happy with the arrangement.Bartlett knew that pharmacy benefit managers are notorious for including deals that boost their profits at the expense of employers. One of the common tricks is called the “spread.” A pharmacy benefit manager, for example, will tell an employer it cost $100 to fill a prescription that actually cost $60, allowing the pharmacy benefit manager to pocket the extra $40. The fine print in the contracts often allows it.The spread is widespread. A recent report by the Ohio state auditor noted that the spread on generic drugs had cost that state’s Medicaid plan $208 million in a single year — 31 percent of what it spent. Sure enough, when she got the contract, Bartlett found that the state plan had fallen victim to the spread.Pharmacy benefit managers also rake in dollars through rebates paid by pharmaceutical companies. Most health plans would assume that since they’re paying for the drugs, they should get any rebates. But pharmacy benefit managers often don’t disclose the size of the rebate, which allows them to keep some or most of it for themselves. When Bartlett pressed, she discovered the state wasn’t getting the full amount of its rebates.Montana was getting taken, but it put Bartlett in a touchy political situation. The co-op needed the state as a partner or it wouldn’t survive. Bartlett decided her allegiance was to the plan’s bottom line. She pulled out of the deal.“She wasn’t afraid of ruining her career or making people angry,” says Scott McClave, a consultant with Alliant Insurance Services who helped analyze the pharmacy benefit contract.Bartlett says it helped that she was near the end of her career and didn’t need to please people. “I’m 67, so I could give a shit,” she says. “What are they going to do, fire me? I’m packin’ a Medicare card.”Bartlett found a pharmacy benefit manager, Navitus Health Solutions, that would not take any spread and would pass along all rebates in full. The next year, the plan saved an average of almost $16 per prescription. It purchased a similar mix and volume of drugs in 2016 and 2017. But it saved $2 million on the spread. And its revenue from rebates jumped from $3.5 million to $7 million, Bartlett said. The savings continue to this day.In July of this year, her mission accomplished, Bartlett left her position as administrator of the state employee health plan. She now works for the Office of the Montana Insurance Commissioner, which is taking on pharmacy benefit managers in a bigger way.But Bartlett also has a side gig as a guru to other employers around the country seeking to pay less for their health benefits. Her advice boils down to pushing back. “You’ve got to get in there and do it,” she says.So how are Montana’s hospitals after the price cut? Just fine, it appears.Bob Olsen, vice president of the Montana Hospital Association, says he has not heard hospital leaders say they are struggling under the new state contract. They have had “reasonable financial performance,” he says.But Bartlett’s legacy may be even greater. With the state’s model in mind, St. Patrick’s Bodlovic said Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, the state’s largest insurer, recently came calling. Now it wants a similar pricing arrangement.
A Surgeon So Bad It Was Criminal
by Laura Beil, special to ProPublica The pain from the pinched nerve in the back of Jeff Glidewell’s neck had become unbearable.Every time he’d turn his head a certain way, or drive over bumps in the road, he felt as if jolts of electricity were running through his body. Glidewell, now 54, had been living on disability because of an accident a decade earlier. As the pain grew worse, it became clear his only choice was neurosurgery. He searched Google to find a doctor near his home in suburban Dallas who would accept his Medicare Advantage insurance.That’s how he came across Dr. Christopher Duntsch in the spring of 2013.Duntsch seemed impressive, at least on the surface. His CV boasted that he’d earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. from a top spinal surgery program. Glidewell found four- and five-star reviews of Duntsch on Healthgrades and more praise seemingly from patients on Duntsch’s Facebook page. On a link for something called “Best Docs Network,” Glidewell found a slickly produced video showing Duntsch in his white coat, talking to a happy patient and wearing a surgical mask in an operating room.There was no way Glidewell could have known from Duntsch’s carefully curated internet presence or from any other information then publicly available that to be Duntsch’s patient was to be in mortal danger. In the roughly two years that Duntsch — a blue-eyed, smooth-talking former college football player — had practiced medicine in Dallas, he had operated on 37 patients. Almost all, 33 to be exact, had been injured during or after these procedures, suffering almost unheard-of complications. Some had permanent nerve damage. Several woke up from surgery unable to move from the neck down or feel one side of their bodies. Two died in the hospital, including a 55-year-old schoolteacher undergoing what was supposed to be a straightforward day surgery.Multiple layers of safeguards are supposed to protect patients from doctors who are incompetent or dangerous, or to provide them with redress if they are harmed. Duntsch illustrates how easily these defenses can fail, even in egregious cases.Neurosurgeons are worth millions in revenue for hospitals, so Duntsch was able to get operating privileges at a string of Dallas-area institutions. Once his ineptitude became clear, most chose to spare themselves the hassle and legal exposure of firing him outright and instead let him resign, reputation intact.At least two facilities that quietly dumped Duntsch failed to report him to a database run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that’s supposed to act as a clearinghouse for information on problem practitioners, warning potential employers about their histories.“It seems to be the custom and practice,” said Kay Van Wey, a Dallas plaintiff’s attorney who came to represent 14 of Duntsch’s patients. “Kick the can down the road and protect yourself first, and protect the doctor second and make it be somebody else’s problem.”It took more than six months and multiple catastrophic surgeries before anyone reported Duntsch to the state medical board, which can suspend or revoke a doctor’s license. Then it took almost another year for the board to investigate, with Duntsch operating all the while. Get ProPublica’s Major Investigations by Email Don’t miss out on our next investigation. Sign up now and get it straight to your inbox whenever we break news. When Duntsch’s patients tried to sue him for malpractice, many found it almost impossible to find attorneys. Since Texas enacted tort reform in 2003, reducing the amount of damages plaintiffs could win, the number of malpractice payouts per year has dropped by more than half.Duntsch’s attorney did not allow him to be interviewed for this story. Representatives from one hospital where he worked also would not respond to questions. Two more facilities said they could not comment on Duntsch because their management has changed since he was there, and a fourth has closed.In the end, it fell to the criminal justice system, not the medical system, to wring out a measure of accountability for Duntsch’s malpractice.In July 2015, Duntsch was arrested and Dallas prosecutors charged him with one count of injury to an elderly person and five counts of assault, all stemming from his work on patients.The case was covered intensely by local and state media outlets. D Magazine, Dallas’ monthly glossy, published a cover story in 2016 with the headline “Dr. Death”; the nickname stuck.Last year, Duntsch was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, becoming the first doctor in the nation to meet such a fate for his practice of medicine.“The medical community system has a problem,” Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Martin said in a press conference after the verdict. “But we were able to solve it in the criminal courthouse.”Glidewell was the last patient Duntsch operated on before being stripped of his license to practice medicine. Jeff Glidewell had surgery with Dr. Christopher Duntsch in 2013. He was Duntsch’s last patient, and his call to a judge in early 2015 helped bring the case back to the DA’s attention. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica) According to doctors who reviewed the case, Duntsch mistook part of his neck muscle for a tumor and abandoned the operation midway through — after cutting into Glidewell’s vocal cords, puncturing an artery, slicing a hole in his esophagus, stuffing a sponge into the wound and then sewing Glidewell up, sponge and all.Glidewell spent four days in intensive care and endured months of rehabilitation for the wound to his esophagus. To this day, he can only eat food in small bites and has nerve damage. “He still has numbness in his hand and in his arm,” said his wife, Robin. “He basically can’t really feel things when he’s holding them in his fingers.”Neither Glidewell, nor the prosecutors, nor even Duntsch’s own attorneys said they thought his outlandish case had been a wake-up call for the system that polices doctors, however.“Nothing has changed from when I picked Duntsch to do my surgery,” Glidewell said. “The public is still limited to the research they can do on a doctor.”For Duntsch, the path into medicine was unconventional and, perhaps, a reflection of his tendency to fixate on unlikely goals.The first of these had been college football. Duntsch’s father had been a gridiron standout in Montana and Duntsch, though not a particularly talented athlete, was determined to follow in those footsteps. He trained hour after hour on his own and played linebacker on his high school team in Memphis, Tennessee. Classmates remember him as a turbine of sheer determination. Before Duntsch became a doctor, he doggedly pursued a football career. One teammate remembers Duntsch struggling with basic drills and attributed Duntsch’s success to “sweat equity.” (Via Facebook) “He had his goal, his sight on a goal and whatever it took to get there,” said one classmate, who did not want to be named. “He wanted to go to college and play, and I can recall he was like 180 pounds and said, ‘I need to get to 220’ in order to be a linebacker at Colorado or Colorado State.”He did get a football scholarship, but it was to Millsaps College in Mississippi. He yearned to transfer and play linebacker for a Division I team. He set his sights on the Colorado State Rams his sophomore year and made it as one of the few walk-on players. Chris Dozois, a fellow linebacker with the Rams, recalled Duntsch struggling, even with basic drills, but begging to run them over and over.“He’d be, ‘Coach, I promise I can get this, let me do it again.’ He’d go through; he’d screw it up again,” Dozois said. “I gathered very quickly that everything that he had accomplished in sports had come with the sweat equity. When people said, ‘You weren’t going to be good enough,’ he outworked that and he made it happen.”Homesick, Duntsch left Colorado after a year and transferred again to what was then Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis. He had hoped to play football, but he tearfully told Dozois his multiple transfers had taken away his eligibility.It was then, Dozois recalled, that Duntsch set his sights on his next goal: to be a doctor. And not just any doctor — a neurosurgeon, operating on injured backs and necks.After getting his undergraduate degree in 1995, Duntsch enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine, in an ambitious program to earn both an M.D. and a Ph.D.As part of the program, he worked in a research lab, studying the origins of brain cancer and the various uses of stem cells. For a time, after he earned his dual degrees in 2001 and 2002, it seemed he might make a career in biotechnology rather than treating patients.As he did his surgical residency, Duntsch teamed up with two Russian scientists, recruited by the University of Tennessee, to explore the commercial potential of stem cells to revitalize ailing backs. They patented technology to obtain and grow disk stem cells, and in 2008, they launched a company, DiscGenics, to develop and sell such products. Two of Duntsch’s supervisors from the university were among the first investors. Duntsch on his first day as a neurosurgeon. (Via Facebook) While Duntsch appeared to be thriving during these years, more unsavory aspects of his life simmered below the surface.In sworn testimony from 2014, an ex-girlfriend of one of his closest friends described a drug-fueled, all-night birthday celebration for Duntsch about midway through his residency. Revelers drank and used cocaine and pills, she said. At dawn, Duntsch slipped on his white coat and headed for rounds at the hospital.“Most people, when they go binge all night long, they don’t function the next day to go to work,” she said in her deposition. “After you’ve spent a night using cocaine, most people become paranoid and want to stay in the house. He was totally fine going to work.”One of the early investors in DiscGenics, Rand Page, said he was initially impressed with how Duntsch presented himself and the company, but as time passed, Page became wary of his new business partner.“We would meet in the mornings, and he would be mixing a vodka orange juice to start off the day,” Page said. Once, he stopped by Duntsch’s house to pick up some paperwork. He opened a desk drawer to find a mirror with cocaine and a rolled-up dollar bill sitting on top of it.Ultimately, Duntsch was forced out of DiscGenics and his partners and investors sued him over money and stock. (Representatives of DiscGenics declined to be interviewed for this story.)The University of Tennessee said it could not comment on Duntsch, citing the confidentiality and privacy of medical students’ records, but Dr. Frederick Boop, chief of neurosurgery at the hospital where Duntsch did his residency, appears to have known about Duntsch’s substance abuse.In a 2012 phone call recorded by a Texas doctor who contacted Boop because he was alarmed by Duntsch’s surgical errors, Boop acknowledged that an anonymous woman had filed a complaint against Duntsch, saying he was using drugs before seeing patients.In the phone conversation, Boop said university officials had asked Duntsch to take a drug test, but he had avoided it, disappearing for several days. When he returned, he was sent to a program for impaired physicians and closely supervised for the remainder of his surgical training, Boop told the Texas doctor. (An attorney for the University of Tennessee said Boop would not respond to questions for this story.)It’s not clear how much training Duntsch actually received, however.After his arrest, the Dallas district attorney’s office subpoenaed every hospital on Duntsch’s CV for records of his surgeries, including those during his residency and subsequent one-year fellowship.According to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, a neurosurgery resident does about 1,000 operations during training. But according to records gathered by the DA, by the time Duntsch finished his residency and fellowship, he had operated fewer than 100 times.Despite what Duntsch had told friends when he headed off to medical school, Page said Duntsch had staked his fortune on being a businessman, not a doctor.“I don’t think his plan was ever to become a surgeon,” he said. When Duntsch was kicked out of DiscGenics, “I think the decision was made for him that he was going to have to enter into the medical community to support himself.”Duntsch’s first job as a practicing physician was at the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute in the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano, which hired him in the summer of 2011, when he also received privileges to operate at Baylor Regional Medical Center.The hospital welcomed Duntsch with a $600,000 advance. While no one from the practice agreed to be interviewed, they sent an email describing the recommendations they had gotten from Duntsch’s supervisors at the University of Tennessee medical school in Memphis.“We were told Duntsch was one of the best and smartest neurosurgeons they ever trained, as they went on at length about his strengths,” they said in the email. “When asked about Dr. Duntsch’s weaknesses or areas for improvement, the supervising physician communicated that the only weakness Duntsch had was that he took on too many tasks for one person.”In 2010, Boop faxed a recommendation for Duntsch to Baylor-Plano, checking off “good” or “excellent” in boxes asking about his skills and noting, “Chris is extremely bright and possibly the hardest working person I have ever met.” Another supervisor, Dr. Jon Robertson, who was an old family friend of the Duntsches and an investor in DiscGenics, noted on his recommendation that Duntsch had an “excellent work ethic.” (A University of Tennessee attorney said Robertson could not respond to questions.)A vascular surgeon who operated at Baylor-Plano, Dr. Randall Kirby, said he met Duntsch soon after he started and found him to be an arrogant know-it-all. Dr. Randall Kirby, left, and Dr. Robert Henderson both worked to keep Duntsch from being able to operate on patients. (Nate Kitch, special to ProPublica) “I would see him maybe once a week at the scrub sinks or in the doctor’s lounge,” Kirby said. “He is among giants up there, and he was trying to tell me over and over again how most of the spine surgery here in Dallas was being done inappropriately and that he was going to clean this town up.”Duntsch lasted only a few months at the spine institute, not because his patients had complications, but because of a falling out with the other doctors over whether he was fulfilling his obligations.One weekend in September 2011, Kirby said, Duntsch was supposed to be taking care of a patient. He went to Las Vegas instead. One of the partners, Dr. Michael Rimlawi, “was notified by the administration that the patient wasn’t getting rounded on, and Dr. Rimlawi then dismissed Dr. Duntsch after that,” Kirby said. (Rimlawi declined to comment for this story.)Nonetheless, Duntsch still had privileges at Baylor-Plano, and on Dec. 30, 2011, he operated on a man named Lee Passmore.At the time, Passmore was an investigator in the Collin County Medical Examiner’s office, just north of Dallas. He had undergone successful back surgery once before, but the pain had returned. Passmore’s pain specialist told him he didn’t have a back surgeon to whom he routinely referred patients, but that he’d gone to lunch recently with one who “seemed like a guy that knew what he was talking about,” Passmore recalled in court testimony.Vascular surgeon Mark Hoyle assisted with the operation. In later testimony, he said he watched in alarm as Duntsch began to cut out a ligament around the spinal cord not typically disturbed in such procedures. Passmore started bleeding profusely, so much so that the operating field was submerged in a lake of red. Duntsch not only misplaced hardware in Passmore’s spine, but he stripped the screw so it could not be moved, Hoyle testified. At one point, Hoyle said, he either grabbed Duntsch’s scalpel or blocked the incision — he could not remember which — to keep Duntsch from continuing the procedure. Then Hoyle said he left the operating room and vowed never to work with Duntsch again. (In response to a request for comment, Hoyle sent a note saying he was through talking about Duntsch.)Passmore did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Passmore has testified that he lives with chronic pain and has trouble walking as a result of Duntsch’s errors.The next patient Duntsch operated on was Barry Morguloff.Morguloff ran a pool service company. He had worn out his back working in his father’s import business, helping to unload trucks. “It took a toll on my back even with back supports and exercise and a strong core,” Morguloff said. His pain returned after an earlier back surgery, but the surgeon recommended exercise and weight loss, not another procedure.A pain specialist gave Morguloff Duntsch’s card.“Everything that I read when we first got his card — outstanding reviews, people loved him. I read everything I could about this guy,” Morguloff said. He set up an appointment and found himself impressed by Duntsch’s easy confidence.“Phenomenal, great guy, loved him,” Morguloff recalled. Most importantly, he added, “I was in pain and somebody, a neurosurgeon, said, ‘I can fix you.’”His surgery, an anterior lumbar spinal fusion, took place on Jan. 11, 2012. At the request of a head-and-neck surgeon also on the case, the vascular surgeon assisting Duntsch was Kirby. Kirby said it should have been a routine case.“In the spectrum of what a neurosurgeon does for a living, doing an anterior lumbar fusion procedure’s probably the easiest thing that they do on a daily basis,” he said.But Duntsch quickly got into trouble. Instead of using a scalpel, he tried to pull Morguloff’s problem disk out with a grabbing instrument that could damage the spine. Kirby said he argued with Duntsch, even offering to take over, but Duntsch insisted he knew what he was doing. Kirby left the room. Barry Morguloff had what was supposed to be routine surgery with Duntsch. The lasting damage has affected his ability to walk, and as time passes he gradually loses function on the left side of his body. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica) Morguloff awoke in excruciating pain.His previous surgeon testified at Duntsch’s trial that the procedure had left bone fragments in Morguloff’s spinal canal. The surgeon said he repaired what damage he could, but Morguloff still walks with a cane. As scar tissue builds up, his pain will worsen and his range of motion will decrease. One day, he will likely be in a wheelchair.“As time goes on, the scar tissue and everything builds up, and I lose more and more function of that left side,” he said. “I do my best to stay active. But some days I just can’t get moving. The pain is continuous.”Soon after the Morguloff surgery, Duntsch took on a patient who was also an old friend.Jerry Summers had played football with Duntsch in high school and helped with logistics at the research lab during his residency. When Duntsch took the job in Dallas, he asked Summers to move with him and help set up his practice. They lived in a downtown luxury high-rise while Duntsch shopped for a house.In a deposition he gave later to the district attorney, Summers said he asked Duntsch to operate on him because he had chronic pain from a high school football injury that had gotten worse after a car accident. After the February 2012 surgery, however, Summers couldn’t move from the neck down.According to doctors who later reviewed the case, Duntsch had damaged Summers’ vertebral artery, causing it to bleed almost uncontrollably. To stop the bleeding, Duntsch packed the space with so much anticoagulant that it squeezed Summers’ spine.For days after the operation, Summers lay in the ICU, descending into a deep depression. “Jerry was calm with Chris,” said Jennifer Miller, then Summers’ girlfriend, “but all Jerry would say to me is: ‘I want to die. Kill me. Kill me. I want to die.’”One morning, Summers began screaming and told several nurses that he and Duntsch had stayed up the night before the surgery doing eight-balls of cocaine. In truth, the night before the surgery Summers and Miller had dinner at a local restaurant and watched the University of Memphis basketball team play Southern Mississippi on the bar TV.In his 2017 deposition, Summers acknowledged he made up the pre-surgery cocaine binge because he felt Duntsch had abandoned him, as both his surgeon and his friend.“I was just really mad and hollering and wanting him to be there,” Summers said. “And so I made a statement that was not something that was necessarily true. … The statement was only made so that he might hear it and go, ‘Let me get my ass down there.’”Baylor officials took Summers’ accusation seriously and ordered Duntsch to take a drug test. As at the University of Tennessee, he stalled at first, telling administrators he got lost on the way to the lab. He passed a separate psychological evaluation and, after three weeks, was allowed to operate again, but he was told to stick to relatively minor procedures.His first patient after his return was elementary school teacher Kellie Martin, who had a compressed nerve from falling off a ladder as she fetched Christmas decorations from her attic. During the surgery, records show, Martin’s blood pressure inexplicably plummeted.As she regained consciousness after the surgery, the nurses tending to Martin testified that she began to slap and claw at her legs, which had turned a splotchy, mottled color. She became so agitated the staff had to sedate her. She never reawakened. An autopsy would later find that Duntsch had cut a major vessel in her spinal cord, and within hours, Martin bled to death.Baylor-Plano again ordered Duntsch to take a drug test. The first screening came back diluted with tap water, but a second, taken a few days later, came up clean. Hospital administrators also organized a comprehensive review of Duntsch’s cases, after which they determined that his days at the facility were over.But — importantly — they did not fire him outright. Instead, he resigned, leaving on April 20, 2012, with a lawyer-negotiated letter saying, “All areas of concern with regard to Christopher D. Duntsch have been closed. As of this date, there have been no summary or administrative restrictions or suspension of Duntsch’s medical staff membership or clinical privileges during the time he has practiced at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano.”Since Duntsch’s departure was technically voluntary and his leave had been for less than 31 days, Baylor-Plano was under no obligation to report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank.The databank, which was established in 1990, tracks malpractice payouts and adverse actions taken against doctors, such as being fired, barred from Medicare, handed a long suspension, or having a license suspended or revoked.The information isn’t available to the public or other doctors, but hospital administrators have access to the databank and are supposed to use it to make sure problem doctors can’t shed their pasts by moving from state to state or hospital to hospital. Robert Oshel, a patient safety advocate and former associate director of the databank, says that hospitals are required to check all applicants for clinical privileges and once every two years for everyone who has clinical privileges.Many hospitals, however, hesitate to submit reports to the databank, worrying that doing so may hurt doctors’ job prospects or even prompt lawsuits.“What happens sometimes is that doctors are allowed to resign in lieu of discipline so that the hospital can protect its perceived legal liability from the doctor,” said Van Wey, the Dallas trial lawyer. “If Dr. Duntsch was unable to get privileges at other hospitals, theoretically Dr. Duntsch could have sued Baylor and said: ‘Look, I could be making $2 million a year here. … You owe me $2 million for the rest of my life.’” According to a report by Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group, about half the hospitals in the country had never reported a doctor to the databank by 2009. A more recent analysis didn’t find much change, said Dr. Sid Wolfe, a founder of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.Despite his string of problems at Baylor-Plano, Duntsch also wasn’t reported to the Texas Medical Board, the state’s main purveyor of doctor discipline. Such boards often move slowly, but if hospital officials submit material they’ve gathered to justify letting a doctor go, boards can act to protect patients from imminent harm.“Had Baylor’s action been reported appropriately, I would anticipate the board would have met within days to have an immediate suspension,” said Dr. Allan Shulkin, a Dallas pulmonologist who was on the medical board in 2012.The board would still have conducted an investigation, but Duntsch would not have been allowed to operate while it was going on, Shulkin said. He was visibly angered by Baylor-Plano’s failure to report. “What’s the worst that can happen, a lawsuit?” he said. “Come on. These are people dying, and we’re stopping because you’re afraid of a lawsuit?”Two years after Duntsch left Baylor-Plano, the hospital’s decision not to report its review of his work or its results prompted an investigation by state health authorities. The hospital was hit with a violation and fined $100,000 in December 2014, but a year later, the citation and penalty were withdrawn. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission would not explain why, saying the records were confidential.Hospital officials declined to be interviewed for this story, submitting a written statement instead.“Our primary concern, as always, is with patients,” it said. “Out of respect for the patients and families involved, and the privileged nature of a number of details, we must continue to limit our comments. There is nothing more important to us than serving our community through high-quality, trusted healthcare.”Duntsch’s next stop was Dallas Medical Center, which sits outside Dallas’ northern edge in the city of Farmers Branch. Baylor-Plano officials might have thought any future employer would contact them before hiring him and they could share information confidentially, but Dallas Medical Center granted Duntsch temporary privileges while its reference checks were still going on.On July 24, 2012, Duntsch operated on Floella Brown, 64, a banker about to retire after a long career. She had come to Duntsch for cervical spine surgery to ease her worsening neck and shoulder pain.About a half hour into Brown’s surgery, Duntsch started to complain that he was having trouble seeing her spine.“He was saying: ‘There’s so much blood I can’t see. I can’t see this,’” said Kyle Kissinger, an operating room nurse. He kept telling the scrub tech “’suck more, suck more. Get that blood out of there. I can’t see.’ That’s really concerning to me because, not only that he can’t do it correctly when he can’t see that but, why is it still bleeding?”Brown bled so much that blood was saturating the blue draping around her body and dripping onto the floor. The nursing staff put down towels to soak it up.After the operation, Brown woke up and seemed fine, but early the next morning she lost consciousness. Pressure was building inside her brain for reasons that were unclear at the time.That same morning — with Brown still in the ICU — Duntsch took another patient into surgery.The patient’s name was Mary Efurd. She was an active 71-year-old who’d sought Duntsch’s help because back pain was keeping her off her treadmill.Duntsch arrived at the hospital about 45 minutes after Efurd’s surgery had been set to start, Kissinger said. He spotted a hole in Duntsch’s scrubs. “It’s on the butt cheek of his scrubs. He didn’t wear underwear. That’s why it really shined down to me,” Kissinger said. The nurse realized he’d seen that hole for three straight days — Duntsch apparently hadn’t changed his scrubs all week. Kissinger also noticed that Duntsch had pinpoint pupils and hardly seemed to blink.When Duntsch arrived, the staff told him that Brown, his patient from the day before, was in critical condition.Soon after beginning Efurd’s surgery, Duntsch turned to Kissinger and told him to let the front desk know he would be performing a procedure on Brown called a craniotomy, cutting a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure in her brain. Problem was, Dallas Medical Center did not perform those, or even have the proper equipment to do them.As he operated on Efurd, Duntsch quarreled first with Kissinger and later with his supervisors, insisting on a craniotomy for Brown, according to court testimony. All the while, the operating room staff questioned whether Duntsch was putting hardware into Efurd in the right places and noticed he kept drilling and removing screws.In the end, Duntsch did not perform a craniotomy on Brown. She was moved to another hospital but never regained consciousness. In court, her family said they withdrew life support a few days later. A neurosurgeon hired to review her case would later determine that Duntsch had both pierced and blocked her vertebral artery with a misplaced screw. The review also found that Duntsch misdiagnosed the source of her pain and was operating in the wrong place. The day after her surgery, Efurd awoke in agony. She couldn’t turn over or wiggle her toes. Hospital administrators called Dr. Robert Henderson, a Dallas spine surgeon, to try to repair the damage.Shortly after he arrived at the hospital, Henderson pulled up Efurd’s post-operative X-rays. When he saw them, he said, “I’m really thinking that some kind of travesty occurred.” That impression only grew when Henderson reopened Efurd’s freshly made incisions the next day. “It was as if he knew everything to do,” Henderson said of Duntsch, “and then he’d done virtually everything wrong.”There were three holes poked into Efurd’s spinal column where Duntsch had tried and failed to insert screws. One screw was jabbed directly into her spinal canal. That same screw had also skewered the nerves that control one leg and the bladder. Henderson cleaned out bone fragments. Then he discovered that one of Efurd’s nerve roots — the bundle of nerves coming out of the spine — was completely gone. For some inexplicable reason, Duntsch had amputated it.The operation was so botched, Henderson recalled thinking Duntsch had to be an impostor passing himself off as a surgeon. Even after Henderson’s repairs, Efurd never regained her mobility and now uses a wheelchair. (In an email, Efurd said that discussing what happened to her again would take a toll on her health.)By the end of the week, hospitals administrators told Duntsch he would no longer operate at Dallas Medical Center. But, as had happened at Baylor-Plano, Duntsch was allowed to resign and the hospital didn’t notify the National Practitioner Data Bank. Dallas Medical Center officials said the hospital had different managers when Duntsch worked there and that current administrators could not comment on his work or the circumstances under which he left.Duntsch would continue to operate. In fact, his career in Dallas was only about half over.After Duntsch’s disastrous run at Dallas Medical Center, he was finally reported to the state medical board. The first report came from Shulkin, the Dallas physician who served on the board, who had been told of the surgeries on Efurd and Brown. Other doctors started complaining, too.“Once I heard about those cases, I called the medical board,” said Kirby, the vascular surgeon who had been present for Morguloff’s surgery. “I said: ‘Listen, we’ve had egregious results at Baylor-Plano. He was not reported to the databank. We’ve had egregious results at Dallas Medical Center. He’s got to be stopped.’” After being called in to help Efurd, Henderson, too, made it his personal mission to stop Duntsch from operating. He called Boop at the University of Tennessee to ask about Duntsch’s training and spoke to officials at Baylor-Plano hospital. He also called the state medical board.When a couple of months passed and they didn’t hear about more bad outcomes, Henderson and Kirby said they assumed perhaps Duntsch’s mistakes had finally caught up with him.Then, in December 2012, Kirby was asked to help Jacqueline Troy, a patient suffering from a severe infection. (The Troy family would not comment for this story.) Troy was being transferred to a Dallas hospital from a surgery center in the suburb of Frisco. She’d had neck surgery, but the surgeon had cut her vocal cords and one of her arteries. When Kirby learned the details, he asked the doctor who referred the case to him about the surgeon: “Is it a guy named Christopher Duntsch?”It was.Duntsch had managed to get a job at Legacy Surgery Center, an outpatient clinic. (The ownership of the clinic has changed and the new owners declined to comment for this story.)Soon after Troy’s surgery, Duntsch was finally reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank, though not by any of his previous employers. A report dated Jan. 15, 2013, obtained by an attorney representing one of Duntsch’s patients, shows that Methodist Hospital in the Dallas suburb of McKinney had reported Duntsch after denying him privileges six months earlier. Their rejection was based on Duntsch’s “substandard or inadequate care” at Baylor-Plano. (Methodist McKinney declined to comment for this story.)But even after the report to the databank, Kirby was stunned to discover another hospital had given privileges to Duntsch. In May 2013, he was invited to a “Meet Our New Specialist” dinner thrown by University General hospital at a Dallas restaurant. The event was to celebrate the arrival of a new neurosurgeon: Christopher Duntsch.“I called down there and raised holy hell,” Kirby said. Kirby in his office in Dallas. A vascular surgeon, Kirby was present for one surgery with Duntsch and worked afterward to stop him from operating again. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica) University General, formerly known as South Hampton Community Hospital, had a troubled history: two bankruptcies and a former CEO sentenced to prison for health care fraud. Purchased for $30 million in 2012 by a Houston-based company, University General was one of only three hospitals serving Dallas’ southern half, an area that spans 200 square miles and includes more than 560,000 people. The surrounding community was hoping for a turnaround.The hospital is now closed, and its administrators from that time did not respond to questions about why they hired Duntsch.It likely came down to simple economics. According to the health care analysis firm Merritt Hawkins, the average neurosurgeon is worth $2.4 million a year in revenue to a hospital.“That’s a dream for a hospital administrator,” Kirby said.It’s also a virtual employment guarantee for a doctor with Duntsch’s credentials, Dallas neurosurgeon Dr. Martin Lazar said.“I don’t think it’s because of our charm,” Lazar added dryly. “We are like a cash cow.”It was at University General that Glidewell had his neck surgery, knowing none of Duntsch’s by then two-year history of botching operations.Glidewell’s back problems had begun almost a decade earlier, in 2004, when he broke his back in two places in a motorcycle accident. After a year of rehab, he tried to go back to his job working on air conditioning systems but lasted only months before the pain stopped him. He left his first meeting with Duntsch elated and filled with hope.“I was actually so happy with the way it went that I called my wife and my mother and said, ‘I think I found somebody on my insurance that’s gonna fix my neck,’” he said.The day of the surgery began ominously. That morning, “We pulled out of the driveway, and soon as we started going forward down the street, a black cat ran across the front of the car,” Glidewell said. “I said, ‘Oh, Lord, this is not good.’ We turned the corner, and when we got on the first county road, and another one. Turning into the hospital, another one.” Glidewell spent four days in intensive care and endured months of rehabilitation after his surgery with Duntsch. The photo on his iPad was taken the day he returned home, after spending months in the hospital. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica) Three black cats on the way to the hospital. “I said, ‘We need to just turn around and go home.’”Once at the hospital, Glidewell and his wife waited. And waited. Three hours late, they said, Duntsch finally arrived in a cab. “He had on jeans that were frayed at the bottom,” Glidewell said. “He didn’t look like he was ready for a surgery.”Reluctantly, Glidewell went ahead. But hours later, Duntsch came out and told Glidewell’s wife that he had found a tumor in Glidewell’s neck and aborted the procedure.“I was devastated, crying,” Robin Glidewell recalled. She went to see her husband in the recovery room. “Immediately, Jeff was: ‘Where is the doctor? I can’t move my arm or my leg.’ He was having trouble even talking and said, ‘Something’s wrong, something’s wrong.’”There was no tumor, but Duntsch had made a series of errors after mistaking a portion of Glidewell’s neck muscle for a growth, according to a review of the case.The owner of University General heard about what happened to Glidewell and called Kirby to try to mitigate the damage.“I, with reluctance, went down there and met the Glidewell family and took care of him,” Kirby said. Glidewell was spiking fevers and was transferred to another hospital for care. He would remain there for months.“This was not an operation that was performed,” Kirby said. “This was attempted murder.”By the time Duntsch operated on Glidewell, the state medical board had been investigating him for about 10 months.Frustrated by the board’s inaction, Henderson had called the lead investigator six months earlier to beg for faster intervention. In a recording Henderson made of the call, he says, “This is a bad, bad guy, and he needs to be put on the fast track if there’s such a thing.” She tells him she wishes they could suspend his license while they investigate, but the board’s attorneys wouldn’t go for that.Kirby sent the board a five-page letter on June 23, 2013, spurred by what had happened to Glidewell. “Let me be blunt,” it said. “Christopher Duntsch, Texas Medical Board license number N8183, is an impaired physician, a sociopath, and must be stopped from practicing medicine.” Robin Glidewell also sent a letter, describing what happened to her husband.By then, Brett Shipp, a reporter from Dallas’ ABC affiliate, had gotten tips about the board’s slow-moving investigation of Duntsch from a friend of one of Duntsch’s patients and a plaintiff’s attorney. “Very shortly after I contacted them,” Shipp said, “they suspended his license.”On June 26, Duntsch was ordered to stop operating. The head of the medical board at the time, San Angelo family physician Dr. Irvin Zeitler, said the investigation took a while because “it’s not uncommon for there to be complications in neurosurgery.”It also struck the board as highly improbable that a surgeon fresh out of training could be so lacking in surgical skill.“So none of us rushed to judgment,” Zeitler said. “That’s not fair, and in the long run, it can come back to be incorrect. To suspend a physician’s license, there has to be a pattern of patient injury. So that was, ultimately that’s what happened. But it took until June of 2013 to get that established.” Henderson was called in to repair the damage to one patient following her surgery with Duntsch. After he saw the damage to her spine, he made it his personal mission to keep him from operating on anyone else. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica) Even after the board acted, those most involved in trying to keep Duntsch from operating were afraid it would not be the end of his career.“I was terrified of that term, ‘suspended,’” Henderson said. “I mean, that indicates that he might get it back at some point in time, and I was already aware of the fact of how glib Dr. Duntsch was, and how disarming he was, and how friendly and intelligent he appeared whenever he introduced himself to people that he wanted to impress. I was concerned that he would do the same thing in getting his license back whether it was six months later, a year later, two years later.”Kirby, Henderson and another doctor decided to contact the district attorney, convinced that Duntsch’s malpractice was so egregious it was criminal. They met with an assistant DA but got little traction.On Dec. 6, 2013, the medical board permanently revoked Duntsch’s license.He left Texas, moving in with his parents in Colorado and filing for bankruptcy, claiming debts of around $1 million. His life seemed to go into a free fall. In January 2014, he was pulled over by police in southern Denver around 3:30 a.m. Officers said he was driving on the left side of the road with two flat tires. When he opened the window, they smelled the sour tang of alcohol and spotted an empty bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade on the floor of the car. A full one was sitting in the console. After a breath test, Duntsch was arrested for DUI and sent to a detox facility.Even though he was living in Colorado, he continued to return to Dallas to see his two sons. His older son had been born back when he at Baylor-Plano. His girlfriend, Wendy Young, had a second son in September of 2014.The following spring, in March, police were called to a bank in Northeast Dallas after passers-by noticed a man with blood on his hands and face beating on the doors. It was Duntsch, babbling about his family being in danger. He was wearing the shirt of his black scrubs. It was covered in blood. Officers took him to a nearby psychiatric hospital.In April, Duntsch went to a Dallas Walmart because his father had wired him money. According to a police report, he filled a shopping cart with $887 worth of merchandise, including watches, sunglasses, silk neckties, computer equipment, a walkie-talkie and bottle of Drakkar Noir cologne. He put them in bags he swiped from a register. He then then picked out a pair of trousers and put them on in a dressing room. He put his own pants into the cart and rolled the cart out the front door without paying for the pants he was wearing. Moments later, he was arrested for shoplifting. Duntsch (Dallas County Sheriff) By then, reporters were following every twist in the Duntsch saga. In May 2015, the Texas Observer published an article with the headline, “‘Sociopath’ Surgeon Duntsch Arrested for Shoplifting Pants.” In the comment section underneath the article, Duntsch responded with a series of diatribes against everyone he thought had conspired against him. His cybermanifesto ran to more than 80 pages when printed out.In one comment directed at Kirby, he wrote, “You use the word without explanation impaired physician and sociopath. Since I am going to sue you or [sic] libel and slander of a criminal nature, this might be a good point to defend this comment.” He called Morguloff’s surgery “a perfect success.”Kirby took the comments to the district attorney’s office. By then, a judge who knew Glidewell had also brought the case to the DA’s attention.Prosecutors began discussing the case anew and one assistant district attorney, Michelle Shughart, found it particularly interesting. In 13 years with the Dallas DA’s office, she’d prosecuted drug dealers, robbers, but never a doctor. “I went and started doing my own research,” she said. “I just ended up taking over the case.”One of the biggest challenges was that there hadn’t been a case like it before.“We did a lot of research to see if we could find anyone else who had done any cases like this, any other doctors who had been prosecuted for what they had actually done during the surgery,” Shughart said. “We couldn’t find anyone.”As she and other prosecutors contacted every person Duntsch had ever operated on or their survivors, they struggled to figure what crimes he could be charged with. They settled on five counts of aggravated assault arising from his treatment of four patients, including Brown and Glidewell, and one count of injury to an elderly person, because Efurd was over 65.In Texas, this charge carried a potential life sentence, but prosecutors had to race to file the case.“We had about four months left before we were going to run out on the statute of limitations” on Efurd’s case, Shughart said. “I spent those four months just digging as hard as I possibly could, trying to gather as much information as I could. And by the time we got down to that July, I had overwhelming evidence to indict him.”Duntsch was taken into custody on July 21, 2015.For some of his patients, the criminal case offered a last chance at justice they couldn’t get through the civil courts.Since Texas capped damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, limiting the amount plaintiffs can be awarded for pain and suffering in most cases to $250,000, the number of suits filed and amounts paid out have plummeted.The suits that go forward often ride on economic damages, such as lost earning power, which the law does not limit in non-death cases. But many of Duntsch’s patients were disabled when they came to him, or older, or had lower incomes. Some had pain that was hard to economically quantify. Despite having clear-cut claims and serious, irreversible injuries, three patients I talked to said they had trouble finding attorneys to take their cases.“It is not worth an attorney’s time and energy to take on a malpractice case in the state of Texas,” Morguloff said.Ultimately, at least 19 of Duntsch’s patients or their survivors obtained settlements, but 14 of them were represented by Van Wey, who said she’s taken them on more out of a sense of outrage than out of any financial upside.Morguloff was told no so often, he was surprised when attorney Mike Lyons finally took his case. He received a confidential settlement but said, “It wasn’t much.” He took more solace from the criminal case.“To get this guy off the streets so nobody else got hurt again was important,” he said. “The public needed to know that there was a monster out there.”Duntsch’s trial began on Feb. 2, 2017, and focused on the charge related to Efurd, injuring an elderly person.She testified, but first, to show that her botched surgery was part of pattern, prosecutors — over objections from Duntsch’s attorneys — put a long line of his other patients and their relatives on the stand.“You had people in walkers. You had people on crutches. You had people that could barely move. You had people that had lost loved ones,” Robbie McClung, Duntsch’s lead defense attorney, said. “You had all sorts of things that had gone wrong. Before we even get to Mary Efurd, you can see that it’s just ... it’s going downhill. I mean, it’s going downhill fast.” A screenshot shows Duntsch during a deposition. (District attorney's office) Duntsch held up remarkably well, seeming calm in the certainty that he really was a good surgeon.“I always thought when I looked at him, even when he was in his jail clothes, he exuded a confidence,” Richard Franklin, another member of the defense team, said. “And I could certainly understand why patients would trust him.”Then Lazar and other experts walked the jury through a litany of Duntsch’s surgical missteps. Duntsch’s attorneys noticed a change come over him. He deflated before their eyes.“I think that he thought he was doing pretty good,” Franklin said. “Really and truly, in his own mind. Until he actually heard from those experts up there.”A key prosecution witness was Kimberly Morgan, who had been Duntsch’s surgical assistant from August 2011 through March 2012 and was also his ex-girlfriend. Morgan described Duntsch’s mercurial nature, vacillating from being kind and caring to patients to being angry and confrontational behind closed doors.The prosecutors had Morgan read parts of an email Duntsch had sent to her in the early morning hours of Dec. 11, 2011, three weeks before he operated on Passmore at Baylor-Plano, the first of his surgical disasters.The subject line of the email was “Occam’s Razor.” Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest explanation for anything is most likely the right one. The email rambled on for five profanity-laced pages, but Morgan delivered the most startling passage.“Unfortunately, you cannot understand that I am building an empire and I am so far outside the box that the Earth is small and the sun is bright,” Duntsch had written. “I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold blooded killer.”It took the jurors just hours to find Duntsch guilty of knowingly injuring Efurd. He was sentenced to life in prison. He’s currently incarcerated in Huntsville, about an hour outside Houston. On Sept. 18, his attorney filed an appeal in a Dallas court, arguing that the testimony on cases other than Efurd’s and the email read by Morgan unfairly influenced the jury.In February, I visited Summers, Duntsch’s old football buddy-turned-patient, in his small apartment in downtown Memphis.He remains in much the same condition as he awoke in after Duntsch operated on him, unable to move from the neck down. He requires 24-hour caregivers and sat, tipped back, in his power wheelchair, as I talked to him about Duntsch.Summers seemed resigned to his injuries, to his friend’s role in them and to the systemic weaknesses that allow problem doctors to keep practicing. He said he tries not to think about Dallas anymore.I asked him why he’d trusted Duntsch to be his doctor. He couldn’t say. He looked out the window.He knew his friend could barely drive a car without getting lost, he said. He just assumed he had been better trained for neurosurgery.
Cancer Center’s Board Chairman Faults Top Doctor, Saying He “Crossed Lines”
by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Katie Thomas, The New York Times The chairman of the board of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center bluntly disparaged the hospital’s former chief medical officer on Monday, telling the hospital staff that he “crossed lines” and went “off the reservation” in his outside dealings with health and drug companies.The remarks by Douglas A. Warner III, the chairman of the center’s board of managers and overseers, as well as Dr. Craig B. Thompson, the chief executive, went beyond previous hospital statements about the former chief medical officer, Dr. José Baselga. Until Monday, the hospital had said he followed internal policies and had mainly just failed to disclose his industry affiliations in some medical journal articles.“I have to say, while we pushed back on a lot and discussed a lot, we were not as effective as we should have been,” Warner said, according to a preliminary transcript of a meeting with the hospital staff that was inadvertently emailed by the hospital to a reporter for The New York Times. “He crossed lines that we should have done more to stop.”Baselga did not respond to phone calls or an email message requesting comment.Monday’s meeting between hospital executives and its employees is the latest in a series held by the cancer center as it conducts a broad review of policies about the nonprofit institution’s ties to outside industries. Memorial Sloan Kettering has been forced to re-examine its rules governing board memberships and compensation in the wake of articles by The Times and ProPublica that revealed insider deals with startups that were poised to reap millions of dollars for breakthroughs in cancer treatments and biotech advances.The hospital’s highest executives have come under scrutiny in recent weeks, leading Warner to question on Monday whether Thompson would be permitted to continue sitting on the board of Merck, which makes the blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda. In addition to Merck, Thompson is also a director of Charles River Laboratories, a publicly traded company that assists research in early drug development.Thompson received $300,000 in compensation from Merck in 2017, according to company financial filings. He was paid $70,000 in cash from Charles River in 2017, plus $215,050 in stock. The compensation for the two corporate boards was in addition to what he was paid as chief executive at Memorial Sloan Kettering. In 2016, he earned $6.7 million in total compensation from the cancer center and related organizations, according to the most recent Internal Revenue Service filings.“Should Craig continue to sit on the Merck board? We have no policy on that,” Warner said during the meeting, explaining that he had discussed the board membership with Thompson when he joined the hospital in 2010. And while it was viewed as a “good thing,” Warner added that “we need to step back from that now and ask ourselves whether that continues to be appropriate, whether it’s appropriate in the future.” Get ProPublica’s Top Stories by Email Join 100,000 discerning readers and get everything we publish by signing up for ProPublica’s daily email In a memo late last week and again at Monday’s meeting, the New York-based cancer center emphasized the need to overhaul its policies, which had failed to address some of the potential conflicts made public recently at a time when investors are tossing vast amounts of money at startups developing promising treatments.Thompson said Monday that working with for-profit companies remained a priority. “We cannot be shy about the importance of investments in bringing forward these advances,” he said.Baselga had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from health and pharmaceutical companies in medical journal articles. In his resignation letter, he acknowledged his lapses and said the controversy had proved to be “too much of a distraction.”Neither his resignation letter nor the hospital’s statement about it suggested that he was fired. But in his remarks, Warner indicated that Baselga was forced out. “I have to say it’s a tragedy. I liked José. I like José a lot,” he said. “But unfortunately, José left us no choice.”Baselga, one of the world’s leading breast cancer researchers, has also resigned from the boards of the drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb and Varian Medical Systems, a maker of radiation equipment.Christine Hickey, a hospital spokeswoman, said: “Dr. Baselga resigned, he was not fired. Mr. Warner was making the point that we had no choice but to accept his resignation.”She also said Warner and Thompson were referring not to his ties to outside companies but to a “conflict of commitment.”“Dr. Baselga wanted to take on more, join more boards, be involved in more outside efforts,” she said. “He was overextended.”Memorial Sloan Kettering also announced late last week that it would limit the involvement of its board members in startups affiliated with the hospital, a development that followed news of an exclusive deal the hospital made with an artificial intelligence company founded by Memorial Sloan Kettering insiders. On Monday, Rep. Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, sent a letter to Thompson seeking answers to a series of questions about the deal with the company, Paige.AI, giving it the right to access images of 25 million tissue slides analyzed over decades. Her letter questioned how the hospital planned to ensure patient privacy, among other issues, many of which had been raised by hospital doctors at the internal meetings once the deal became public.Also on Monday, The New England Journal of Medicine published a correction on two of Baselga’s articles. The correction lists Baselga’s relationships with 15 companies. An editor’s note appended to the correction states: “Dr. Baselga failed to disclose in these articles his multiple, substantial financial associations, which are now apparent in the updated disclosure forms. When we learned of this breach of trust, we conveyed our concern to Dr. Baselga’s institution, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.”In his own comments to the staff, Thompson apologized for what he described as his poor handling of the recent crisis and said Baselga had not acted appropriately.“José reported to me, and I wish I had done more to keep him away from the line,” Thompson said, according to the partial transcript of Monday’s meeting. “While Dr. Baselga has acknowledged his mistakes and resigned, this has not brought closure to MSK. It has led to discussions of whether we still know where the right side of the line is.”Warner, a former chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Company, acknowledged “widespread anger” among staff members and that the hospital’s reputation had been harmed.“The question that you’re asking quite properly is: Where the hell was management and the board in all of this, you should have protected this institution,” Mr. Warner said. “The fact that you’re angry is all about the passion that you feel for this place, that love that you have for this place, that commitment that you have to this place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Meet the Data Institute Class of 2018
by ProPublica
ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network Is Looking for the Best Accountability Projects to Fund in 2019
by Charles Ornstein The past year has seen yet more cutbacks at local news organizations.One bright spot, we’d like to think, has been our Local Reporting Network. It has paid the salary and benefits of reporters at seven newsrooms across the country to pursue accountability projects important to their local communities. Our partner reporters have exposed lapses in worker safety at nuclear facilities, failures in public housing, the devastating toll of post-traumatic stress disorder on first responders and stunning miscarriages of justice in Indiana, among other findings. (Here are all the stories produced by reporters in the network so far.)Now, we’re opening up applications for our second year — once again seeking proposals for investigative projects with moral force behind them.In August, we solicited applications for accountability projects involving state government. This call for proposals is more general. You can propose looking at local agencies, businesses, nonprofit groups, law enforcement — any accountability issue that resonates with your local readers, viewers or listeners.As we’ve done this year, we will pay the salary plus an allowance for benefits for one full-time reporter dedicated to investigative work throughout 2019 at partner news organizations in cities with populations below 1 million. The reporter will still work in and report to their home newsroom, but they will receive extensive guidance and support from ProPublica, including editing, research, data and community engagement assistance. Their work will be published or broadcast simultaneously by their home newsrooms and ProPublica.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:
How Are Things at the IRS? Help Us Get the Real Story.
by ProPublica ProPublica would like to hear from people who have worked at the Internal Revenue Service or are otherwise knowledgeable about tax enforcement. Reporters Jesse Eisinger and Paul Kiel want to understand whether the IRS is capably and effectively enforcing the nation’s tax laws, particularly in light of changes at the agency over the past 10 years — most notably budget cuts and staff reductions. We’d like to talk with both current employees and people who have left the agency, even if it was some time ago.We are particularly interested in hearing from employees who are, or were, involved in audits of the wealthy or of larger corporations, but that is not our sole focus. Drop us a line if you are, or were, a revenue agent, revenue officer, special agent, economist, or if you worked in appeals, the Office of Chief Counsel or another job related to enforcement.And, if you are an outside tax professional who deals with the IRS or a taxpayer with a story to tell, we are all ears.The form below is for ProPublica’s eyes only. We won’t publish anything or share details with anyone else without your permission. If you’d rather talk on Signal, which is more secure, send a message to reporter Paul Kiel at 347-573-3039 or Jesse Eisinger at 718-496-5233. This form requires JavaScript to complete.Powered by Screendoor.